City council hopeful: 'My English is good enough'
Alejandrina Cabrera answers questions about her ability to speak English in Yuma County Court.
January 30th, 2012
01:11 PM ET

City council hopeful: 'My English is good enough'

When a judge ruled that Alejandrina Cabrera’s name couldn’t be on the ballot for City Council in San Luis, Arizona, because she couldn’t speak English well enough, it was not only a blow to her, but to her fellow citizens, Cabrera told CNN.

“When he took my right to be on the ballot he took away the right of the people who want to vote for me,” Cabrera said in an interview conducted in Spanish with CNN en Español.

A battle over Cabrera's run for office began when Juan Carlos Escamilla, the mayor of San Luis, said he was concerned that Cabrera might not have the proper grasp of the language for the job. Escamilla filed a lawsuit in December that asked a court to determine whether Cabrera's skills qualified her under state law to run for the council seat.

The fight began as a purely political one, with opponents seeking to block her from running for office after she tried to recall Escamilla from office twice, according to The New York Times. But it has turned into a firestorm in a town where many constituents have the same grasp of English as Cabrera. Those questions, and the political fight they stirred, led to a court hearing to determine whether Cabrera spoke English well enough to be able to run for office. The ruling was that she did not.

The issues at the center of this debate: Just how much English must you understand to run for a political office? And what does it mean to be proficient?

According to a judge, you need to know more English than Cabrera was able to demonstrate.

But by Cabrera's account, she's fluent enough to serve her community, and she isn't running for national office.

“I think my English is good enough to hold public office in San Luis, Arizona,” she told CNN.

“I am not going to help (at the White House)," she added. "I will be helping here.”

When she said her English is good enough for San Luis, she brings up a point that’s been a large part of the debate about her language skills.

In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.  Most of the people there, by all accounts, speak in English and in Spanish. In the comfort of communal settings, they'll speak the way they're most comfortable.

Which may be why, when CNN en Español asked if she would conduct the interview in English, her lawyer instructed her to speak only in Spanish.

Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish to the residents of San Luis, Cabrera speaks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with a bit less conviction, when she switches to English. That's something she admits, but she says that she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives. She grades her English proficiency at a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10.

“It is true my English is not fluid, I am a very honest so I can tell you I’m not fluid in English, but I do understand it. I can read a a letter. I can read a book,” Cabrera said. “Right now I have a private tutor helping me improve my English.”

While she’s doing that, Cabrera still feels her language skills are where they need to be.

“From my point of view, it would be more helpful to have someone who speaks Spanish (in San Luis),” she said.

Escamilla, the mayor who began the fight over Cabrera’s skills, notes that many of the other council members are also Hispanic but they are truly bilingual.

“With all due respect for Ms. Cabrera, I think she is a good person, but her understanding in English is not good enough. She struggles to speak it, and she doesn’t understand it,” he said. “All our meetings are in English.”

During the court hearing on the issue, Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson made the ruling after testimony from linguistics experts and Cabrera's own testimony, where she answered questions and read a few documents.

Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who graduated from the bilingual Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona, was questioned in English on the stand about where she graduated, where she was born and what her name was. She was able to tell her lawyer her name and where she was born, but struggled with what school she had graduated from, according to the Yuma Sun.

Cabrera believes that ruling is stripping her of the her right to run for office. Escamilla believes the court is just enforcing the law.

In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Earlier, in 1910, Congress passed the Enabling Act, which allowed Arizona to become a state with certain requirements. Among them was one that addressed the English language.

"The ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without aid of an interpreter shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature," a section of the act reads.

But Cabrera's lawyers argued in court that her disqualification was unfair and may be unconstitutional, seeing as there is not an actual standard for a specific level of proficiency for a council candidate.

That’s something Escamilla disagrees with vehemently.

“We are not taking Alejandrina’s rights away - we are just following the state law,” he said.

Cabrera believes the mayor and others have taken the issue too far, that she is well-qualified to serve the community she lives in, and that the language testing she was given was at a much higher level than necessary.

“I am not applying for a job with President Obama,” she said. “All I want is to do my job as an activist helping my community.”

Glenn Gimbut, the city attorney for San Luis, says he believes the right decision was made for the people of San Luis.

“The votes of the people who might have voted for her would have been wasted, because they could have voted for someone better prepared to be an elected official,” Gimbut told CNN.

But one resident, Ana Maria Beal, said that someone with Cabrera’s background is exactly the kind of person she’d like to see represent her.

“She is someone who wants to work and worries for our people. That’s the type of person we need up there,” she said. “We don’t want someone who comes from Harvard.”

And that sentiment may be why Cabrera plans to appeal the decision, according to an interview with the Yuma Sun.

“I can't give details about the appeal, but the judge's decision was not just,” Cabrera told the newspaper. “He can't take away my constitutional rights, and if he takes away my rights, he takes away the rights of the community.”

While we’ll have to wait and see what happens with an appeal, one thing is sure: Cabrera’s case has sparked a national debate about whether English should be the official language of the country and also leaves open many questions about the democratic process.

Let us know what you think about Cabrera’s situation and her response to being taken off the ballot in the comments section below.

- Journalist Valeria Fernandez, CNN Español's Gabriela Frias, Fernando del Rincon and Gustavo Valdes contributed to this report.

soundoff (1,720 Responses)
  1. bigfoot

    All she has to do is improve her English, and then she'll be eligible to run for office again. She could easily boost her English skills from a 5 to a 7 with a little effort. It sounds more like she doesn't want to make the effort, and doesn't think it's necessary.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  2. banasy ©

    My granparents learned English.
    My mother and father did, too.
    If one cannot read or speak it, how can one understand the issues that go along with holding a public office?
    I would never go to, say, Greece, (heh heh), and run for office, and demand that THEY change their language to accomodate ME.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • ann west

      Whytees Killed and Enslaved everyone to make them accommodate their language. At least she's not killing anyone. 👎

      January 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • githm


      January 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • githm

      @banasy- I meant exactly to your comment. I agree.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
  3. someone

    Who the hell says you need to talk constantly while in office. God, our politics in this country are too focused on speaking....

    January 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dominic L.

    I have a hard time being sympathetic to this woman. The state law requires an ability to speak and understand the English language to a proficient level. It seems to me if continues to work with her tutor she may be ready for the next election. But then again, I'm just one more of those pesky "Southern Trash" types, right Ann West? Farbeit for me to interject an opinion.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  5. NotASimpleton

    Ok. I am not going to make this about immigration but I will go there briefly. My parents are from other countries my dad didn't have too much trouble because he came from the UK, my mom came here from Egypt, when they emigrated here they spoke English and my mom spoke two other languages in addition to that! I have a half brother who grew up in Italy and when he visits here, he speaks English. And if we were to move to another country, it is an expectation that you would at least speak that country's language, am I right? I really don't see why everyone is so uptight, you are in an English speaking country, speak the language.Period. I can't see someone wanting to take a position where they only had a "lukewarm" understanding of the language that is being spoken. When you don't fully understand something, you can make errors(although its really a nice thought that you aren't doing so on purpose), it doesn't change the fact you are more of a liability now because you do not fully understand and need a translator. It has nothing to do with your heritage so please don't be offended, just think about it before you claim people are discriminating against you!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • whitney

      SHUTUP!!! (: nobody gives a damn!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
  6. simbaloco

    Guaaaate, aqui hay tomaaate!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. DWebb

    If you go to another country, they speak and conduct business in the language of that country - they do not make special arrangements to have things translated into English. If you want to live here, learn want to be bilingual - AWESOME, but the predominate language in the United States of America is ENGLISH!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Eladio

    The root of the problem lies with the US Customs and Immigration Service and their policies as they allow for large numbers of hispanic immigrants to enter the US legally and allow those that are illegally here to stay. The numbers are so big that they form microcosms where they never have to interact with others and therefore keep their language, culture and other attributes and to top that off, they reproduce at a rate higher than the national average.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Aaron

    If someone moved to her country and butchered her language in public office I wonder if she'd still feel the same.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Thelma Heywood

    In China there are at least 65 dialects of Chinese diverse enough to sound like different languages. Years ago they made Mandarin the official dialect to facilitate communication in all schools and business. There is an old saying: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do. I happen to speak English, French, and Spanish. No one offers to help me in English when I do business in Hispanic Nations. We have friends who are Hispanic and they are insulted at our constantly offering Spanish on the business scene. They believe we think Hispanics are not smart enough to learn English.

    My own family came here from Germany two generations ago. They were turned away from school and it took 3 years but they learned English and were tested for proficiency, passed the test and were admitted to school. Eventually my father became a Federal attorney and my mother earned a Masters Degree at American University – in English. She had to take an oral exam when she earned her Masters in Education. She eventually became a school administrator.

    It is not requiring too much to select an official language. Also, because English is so often taught globally because of the computer age, I believe it is a good idea to make it official for our Nation.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  11. germat

    It's true, she probably should learn the language, but really that's beside the point. If she's a US citizen, she should be allowed to run and let the PEOPLE (of "We the People...." fame) decide if she's fit for office. That's the American way.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • whitney


      January 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Ted

    Reconquista. Graduate from high school but don't speak English. Run for office but don't speak English. Arizona is being taken back by Mexico one immigrant at a time.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jason S


    January 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Irish Mick

    ay dios mio!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  15. ALmoderate

    I am Hispanic and grew up in El Paso, Texas and never could find work because I did not speak Spanish. I had to leave the area to find a job. That was over 25 years ago. I am sorry but this is America and we speak English. So now they are trying to get officials elected into office that can barely speak English and I am supposed to applaud?
    Give me a break: if you can't add, you can't be a CPA, if you can't see, you can't be a truck driver, If you can't speak the language then you can't be a politician representing English speaking Americans, If you are NOT an English speaking American you had best get on the ball and learn it. If you think Americans speaking Spanish is so great, go back to your native land and make it better instead of coming to ours and making it like your country (Mexico isn't so great or you would not be here in the first place, right?)
    NO ONE IS DESCRIMINTATING ABOUT YOU SPEAKING YOUR NATIVE TONGUE !!! We expect you to speak our tongue if you want to represent our contry.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
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