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. Jaymes Barreto

    In a nation where roughly half of all major cities and states have spanish names, and in a community where almost all of the people speak spanish, why must English be the ONLY language used to govern a community? Sounds more like colonialism than interracial harmony to me... #justsaying

    January 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Are you kidding? Immigrants have been flocking to this country for over a hundred years and none of them, not the Germans, the Italians, Asians – NONE of them have asked for the right to be governed in their language. And now we are just supposed to start doing so for the Hispanics? Brilliant.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • BooseyBoo

      The problem is she was raised in the U.S., attended a U.S. highschool and can barely speak English. If she were elected would the city have to hire an interpreter for her to communicate effectively with people outside of her elected community? Stop making excuses for people who do not want to become a part of the country but want the country to bend to them. We already have how many languages on a voting ballot? Ridiculous.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • A

      What Patrick said.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mikey

      Well first of all I don't know about half of all major cities but I'll even concede that point. I'm a moderate but I also have a degree in political science. One thing you see in many countries where there is internal fighting and civil wars a huge cultural and/or language gap. America is supposed to be a melting pot which is made stronger by many cultures merging into one grand and ever changing American culture.

      If we use your logic and allowed every major city that had a Spanish name to speak spanish at a City Council meeting, where would it stop? Then the Germantowns can talk German, Boston can speak Gallic, etc. etc. Pretty soon we are back to being a confederation of states (which failed).

      In a nation built on many cultures, a common nature is the only glue that holds us together. I shouldn't need an interpreter to understand what the city next to me is doing. I'm third generation American, my grandparents spoke nothing but Polish when they got here. They spoke Polish in the house alot but always English in public. I myself, can't speak much Polish in an area that still even has Polish Veterans Halls; but I shouldn't need to as I'm an American and never was really Polish.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Historian

      @Patrick, actually, in 19th century Baltimore, the large German community there lobbied to have German made an official language. They had newspapers and public schools that only taught in German. Please pick up a history book before commenting.

      On another note, she graduated from a US high school. You all should not be outraged at her - instead, be outraged at our pathetic education system "every child left behind", that is "graduating" an increasingly un-educated populace.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • not the real andersoncooper

      I The most important thing is that she should be able to serve the people who have elected her, everything else comes after that including the proficiency in English

      January 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dropbear

      @Historian You nailed it with the comment about the educational standards being diluted. Our "melting pot" of immigrants was meant to strengthen our nation with forward progress...not to create a disorganized collection of substandard cultural islands. If that gal's campaign platform was, "I have learned how to speak English very well and I shall lead that 87% of households in my district to do the same.", I think she would be a more credible candidate.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      You don't understand this country or it's proud heritage of immigration.
      Irish, Italian, german, chinese...etc. immigrants all came here looking to make better lives for their families.
      They all understood the basic rules which would allow them to assimilate into the melting pot.
      learn the language....the american history....take the citizenship test,....Now you're a proud american.
      What is it with Mexicans that they think rules don't apply to them?
      Your country has almost 12 million people here illegally....Draining the economy from the simple fact that they pay no income tax, but avail themselves fully to the benefits that come from those taxes.
      Arizona is not a province of is part of the United States of America.

      I and most people in this country are happy to see someone immigrate legally and become a success story.
      Those people actually benefit this country.
      But if you're too lazy or have some nefarious agenda which prohibits you from playing by the rules, then stay in your own country.
      We have enough problems without you.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • ViolatorUSA

      I 100% agree with the comment Mike made as well as most of the others with this 1 the current mayor indicated...the meetings are all held in ENGLISH.....even if she is only 50% profeciant then that means the other 50% would be jibrish to her and how can someone govern like that....they never said she couldn't become more profeciant then try and run again jsut that she wasen't ready this time as per the law.....this is just a case of more immigrants wanting everyting change to meet their standards instead of them following our laws and meeting our standards to be a citizen....mabey I.C.E. needs to make a run through her community.....

      January 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • githm

      Yeah. What Patrick said.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Polopoint

      Well, i wouldn't say 'half', but they sure are all nearly foreign.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • David Leonard

      Hey Jaymes,

      I'm from India, perhaps I should speak my language !! when is this nonsense going to stop. Please tell our leaders to stop pandering and bending over backways to please people. We learned English when we came to this great country, why can't she or everyone that opposes it ?

      January 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kugellager

      Go back to Mexico!

      January 31, 2012 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
  2. chris

    Where are all the free-market conservatives on this one? Let he run. If nobody votes for her so be it. If the voters or her fellow legislators can't understand her, though, that's her problem.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Historian

      Absolutely, Chris! This is what I don't get about the "free market" conservatives - what could possibly be more "free market" than the perfect supply and demand of immigration?

      They say that they don't want government regulation, but then whine when a hard-working Guatemalan is willing to do 2x the work at 1/3 the wages. Or they bemoan outsourcing, when a better-educated engineer in India is willing to work the night-shift at a call center for $18k per year.

      Side note: don't you just love how the other republican candidates are demonizing Romney for restructuring companies and laying people off? THAT'S WHAT UNFETTERED CAPITALISM IS, PEOPLE.

      The one nice thing is that the republican racists are all eventually going to have to bow down to SOME darker-skinned person (Chinese or Indian) when those countries overthrow this declining "superpower". Can't wait to see the looks on their ignorant faces when that happens!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • githm

      Some people will not understand your position and will take what you said the wrong way. Certain people.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  3. GonzoG

    IF this person is a CITIZEN and is ELIGIBLE to vote and meets ALL OTHER requirements–then there is NO LEGAL reason to keep her from running for elected office.

    The ONLY things keeping her off the ballot IMHO are EITHER PREJUDICE or FEAR that she may actually take the seat away from someone who IS NOT representing the people of her town. Neither of these are LEGAL.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rasputin

      Did you even READ the article or just the headline. IT IS THE LAW of Arizona that you be able to be proficient enough in English to discharge the duties of office. Try to read before spouting off in the future...

      January 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Archie

      there is also no LEGAL reason why she cannot be hired by H&R Block to prepare your income tax returns, or by a doctor to write out your medical prescriptions or to teach your children to read and write english. the question is, would you be comfortable with that?

      January 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Simon Says

    *** In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin,
    But they wont let her run because she doesnt speak english well enough,
    This is just plain flat out STUPID !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      What is stupid is expecting a group of immigrants to seamlessly transition into American society without any prejudice when they are asking for the right to speak their language. The country that they live in speaks ENGLISH. Learn the language.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Patrick

    I tend to be fairly moderate in my views on immigration, but this is ludicrous. You absolutely have no business running for an elected office in the US if you need a private English tutor.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thomas

      So I guess deaf people have no right to run for office huh?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • dwnwthvwls

      @Thomas. Can you please explain your comment? You're coming off as very uneducated.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  6. GTX

    In Pennsylvania, many local municipality positions only require residency to work for or hold office for the government. You can get an address on Friday and on Monday come to work. When you run for office, they do not check citizenship or if you have a record. They only check it AFTER you were elected. In this area we recently had a felon elected. You know, it's the Old White Man system

    January 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Levi Palin

    She should move to Alaska and run for governor. Alaskans have no problem voting for people with a less-than-firm grasp reading or speaking English.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rasputin

      That is the funniest thing I've read in a LOOOONG time!!! LMAO!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lucas

      Or Texas for that matter!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Realist

      Thanks for insulting Alaskans. I'm pretty sure most of us dislike Sarah Palin more than folks in the lower 48. When she got voted in for Governor, she was replacing a corrupt hypocrite who couldn't even get chosen by his own party to run again. She wasn't horrible as a Governor at first. She quickly became that way when she thought it meant she could do whatever she wanted, and when she got put into a spotlight.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Todd

    Me fail English? That's umpossible!

    January 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. JG67

    You know what, we speak ENGLISH in this country or at least we used to, I wanted to apply to a job the other day that I had the right skills for and I'm NOT QUALIFIED because I don't speak Spanish.... if we continue to let these language issues happen, this entire country will change from English speaking to Spanish speaking. And I agree with Greenspam, how could she graduate from a US high school if she couldn't answer the question in English?

    January 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Ok, I agree with the principle of your statement, but you're making us look bad. You clearly did not read the article. She says she has no problem reading English, but only speaking it.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Me

      @Patrick.... I thought people learned how to speak a language first before reading it. At least that how I did it. I definately knew how to say cat before knowing how to spell/read it.

      Your logic doesn't make sense

      January 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rolling Eyes

      If you were qualified in every way except you didn't speak Spanish, then I'd have to guess you are in El Paso, TX. Only place I know you can be disqualified from working at McDonalds because you don't speak Spanish. I hate this place.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Gloria

    I agree, she needs to be much more fluent in English in order to hold any kind of political position in this country. I truly am a believer that America needs to make English the official language of our country.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. John

    If being able to speak coherently was a requirement to run for President, George W. would have been disqualified.

    If there was an IQ requirement, no Republican would be eligible to run (or to vote).

    January 30, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Colonel

      Typical Democrat attack on George W., and all Republicans for that matter. Not smart enough to run for office or to vote, but yet smart enough to mastermiind all the unfathomable atrocities on the people of the US. Wake up, you cannot have it both ways.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Archie

      John - your ignorance is showing

      January 30, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Brenda

    If you cannot speak 'English' you are not qualified to do the job.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Suz

    Can we ever, EVER stay on the topic at hand without dragging Palin and Bush or any political figure into it? It's an old joke and a really tired one at that.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rasputin

      She has dragged the US electorate and the reputation of Americans so far down through the mud that I have no problem showcasing her imbecilic behavior as a warning to future potential brain dead clowns attempting to run for office.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Suz

      Well, I guess the answer is "no."

      January 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marie

      Democrats aren't able to do that because they don't like to take responsibility for any of their actions. they love to pass the buck and blame others although Democrats run Washington! I just love how they preach Peace, Love and No Hate and yet they are the worst offenders! Nothing but hypocrites.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Steven

    The Arizona racists have a temporary victory that will cost them in the future. Latinos are not stupid and they understand that republicans are rigging the election.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jerry Milo Johnson

      Racists like Juan Carlos Escamilla, who brought the matter to the court's attention? LOL. Not a very valid argument in this particular case.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • White man

      I always found in funny how people dont realize we have no national or official language. Also people assume mexicans and latinos are dumb or illiterate since they have not mastered english when in fact they know at least 2 languages and you can graduate from harvard and only know 1. Being able to talk and communicate with the entire western hemisphere in english or spanish seems much more powerful and therefore require higher intelligence than most americans realize.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • AZ guy

      Why do you suppose Obama wants to Kill AZ 1070 a bill passed by Arizona Voters, enforcing immigration, why? because the Democrats rely on those thousands of illegal votes to win office.....

      January 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Archie

      Steven, I do not recall anywhere in the article where her political affiliation was mentioned, so why do you bring it up.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dino Droppings

    She cant run for office In San luis, shes not white enough.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris

      hmmm....the Mayor of the city, whi is against her running is names Juan Carlos Escamilla. Does he sound "white" to you? Did you even bother reading the article before typing something ignorant?

      January 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • twinkletoes

      I think this is more of a case of the "ins" don't want the "outs" to threaten their positions. If someone who has a different view and might actually want to change things, that is a threat. Remember most politicians never have worked for a living, and if the lost an election, they wouldn't know what to do.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
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