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. SpeakEnglishPlease

    Why are we the only country that does not have a national language? If people run for office SPEAKING and COMPREHENDING English is a requirement. If you want to live in our country SPEAK the language. Is anyone else out there tired of getting brochures (usually for the government and social services) printed in both English and Spanish? Why are we hand and footing all these spanish speaking people when they come into our country take our jobs and refuse to speak english? Get tough America and SPEAK OUR NATIONAL ENGLISH LANGUAGE!!! and vote for fluently English speaking candidates only that understand and comprehend English

    January 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • RockoT

      Because we don't need it. In case you haven't noticed, for over 200 years English has been the language we speak.

      That isn't going to change, law or no law. All that laws will do, is what is being done here – used as an excuse to deny voters the right to elect someone they want to elect.

      As far as learning english goes – adults struggle to acquire a new language – children do not. The melting pot always worked over generations – it works today the same as it always did.

      Yes – it works. This ladies children will speak fluent english.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • GrogInOhio

      As a nation of immigrants it would have been STOOPID to require a national language. Where did your ancestors come from? Want to send your entire family back if they failed to learn English fast enough?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Crystal

      I agree.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lwilrey

      I think all elected officials should speak, read, and write fluently. Since she had a problem answering the question of where she went to High school, this lady is clearly NOT proficient enough in english to hold government office. If you want to live in the US, learn English.

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

      Actually there are 8 countries without and official language: UK, the USA (though 20 states now have one), Pakistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Costa Rica and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. GermanSon

    I'm the son of German immigrants. They came to this country, learned English and became U.S. citizens. I can't believe
    how the hispanic community thinks they have a right to do any different.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • DebG

      That because the US doesn't have a minimum hurdle for immigration. You're more apt to be an immigrant to this country if you or your family are illiterate and have no motivation to learn English. For being a first class destination, we accept 3rd-rate immigrants.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Me

      I have to point out that the Spanish language was here before German was and for many US Hispanics, there hasn't been any immigration to get here so they are speaking the language of their region, IE, AZ, NM, TX. While I agree this lady needs to be fluent in English to hold office, I won't demand that her langauge in her personal life be English.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Philip Hades

      You left out how quickly your predecessors learned English. Were the original immigrants fluent day one? Or did it take a few years, or even a second, perhaps third, generation?

      Many of the immigrants that people are complaining about are first generation. As such it makes sense that they aren't native fluent.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Christine

    Ms. Cabrera needs to be able to conduct an interview and participate in a lively English exchange at a meeting in order to properly peform the functions of this position. She admits that she is not fluid in English. I believe she means that she is not FLUENT in English. If I remember from my Spanish classes, the word for fluid and fluent are the same in Spanish but they are different in ENGLISH. I agree with the court ruling in this case. Study English, then run again Ms. Cabrera but fire your lawyer!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Ron

    If you can't speak it,,, you can't understand it. Period! "YOU ARE IN AMERICA! SPEAK ENGLISH"!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Iliab

    It’s pretty difficult to be a one nation if we don’t understand each other. I think therefore that we need an official national language and all officials at all levels shall be fluent in it.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ReallyPeople?

    I must agree with the state law. I too am of Hispanic descent, and they’re absolutely right to demand that everyone who runs for office speak fluent English. I’m first generation born here, my father learned the language very well, and my mother speaks it very broken. I would never support anyone in my family to run for local office without being able to communicate with everyone in the city. It’s not fair to those of us who have made that extra effort to truly be fluent bilinguals. Good, she has a private tutor. Maybe next election she’ll be up to par.

    @SpeakEnglishPlease – Immigrants taking the jobs you don’t want, is a moot point. I’m sure you can find a job scrubbing toilets, no problem.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  7. RockoT

    The idea that people don't learn the language they need – is ridiculous.

    They do, they always have – its just in that city Spanish is the language of the community.

    If she wants to get a job at the state capitol – she'll learn English. People learn what they need to – it always works out.

    There is zero need to worry about this one bit.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • deb0155

      The problem is – she's running for public office in the United States of America – she needs to learn English! If she doesn't like it – maybe she should move to a Latin country where only Spanish is spoken! This is the United States of America, pal! We speak English!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Me

    I grew up in AZ. I don't speak Spanish and some days, even I wonder if I've mastered English. I know in many AZ homes, that Spanish is the dominant language and that's great. Pass down the heritage. I highly support that, teaching your kids the language of your family (talking to my husband here). But when it comes to something as important as day to day government operations, the mayor needs to be proficient in English. While it serves San Luis citizens well on the sidewalk, what about conducting business with Phoenix? What about calling up Mayors in other towns? Do you think the Mayor of Lawrence, KS is fluent in Spanish? It's admirable she wants to serve her community but she isn't qualified yet–yet, to hold this office.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. h.

    hey Tasa, A kegger is about all u CAN organize (if u can fit one in the double wide!). Seriously the reason we're even talking about this is beacause of the large # of latinos here and the fact that not all are illegals. Major cities around the country have completely Spanish speaking sections. Newark,Chicago,Boston,Conn,NY,Miami,Dallas,L.A., Orlando, Tampa, FT Lauderdale,Phoenix, Santa Fe, etc. We are not like any other immigrant group. There is no intergration, this is a changing of the Guard. Jusk ask Newt and Mittens why their running ads in Spanish! Thruth shall sent u free 🙂

    January 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. A-merry-can

    Either learn to speak English or go back to whatever country you came from.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  11. avalokiteshvara

    She's "fluid" in English? Not qualified...

    January 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • jsf12

      She can't understand a simple question asked in spoken English, so she is not qualified. If she merely said words like "fluid" instead of words like "fluent" that shouldn't bother anyone and it is extremely jingoistic (look it up if necessary) of you to say that would mean she is unqualified.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  12. redneck

    “We don’t want someone who comes from Harvard.” So, someone who went to Harvard is inherently out of touch with people? This is as "classist" of a statement as any racist statement I've ever heard.

    And as for Cabrera herself, her position on the subject is to look upon the office of City Council with a lowered standard of quality of service. “I am not applying for a job with President Obama.” There's nothing wrong with her taking a year or two or three to become proficient in English if she wants to serve in public office. If that's her dream, she should pursue it to serve all of the people in her community effectively. She can't even tell you where she went to high school. Bilingual is a good example to set for the people in her community.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  13. DebG

    It's sad when an American citizen is not fluent in English. That proves that we need to redefine who is "American". It's not merely a matter of being born here. Our country is doomed!

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

      How many "White" people in the deep south and middle america are not fluent in English. Way too many to have anyone target non-whites.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Truth

    mmmmmmmm.... While I believe this country should just declare English as the national standard... we have not done that. This Judge was out of bounds and should be overturned on appeal. There is no legal requirement anywhere that holding public office required english speaking skills, its just never been an issue, everyone running speaks it.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • redneck


      "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.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • jsf12

      Did you miss the point that the judge was correctly applying a STATE law? In another state there might be no legal reason Cabrera could not hold office. What our national law does/could/should do about English is an unrelated questions.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Karen

    This is rediculous. Learn the language, ENGLISH!!! So what now? I have to learn spanish to communicate in America?

    January 30, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Philip Hades

      Judging by how poorly worded your reply is you should probably stick to trying to master English.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
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