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. gf

    If they seriously determined she does not have an adequate level of English, she shouldn't be allowed to run on that basis. Basically if there is a question of someone being able to pass the ESL exam, they should be required to take it. It's not an issue of prejudice, and she should be motivated to go become proficient in English and come back run again. English should be declared the official language to do away with these issues. People should be encouraged to keep their first language, but be required to learn English in order to run for any public office, teach at public schools, etc.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • UNDEAD

      This is a long running joke in Phoenix where many hispanics laugh about relatives who have been in the U.S. for years and still cannot speak a lick of english. Or brag about relatives that snuck into the U.S. and never got caught.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • kevin

      I agree with you GF but you left out a important part. No foreign born citizen should ever hold a government office....... look what arnold did for california....

      January 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • jellylee2020

      You are lucky that there's no English proficiency requirement for commenting on CNN.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott Morris

      I agree that English needs to be declared the official language. This does not outlaw other languages from being spoken. But in order to operate or participate on any sort of government level, it should be done in one language that is consistent accross the entire span of America. All government communication and exams, licenses, etc. should be in English. All education needs to take place in English. This also goes for the extreme slang and "cultural" variations of English. I know many people that are adults that have been norn and rasied here, and graduated high school and even college, and can barely construct a proper sentence, or know the difference between "their" "they're" and "there" Again, we can embrace the cultural diversity of the USA without cluttering the structure of our public society. The bowing to other languages, as well as text messaging and tweeting are killng any sort of standard of communication. Language is what ties a society together, and the accomodation of multiple languages is not good for our society in government or education of our citizens. I applaud them for fairly evaluating her ability to lead and communicate in English. I lived in Arizona for a while, and I was amazed at the number of people who had been born and rasied in the United States, and could not speak a word of English. How this happens, I have no idea.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  2. silvia reppert

    The Spanish people in this country wanted to much!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick-o

      It's "too much" and not "to much" . Learn English, all ye hypocrits!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Free

      It's hypocrite...oh the irony

      January 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • jellylee2020

      It's "hypocrites". Don't forget the plural which he intended it to be.

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

    My God, you would think it was the end of the world. Face it everyone, some people speak Spanish, others English, and some both. I can speak English fluently, yet I often speak Spanish with neighbors and friends. It causes no objective harm. Quite simply, this is a non-issue. Perhaps it is because some Americans feel that their culture is threatened whenever they hear someone speaking a foreign language. They perceive it as a threat, as if their race/culture will soon be the new minority. But really, there is no need for people to see themselves as some sort of endangered species. We are all human.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fenris

      It's a huge issue. This isn't someone chatting with their neighbors – this is a government official. Enormous difference.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anaximand

      Right... as a member of the city council of a small town....

      January 30, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • iServe

      Way to completely miss the point of the article. I guess you're not as good at the english language as you proclaim yourself to be, huh.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. English speaking american

    This is a disgrace. If our elected officials would get off their proverbial butts and do something about illegal immigration and MAKE ENGLISH THE NATIONAL LANGUAGE...requiring all citizens past, present and future to be able to effectively communicate at a 12th grade level...this would not even be news!!!

    Ironic that this lazy pos person who refused to learn english is now using the our courts...AMERICA IS DOOMED!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Save the Rich, Vote GOP

      So what about the white kids born in this country to American citizens that cannot speak English at a 12 grade level and speak no other languages? Just curious.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jimzcarz

    This is The United States of America where all Business and Government is conducted in ENGLISH. Don't like it go to school.If you can't legally get into school because of your immigration status. Go back to your country of origin. If being a mexican is so great go do something in your country and quit making a sh**hole out of ours.
    Thank You
    San Jose

    January 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick-o

      I could critique all of your grammatical error for hours.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Are you sure about 12th grade? Quite a few "native speakers" will never be able hit that level.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • banff

      Oh please... In my line of work "business" in America is often conducted in a language other than English.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jason S

    Nooo, noooo! you buy lemon pledge!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jen Metts

      You are awesome. Best thing I've seen all day.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Joyce Fields

    This country can save billions of $$$$$ when (not if) ENGLISH is made the ONLY language used!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anaximand

      Billions? How so? Seems an exaggeration.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  8. badcyclist

    Can we retroactively disqualify both President Bush's? They butchered English in a way that Ms Cabrera can only dream of.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  9. ann west

    Ha Ha Ha the ever changing rules when your a hypocrite.. The new rule IS you must speak the language of the country your representing. Well I guess the "leaders" Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Americans didn't get the memo ❌

    January 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  10. banff


    Applause for you. Your statement was far more succinct than mine.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. badcyclist

    Thank you, banff. Then I went and spoiled it by being a smart aleck.... I just couldn't resist.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  12. venturer

    The fault is with the educational system which taught her for 12 years in Yuma and let her graduate from high school without being bilingual. But with the demographics of her community, it should not be an issue there.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  13. LFM

    Spanish has been spoken in many territories of the United States of America for almost 500 years, the first european languaje spoken in what's now called U.S.A. and specially in Arizona, New Mexico, California and Texas, what's the surprise that some americans speak spanish only?

    January 30, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kathleen Martin

    I live in Canada, but lived in Galveston Texas in the early 80's, I feel in this case, this lady representative's perhaps and adittedly by herself English is not as fluent as her language first language is. However, given the statistics of those that she wants to represent and what is their first language, that while yes, the article states, the vast majority, do speak National, to FULLY grasp what is being explained to them on public issues??? I was, quite frankly, very surprised to hear that none of the currently runnung Rebublican nominees are at all fluent in Spanish... You have to be rather bright (Assumably) to get to a Nat'l level of politics and I would have thought, that all, would be able to speak Spanish at least as well as this Local area political hopeful, is able to speak English... Just thoughts from my perspective...

    January 30, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. PSB

    Arizona law notwithstanding, I would be much more comfortable if this were left to the local voters rather than the courts.

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