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. Joshua Xie

    Can a mute run for office?

    January 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Onegood1

      No but if you were blind, etc. you could get good at pinball.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cobra-212

    The job of an elected representative is to represent the people who elected them. That representation is not back to those same people, but to others in government, in towns, city, and state governments, to contractors, vendors, and visitors. Folks this is America, and to be unable to represent those people to others is not acceptable. What we should look into is why someone who is born, raised, and educated in the U.S. could have graduated from high school and still not be able to communicate in English. She got hung up on a question about where she graduated from high school and couldn't answer in English. Folks... that is not acceptable education for the U.S.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • KevinLA

      If you've got to be proficient in English, then how did W get to be President?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      I'm no fan of Bush, but I'll take his education background over yours any day of the week. I know that doing part-time at a community college may impress you, but it doesn't impress anyone else.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Joshua Xie

    Can an illiterate run for office? Can a high school drop out run for office?

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

      Of course; so can idiots and morons. Just look at the list of POTUS wannabees in the GOP.

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

      can an illiterate run for office? hmmmmm palin, bush, bachmann, O'donnell...shall I continue?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stan

      Yes & Yes. See also, the City Council for the City of Detroit.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Onegood1

    We earned that right in 1588. Please read up on the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

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

      because the Spanish Armada invaded Arizona when?

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


      January 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Julian

    Let her run for office south of the border.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • AZ guy

      at Taco Bell?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. AZ guy

    Can an illegal run for office?

    January 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Canuc_2009

    To mongopoo

    Canada is a bilingual country where services are delivered in both official languages in almost all jurisdictions. Ontario, the most populous province in Canada does exactly that. French communities outside of Quebec actually do receive services in French. As I said, it works well MOST of the time .. there are always exceptions of course.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      This is the United States, not Canada!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      Sorry, we don't need advice from a maple smoker. There has traditionally always been a large proportion of the Canadian population that speaks French. This country, however, speaks, and has spoken English in all areas of our political process. No room for other languages here buddy.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      I love Canada! And I know it's bilingual and many services are offered in French (amongst other languages out west), but are all the leaders and representatives proficient in english? Honest question, I don't know the answer.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. canamac86

    English is NOT the offical language of the United States. There is NO official language, so please posters do not continue to argue that she needs to learn english from a national standpoint. I think it is very unfortunate that states such as Arizona have made an official language. It is absolutely riddiculous in the context of this article. Imagine if somebody were in office there who didn't speak the language (spanish) of 87% of the population. Now that would be a tragedy, and one that the Arizona government would see no problem with.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      Wow, you're a joke. English should be the country's official language from a political standpoint. Any other opinion on the matter is asinine.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anne JG

      English may not be codified as French is in France, but it is the language spoken here and most of the rest of the world speaks it as well. Most business is conducted in English. Immigrants do not get to come into this country and change rules according to their particular needs.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • DenRSM

      Nobody said that someone who can't speak Spanish should be elected...they are saying – rightfully – that someone who cannot speak English should NOT be elected. I agree that someone representing an 87% Spanish only community MUST speak Spanish. But they MUST speak English too.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hi There

      Funny, All posts here are in English!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • BobbyBrick

      Well, maybe, like the rest of the council she should become truly bi-lingual. Let her continue with her tutoring, become more proficient and then run again. It's not the 87% of the people she's representing, it's the people she's representing them too.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Anna

    This woman has been told her English is not good enough, yet, she tried to recall the mayor twice. She obviously has a handle of politics. How many english speaking Americans would even know where to begin to recall an elected official? And the only reason she had to go to court was because the mayor she tried to recall twice, was worried because she was running for his office so he filed a lawsuit! She probably would have won....

    January 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jim p.

    "“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 "

    That pretty much says it all.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Fox me? Fox you!

    Considering that most of you Yankees are barely literate in english to begin with, I do not think you should cast any stones towards Ms. Cabrera.

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

      Yes they should cast stones! No one is complaining about her grasp of English. The complaint is that if she can't speak English she can't hold office. Get your stones straight.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Vincent Frey

    I believe that the high school she graduated from is a catholic school. Doesn't say much for the quality of education she got.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Anne JG

    The language spoken in the US is English. It is necessary for anyone who wishes to live here and function well, to learn it. If you go to Germany or Russia or France, you would have to learn the language. They do not accommodate secondary languages as we do in this country. Run someone who speaks both english and spanish. Without the English skills,how do you expect to be accurately represented in council meetings, courtrooms, etc.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  14. wildone

    Hablan Ingles.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Geneva

    Sure, take all the benefits of being an American citizen, but don't bother learning the language? I can't imagine what would happen to someone who only speaks English who goes to Mexico, insists on only speaking English. I also can't imagine that they celebrate the 4th of July in Mexico as much as we in America are forced to put up with Cinco de Mayo.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      And Cinco de Mayo isn't even a major holiday in Mexico!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
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