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. sandan

    Back in the early 80's, San Antonio had a heavy influx of Indo-Chinese immigrants and I decided to volunteer to teach Englush at a local church. Whe had Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Thais in our classes, probably arount 250 people ranging in ages from babies to people in their 70's. Classes were two nights a week from 7 til 9 and these were strictly "spoken" English classes. The elders would assign a few teens to baby-sit in a seperate room, and we were off to learning. No books, with the exception of notebooks, and the only tests were verbal acknowledgements that a word was understood...eye, ear, ceiling floor etc. The classes lasted about 8 weeks. I taught there for a little over a year and at least 90 to 95% of the "students" spoke English at the end of 8 weeks. Oddly enough, this experience led me to get my teaching certificate and, by chance, led me to a high school were I met two Vietnamese sisters that had been in my church classes. One day, they both proudly entered my classroom, shortly after the end of the last bell, and showed me both of their report cards. All A's and B's , which shows what determination can do!

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

      Gee, I sure hope you weren't teaching them Englush. They'd be no better off and probably arrested for drunk in class.

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

      What is this word arount you speak of?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  2. malasangre

    the mayor has plenty to hide. a new face can reveal that stuff

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

      Then find someone to run against him (or recall him). Just not someone who can't speak English.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jesse Salazar Jr.

    I am not going to help (at the White House)," she added. "I will be helping here.” does that mean the standards should be lowered???? ENGLISH FIRST. I am 4th generation American Conservative Republican and Patriot, who happens to be Hispanic. If you cant speak the language GO HOME.

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

      Contrary to your belief, the US does not have an official language. Most of us may speak English, but that doesn't make it official.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      Umm, what home? There have been Spanish speakers in the North American southwest long before the United States came into existence. Should the people living there today go back to Spain even though their family has been there since the 1600s?

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

      Jesse, I'll bet alot of natives told your people the same thing, four generations ago.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • steve

      She is home. We ignore the fact that the US has been multi-lingual since the beginning. Over time, immigrant families integrate into the US fully. What I would like to see is a return to the requirement for foreign languages in high school. We limit ourselves in so many ways by remaining mono-lingual.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marie


      January 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      You sound like a reformed cigarette smoker! You made your point, but must you use capitals. My grandparents (mothers side) were immigrants and spoke broken English and my other side came in the 1840's. My relatives on both sides fought in WW1 and WW2 and my brother and myself in Vietnam. Both sets of my grandparents loved America but I always felt my mothers parents who were immigrants, were the most patriotic people I ever met. Neither side, came legally by current standards. They had no papers, no sponsors, and no prospective jobs. We welcomed immigrants from everywhere back then!

      January 30, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Ivy League White Guy

    CNN if you are going to be impartial, then let me answer in Spanish.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Eric

    She should run for President of the United States instead. 1) No federal requirement to speak English. 2) Precedent shows we will elect a POTUS without full command of the English language.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  6. boo radley

    1588? really? That was the English u dolt, not America. And please tea partiers visit your local appalachian towns and you'll find more than enough illiterates and non english speakers in office to make your tiny heads spin. V=ma

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

    This is what happens when one country acquires land in war. We took Arizona from Mexico by force. Whether you think it was the right thing to do or not, the result was still that the US absorbed another culture and insisted the people there change. The world is full of examples of how generations of people resist absorption. Israel, Kurds, so many.

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

    The point continues to be made that 87% of her district speaks primarily Spanish. Well, what about the 13% of her district that speaks only English? How do they communicate their thoughts to their elected representative? How do they gain her insight on her voting patterns or her opinion on a regulation? Are not the 13% denied representation then?

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

    The blatant racism on these comments is freightening. First of all, the voters in her council district should decide who they want in office. Second, a translator can be easily hired if that is needed to understand more complex issues.

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

      When a commentor has nothing to add but the comment racism, it seems that this person basically has nothing to say. Hey dude, come to vermont and lets speak French, can you understand the language? What, you don't want to learn? How Racist! I hope the Repubs take the Presidency, and congress and pass a law making English the official language.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • vtguy

      And another thing BOB, you gonna pay for the translator? Not on my dime. Should go to schools to help kids learn the English language.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Polopoint

      Exactly. finally, someone with some sense – no matter the language.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Phill Leamons

      While in a lot of cases I would agree that this might be racism, but remember who started it? The Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla. Probably not Irish would be my guess

      January 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marie

      Feel free to foot the bill for the translator. The translator shouldn't be a burden on the taxpayers because she can't speak English! But hey, for everyone who thinks it's ok can help you pay for one. There is absolutely no reason anyone in this country shouldn't speak English regardless of ethnicity.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Stan

    Me fail English? That's unpossible!

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

      I have full authority of my language!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  11. caligirl

    If you can't speak english well you generally can't read, write, or understand it well either. In the time it takes her to file for an appeal she could gain a better understanding of the english language and run for office to represent the people she wants to support. This is the kind of issues we as a country are going to regularly run into if we give amnesty and don't require illegal citizens the follow the law and become citizens through the current process that is in place. They will always be questioning the laws of the US and asking for exceptions.

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

      You rock! I'm so sick and tired of letting ILLEGALS get away with everything. They should become citizens legally and learn to speak English. This crap doesn't happen in any other country especially MEXICO; they'll throw your *ss in jail as soon as look at you.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Chip Only

    Freedom of speech means the freedom to speak (or not speak) any language you choose. We all – elected official or not – have that freedom. Period. Case ca-losed!

    Not letting her on the ballot is anti-democratic, plain and simple, by artificially limiting what otherwise be the voters' choice to make. If the people there decide she is who they want to elect or not, then dog gone it, they should be able to make that choice at the ballot box for themselves, and she should have the opportunity to try and win their votes like anyone else. Cabrera and the voters deserve nothing less.

    Heck, we've got established politicians who have trouble speaking English, and it's their primary language for cryin' out loud! Much ado about nada. 😉

    AZ, as a border state, I know you're facing serious, substantive problems and I feel for you. But you are responding poorly, in all the wrong ways, and it makes it so much harder for those of us who want to see those problems addressed in the right way to defend some of your state's lousy policies....capische?

    January 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Sean

    I actually used to like visiting friends and family in Arizona, but they've swung too far past lunacy and I think I'll pass on it in the future. I can't imagine how a state can discriminate against this woman, yet have a governor who's truly illiterate!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Polopoint

      it's the heat. a dry heat sure, but it's the heat nonetheless.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • DenRSM

      "...yet have a governor who's truly illiterate!"
      Didn't you mean literally illiterate? "I do not think that word means what you think it does."

      January 30, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bobbie

    Graduated from an American highschool, and CAN'T SPEAK ENGLISH??!! How in the world does that happen?! I can't believe anyone on here finds that acceptable!

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

      The teachers unions thinks it is fair.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ivy League White Guy

    El racismo que se percive en Arizona, Alabama y otros estados de la Union Americana es inhumano e intolerable. Los buenos norteamericanos no debemos tolerar estas agresiones en contra de nuestros compatriotas de origen hispano. Salgamos a protestar, votemos y hagamos todo lo posible por oponernos a los radicales que atacan a la poblacion hispana es los EEUU. CNN debe permitir que los hispanos publiquemos nuestros comentarios en espanol. CNN you must allow billingual Americans to write their responses in Spanish. Be fair, CNN.

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

      El Go Awayo

      January 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • DenRSM

      GREAT point!!! Not what you said, but how you said it. I am going to assume that your post was meaningful and well thought out. The problem is that it isn't conveyed to most of the readers of this blog. Therefore you were unable to participate in any meaningful way in the debate. Your inability (I know – choice) to participate due to the language barrier is – to me – 100% of the point. Please DO immigrate to this country! Learn the language we speak here and share your views and life experience with us. Just don't come here and tell us that we have to accommodate you. Come join US.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      DenRSM – You assume too much and miss the point. I have the upper hand because I can understand both languages and make whatever point I want to, in favor or against the argument, and have both sides understand me. That is the whole point. Don't dumb down American because some like you are not willing to meet the other side halfway. Let Hispanics learn English, and you learn Spanish. Be fair, why should they (we, because I am with them) accommodate for you? Enough of the white, English Only dominance. We have had enough of your arrogance and bigotry.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • DenRSM

      Actually I understand your point missed mine.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • DenRSM

      It is actually you who assumes too much. I am one who cringes at the fact that the US is so mono-lingual as a culture. I am embarrassed by my fellow Americans when I go to a foreign country and watch them expecting the natives to speak English rather than learning the local language themselves. Every time I have traveled to a foreign country I have taken the time to learn enough of the language that I can "get around". I welcome, but don't expect, when the locals know English or at least try to help me make myself understood. I saw a waiter in Paris act like he knew no English with a pair of "Ugly Americans" yet helped me happily. It was because I tried. I have little sympathy for someone who chooses to LIVE in a country without learning the language, where when I travel for only a week in a foreign country I've tried learning the language. People immigrate to the USA because of what it is and what it has to offer. It is that way because English speakers made it that way. Come join us...only join us, don't just live among us and only take, JOIN us and share yourselves and your culture with us while you enrich yourselves on what we and our ancestors sacrificed to create.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Sounding a bit more open minded there DenRSM. My only beef with your last statement is that the ancestors of the Mexican-American lady at the center of this controversy ALSO sacrificed much to create and build America and they continue to sacrifice under a racist AZ political establishment. I disagree with your generalization that only English speakers have made this country what it is. What a great burden to the white man. Enough is enough. Sure, the Mexicans and other immigrants who come here must learn English, OK, but if a community is majoritarily Hispanic, don't discriminate like this. They have a right to their culture and their language, and people who share that community should meet them half way and learn some Spanish. Ya basta de racismo.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
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