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. That Dude

    My English is good enough (for government work).

    January 30, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Quest1

    Whether or not she speaks it well or not. This is the United States and our language is ENGLISH. Learn it.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • babble

      Actually, the US doesn't have an official language.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • SAMBO

      I'm thinking of moving there in 4 years after i retire

      January 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • kat


      January 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anthony Steventon

      You mean learn it as George W Bush did?!! His grasp of semantics of the English language was pathetic. He couldn't even pronounce the word 'nuclear'.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  3. preacher

    LOL bigred ! When the mexican language is translated, it does come out all backwards. ENGLISH only !!

    January 30, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Lamar

    Why does the Southwest area of the US treat Hispanics the same way the Old South treated African Americans? The double standards, the bigotry hidden in "good intentions", etc... REALLY JUDGE?? Or is it just "PAYBACK" for going after your Political job? SERIOUSLY? Prejudice shows through like a laser here, and this Judge should be tossed out of office!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • avayandia

      If you live in San Francisco and represent district 6 (chinatown), is it okay if you only speak chinese?

      January 30, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • gumbalay

      Lamar, boy, you need to pull your butttt-plug outta yo' mouth!

      January 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jen

      Come live in El Paso with me then! With a BA in graphics I can't get a job to save my life – Why? I don't speak Spanish – here, non Spanish speakers are discriminated against – I am here because my husband is in the Army and I seriously miss working – Live here for a while and rethink that statemet.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • SAMBO

      when you walk into a room the average IQ is immediately lowered

      January 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hryan

      Yes they are so biased against individuals of Hispanic descent that their mayor is Juan Carlos Escamilla.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  5. English Please

    Great... you know spanish to communicate with the community you want to serve but to better serve them you need to speak english to the city council and other goverment officials to get things done...wait...Cabrera is the perfect elected official.... tell the people what the want to hear (her community in spanish) and get nothing done (no hablo englash) to city council. Just what our country needs now more dead weight goverment officials.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • gumbalay


      January 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Malavaina

    I would like to hear (read) Arnold's opinion about this issue,

    January 30, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • al

      Arnold speaks perfect English - there's bid difference between an accent an semi-illiteracy.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ProperVillain

    I'm sorry, "5" on a scale from 1 to 10? Remind me what country we are in again. This is pathetic in that it is now ok to enter a country whose primary language is now being ignored out right. This is the only country in the world where this can happen. The US is far too PC for its own good. Funny, I don't recall my ancestors not bothering to learn the language. Fact is they needed to learn english to hold a job. Not much use for someone speaking German in the US back in those days. I agree with the judge. Learn to be proficient or don't bother....

    January 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bridget

      Amen to that!!! My ancestors came to America to better themselves and their future generations. Learning the language was the first step to that goal.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. haloguy628

    Go away liar. Learn English and then come back and be a legitimate candidate.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Joseph Pena

    She is neither illiterate nor a High School drop out. Nothing in the article indicated that Joshua Xie. On the other hand you don't seem to be able to read English so well yourself otherwise you would have been able to read this from the article. At least she has an excuse since English was not her original native language. What's yours ?

    This was excerpted from the article: Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who graduated from the bilingual Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona,
    This is the other excerpt: “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,”

    Now lest you forget President Bush, a native speaker had trouble speaking English and he was President of the United States ! Here are just a few examples:
    "They misunderestimated me." –Bentonville, Ark., Nov. 6, 2000
    "For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three non-fatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America. It's just unacceptable. And we're going to do something about it." –Philadelphia, Penn., May 14, 2001

    And what was that about her not being able to answer a question on the stand ?

    UI quote Bush : "I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it...I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hadn't yet...I don't want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't - you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one." –after being asked to name the biggest mistake he had made, Washington, D.C., April 3, 2004

    If someone like Bush who mangled the English language can be President for 8 years, Alejandrina Cabrera can be on the City Council.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • al

      WOW - are you whacked! Get a grip!

      January 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dude in Colorado

      Actually, Mr. Pena – It's because of an idiot like Bush that we need to more vigilant than ever that we elect and/or appoint individuals in our government who can A) Speak the English Language, and B) muster more than two brain cells to rub together. i'm sure Ms. Cabrera can pass the second qualification...

      BTW – You're not the J. Pena in charge of the one So. Cali-based PAC that donatated millions to an negative advertising campaign that squashed a referendum in Colorado a few years back to teach the children of Mexican immigrants English in school, are you? Just wondering.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • SAMBO

      If your IQ was one point lower you'd be a vegetable

      January 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  10. kelly

    A US citizen, who graduated from a US high school, can not speak english?

    January 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ProperVillain

    “I can't give details about the appeal, but the judge's decision was not just,” Cabrera told the newspaper."
    Probably due to the fact that she doesn't understand most of the appeal or judges decision as it was all written in ENGLISH...

    January 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Buck

    The judge really ruled that??? WOW

    January 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |

    how did she graduate from an american high school and not speak any english! a joke at best!

    January 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Peter Vogel

    Surely this is a question for the voters. The law effectively prevents the citizens from, potentially, selecting the mayor of their choice.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • al

      Not to worry. She would never have been elected anyway because she can't speak English fluently. Not EVERYBODY is her town is an idiot.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Incredulous

    How did she ever graduate from high school ? Self-certification of competence in a completely self-serving way. Is this the kind of meaningless standard we can expect more of from now on?

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