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. bob

    It is unfortunate the English is not the official tongue of the land . I worked in Europe and even liberal Europe has native speaking/writing proficiency requirements for public office.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Somebodywhoknows

    As an immigrant myself... don't run if you don't speak English. PERIOD. She already said "I speak little English". Now it's good enough all of the sudden? And no, the U.S. dosen't have "half of the city names in Spanish".

    January 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
  3. firefly

    if you are running for office in the United States then you should have to be able to speak, read and write English!

    January 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Harrys Putter

    The backlash from this will be one for the books.
    Is there something in the water in Arizona ?

    January 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Backlash? The kind of backlash that could come from this is okay. Are you saying that non-engligh speaking and illegal immigrants will boycott Arizona? I hope so.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. iamdeadlyserious


    January 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Great comment. But shouldn't it be test, test, test? Ha-ha..

      January 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Voice1

    Why is the judge making a call on who can run based on language proiciency? Let the people decide if she is good enough to represent their interest.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Maybe you didn't read the article above or don't understand English yourself. It is the law that you must speak, write and understand English to serve in a public office.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • YouAreNotThinking

      No, then let the people *change the rules*, so they can get the person they want in. There are other requirements for holding office, like citizenship. Should the people just be able to pick anybody, regardless of rules? If the people want a person who doesn't meet requirements, they need to change the rules of requirement.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Sickofidiots

    If you want to work in politics in the United States learn English. If you don't want to learn English, go live in Mexico.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jacquie

      She is a natural born US citizen, she can speak any language she choses

      January 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Jacquie, she isn't a natuarl born citizen. She became a citizen. Yes, she can speak any language she wants. No she can't run for office because she lacks adequate skills in the English language.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  8. K

    Question how come no one in San Luis is learning English? I think her learning English would contribute her to being a stronger candidate.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jacquie

    I do agree that it is a sad statement of the state of our schools that we graduate students that can not speak English. On the other hand I read the Enabling Act of 1910 in Arizona and not only does it require that you speak English, it also requires that you are male. Obviously they have changed that part of the law, why not change the language requirements. Oh, and please do domething about that high school she graduated from

    January 30, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Altbier

      Jacquie, I have a question, What is Domething?

      January 31, 2012 at 7:08 am | Report abuse |
  10. gremlinus

    Pretty sure there is no "english test" requirement to hold office. If you are a citizen and you meet the legal criteria, you are eligible to run. It is up to the people to decide if it's "enough," not a judge.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • dave

      Pretty sure you did not READ THE ARTICLE

      January 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • gremlinus

      Yeah, I did. They have to be able communicate "well enough." I didn't see where it establishes a test. She speaks some English, which fulfills at least part of the criteria. The people should be the ones to decide the well enough part, not a judge.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • E


      No, you didn't read the article.

      Arizona has the Enabling Act of 1910.

      The article clearly quotes the section from it, "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."

      The test: doing the above without an interpreter. She clearly needed an interpreter. She failed that test.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Richie

    Speakidie English !

    January 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  12. dave

    The offcial language of ARizona was SPANISH for several hundred years until the US invaded and stole the land - English speakers are invadeers - look at the place names - SPANISH

    Let the voters vote - that is Democarcy

    January 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dibert

      We are not living in those years...they are gone...everyone reaps the benefits of past conquests....I think there was a treaty signed after the Spanish-American war wherein "Mexican" territories were ceded to the states by the Spanish conquerors....Read your history about the Treaty of Guadalupe. Be that as it may...stop implying that Mexican territories were stolen by present day people...that should not be an issue. English is the language of the United States of America. If this lady insists that she speaks her "native tongue", well, perhaps she should consider going to Mexico, engage in politics there where she will be able to communicate here intentions better.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Angela73

      Look up the Gadsden Purchase, you undereducated la raza schill, did you go to school at the same H.S. Ms. Carbrera went to and couldn't seem to name?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • A

      Indigenous Native American languages such as Apache were spoken, and de facto official, for THOUSANDS of years until the Spanish invaded and stole the land. Spanish speakers are just as much invaders as English speakers. The tired argument of stolen Mexican territories doesn't hold water when you consider that those territories were first stolen from the indigenous peoples by the Spanish, from which Mexico was established.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Unobtanium

    Shouldnt be up to a judge,
    should be up to the voters.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      Not up to the voters in this town. Need to change the state-wide Arizona law. And no way on earth is that law being changed. Things are getting harder for illegals here not easier.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Parkerman

      Nope, you should be able to live anywhere in the United States and speak english without an interpreter. I shouldnt have to have an interpreter to speak to my represenative no matter what the majority of people want. If they all wanted Arizona to go back to Mexico would you let them?

      January 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dibert

    OKAY, here we go. There should be an act of congress that addresses this issue. Things are going to far and too fast in this country. Everyone who has an agenda such as hers will eventually be addressed in the "state legislature" and lo and behold, her agenda will prevail...we will have politicians elected based on their cultural roots, that is not the case in this country..the so called "melting pot" of the world. I say English should be the spoken language in this country, people who speak the language of their native country should take classes "at their expense" and then and only then should they be allowed, if qualified to run for office on the local, state, federal and even global level if they choose.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Goombah

    If she were deaf and dumb, and relied on TTD devices to "translate" spoken words to texts, would she be found unqualified? I think not. Let her run...

    January 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • gremlinus

      Hmm. That's actually a good point. Nice.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Derrick

      The deaf person would be having the spoken words transribed in their native tongue of English, not translated into English as their second language.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Terrils

      Deafness is a disability – something you can't fix. Not speaking English after decades living in America is, frankly, a matter of laziness. She can learn it – she's doing so – she just hoped she could get away with not bothering. Turns out she can't.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • English only

      Terrils is exactly right. How can you live in the US, go to high school here, and not be fluent in English? Clearly her loyalties are to her Spanish heritage and not her American life. That alone should prevent her from gaining office in the US.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • lovelokest

      Not to mention that American Sign Language is a different language than spoken English. ASL originated from a form of French Sign Language so has many similarities with the French language.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
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