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. Kit

    Give us a break! I'm an immigrant and was happy and proud to learn English – I could not imagine even trying to conduct any kind of business in my native tongue. What's with you guys – not willing to learn our (and YOURS, now) language? Why did you come to America?

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

      The United States does not have an official language. 96% of the people in the country are able to speak it, which includes this candidate. She is trying to learn to further her knowledge and proficiency in the language. That said, at the local level, such as a city council position where 98% of the population speaks spanish seems to lend itself to having someone who's primary language is spanish.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mladen Sudarevic

      I too came to United States with understanding that sooner or later I will need to be fluent in English in order to make something of myself and my life. I have since graduated from College and have served in United States Army for many years. I am proud to be citizen of this great nation and I am proud to speak English. I am still very much Serbian and try to speak Serbian as much as possible. However, I would never try to conduct official business in any other language other than English.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • aarrgghh

      English is the official language of ENGLAND, The USA has NO official language. as that would be discrimination. England is the former Oppressor of the United States and to adopt the language of our former "owners", as official, is insulting. English is NOT the language that was here when OUR ancestors came here, they did not "learn the language" as you put it. Our ancestors brought their own language with them, just like these immigrants did. You have a convoluted outlook of the world and our history.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. wildone

    A common language unites people to work for common goals. In America, English is the predominant language. If you do not wish to speak English and prefer to speak Spanish (or any other language, for that matter) I would suggest that you go somewhere else that "speaks your language".

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

      98.7% of the population where she is running for a local position is hispanic. 87% speak spanish as their primary language in their homes. Where exactly are you suggesting she goes to speak her language?

      January 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonas

      English is the primary language across the country, but this is a local office where the majority of the population, everyone but 1%, is hispanic.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • aarrgghh

      English is the official language of ENGLAND, The USA has NO official language. as that would be discrimination. England is the former Oppressor of the United States and to adopt the language of our former "owners", as official, is insulting. English is NOT the language that was here when OUR ancestors came here, they did not "learn the language" as you put it. Our ancestors brought their own language with them, just like these immigrants did. You have a convoluted outlook of the world and our history

      January 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Vasanth

    To para-phrase an ex-president: they have misunderestimated her!!

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

    How striking that conservative opinion–generally so ready to condemn activist judges and "elites" who would use govt. power to intervene in the will of the people–are not ready to let these voters decide whether or not they want this person to represent them.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • DenRSM

      Do you often have this feeling that you don't know what's going on around you?

      January 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • aarrgghh

      actually dwt is right on the money with his statement and perhaps it is YOU who should feel as though you do not know what is going on around you.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Americo Pachas

    "Ladran Sancho, senal que avanzamos"
    Don Quijote de la Mancha

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

      Maybe for 2020 Spanish will be the most important language for retail. Canadians use 2 languages and Helvetian 4 languages to do it. Come on!! Mrs Cabrera represents 98% of San Luis!! They are not voting for a judge, people need somebody to represent them.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  6. torim

    If here English was 'good enough', the interviews would have been conducted in English.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fiona


      January 30, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ken

      If your English was "good enough," you'd recognize "here" as an adverb indicating location, whereas "her" is a pronoun relating to a female. Also, the comma goes inside the quotation marks, and the preferred American English usage is a double mark, not a single. If Ms. Cabrera's English is open to debate, so is yours.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. M.A.

    I'll say this much....I'd rather elect someone speech challenged and competent rather than a person who is incompetent to serve with immaculate English speaking ability. Having said that, my advice to her would be to learn the language so that she can better represent the people in the community better communicating with them . And just come back later to run while continuing her community involvement in the meantime.

    As for the person labeling Hispanics "lazy"...I wouldn't rush to judgment so quick about that! It's a rather ignorant comment. Those of us whom are so inclined to make such irrational judgments, perhaps could channel some of our own ambitions learning about culture and seek the beauty within all people.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Mexican


    January 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • DenRSM


      January 30, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Failed System

      @Mexican – perhaps because this is America and not Mexico. The majority language of this country is still English, even if it is not the official language.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laura

      1. Perhaps you should learn to spell in English
      2. If I was in Mexico and wanted to run for office, would I be able to get the mayor and townspeople to speak my native language (English)? OF COURSE NOT.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • aarrgghh

      failed: actually this is the UNITED STATES.... America is one of 2 continents in the eastern hemisphere, and not a country at all. Technically Mexico is also on (n)America and therefore it's citizens are also "Americans". Semantics are extremely important in my English, how about yours? English is not the language our ancestors found here, in fact, no one I know speaks the "native" languages of this land. A family across the street from me growing up spoke only Italian another only German, our history is full of people speaking their own languages, including people from England.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • aarrgghh

      Laura: You are from England? You must be, because the united states has no "native" language.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jose Beltran

      Voters have the right to elect whom they consider a genuine representative. Justice is not always fair, remember case Dred Scott, where Supreme Court determined "The Blacks are not citizens". If there is a mistake in my lexicon or syntax, feel free to correct it. Thanks.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Sean

    Agree with everyone else here except the lefty's, learn English or go run for council in Mexico.....

    January 30, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ken

      What part of speech is "lefty's?" Practice what you preach.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ken

      Your comma should be a semi-colon, and ellipses use three dots with spaces, not five.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • STLgirl

      Well, see, that's where you're wrong....considering I'm a "lefty" and I believe this woman should be able to speak english if she wants to run for any gov't seat, be it local or otherwise. She can't even communicate, in english, where she went to high school-which isn't saying much for that hs. I do understand the need of the community to be represented by someone who is hispanic in culture and language. However, this is the United States and here we speak english and all our business is conducted in english. The laws in her community state she needs to speak english well enough to represent the people without the use of a translator. I don't believe she's qualified based on the fact that she WOULD need a translator it appears, just to conduct her daily duties as councilwoman. As the article points out, during meetings, how would she be able to understand everything or then communicate any thoughts regarding issues discussed, in english?

      January 30, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • aarrgghh

      English is the official language of ENGLAND, The USA has NO official language. as that would be discrimination. England is the former Oppressor of the United States and to adopt the language of our former "owners", as official, is insulting. English is NOT the language that was here when OUR ancestors came here, they did not "learn the language" as you put it. Our ancestors brought their own language with them, just like these immigrants did. You have a bigoted outlook of the world and our history

      January 30, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Failed System

    So she's an American citizen, graduated from an American High School and can't speak enough English for a government seat? What a sad indictment for a school system that is supposed to teach ENGLISH.

    What's sad to me is this woman was BORN here in America, and yet can't speak the majority language of her country. How could we fail her like that?

    I remember griping my way through high school English classes, complaining about having to learn a language I already knew. Apparently some people didn't even have to take them.

    It used to be required that immigrants had to learn the language of the land in order to assimilate. This was accomplished through immersion. Why are we catering to those who want to remain separate? Those who cling to countries they voluntarily left? Should they not want to embrace their new home?

    January 30, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • TrueAmerican

      We did not fail her, she has failed herself, period. She had every opportunity to learn the language and she didn't. Nobodies problem but hers, period.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Savannah

      I so agree w/ trueamerican

      January 30, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • aarrgghh

      You have the opportunity to learn Iroquois or Seneca or Apache too. Did you also waste your opportunity to speak the true native languages of this great land? Or do you continue to speak the language left here by the original oppressors?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  11. cacalips

    SMell my upper lip. Imagine the PR and all the admin problems dealing with this woman's work. "I can has no, but all , the illegals move here. SPuessss!"!

    January 30, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. TrueAmerican

    Sorry no sympathy, learn the language, period. If you can't speak English you have no right whatsoever running for public office, end of story.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • irunner

      i.e. unless you were born in the US and speak fuent English, you are not qualified – even if you should attain citizenship... Not sure I agree with that. My grandmother was born in Hungary, had a heavy accent all her life, but lived in the US from age 16 to 96 and was the most American woman I ever knew.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Liutgard

      irunner, I have a similar story. My grandmother escaped the Ukraine during one of Stalin's purges, and arrived here in 1927. She met and married my grandfather in Manitoba, had eight kids. The family is German Mennonite, and they spoke German at home- my dad didn't learn any English until he went to primary school. All of the family speaks fine English, but Grandma always struggled with it, and as she aged her speech became more of a mishmash of English and German and a little Ukrainian and what we called 'Grandmaese'. But she managed just fine, read newspapers in English, watched tv. After Grandpa died she took to reading cheap romance novels, which makes me laugh just thinking about it. But I'm pretty sure that she used her German Bible.

      Not all of us are gifted with languages. And right now there are American kids in white families who couldn't pass that cursory English exam. I'm not convinced that we should be so swift to judge.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • aarrgghh

      English is a left over from our occupation by England..... The land had many languages when our ancestors came and took it, those immigrants chose not to speak the languages they found, and they also chose not to "get out". Now their language (English) is common but definitely not "native" or "official".

      January 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
  13. irunner

    I would say that if English is your "primary" language, you would NOT be well suite to be mayor of San Luis, Arizona.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • irunner

      suited, not suite. 🙂

      January 30, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Savannah

    Omg I'm 14 and if u come to America then u need to learn, understand, and speak English. If u don't know it then go back to where u came from. And u need to do English to even try to run for anything. The people who run may not be only from Harvard but what the heck u need to know english if u come to America!!!!!

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

      It would appear that your English skills are wanting. Ever heard of glass houses?

      January 30, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • aarrgghh

      English is the official language of ENGLAND, The USA has NO official language.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. MA2LA123

    She speaks English as well as she can, and is obviously willing to learn more-she has a tutor.
    She is a US citizen, she has every RIGHT to run for office, regardless of what language she speaks better, or the predominant regional language. She has every natural right to stand for election.

    There are plenty of poor, white folks who speak dialects of English unrecognizable to most of us-think deep South, think Appalachia, heck, I barely understand Bostonian or New Yorker when I'm back home.

    Who here speaks the Queen's English? And since when does the US have a de jure language?

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

      well said

      January 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • why2

      Yeah! Someone who understands! Let the election decide!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
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