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. Fiona

    My immigrant ancestors learned English. So should anyone who chooses to immigrate to the US. It's sheer arrogance to not bother to learn the language of your adopted country. As for subsequent generations failing to don't want to hear what I have to say about that.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • why2

      you most likely did not meet them then because depending on the age of the immigrant, they did not learn to speak English very well. It was the children who are like sponges who learned the language, but the older ones did not learn it very well. What they did do was encourage their children to get a good education and learn English. She is learning English, she wants to help her community, and she wants to run for office. Stop making it an "English only" campaign, let her community deal with it, not the courts.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
  2. vinceParee

    It is no coincidence that when other immigrants groups are not catered to regarding this issue, they generally are more "motivated" to learn English. There is no "press 2" for Russian, for example. Do you understand?

    January 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • why2

      because 30% of the population in the US does not speak Russian, but 30% (and growing) does speak Spanish.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Parkerman

    oh please, to be in office you must speak the language of the people which is English. She cannot govern a communicty without being able to understand what else is going on in the state or the union without knowing English. Also, what about the people in her district that only speak English? They cant even speak to their preresenative, its like they are living in a whole other country. Sharing common langauge and culture is the glue that holds us together, she needs to get with the program.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. we the people

    i am tired of the separation of groups . this is a English speaking country. i see nothing wrong in helping those who do not speak English . but that should be for all different languages, not just Spanish. the help should be classes to work towards speaking english, wait they have them ,but no one goes to them.. they rather want all information put in different languages. as for the movement to making this a english/spanish country, this is another attempt to make this come true

    January 30, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  5. yauco

    The meetings are in English. If she doesn't understand English, how on earth is she going to represent her community?

    January 30, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • MA2LA123

      a community in which 90% of people speak Spanish.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Sherron Teal

    I think if you can't speak proper English then YOU SHOULDN'T HOLD OFFICE PERIOD!!

    January 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Savannah

      Thank u I so agree

      January 30, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • AJ

      Proper english is Brittish english. You want her to speak American.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Andrea

    I don't get it. I was born and raised in Europe and immigrated to the US in my 20's. First thing I did was learn the language and I must say I am pretty good at it. People usually can't even tell I am an immigrant.
    How can somebody be born and raised in the US and not have a grasp of the english language. What is wrong with this picture when foreigners assimilate better than the loacals?

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

      Locals , that is 🙂

      January 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. why2

    So, she is wanting to represent a population of mostly Spanish speakers and because she is not as fluent as a native English speaker, she should not be given a chance? Arizona has only been a state for 100 years, but its heritage as a Spanish speaking settlement dates back nearly 500 years. As a state, it is one of the most multi-lingual states in the United States especially if you factor in the Native American Languages spoken there. Why is everyone so upset? As a democracy we should want all of our citizens to be as involved as she wants to be. The world is multi-lingual, we need to accept that and adapt, or be constantly mad because we do not understand what is going on around us due to our intransigent need to be a mono-lingual society.

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

      People who come to this country need to adapt and learn to speak English. It is the language that we speak here. Plain and simple. There is no other valid argument. We speak English in America. Don't expect me to learn Spanish/Chinese/Russian/German/any other language just because people who speak that language come here and refuse to learn English and expect me to learn their language. That's not how immigration works.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • why2

      Levi, I am not asking you to learn another language. But you are saying that it is not okay to work on your English after you get here? That you are not allowed to be part of a democracy because you do not sound like me? Do you live in her community? Most likely not. She wants to represent her community, not you. She is trying to make her community a better place and she is still working on her English. It takes time to learn a new language, but to just say that she can not even run, is silly. If she is not the best for the job, then she will not run.

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

      You obviously don't get it. This is about making the effort to show the respect for the country which she seems to want to serve. Is that so much to ask? How embarrassing would it be for her to sit in a meeting and not understand a word being spoken?

      January 30, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • why2

      Larry, I do get it. I work with multi-lingual people all day long. What you are not understanding is that we are not part of her community. If 85% of her community is Spanish speaking, she will be respresenting that community. If her community wants to elect her to office then she should be allowed to be there. If she is unable to properly campaign, then she will not be elected. It did not say that she does not understand a word of English, it just says that she is not as confident and when you are under stress, or tired, it is easier to make mistakes in your second language. It is not a matter of respect for this country, she is learning English, she is just saying for the role she wishes to be elected to, her English is good enough to represent her community. Her not knowing English is an issue to those who do not speak another language and/or who do not understand Spanish. Her community wants a Spanish speaking person, she is one. This is about whether or not she should be given a chance to run for office, to be a part of a democracy.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. muddypuddles

    this is ridiculous. she claims a proficiency level of 5 out of 10 but has trouble naming the high school she attended? she needs to spend more time with her private tutor because she's clearly not fit to serve on city council at the moment. in a community where 87% of the population speaks spanish, it's necessary you know spanish, but that means you have to be bilingual. are they supposed to accommodate her because she can't understand the legal writing used to draft legislation? there are other qualified candidates running who are truly bilingual.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • why2

      yes, but denying her a chance to run solely on an English "test" is not okay. If she is not qualified for the job due to her inability to understand the process, that should be easy to do during the campaign, but to flat out deny her a chance to run for office is wrong.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • muddypuddles

      this wasn't an overcomplicated test. her own attorney asked her very straightforward questions. there are minimum qualifications for running for most every position of government. the article points out that arizona has had legislation requiring english competence to qualify for office in the state.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • why2

      reminds me of the voting test of the south prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Let her run, if she has trouble understanding the campaign process, then she will not be elected.

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

      please. that's not even the same thing. literacy tests in the south were abused and highly skewed against blacks because they asked extremely difficult questions of black voters than they did of white voters. in her case, her own lawyer asked her the simplest of questions, which she had trouble answering.

      you have to meet basic english requirements to be granted citizenship in this country. questions are asked and must be answered in english.

      this is a question of current law. the law states you have to have XYZ qualifications to run for office. she doesn't meet all of them. if she wants to run for office, either she needs better english comprehension or the law needs to be changed.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. The6thsense

    She is applying for a job where one of the requirements is to speak and understand English. She is not is that simple.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Levi

    If she wants to run for office and speak Spanish, she can go to a country where they speak Spanish and run there. If she wants to run for office in America, she can learn English and run for office. I don't know why this concept is so hard for some people to grasp. We speak English in America. We welcome LEGAL immigrants to our country, but they better learn to speak English so they can live here. Otherwise, STAY IN YOUR COUNTRY.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • why2

      Have you ever tried to become fluent in another language after you turned 15? It is more difficult. She is a citizen in this country who attended a bilingual high school. She exists in two worlds, just like the population she wants to serve. So because 15% will have a hard time with her accent, the other 85% needs to suffer. Just because someone speaks Spanish does not mean they are illegal.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Levi

      Hey! There's only room for one Levi, go on home there buddy....

      January 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Failed System

      The crazy sad thing about all of this is: This IS her country. She was born here. She just failed to learn the language of her country thanks to a school system that pandered to "immigrants" with Spanish alternatives in their "bi-lingual" school. I put bi-lingual in quotes because it obviously failed to teach both English and Spanish adequately, and yet graduated her nonetheless.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Tiredofstupidpeople

    She grossly misunderstands her role as a community leader if she thinks her broken english is 'good enough'. Her thinking is that she will be able to communicate with her voters due to the larg % of hispanic population. But what about other city, county, state leaders?? If she is going to be able to represent her voters, then she needs to communicate with them as well. I get frustrated and drive off at the fast food window when the person at the window cannot speak english, how on earth is this woman expecting to govern others?? This is a case of arrogance beyond no other! I sure has heck wouldn't want her representing me!!

    January 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  13. larlame

    maybe she could watch televisa univision to see what is going on in the u.s.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Greenspam

    English was never made an official language of USA.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  15. The Gunny

    Sorry to have to inform you, but, this is the United States of America; we speak ENGLISH here!

    January 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • why2

      No, not really. There are larger areas of mostly English, but huge areas of the southwest speak Spanish and portions of the north speak French. It is just they are bilingual.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
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