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

    Revealing words from the "good enough" speaker: she says she's fluent enough to serve "her community." So I guess anyone who happens to not be Hispanic (and speaking Spanish as their first language) doesn't matter to her. She's prejudiced against non-Hispanics.

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

      I did not interpret her response of 'her community' to mean the Hispanic community. Not sure why anyone would interpret the response in this manner.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. english only!!!

    learn to speak english or get your as- back to your own country!

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

      Um, the article says that she is an American Citizen - what's the matter with you, do you not understand English?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Rob

    This is just another ridiculous debate that we have to have now... What about the few people who may live there who do not speak Spanish??? Public officials should never, ever address the public in a foreign language! The whole idea of it is just crazy to me. I guess next, they will want to secede from the US and become their own little country...

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

      yep. isn't that why they call it a "foreign" language, rather than another name, like "native" language?

      January 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. pete

    GO HOME!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. AZTech711

    She speaking proficiency is 5 of 10. That’s 50%. Last time I got a 50% on an English exam, I got an F. She graduated from an American High School, albeit Yuma. This brings up the topic of how English is taught in our schools. Just because this is a “close to the border” city, does not give them the right to teach English as a second language. These schools should not receive tax payer’s dollars until they start churning out more literate and fluent students. This also, falls on the parents. These homes that continue to use Spanish at home, making it easy for these students to be lazy and not force these students to learn the English language. This would be fine, if they just want to work within their own community circles that speak Spanish. But she wants to hold public office to pass local ordinances, etc.

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

    two words..........Rosetta Stone.

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

      Don't believe the phony claims of Rosetta Stone. That program only deals with basic language skills, like the 25% proficiency level.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
  7. JD

    Clearly her English is not yet good enough. Let her work on it for a couple years, then come back and try again.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. lb

    I think by all means that public officials in the town should be bilingual, but that includes high-level English proficiency. As a city official she would likely have to interact with people outside her town who might not conduct business in Spanish. It is arrogant of her to insist that her rapport with the community is more important than her ability to communicate on their behalf; the job requires both.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jim DeAugustinis

    Several points to make:
    -anyone willing to support the community should be able to....but within reasonal requirements that have been set up.
    -This lady is someone we all would want helping out the community. She still can. Continue with her english tutoring and improve her language skills and at the same time, volunteer to help out the city council as a consultant or volunteer until she has improved her language skills.
    -The bottom line: This is America, 1 nation UNITED (by a common thread). All our previous founding fathers and immigrants came here and learned English because they wanted to be Americans. Don't Forget that. The common bond of any country is tied to a language and it's great to be multilingual. But when in America do as America. Show you want to be an American and not a foreign national living the American dream. Personally, if you're not going to speak English and become a U.S. citizen to improve this country, go back to where you came from and make your country better based on what you learned here, obviuosly you don't want to be American if you don't learn the language and customs completely. I would do the same if I wanted to move to another country. I don't feel I should be catered to because I can't speak the language. I'd learn it proficiently before I ever complained about using my english in a non-english country for political office or any purppse. Respect the country you live in and you're a citizen of.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nature's Awe

      Well said, this is exactly what I believe the majority of the Country feels. We have become much to fractured into small "its all about me" ethnic groups. We are Americans...nothing more, nothing less!

      January 30, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Kevin

    Hey Lady in order to run in politics, you have to read and speak ENGLISH. How can you understand what you are voting for if you don't understand the language. Get a life you stupid idiot.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jj

    She needs to learn English.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Dot

    I'm glad to see that for most this is just a common sense issue. If you live in the U.S. and desire to become a part of our government you should be able to speak the language as one of the most basic of shows (hopefully) that you can also understand...
    I often wonder how you become a citizen without learning the language???

    January 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ratickle

    Thank God some judges in this country have a backbone. Unfortunately, I fear there may not be enough.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. A Berryman

    "Cabrera believes that ruling is stripping her of the her right to run for office."

    Nope, not your right, sweetie. Just your ability. Become as proficient in English as you are in Spanish and you'll be right back in the running.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Unfortunatly

    It is my regret to have to agree with this Judge ! If she can't speak English enough to have a conversation with anyone in the office , that is part of the job ! I know she says it's unfair but this is a english speaking country ! If the shoe was on the other foot and this was a spanish speaking country such as Mexico I'm sure that the government of Mexico would say the same thing ! Sorry I feel for you and the people that wish to vote for you .

    January 30, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55