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. Portland tony

    It's a local matter and should be settled by local voters..on the other hand she could be blind or deaf......How many council meeting's minutes are written in Braille or have oral discussions signed?

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

      Am going to disagree, Not born here not allowed to run for any public office in this country . A country would be very stupid to allow non citizens or new citizens make the rules for us how would you know where their true loyalties really are.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • MeMelvin

      I like the TOEFL test solution. My Brazilian children had to pass it to get into their school.
      Now they are tri-lingual: Portuguese (at home), English (in school) and Spanish (around town)!
      What the heck?!?!?!
      How do you like them apples?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Minoa

      Your example using blindness and deafness do not apply. If a deaf or blind person was elected, there are already laws in place that would allow for the use of accomodations for that person to conduct business in ENGLISH. We are not, however, required to provide accomodations for every employee that speaks a foreign language. That is why the 2006 and 1910 laws were enacted. To do otherwise would be chaos.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Maggie

    Well I have easy solution to that... Let her take TOEFL test. Most of student have to pass it to be able to study in US so I think it's a good indicator if you know enough English instead of trying to determine "proficiency" which might be subjective to the person deciding.

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

      Good idea! In that case I don't think this lady would pass.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Minoa

      That's an acceptable idea, but it would have to be added to the law. Since the 2006 and 1910 laws don't specify how English-speaking ability is to be determined, it is up to the court to decide. That’s what happened.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. i live in san luis az

    I live in her town. and most of the people here do not speak english be cause they are all mexican nationals or first generation imagrants. they do not try to learn our language. Instead they insist on all of us native english speakes learn spanish. I say if you can speak engish go back to mexico. From sanluis it is a five minute walk to the bordrer, so start walkin.

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

      Um, perhaps you should try to learn English, also. And for the record, I gerw up in the Old Pueblo.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reggie

      May be you should learn to speak Spanish? Soon if not you, your kids or gran kids will! A bajo con Inglés y Viva el Español

      January 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • MeMelvin

      I've worked outside the USA for over 21 years. My observation is that Engilish speaking native Americans do not have the talent or the facility to learn the language of the country in which they are living. In short, Americans are linguistically challenged.

      Worst off, they don't even try.

      So, here we have a "pot calling the kettle black" sort of thingee going on in Arizona. Linguistic racism.

      BTW: "Redneck", "Texan", "California Girl", "Hawaiian" and "New Yorkese" are not English.
      Ever tried understanding a "Pennsylvania Dutchee"?

      It's outrageous how few "native" Americans can speak English correctly.

      Not that I are any kinda purfect example, y'all. Butt least, ah admits it. Kin you?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Minoa

      @MeMelvin - Gee, you're such a pleasant person! I speak Spanish, and I've taught Spanish, and I think vitually anybody can learn it with some practice. Spanish is beautiful, fun, and the grammar rules are more consistent. I find that most people in the U.S. don't learn it simply because they don't need to. BTWm if you've been out of the country, then you know darn well that there is no country on the planet that would allow people to be elected to office if they don't speak the country's official language(s). It's common sense.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Maria Bogren

    Her English is HORRENDOUS and yet she's lived in the US for how many years?? She should become ACLU's star-translator! LOL

    Seriously, she must have a learning disability or something. I've only lived in the US for 9+ years and my English is way better than hers. An IQ test should be required for all elected officials. She'd fail miserably.

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

      so would all republicans in the country

      January 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Minoa

      @bill – Bill, I guess you are implying that you are a Democrat that despises all Republicans? Your intolerance is not impressing anyone. As for the issue at hand, it is simply a matter of job requirements. Someone who wants to be a lawyer must pass the bar. A doctor must graduate med school. A policeman, a police academy. In this case, the 2006 and 1910 laws (and the rights of all non-Spanish-speakers in San Luis) requires elected officials to speak competent English.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    Since the mayor who raised this issue is named Juan Carlos Escamilla, I think it's safe to say it's not Ms. Cabrera's heritage that's at issue here, just her English proficiency.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  6. D Urech

    Why is this a left or right issue to some of the people leaving comments? I proudly lean to the liberal side with my political views, but fully endorse a national language of English. I don't want to force people in the privacy of their own homes to speak English, but when it comes to the official business of our government at all levels the language should be English. And not just a general grasp of it, since laws are to be voted on, the grasp of the English language needs to be at a high level. The real problem comes with what is the measurable standard that candidates must meet and to maintain fairness the test should be given to everyone. I am not educated enough to determine what that standard should be, but this cannot be some arbitrary decision determined by one person even if that person is a judge.

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

      Well said. Agreed. I also think the LEGAL immigration v. ILLEGAL immigration issue should not be a Right v. Left issue. It’s obvious that we should encourage LEGAL immigration, and we should enforce laws that protect the U.S. from ILLEGAL immigration. I hate the fact that both parties try to make political hay out of the issue. The U.S. benefits greatly from talented LEGAL and law-abiding immigrants, but defending ILLEGAL immigrants is poisoning that well for everyone.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Poor Me

    Most Spanish speaking countries have so many racist laws against non hispanics, but you never hear anyone suing hispanic countries for not bending over backwards for them. Probably would be shot and beheaded for daring to complain.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Randy

    Sounds to me like she DOES speak english, just not fluidly. Considering that "in San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin" I'd think that being able to speak Spanish would be much more relevant to the office.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Failed System

      Really? Do we write our laws in Spanish now? Create ordinances and by-laws for our cities in Spanish now? Do all of Arizona's state officials speak Spanish too? How is she going to effectively work with people outside of her community for the benefit of her community if she cannot understand them? If she cannot communicate with the country in a broader sense without requiring an interpreter?

      She is an American Born citizen who failed to learn the majority language of her country. That's akin to being surprised a German can't speak German, but can only speak French!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • DenRSM

      You're right, speaking Spanish is relevant to the office. But so I speaking English. Most important, though, is being able to qualify for the ballot, and the state law requires English proficiency.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • PD in KC

      FLUENTLY...not "fluidly" as you and Ms. Cabrera so fluently put it.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • jsf12

      This biased CNN article created the impression that Cabrera speaks a decent amount of English. But it did so indirectly and (if you read carefully) ambiguously. I suspect this article is intentionally giving a false impression.
      But in any case Cabrera was disqualified because of her demonstrated severe inability to UNDERSTAND spoken English. She would need a translator to function as a government official. Under the law that disqualifies her.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • jsf12

      I agree that speaking Spanish is more important than English for effective work as a government official in that community. But that is not enough to make the state law unreasonable. The law is valid. The law disqualifies Cabrera.
      It is unfortunate that we have communities in this country in which speaking Spanish is more important than speaking English and we should take a good look at the bad government policies that created this situation.
      Meanwhile, an official in that community needs Spanish fluency for practical reasons and needs English fluency for both practical and legal reasons. We can assume the voters will enforce the requirement for Spanish fluency and the state is acting correctly in enforcing the requirement for English fluency, even if these voters don't care.

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

    Simple fix: take some decent ESL classes. You have a goal, and you know you need to get over this hurdle to reach it. Do it.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
  10. diendau

    The judge and the city mayor vilolation her civil right to city council woman candidate. No law said poor speaking english language to be jobs unqualified, The Judge and city mayor broke us law, Its discrimination again minority,

    January 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
  11. izy

    im born in new york, im american, and i have latin roots, and i and many immigrants like my parents, have the right to speak spanish other than english, spanish is now the dominant languange in the united states, if you dont like...oh well deal with it, bunch of racists paranoid that they are speaking about them behind their back...honestly i enjoy when someone tells me to speak english, cause i wont just to spite them 😉

    January 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • programmergirl

      Vas au d'ailleur! Tu es un piece de merde!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • DenRSM

      I'll take this one.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jinpei

      WRONG. Not sure what dimension you are living in, but English is overwhelmingly the dominant language in the United States. Google it son.

      The first hit that will come up is Wikipedia. The first paragraph of that page:
      'English is the de facto national language of the United States, with 82% of the population claiming it as a mother tongue, and some 96% claiming to speak it "well" or "very well."'

      January 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mel

      this have nothing to do with the point. I speak three languages and can communicate freely in all of them. There is nothing wrong with speaking a different language whenever a private citizen fact, it's great to know more than one language as it opens opportunities that others can not have. However, if one wants to represent a community effectively in government, they need to know the language of the land to be able to communicate and understand what is going on. Others beside the small community need to communicate with her and her with them. This is the same as me moving the France or Mexico and wanting to participate in their government but refusing to fully learn French or Spanish and expecting everyone else to learn English. How can a represent the community effectively if I can't speak and understand the language the meetings are held in or the language with law is written in? That isn't racist, it's just not effective.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Minoa

      I speak Spanish, and I love it. But it would be rude to speak it in a room full of people that don't speak the language. You say, "oh well deal with it, bunch of racists," and you wonder why the 2006 and 1910 laws were passed? Sounds to me like you have racism problem, too.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
  12. John

    WiIth respect to the lady, she cannot serve the people even in Spanish if she does not fully comprehend the discussions iin the town meetings where the mayor and others set policy. Which are in English. The issue here is time-she is working on her English and could become proficient in it, but has not yet. Either she backs off for now and concentrates on improving it, or they let her try to learn on the job and possibly fail. The only ones who really lose then are the voters who wanted her to represent them. So if she has that backing, let them take the gamble. Everyone else will not be impacted anyway, if they need English they can find it elsewhere in the town management.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  13. English Speaking Texan

    I live in Dallas. I am used to seeing signs in Spanish, and hearing Spanish only in certain parts of the city. However, let's say that someday I move to San Luis, Arizona. Should I have to learn Spanish in order to converse with my elected officials?
    We elect our officials based on their viewpoints on issues that are individually important to us. I prefer my candidates to have some sort of experience on the issues that I am passionate about, and some do, but some don't. Regardless, I shouldn't have to worry about whether or not they actually understand my question during the town hall meetings and the like. This should not even be an issue.
    Moreover, some issues can become so large, that they must be relayed to higher courts, broader audiences, and to those with higher ranks. Would my mostly-Spanish-speaking City Council Person be able to accurately relay my concerns to the rest of the English speaking government? I doubt it.
    I applaud Ms. Cabrera for her desire to take part in local politics and improve her community, but I think her community may be better served by someone who has a good command of the English language.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. NC828

    There is something definitly wrong with the school system if she graduated from a high school – albeit bilingual – in Arizona. The state educational authorities in Arizona should take responsibility to graduate students fluent in the English language. Arizona is a state in the United States where the primary emphasis should be the English language. It seems that Spanish is primary and English is taught as a foreign language. I could only imagine what would happen if she were on the council and they were discussing technical legal or financial matters.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Park

    Speak English fluently . Do not use any Spanish! You are in the USA. If you want to speak Spanish, go back where you came from. I am sick of the "1" for English , "2" for Spanish bulls,.,.,t! Get over it already.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
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