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. wjk

    How did this woman graduate from high school in the United States without being able to speak English. That is why we need to keep one language and one language only for the schools. I am not talking about teaching a foreign language. I am talking about math, and science and all other courses being taught in ENGLISH.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jennifer Monteverde

    Learn to speak English!!!! How can it be that you are a citizen and do not know English! There's a lot not amercian citizens Who speak very fluent English for one my team-mate is chinesse and she speaks very fluents english as I do! Come one first learn then run for what ever you want to run for!

    Its really stupid what she is proposing Arizona is not in Mexico, Arizona is in US and of course you have to speak English!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jennifer Monteverde

      Sorry about my spelling im typing from cell! I forgot to mention I work with Korean's and I bet they speak a lot better than her!

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

    I fail to see why Cabrara can’t run for office because she her skills with the English language are insufficient. Nobody holding office in Washington, DC, understands English, and that hasn’t stopped them from being successful career politicians.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. culturalist

    The official, legal, language of the United States of America is English. Not the Mexican version of Spanish or any other language – just English.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kotawolf

      WRONG! The USA does not have national language. I've looked this up recently. While I believe that people should speak English, the USA does not have a designated national language. Just almost everything is in English.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jinpei

      There is no Federal law concerning the 'national language', but several states do have laws that state their official language is English.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mel

    Who ever represents this community should be able to speak Spanish....but they should also be able to speak English. The duties of the job requires more than just the ability to speak to people in that part of the community. She needs to keep up in meetings that are conducted in English, she needs to be able to communicate with the rest of the council and those outside of the council and her own community to be able to fight for what is best for them. A person who cannot communicate outside an isolated environment cannot represent them in a world that speaks a language she does not.
    This also disenfranchises people in the community who do not speak Spanish, but rather speak the language of the country they live it. They will not be able to communicate freely and effectively with the person who is supposed to represent them.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jinpei

      Mel, your comments are based on logic and facts... so few posting will agree with them. They prefer to base their decisions on whether it gives them a warm fuzzy or not.

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

    How did she pass the test to become a US citizen?? Maybe she had Hispanic testers and she was given the test in
    Spanish.....OR.....maybe somebody took the test for her....happens in the drivers license world so why not here....a few bucks and away we go !!!!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Terry T

    Was she running for office in Mexico? What would an American judge be making any judgement on a Mexican election?

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

      You might want to work on the reading comprehension skills, there, Bud!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  8. dzerres

    She was born here. So was Lawrence Welk for those who remember him and I couldn't understand him either. If this law holds up folks like Sarah Palin could be in trouble.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Youravgjoe42

    Didn't we just have a President who could barely speak English?

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

      Still got him!!

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

      Racist rathole!

      January 30, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. 10101010101010

    This is a silly fight. If she is representing Latinos and most latinos speak Spanish, I do not see the problem with her hiring an interpreter to help her understand the points made at the meeting. Think about this: How many languages does Obama speak, or for that matter Bush?? One and only one. Does that disqualify any of them from representing our interests in other parts of the world that do not speak English? I am bilingual, and I see the language "descrimination and FEAR" by those that only speak ONE language. I call them UNI-Linguals as in UNI-Corn. Like in "CORN-COB," and about as intelligent!

    January 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • davec

      Read more, talk less. Bush speaks Spanish.

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

    This is the problem we have in the schools. We must teach English as the primary language for all immigrants, whether they be Latino, Asian, European...whatever. That does not mean we can't be mult-cultural. This is a problem in Quebec, and in Belgium and we should not let it be a problem here too. Her insistance on doing an interview only in Spanish reinforces my point.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Brian

    When Africans came here as slaves they picked up English right away. Maybe they were just smarter?

    January 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  13. davec

    It is hard to understand how a person goes to school for years, but has trouble saying the school's name? Unreal!

    January 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Larry

    My experience has been that most Americans do not speak or write English well, either - particularly on message boards.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. reken65

    You idiot. What do you mean native English speakers? Arizona, Colorado, N. Mex, Texan, California, etc where all Mexico before the West was won.

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

      So, what's your point? They are all part of the U.S.A now and we speak ENGLISH in the U.S.A.

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