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. 10101010101010

    Tom (ignoramus from the word IGNORANT!) Did you have to take a test to become and American Citizen?? If you are born in the USA you do not have to take a test to become an AMERICAN CITIZEN.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Reggie

    Used to teach sit in classes that are comprised of Spanish speaking kids who instead of being immersed into regular classes sit and speak Spanish all day long. I have seen kids who came when they were around 9-10 years old and have lived in the US for 3-4 years AND STILL would not be able to speak proper English...due to the VERY SAME PROGRAMS that were "designed" to HELP THEM and billions are spent on these across the states

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

      I have known adults from Mexico that have lived and worked here for over 20 years that can't speak a word of English,

      January 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. VRage13

    The judge enforced the law that the federal gov't put on the territory of AZ as a condition to becoming a state and you people want to cry foul. Please explain. She couldn't even answer the questions asked her in English.

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

      I think I found the problem.... "when CNN en Español asked if she would conduct the interview in English, her lawyer instructed her to speak only in Spanish." Why is it always the dang lawyers?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Lee

    I guess I would have to hear her speak to determine whether or not there is a language barrier. However, I still agree that English should be the primary language of the United States.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Rolling Eyes

    I for one can't wait to get out of this border-town and move to a city where most of the people speak English fluently. I shouldn't have to walk into a shoe store in the United States of America, and be asked by a sales-person IN SPANISH if I need any help. I don't even look remotely Hispanic. Counting down the days......

    January 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Baycap

      Don't you mean fluidly? Good point and good luck to you.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
  6. pancho villa

    just let it be!!!! hatersssssssssss

    January 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Go back to Mexi Ho

      We're the haters? Yes because we like what we have and don't like others jumping the border and trying to take it!!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Benedict Arnold

    I am sickand tired of this m latino/mexicangarbage coming to my country and thinking that they will conduct business in spanish and get away with it. See the danger of these subspecies invading our country to the point that they will be the majority and will turn my homeland into something they once lived in…

    January 30, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • justaminit

      A recent study found that racism generally goes along with a low I.Q. (intelligence). Thank you for stepping up and proving the point.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Stephen

    You wonder why the majority of first and second generation spanish have such a hard to moving up in society this is the answer. How does somebody who was borin in the US expect to get a high paying job or move up the ladder (where the majority of people speak english) when she can only communicate at an elementary level in English. Anyway, the strange thing is that to serve public office in Arizona you must be fluent in English yet schools are set up bilingual. So they are setting up there citizens to be unable to hold office. I think the problem to begin with is that the schools do not require English. If the city is 98% hispanic and you are in a bilingual school the majority of communication is the hallway, at home, with friends, etc. is probably done in Spanish. So the English is probably limited to the few classes it is used in school.

    Anyway, if the act that created the state required public workers to know English and she does not that is her fault. Was she not literate enough to actually read the law that said you have to know English. Not like it is new. It i has been there since the early 1900s. Then she goes off about how her rights are being taken away. No, she has just as much right as anybody else to learn English and get elected. Her rights in that state are the laws, as such, if she can not speak English well enough she does not have the right to be elected.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Buddypup

    I have friends that speak French,German, Italian, Chinese, Spanish,and others.How many languages must the government support. Should meeting minutes be translated into 10 or fifteen languages. Should Income Tax forms and instructions be prepared in 10 or fiften languages. People moved to the UNited States to take advantage of what the county offers. Since 1776, English has been the defacto standard language of the country. Now immigrants, legal and otherwise, are demanding that the citizens change their language to something different to accomodate their language skills. Imagime road signs in 10 languages. I appreciate the candidate is taking classes to improve her English skills and that's what every new citizen that doesnt speak English should do. But until she can fluently converse in English, she should not be allowed to serve.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. lca

    I don't see how this is so unreal. She lives some place where most of the people she's serving speak a language other than english at home. So, I have to assume that the school where she was educated, many teachers also could speak in spanish.

    Plus, what if she had a hearing impediment so her hearing wasn't that great, or what if she's blind, does that mean she doesn't get the opportunity to serve because the council meetings would be inconvenienced?

    January 30, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Veronica

      This is America and the national language is English...learn it and earn it!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • leo1

      She is not disabled. Someone with a disability such as blindness or deafness should be afforded help in being able to do a job. All she has to do is learn English. When she is proficient, she can do the job. I'm not going to move to Mexico and expect to do a job in English. I would fully expect that, upon moving there to work, I would be required to speak Spanish. Is that really so ridiculous?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Destiny

    Great she can read and write in English. Poor of her to only speak at 50% if she wants a public office position. She needs to be at least 95%, so not only that she can understand all the verbal stuff, but be able to clearly and concisely articulate her abilities, and not just write it all off. That's what being bi-lingual is all about. There are standards that need to be upheld when it comes to language ability. I fail to understand how it is an insult to be asked to do this. She is from the US, and she is not serving her office without having the proper ability. No Way in HECK would ANYONE be allowed to run for such an office position in any other civilized country with such poor language ability. Stop being selfish and focus on the bigger picture.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. paul1121

    The answer in right right on the wall: You are in America! Learn English if you expect to get a job any higher than a leaf blower job. If you dont like it. Tough!!

    As long as you dont integrate, you are always going to be in a foreign country. Whether you are an American Citizen or not.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Katrina

    Ironically I was denied a position working at a hospital collecting insurance information from patients solely based on the fact that I didn't not speak Spanish. Even though the job description said nothing about being bilingual. I think it's about time we demanded people speak English to hold jobs dealing with the public instead of the other way around. I don't think this is racism, I just think it's fair since this is America.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • justaminit

      I don't think it was just not speaking Spanish that lost you the job.

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

      justaminit: It seams you can't comprehend English either, read his comment "Pedro", he said he was denied a job because he couldn't speak Spanish, he never had the job estúpido.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  14. pancho villa

    spanish is been spoken in this land since before the first hater touch down,.so calm down and get the big picture!!!!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Veronica

      Why do you think the language changed for the better to English?? we wouldn't be part of the third world.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. justaminit

    The numbers are not going your way conservatives. You will be the minority sooner than you think.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
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