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. Bill

    We should have been expecting this sort of thing...people who can't even speak our language wanting to govern in our country. Why is it considered racist to expect that we have one official language in our country? This whole thing is incredible and maybe someone will stop the political correctness runaway train and do something for the good of everyone.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carlos a cruz

      its a land of immigrants she speaks well enough to serve her English can only get better not worst. So yes there a very racial issue here.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jim


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

    City Council must provide a translator.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Freddie McDowell

      Why provide a translator; if she had a proficiency in the
      English language, none would be required. She needs to study English and run at a later date when she's capable

      January 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Destiny

    And to those who question this issue with "what if she was deaf?" – guess what? Deaf people can read lips extremely well, and can articulate their words when in public just fine. Ever hear of Helen Keller? She was deaf and blind, yet learned how to articulate her words in a very communicable manner that even Thomas Edison proved. Where there is a will there is a way!

    January 30, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Freddie McDowell

      She articulated in English though, didn't she?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Joyce Meyers

    I live in a town in South Jersey that has a large hispanic population. The ballots are printed in Spanish and English. I find this incredibly annoying! When the immigrants came here in the 19th and 20th centuries from Europe they had to learn English. They often lived in ethnic neighborhoods, but by and large they learned English, not in an ESL class, but in a regular classroom. The parents learned from their children or English speaking neighbors, employers or friends. My children play with hispanic children in the schoolyard, and have hispanic friends. I find my hispanic neighbors easy to get along with and friendly, but so many do not want to learn English because we've made it easier NOT to learn.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Simple

      You know who else learned english? Native americans. Why didnt you adapt to their language?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. RF5

    Seems a bit unfair. Who defines "good enough?" If she is a US citizen and runs for office then should be on the ballot and let the people decide. Keep hearing "get the federal government off of the peoples backs", but hear is a clear case of too much government and no one seems to be upset

    January 30, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jenny

    What a nut job!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jessie DeVoe


    January 30, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. aol user

    Learn english or

    January 30, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • non aol user


      January 30, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Fun with Apes

    There are too many comments on this story. Everyone should stop.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Sharkfisher

    Sure your english good enough .Anywhere soth of the border.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. leggs

    > 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.
    1. That's not his call to make.
    2. There are no restrictions for running for public office.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |

    Learn english or GTFO of america

    January 30, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. jim

    Spanish is awesome. Everyone should speak Spanish.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mexican


      January 30, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Agreed. But English is awesome too. No words with a gender. Not having to worry about addressing somebody either in familiar or polite way. At last not least., English has many more words than Spanish.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Typical Hick

    Y'all better learn to speak American!

    January 30, 2012 at 6:45 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