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. jim

    LOL. CNN only prints my comments that are favorable to Spanish. inche pend*jos

    January 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |

    Im half hispanic, I am changing my last people have become Obama people...real americans know who we are. You guys are nothing more than members of the Cartel, screwing everything up in america.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texas

      Cartels are in Mexico, maybe you can't tell the difference between the two but we can.

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

      "Good enough", instead of trying to spend all of your resources to swim across the river illegally and add to the "burden of america becuase you can't afford kids" category....learn some english. STOP BEING BABY FACTORIES!!! IT'S DIGUSTING AND VILE TO SEE YOUR CHILDREN RUNNING AROUND WITH MY TAX MONEY!!!

      January 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Liberal in KS

    Yep, come here & become a citizen; earn a better life. But you should learn the language business is conducted in in your adopted country. No other country is going to allow immigrants to dictate what language is used just because a LOT of people from a foreign country moved to their country. WHY should the USA? WRONG to expect to be catered to in the adopted country. I'm all for immigrants coming to the USA but natives should not be forced to learn another language to get a job (and accomodate foreign-born immigrants).

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

      Umm, she is a citizen and attended a high school in Arizona.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Believe me...

      just like how european immigrants coming here never dictated to the natives what language they were supposed to use...

      January 30, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Liberal in NY

      "Natives should not be forced to learn another language to get a job." So what about the Sioux and the Cherokee? They were forced to learn another language when the Europeans immigrated to their 'country.' There is historical precedent. How is this case any different?

      January 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gus

      Yes, heaven forbid Americans learn other languages. You thinking is "cool" for the 1700's.Wake up and smeel the roses buddy before you are required to learn Chinese. It's a small world,get use to it!

      January 30, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      Liberal in New York, No one is forcing her to learn the language unless she wants to hold public office in Arizona. And I'll bet that if you go on any Indian reservation in the United States, most if not all of their tribes speak English as, unfortunately, many in their tribes were not brought up to be bi-lingual. Besides speaking Noo Jawkin, (I was born in Brooklyn) can you speak another language?

      January 30, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Texas

    English is Our Native Language and good enough means pass a test.

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

      She did pass a test. She met the graduation requirements of the Arizona high school she attended. Perhaps this story is more a comment on the Arizona educational system.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      Texas, i have a feeling that there is more to this story than meets the eyes, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised that she might have sort of snuck into this country. When I went to highschool, well over 60 years ago, it was a requirement to take a second language, and I took French for 2 years, After highschool, I joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to Germany where I self-taught myself (by dictionary) to speak German. After I retired from the Army, my family and I moved to San Antonio and I learned some basic Spanish. I am by no means a linguist, but I do believe that, if people want to live in a harmonious environment, they should be able to converse with their neighbors and vise-versa. Peace Guys! Does this lady haved a learning deficiency that precludes her from learning English?
      Re-Gepids, How do you know she passed any test? Because she or her lawyer said so? Aren't you at least wondering why she couldn't remember the name of her high school? Maybe because her high school was in another land?

      January 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Repulpicans

    No restrictions?? Did you read the story. English could be one.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ron cameron what the hell is wrong with America who gave you the right to do this .What hypocrisy Megaupload users and face data deletion US prosecutors warn .Promoting democracy and doing this unilaterally. if you ever wonder why your county is loosing status look no further.Letting corps run government steal money in mortgage scams and these thief's are still not in jail. And having a former speaker of the house who was charged with breach of trust running for president .What have you let your politicians do to your country.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rick

      My, yes, and your country is doing so well, right?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nic

      maybe you should look into some english lessons yourself...

      January 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Stupid Issues

    Just like the Tea Party is dragging down the intelligence of the GOP, liberals like some here are responsible for the exact same thing on the Dem side. Extremists and their brainwashing... English proficiency and official language status should have already been written into national law.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      Stupid, Just who do you think should have written it into law, and why. We seem to have been doing pretty well for over two-hundred years until a bunch of hispanics decided that they wanted to rule parts of America, and in many places, they seem to be doing a pretty good job. Here in San Antonio, a few years ago, we had a prominent Hispanic city counselman put in prison for fraud. Because of the fines imposed on him, he had to sell his house in a fairly wealthy neigborhood. A wealthy Mexican bought the house and, I guess , wanted to tell his neighbors and the world that he was Mexican, so on a 20-foot flagpole , in the front of a very traveled street (wihch I use almost daily), he flew the Mexican flag. After I called their police station, and city counsel (this is a small wealthy community within the San Antonio boundaries), and probably others protested, they removed the flag and instead fly the flag of Texas but not the one that allows them to be here in the first place.
      Here in Texas, you don't have to have citizenship to be here, if you have the "money" to by an expensive home and fly their flag, you immediately become a "Brother-Texan". Others, are considered OK illegals, and although they often live in small houses, by the dozens, unless they commit serious crimes, they are invisible to the Federal Government and the local police. But isn't that what America is all about, freedom and equality for all?

      January 30, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      Stupid, I appoligize as I believe that we are both on the same wave-length and I mis-read an earlier post of yours. As an old Fart of nearly 80-years-old and having lived though a part of the Great Depression, WWll, Korea, and having been a combat veteran in Vietnam, I have a basic animosity towards those who want to live here in in our country, but don't want to learn our language or customs.
      Hopefully,we'll meet again on this or anothe site/blog and tell others what being American is all about!

      January 30, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. 1492Refugee

    What a story! Do you want your elected representative in government to have a high proficiency with speaking with other bureaucrats, or, do you want your elected representative in government to have a high proficiency of speaking with the people? Do you want your elected official to understand the desires of others OUTSIDE of his/her community, or do you want your elected official to effectively relay the needs and desires of the very community he/she is to represent to outsiders?

    January 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q Daniels

      Hmmm, tough question. How about both...,,

      January 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nic

      i agree with the other person who replied.. BOTH

      January 30, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jim

    y los hablantes de ingles? Como se comunicaran con ellla? Como ella se comunicara con los otros regidores durante las reuniones del ayuntamiento? Aver si se imprime esto.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • funkdawg


      January 30, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Repulpicans

    This country is going to hell in a handbag. We need to straighten this out.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Stupid Issues

    What's worst about this is those who would move to the United States, not speak any English, not try to learn English and then pop out anchor babies that you raise speaking Spanish and hope they can flourish in an English-speaking community. If I were planning on moving to a foreign country and intended to settle there and raise a family there, be certain that I would first study the language and raise my kids to speak that country's language as their primary language.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fr33th1nk3r

      EXACTLY. We are the only nation in the world where the citizens have to learn the immigrants' language, instead of the other way around....

      January 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
  12. New Citizen

    I came to this country from Africa and English is not my 1st Langue yet im now fully english and even raising my kids so. I think its silly that any who move to this country and then refuse to learn english and adopt it as their new 1st langue. America is English and if you want to live here then time to learn it and raise your kids as such. Thats the bargain you make in moving here and then raising kids here. You let go of your other nationality and meld yourself in to this melting pot and become an American.

    It makes me so angry seeing illegal immigrants and legal ones trying to force their native langues on the american landscape. We are an english nation. I for one believe we should make english the official langue of our country.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      Wecome my Friend, You hit the nail on it's head with a fundamental question. Why would you ever want to live in a country that requires you to speak its language and not want to do so? I had the distinct opportunity of having spent over ten years in several foreign countries, and in several instances, when I was trying to learn their language, they wanted to learn mine (Engilsh) which really made me feel good.

      What I see from your post, is that you and your family will be successful Americans, and I wish you much success!

      January 30, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Fr33th1nk3r

    If you can't speak the language that 90% of the people YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE REPRESENTING sufficiently, then quite simply– you are NOT qualified to represent those people. Period. Political correctness has gone overboard in our country. What is next? Maybe we won't require doctor's to have a degree or pass MCATs anymore?

    January 30, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Carlos a cruz

    Let's break down the reality of things. First and fore most I volunteer my time to help Burmese Karen refugees coming from Thailand. They get here with kids and citizen ship. They need to get to work fast to feed and bring there kids back to healthy standards sometimes well most work at least 2-3 jobs they have and want to learn but there no time with a third world education coming about a job that will allow them too educate them selves or even give them a job with the language barrier is impossible. So work nights and leave there children home alone to fend for themselves thru the night. It's easy to point finger but no one takes the time to realize and take a deep look at the struggles of being an immigrant in a time where it takes both adults to work in order to survive.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stupid Issues

      Here's a suggestion? If you're a refugee, try to find a country to go to where you can get by with the languages you know.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      Carlos, Thank you for your interest in helping your fellow-man. I'm sorry that I can't help you find some peace for your people in dispair. The Red Cross is definitely an organization to stay away from, but there might be others that are truley bound to helping mankind and I will try to do some research within the next few days. You sound like a real citizen of your country. Thank you!

      January 30, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  15. dale

    87% – This number is a prime example of the failure and fall out from the un-enforced laws and residual affects of the 1986 Amnesty – I wonder how much graffiti they have in the surrounding areas.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
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