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. Renee Marie Jones

    Does this mean that a person with no voice cannot run for office?

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

      If someone can't speak that's ok, if they cant write the language either then you have a problem.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • michael

      Big difference. She has a voice. She just refuses to learn the language of the land and I wouldn't want to elect a lazy official. Would you?

      January 30, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom Foolery

      What ruling says is this: you must know English to conduct the people's business but it matters naught whether or not the people understand you (or English)!

      January 30, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  2. fly paper

    I see no reason that she cannot run. Anybody should be able to run for office. The people will decide during the election which is the right one for the job.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Name*stjameson

      If you were going to jail and nobody could tell you why because they couldn't speak the language, would you be a little upset?

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

      Dream on!

      January 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  3. 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

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

      And you're the prime example of moronic assumptions when that number represents what happens when a country annexes territory of a different origin. I suppose that you think that "San Luis" is some ancient name from Britannia!

      January 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Your English isn't Good Enough

    I have spoken.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Eric Nunley

    I agree with the judge's decision. Our country was founded by a extremely majority english speaking people. Our goverenment has always conducted business in english. Even though immigrants have come from all over the world, the new citizens gladly learned or did their best to be a happy and proud one. My ancestery is a blend of different european countrys with a mix of native american indian. I am blessed to be born here and proud of the U. S. of A. May God always bless Her!

    January 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • hahahahaha

      I love how you are agreeing with the judges decision and at the same time showing a complete lack of knowledge of the English language. Your grammar is awful! HILARIOUS!

      January 30, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Name*stjameson

    This is The USA. Learn English. Show your. Love for your country by learning to speak the language. This just shows your kids you don't have to learn English to live here.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  7. sandan

    I had an interesting experience in Germany many years ago. Although I could already speak German, which I learned from a dictionary and speaking to germans while I was previously stationed there, it was the familiar German and not the formal. As an American U.S. Army soldier, I was assigned to a German missile base and parrt of my duties involved liaison with the co-located German battalion. I enrolled in an 8-week University of Maryland Spoken German course in Frankfurt. We were about 40 adult Americans and our professor was German.

    During about a ten-minute introduction. He said something to the effect that after his introduction, which was in English, everything would be in in German from thereon. Again, this was a class to learn spoken German. I was simply amazed that after only 8 weeks everyone was able to converse in German. I guess to us, it was a "When in Rome" thing.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. michael

    So, are they going to have these sessions in Spanish to accommodate her? How absurd!!! Let her learn the English language and then run for office. No one is keeping her from doing that. If we went to a Spanish speaking country, we would have to learn the language just in order to communicate. She should be exempt? She's just lazy. Rosetta Stone, anyone?

    January 30, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
  9. MMallon

    Well, the 1910 Enabling Act is pretty cut and dry. She can say words in English, just like I could probably order a glass of water south of the border and ask where the bathroom was. But she certainly can't speak it. Is there a standard? No, and her attorney has a valid argument with plenty of legal precedent to back him up on that point, because theoretically if one were trying to prevent an individual from being elected to public office one could make the test as rigorous or as easy as one wished. That's not "fair."

    But whatever the standard is, being able to tell someone, in English, where you graduated high school is probably somewhere near the bare minimum for a passing grade.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Dave Murphy

    First I am a retired Canadian who enjoys watching USA politics. I guess as I have seen a lot of life nothing shocks me too much but the exception is what is happening in your wonderful country(which I visit in my RV often). Your story about the lady seeking office in a small Arizona town is sad but just the tip of the iceburg. Yes real reality TV is on Fox, CNN and MSNBC where as Holywood cannnot produce anything close. Now looking out side the box this is what I have learned over the last three years to what is real in the USA. I love what is happening in Wisconsin just for starters as this could not have been scripted. After spending two month in the south last year it is real that so called Christians truelly believe that If you are not white you are inferior (Being honest Evangeical Christain deep inside hate blacks and latiinos). What a great country you have when you boo a soldier whom risks his life for your freedom. You must be proud when asked what if some does not have health care and the everyone yells let him die. In Canada we have health care and do not need to carry guns. We do not shoot our politicians or hate people of other language or colour. What I have seen and learned over the last three years is "GOD DOES NOT BLESS AMERICA"

    January 30, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q Daniels

      My clear recollection is that Canada has an official language law, English and Francais du Canada. Most countries do.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • crimsoninmo

      Dave, What i love about a Canadian is his lack of ability to research and then state simple fact.
      1. Booing the soldier. That came at the CNN teaparty debate in September. I was there. The booing came because someone in the audience made a stupid remark about the soldier and we were booing THAT person, not the solder.
      2. Healthcare for those that cannot afford it. That was ONE person, not the whole group.

      There are CANADIANS that dont like black people, just like there are AMERICANS. The facts are that states which take away the guns of their citizens end up in Tyranny and that is backed up by history. We choose not to follow that history here in the US. HEALTHCARE in Canada?? All we hear about are 3 or 4 month waits for elective surgerys and in fact we find that Canadians with money come to the US to get those surgeries at their choosing, when they want..

      God does bless America and we are proud of that. We just need to get back to HIS principals and we will see even more blessings. No, Evangelicals are not racist, they follow the teachings of Christ and believe in sharing that blessing with the world. Its a sinful world out there and we all are part of it, none are perfect, all need forgiveness. Stick to your great white north and we'll keep on taking care of the world for you.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Steven

    This is blatant election rigging by the repugnicans.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
  12. EnoughAlready

    I have been saying for years that bilingual programs are a disservice to those they are supposed to help. To graduate any high school in this country and not be able to speak, read and write English is a disgrace. People who enter the school system speaking a language other than English should first spend one year in a very intensive learn English program and then be placed into regular classes. Most of these bilingual classes are a sham to start with. This woman would probably be a great representative of the people but is pretty useless if she cannot sit in a meeting of her political peers and understand what transpires.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |

    We don't stand up for the american flag anymore either,.....they are american killers (I stand up for the american flag , anyone around me better do the same or trouble will fall upon you) –We are Legion, Expect Us–

    January 30, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Ingrid Heidrun Carlier

    As a german living in AZ for a couple of years, I would not even have thought NOT to learn the language. We are a nation of immigrants, and the english language ties us together. Speak you language at home, but in public it is english!!!Don't burden your kids to translate for you, because you are too ignorant to fit in!

    January 30, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • crimsoninmo

      Thank you. I so appreciate someone that came to our country and feels the responsibility to become a part of OUR culture. Mexican Americans do NOT get this. They want to KEEP their culture and have us assimilate to it. I WILL NOT. This is the USA and we have a flag already. Its not Mexico. That flag should burn every time it flies on our soil unless in it represents a foreign dignitary. Olympics, foreign officials are fine. When mexicans come here, take from our society and fly that flag, its treason and they need to be THROWN back across the border with extreme prejudice.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Timothy Atwood

      Wie geht es Ihnen? I am an American who spent four years learning German before traveling to German to teach in German (and Poland too)

      January 30, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Doreen

    Way too often even customer supervisors in our government, as well as government contracted, jobs speak English very poorly. They ALWAYS tell me they speak English well. It's a nightmare now. Native Americans can not converse intelligently with our government now. Further the people who can not speak English well have integrated a third world work ethic into our lives. i applaud the judge who blocked this person.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
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