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. Rick

    City council members interpret laws and regulation and they also write laws and regulations. If you can't read or write English effectively, I'm not sure you can properly do your duties.

    Also, why can't she serve her community in some other way such as being an activist or organizer?

    January 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jj

      This woman barely speaks English. I've heard her try to speak. Just you tube her and you will see for yourself. you folks can then make your conclusions @ whether she deserves to be on the ballet.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmericanGirl88

      Hi Rick: I'm not sure if this was mentioned in previous posts> However, Ms. Cabrera states the following:
      "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.”

      This statement makes me think "Hey, this isn't a very big job so why can't I have it? It's not like I'll be president"

      Also, does Ms. Cabrera wish to be an "activist" for one demographic group? If so, this doesn't sound like the job of a qualified City Councilperson.

      There are plenty of jobs out there where my Spanish isn't "good enough" for bilingual positions. I guess I should take it up with my district representatives and find out why my rights are being violated 😉

      January 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
  2. The Republicrat

    I grew up primarily in the South and it was perfectly okay for a seemingly uneducated redneck to get voted in to local office or even as the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. So its okay to sound uneducated and be in office (GEORGE BUSH) but its not okay for an educated Hispanic person to hold office. Hypocritical Republican Bologna!

    January 30, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • klamerus

      Do you post moronic comments everywhere, or just here.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Common Sense

      How can you call not being able to answer basic questions in English educated enough to run for public office? "Where did you go to high school" is not that difficult of a question - considering that fact that this is usually one of the first things you learn if you just pick up a language textbook. She lived here in the US and went to school here. I don't see why she shouldn't have to attempt to learn English like everyone else.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • John80

      Good point. And English is not the official language of the US, so the judge was out of line.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. AffiliatedByNature


    January 30, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dante666


      January 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dante666

    HELLO – AMERICAN = ENGLISH LANGUAGE. The Judge has it right!

    January 30, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Crocker's Common Sense

    Re......Cabrera said in an interview conducted in Spanish with CNN en Español. If she is so fluent in our language, why wasn't the interview done in ENGLISH?

    January 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
  6. s kel

    typical cnn trash.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
  7. TD

    Speak English or get back to mowing my lawn.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Lisa Malave

    I am thrilled to see someone putting herself out there to try to help the community she lives in, more people should take the time to help their own communities in some way. I do have to say that I truly believe someone should be fluent in English if they are to hold a political office in this country. While I realize many communities have a large amount of Spanish-speaking citizens, the fact is that ENGLISH is the language of the United States. I don't understand why there is even a question about having to learn the language of this country. This country was founded with English as the language – that being said, perhaps Ms. Cabrera can help in other ways with her own interpreter until her English is where it needs to be to qualify. I wish her all the best.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Deborah

    She should learn to speak English fluently, then run for whatever office she wants.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jonathan

    Wait, stop the presses! Someone tried to run for an office and can't adequately speak English? Speaking English (being able to communicate effectively in English) is one of the REQUIREMENTS for a naturalized citizenship in this country. And no set equivalency for communicating in English? How about you try to pass a High School English class and score at or above the 'C' level. That ought to do it.

    I fully support this judges decision. No one should be able to run for an office in this country without being able to meet the standards we expect for new naturalized citizens to meet (my opinion).

    January 30, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Larry

      Yeah, just what I am saying.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Larry

    Language is important and you really do have to know the language of the nation you are in if you are resposnible for passing laws that rule that area. I grew up in Miami and Texas and the hispanics all spoke English as well as Spanish. Not a one of the commissioners or congress persons or senators would have thought to run for office if they weren't fluent in the native language.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Puck

    This is sad. It is very simple, you must be fluent in English! If you graduated from a US school you should be fluent, if not then we need that school shutdown!!!! I graduated from the poorest state and the poorest county in the United States and I can read, write, and spell American English!

    January 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mike,Albany

    These standards are there for a reason, and we should now proceed down the slippery slope of lowering them to accommodate one individual or another who does not meet them. You would not want someone whose MCAT scores and performance in medical school were almost good enough to be allowed to practice medicine just because they had the desire but not the ability. You would not want an engineer whose math skills were not quite up to par to build the freeway overpass you need to drive every day to get your kids to school. We cannot start making exceptions just because someone feels that it is their right to pursue a particular job for which they are not quite qualified in ALL ways required.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy ©

      Thank you for an eloquent post that mirrors my thoughts almost exactly.

      The only thing I can think of that would be more absurd is if she were a high school English teacher.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. John N Florida

    She might have had a shot at it if she'd done the interview in English. She cut her own throat – on her attorney's advice – as far as I'm concerned.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Riptide

    How is this even debatable? No office. She has in no way proved she is fluent in English, and if she really grew up here and graduated from high school in Arizona then there a bigger problems than her wanting to run for office.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
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