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. Nick B

    I fully believe she should be allowed to run.
    I also fully believe that all translation costs should be paid by her, and all meetings should be conducted in English. Sadly, instead, activists will ensure that taxpayers pay 100s of thousands of dollars on translators, and to disenfranchise those who speak the language of the country and state. BRILLIANT!

    January 30, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jj

      Wow! Nick, that was brilliant! Thank you for putting words the way I can't

      January 30, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • joe

      You my friend are wrong. We do have too many Latinos(most illegal) here already and are being overrun. How long has she been here not to speak fluent English? The Court was correct and she should lose on appeal.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  2. muddypuddles

    Engrish Onry Prease.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jj

      too funny! I'm not a hater but damn

      January 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • supernova

      Heh! Heh! Heh! That WAS funny!!

      January 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ken

    Everyone that came to this country has learned English except the hispanic. People came from Europe, Asia, Africa and they all learned English. I have people that come into my office that have been in America for 40 years that still will not speak English. I wish that our representatives in Washington would have the guts to say that English is our language and we should not have to learn non-American languages. Do away with "press 2 for Spanish". You want to be an American, then learn our language.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Great response! I agree wholeheartedly!

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

      EDIT "Everyone who came to this country learned English except for the Hispanics." Maybe you should brush up on your English.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Es que no quieren ofenderte mientras se burlan de ti.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anonymous


      "Everyone that came to this country has learned English except the hispanic."

      You could not be more wrong. You've obviously never heard of Laotian refugees that moved in droves to the Midwest. The children are bilingual because they have to go to school, but the elders are uni-lingual. This is why Wisconsin DNR handbooks come in three languages (including Spanish), something no one has a problem with here.

      Facts, not rhetoric, will be your savior.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Billy

      "You could not be more wrong. You've obviously never heard of Laotian refugees that moved in droves to the Midwest. "

      No sir, YOU are wrong. You are choosing a VERY specific and SMALL demographic that is restricted to a SMALL regional area. We are discussing demographics which cover the entire country. Please DON'T try again.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • anthony

      Ken, what is an un American language? Americans have the right to speak whatever language they want. That is why it's America. Granted, if you want to hold office then you must be fully bilingual. The problem with people such as yourself is that you don'tknow how to express yourselves and have poor English grammatical skills and come off looking and speaking as racists.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anonymous

      @ Billy

      Shall I provide more examples? Examples that together create a bigger demographic?

      Nice try Billy, DO try again.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anonymous

      @ Billy

      And how could I forget to mention that my response to Ken referred to his use of the word EVERYONE. Good Lord.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Marisa

    This is the United States of America and we speak english!!! The fact that she can even hire a lawyer and dispute this is RIDICULOUS!!! They come here wanting to mooch off our government, our education system and the rights that we offer our citizens but don't want to speak english. OUTRAGEOUS!

    January 30, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • ubquiet

      "They come here wanting to mooch off our government, our education system and the rights that we offer our citizens." Who are "they"? She is an American citizen, born in the U.S. She doesn't get the rights of "our citizens"?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Cheryl, Florida

    People, ALL government meeting must be conducted in English. How in world is she going to be able to follow along with government issues if she does not speak English well. I sometimes cannot understand the political double speak and I am an American American. She cannot even understand the question as to were she went to high school. This is part of the reason our country is not as strong as is use to be. We have people that graduate high school that cannot even speak the English language. She couldn't even conduct an interview in Englsh. The judge got it right, hands down.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • sara

      Did you read the article. She can understand and read English. It's only her speaking that is a concern AND 98.7% of the people that live there speak Spanish.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • SquidGal

      Sara ... the folks she hopes to represent speak Spanish...check. However, she has to be able to communicate on their behalf with a legal body that conducts its business in English. I cannot comment on Ms. Cabrera's ability because I have not spoken with her, but the judge entrusted by law in Arizona has. Could he have been politically persuaded? Perhaps, but I think it would be career suicide if that were true. This leads me to conclude that in the judge's opinion Ms. Cabrera would not be able to properly represent those folks.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bob

    "Said in an interview with CNN conducted in Spanish" Well that says it all.............If you staying in AMERICA learn OUR language.........ENGLISH...

    January 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • ubquiet

      "If you staying in AMERICA learn OUR language" I think you mean "If you're staying in AMERICA". I hope you enjoy your visit here, too.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
  7. dawn

    I believe, When you lve in the united states you should speak english! Why should any of these people be differnt! my great grandparents had to stop speaking german when they came to America. They learned english and started a business in ohio! it did not hurt them to speak english! Why? should it be any differnt!

    January 30, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • ubquiet

      EDIT I believe, [When] when you [lve] live in the [united states] United States you should speak [english!] English. Why should any of these people be [differnt!] different? [my] My great grandparents had to stop speaking [german] German when they came to America. They learned [english] English and started a business in [ohio!] Ohio. [it] It did not hurt them to speak [english!] English. [Why? should it be any differnt!] Why should it be any different?

      January 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jason

    This is only the beginning. The logical extension is the end of the country we know. Stop it now or consign yourselves to division, weakness and defeat.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jim

    Este pais es un desastre. Esta lleno de cobardes y maric*nes.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Penny

    She is a US citizen and if other citizen want to vote for her, they should have the opportunity. It is a local office and if the local population votes her in, they get what they asked for.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
  11. msk

    I do wish people would learn grammar and spelling too. It is appalling what passes for English these days and rap, twitter, and texting does nothing to help. Time to raise all standards. It seems to me that if we want to cut government budgets, translators could be among the first to go. BTW, in Israel, all immigrants have Hebrew immersion courses available, and in-gathered Jews from the four corners of the world are bound together and connected by the common language spoken by everyone–in addition to the two or three other languages most Israelis speak. This land of immigrants could learn a lot from that one.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
  12. havanas

    Jaime, it takes one to know one hombre.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rudy V. Garcia

    Cheryl – You may have forgotten your English grammar. When you are discussing "people" the correct pronoun is "who", not "that". "That" is usually used as an adjective or as a pronoun identifying an object. Si viera aprendido su Ingles, viera sabido las reglas del propio uso del Ingles.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Kind of picky for someone defending a woman who doesn't even know her nouns.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Si vous parlez en française il est plus simple apprendre. Ciao.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Benjamin Nagurski

    Too bad you Americans came to this country and didn't learn our native languages. You came to our country and forced your language on us.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anonymous

      Thank you. What tribe?

      January 30, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Ok, so all native americans (American Indians) should now learn Spanish too? What does spanish have to do with Native American language?

      January 31, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dee

    OMG!!! If anyone wants to come to the America then do not insult our offical language, English. Learn our language and our culture. '
    NO BODY will have special treatment because she or he does not want to learn to speak, write, and read English. Move out of our country. Do not ever complain about our education or language or culture and live with that. You want our jobs, money, goverment assistance, and others, THEN shut up!

    January 30, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • ubquiet

      She didn't "come to the America" (sic). She was born here. BTW, it's NOBODY not "NO BODY".

      January 30, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adriana

      Actually contrary to what many believe, and as the article pointed out, English ISN'T the official language. Nationally and govermentally there is no mandate or rule that states as such. This is only a legal issue special to Arizona because it does mandate English for government jobs and is the state language.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
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