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. Terry

    I'm curious…how long has this woman lived in the USA? From the looks of her picture, her high school years seem to be well behind her. If she graduated from an American HS, and she's lived in this country for YEARS, why does she have such a poor command of spoken English? I hear a lot of folks blaming the school for her failure to speak coherent English, but I put the blame square on her shoulders. What has she been doing in our country for all these years to assimilate, and to better herself? I guess ESL classes weren't on the top of her "things to do" list. If I were her, I would be thoroughly embarrassed to call myself an American citizen, and not be able to communicate in the most basic spoken English. Not only does it tell me that she doesn't give a damn about this country, it makes her look just plain lazy. Truly pathetic.

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

      Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Bill O'Reilly...Where did they go to high school??? But that's okay, because they're folksy & right-wing? whatever Terry, whatever...

      January 30, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      Good comment. It also makes me very suspect that she is really an American citizen since she can't seem to remember the name of her high school.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • me138

      mark mckee...Orielly was a school teacher.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • muddypuddles

      Mark- they might sound like hillbillies or crazy people but they're our crazies trying to talk in our language.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • mommycat

      This lady is what we in Arizona call a 'chica'.

      She doesn't speak English because in the Latina world she lives in, she never had to. Her life never took her beyond the boundaries of her neighborhood, in which she probably communicates very well.

      I work in construction, and the wives that come in to pick up the paychecks are EXACTLY like this. The children can tell me what they are there for and whose check they are there to get, the mothers, rarely, if ever.

      Now she wants to get beyond her neighborhood, and she wants the same rules to apply that have always applied. She just didn't realize that she couldn't get by the way she always has before.

      And since it must be discrimination if she can't have what she wants....sad.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      Right on Terry. I noticed that the CNN interview had to be conducted in Spanish-guess City Council meetings will have an interpreter in San Luis, Arizona. Cabrera has an agenda. While in Mexico last year our tour guide said he would soon be working in Los Angeles. He said Didn't you know there is a silent invasion and when it is finished he will be working in Mexicali. No one laughed. In California, Texas and Arizona there is an apparent truth to his words.
      Mexican Kids Daily Cross Texas Border for Free U.S. Paid Education since 2007. Read more:

      Last year Oct-2011 Jerry Brown signed California Dream Act granting illegal immigrants access to state (American tax payer funded ) Cal Grant and financial aid at public universities and community colleges, putting California once again in the center of the nation's immigration debate.
      Moving into political positions to gain control is one stage in the agenda. I cannot imagine the magnitude of protest that SHOULD and most likely would break out if Congress decided that English was no longer the national language in these United States of America.

      That is not being bias, bigot or prejudice. With just a little research, the facts will be evident.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jacob

    Sounds like this English requirement is too subjective. Either they need to require a certain score on an exam like TOEFL, or drop the requirement. Allowing some judge or mayor to make a subjective assessment opens the door to potential abuse of power.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mark McKee

    So...that means that George W. Bush wouldn't be able to run for office in Arizona???

    January 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      George the Woeful, shouldn't have been allowed to run for city dog-catcher, unless it was someplace in a foreign land!

      January 30, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • yahmez

      @ Mark McKee
      Good one, sir. 100 internets for you!
      If you run for public office in America, youze gots to spreak guut engrish.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. James

    Its simple....If you want to live in America learn our language....Don't expect me to move to Mexico and ask others to learn English....Its called different countries....Been going on for years....This country speaks this language another country speaks another language....Geeeze.....

    January 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • ubquiet

      "Its simple..." Yes, it is. It should be "It's simple..." It's a contraction.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
  5. SquidGal

    The comment by the potential voter in this story is a bit disheartening. “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.” So are we to take it that people in San Luis view education as a hinderence? Perhaps this is why there is a language barrier to begin with. And what does she mean by our people? As near as I can tell, they are Arizona citizens who are expected to follow Arizona and Federal law. As an English speaker who lives in the Southwest, I interact with a large number of folks who also speak Spanish as their primary language. In the majority of cases, the English may not be letter perfect, but is more than sufficient to communicate. Without personally speaking to Ms. Cabrera, I cannot form an opinion on her ability to comminicate in regard to the job of a city councilor. From the English remarks published here by her, it seems she would be able to handle it. My grandparents emigrated from Hungary and learned English. They had heavy accents, but could comminicate. There just seems to be a big difference between folks like my grandparents and the woman quoted in the story. They saw the path to success as one of assimilation with their new country's language, while the woman wants only "our people" whatever that may be.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      Sorry Gal, But your response was very hard for me to understand, probably because I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and just what is it you are saying? Do you approve or disapprove of the fact that this woman does not have the English capacity to hold public office in Arizona, dictated by their own law? As difficult as it might be for you to reply, a simple yes or no will be enough for me.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. michael

    I first thought wow look at all the comments about all the negative remarks about the republicans then I forgot what entertainment site I was on. This is all a ploy to get her name out there so she can be elected. Smart way of doing it, get the press to do all her work for her. She probably would have a better chance working at the white house then for city council. They will find a judge who will overturn the ruling (money can by anyone, oops I mean anything) and she'll run for office but this time for a state position and buys (wins) reelection she'll get a czar position for people who don't speak good English.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • ubquiet

      "she'll get a czar position for people who don't speak good English." I think you mean "for people who don't speak English well."

      January 30, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Damo

      I love this whole "czar" thing you guys have latched onto.

      "Grrr, that guy's one of those Democratic czars!"
      "Sorry, why are you calling him a czar?"
      "Because it's a Russian leader! You know, Russia, Communism, Socialism, Democrats?"
      "But... Czars are what the socialists overthrew. It's pretty much the opposite of Socialism."

      January 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • UkraineGuy

      Your written English is pretty sloppy.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. The Guy

    When I moved from Germany to the US, the first thing I did was to learn the national language, which is english. I don;t want to offend anyone but I'm a firm believer that every individual who migrates to another country has the responsibility to learn that nations language. Out of respect and love for this country you should learn english. I don't agree when a state offers a driver license driving manual in a different language then english. There is no way that someone can move to germany and get a manual, a government form or other in a different language than german. I gave up my german citizenship and learned as much as I could about the US. .. why? because I love this country and I would not hesitate to fight for it.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Thank you Guy! On all accounts.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. The Guy

    just a few words of english, a few sentences would simply not cut it for me. No offense for anyone but if someone like her would be accepted for public office, how do you think people like me would feel? People who learned and put their heart in learning about the US, learning the language, the history, the people. If the lady mentioned int he report would be selected and approved, I would fell like that I just got slapped in my face.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
  9. rightospeak

    I thought that most people in Arizona speak English , which is the language of the land. Which district speak only Spanish ? The whole thing is ridiculous. To be a representative of any kind one needs to read and communicate well in society. She would do a great disservice to the Hispanic community.
    Years ago I remember someone told me , that to work for the state of Arizona ( 1980-1988 ) one had to know Spanish. What a racist ruling ! Majority should have rights ,too. We already had a racist policy of Affirmative Action ( it is racist by definition of exclusion ) for over a generation and we still have it in 2012, while there is still slavery in Africa today. what a joke !

    January 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Rudy V. Garcia

    Ron – It's called irony. I wasn't making a commentary on the 'candidate's' ability or inability to articulate in English. I just found it ironic that someone would criticize another person's language 'shortcomings', using poor grammar herself....don't you find that ironic?

    January 30, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Report abuse |
  11. English Only

    I heard she speaks fluent Wetback ........

    January 30, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Damo

    I'm proud that America doesn't have an official language. It's in keeping with the spirit of the country. Yes, English is currently the most common language, and that's unlikely to change any time soon... but it COULD change! If some other language became the better option, you could pick it! And that's very fitting for America. People have the freedom to speak whatever language they want, and there's nothing stopping some underdog language from becoming dominant.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Des

      No. No other language will ever prevail in the U.S. English is the language of this land and it is one of the hardest languages to learn because of its large vocabulary and complex grammar. Spanish is and should remain a hobby for Americans. Learn our language or go back to the craphole where your language is spoken. You came here for a reason. Don't give us a reason not to want you here.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. scottdc

    Should be up to the voters in her city, if they have a problem with it then it's an issue.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Simon

    Somebody else who wants the protection of "No Comprende!"

    January 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. ???

    This is just my opinion, but...whenever you are running for office, on any level of government, you have to have good speaking skills, in this case, English because in any government position, you always have to make it an effort to speak in public. People who are listening to one's words of wisdom (or wise-cracking in some cases, sadly), have to be able to comprehend what the public speaker is saying, the messages, the metaphors, the whole nine yards...I mean, if her English is not that great, with a little patience and motivation, she can improve her English by taking the necessary classes or even just simply teaching the basics herself. If she does that, her chances of getting into office will be at standard levels and all she has to worry about is who she is running against. That's all...

    January 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • ubquiet

      "improve her English by taking the necessary classes or even just simply teaching the basics herself." I think you mean "learning the basics". You probably wouldn't like her teaching.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • ???

      Yeah, of course learning the basics of English. Neither of us know which way she will choose to improve her English, if she does of course...if not, well that's her problem I hate to say (not that I support her or anything, but making her own needed changes is for her own sake if she really wants to follow her own ambitions, but I don't care).

      January 30, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
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