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. Doc

    She has CHOSEN to live in the USA and has CHOSEN not to learn the language and that is going to create limitations for her – because of her CHOICES. Taypayers should not have to pay her AND and translator just because she hasn't wanted to learn English. If she wants to play in the sandbox of public service, she needs to be able to communicate with the 99.999% of citizens who speak English.

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

      If her English was "good enough," then why was she interviewed by CNN- en Espanol and not CNN? What language are the laws in? This screams of a publicity stunt.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • nana2roaw

      Why not let the voters decide or are you afraid of democracy?

      January 30, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Donald Rumsbeld

      She speaks English, dimwit.

      And furthermore, I'll bet you 500 pesos that her comprehension is better than yours.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      Let's face it folks. All this lady has to do is appear on Faux News and show us how Ameican she really is.She doesn't have to answer a bunch of questions other than a few like :What was the real name of the highscool you graduated from.And who was the firt president of the United States. Realt a no-brainer.

      And we wonder why America has been failing?

      January 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
  2. RP

    Imagine if GW Bush had been held to the same standard!

    January 30, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • muddypuddles

      he might've made up and mispronounced words, but he was making up and mispronouncing english words.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • sandan

      RP, There seems to be a certian distain on the part of Repuclicans today to "really be" Americans, but rather be a part to be against their oppposition, equally American, in order to continue to promote the Bush disasters of the past. What amazes me, is that many of them do so in the halls of their supposed American churches.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Doc

    And her argument that "speaking Spanish" makes her a good candidate is ridiculous. That's like saying "I'm over 6 feet tall so I'm a good candidate." Has nothing to do with anything except that she can't communicate effectively & efficiently with her peers if she ran & were elected.

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

      EDIT It [Has] has nothing to do with anything except that she [can't] couldn't communicate effectively & efficiently with her peers if she ran & [were] was elected.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Doc

      Clearly your English teacher skipped subjunctive mood. The proper tense of the verb "to be" after an "if" statement is, indeed, "were." And the others were in no way incorrect either, but thanks for playing.

      January 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Robert Sull

      You make a point there. So how many people are banned from running for mayor for being over 6 feet tall? Also, being persnickety about grammar doesn't make you any more qualified for leadership, with the exception of maybe being qualified to be a teacher in a 10th grade English classroom. What it takes for being an effective mayor is making wise, logical decisions that you assume responsibility for impacting many of your neighbors.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. My Name

    While that one town may not have English as a dominate language, the rest of the state and the country does. So to do business on behalf of the state she would need a grasp of the language. This is a requirement for most jobs in this country so public office should be no different. If she wants to speak Spanish she can go get a job in Spain, Mexico, Honduras, or any other country whose predominate language is Spanish. Until then, she's out of luck in my opinion.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Suraj

    This is getting to be ridiculous. I, too, came her from a foreign land and whiel I was fortunate enough to speak English, I did change my pronunciation and to some extent, the accent. I wanted to make it easy to understand me and I do not recall one day, I had problem understanding anyone or vice-versa. That was 40 years ago. English is the language here and everyone should know how to speak it and be able to write it intelligently. If she cannot remember her High School's name, that should throw red flags big time!! I can tell you anything about my high school, college and university years. I would not want someone representing me and we cannot understand each other. Let's stop this nonsense. Speak whay you may inside your house but in public, communication should be in English. sp we can all understand and communicate with each other.

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

    No excuse! Learn our language or leave. This isnt Mexico.!!! And the Mexicans never owned this land. Just leave. If you cant speak english your career in politics is already over. Decide on a better hair color too. you look ridiculouse

    January 30, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • muddypuddles

      and the zebra/snow leopard/whatever animal print...

      January 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • muddypuddles

      and the zebra/leopard/whatever animal print...

      January 30, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cliff

      Dear "ridiculouse" jbmmmm,
      I suggest you study history a bit. Especially the area where this woman lives was purchased from Mexico.
      You might think of studying the English language also. Your spelling could use some work.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Christopher H Lee

    In this case, I have to agree with the judge. If she wants to participate in government, she needs to improve her English. You have to pass 4th grade English to become a citizen. I don't see that running for office should have any lower requirement than that.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. dobbins

    They should ban Rick Perry from running again. I didn't know gibberish was allowed.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Robert

    Lady, learn English, please. You come here, probably lived off our social services, and do not speak English. Now you want to run for office? Ever hear of night school? Either learn the language, get a job at Taco Bell, or go back to Mexico.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
  10. This Judge is Great

    English is our Official Language.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. This Judge is Great

    If you want Spanish to be used in government go to Mexico, Cuba etc.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Rosie

    Can a person who only speaks sign language run for office and be measured by the same standard since they too are limited? Or is that different?

    January 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • This Judge is Great

      No if they can NOT communicate in English

      January 30, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • JohnC

      Accommodating a handicap vs personal choice is two different animals. There is nothing wrong, in fact it is the law that we accommodate a disability. Nothing in the law states we have to accommodate someone's personal choice to not learn to be proficient in the language that is the dominant language of the UNITED STATES.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
  13. tati

    I used to hate having professors with thick accents and far from perfect English and skipped their lectures when possible. Want to teach/serve as a public figure – get rid of your thick accent, it is not impossible.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
  14. JohnC

    The sad thing is she graduated from a US high school with extremely limited English proficiency. Sorry, but if she cannot even learn without using Spanish as a crutch, she is NOT qualified for public office.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Donald Rumsbeld

    Judging by the appalling writing standards of most posters on here, I cannot imagine who the hell they think speaks or writes better English than her in this god-forsaken country.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • This Judge is Great

      See what you get when English is a second language??

      January 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
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