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. John Galt

    Sorry but this is America we speak English in this nation.. it does not matter how many foreigners live in your neighborhood or County. Learn to speal ENGLISH.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bent

      The author that penned the name "john Galt" would balk at your blinding twit

      January 30, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • MasonBurdette

      It is not against the law to not be able to speak english. Good God, what century is Arizona in? I guess if your not red blooded, white american don't bother moving to Arizona because you ARE a second class citizen according to them. What kind of officials do you (Arizonians) elect? Obviously those with deep running prejudices. If she is a citizen, she's EVERY right in the world to run for public office.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kat

      @MasonBurdette, she has every right to run, but every job has expectations. In this case she is not fluent in english and since most of the majority of U.S citizens speak english, she does not exceed the expectations. Personal would you want a good candidate that speaks fluent english when the majority speaks english or would you rather have a good candidate that cannot speak fluent english? I would rather pick the fluent english speaker due to the fact I cannot speak any other language and do not have the time to learn another language.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Brad

    We only have one official language. Sorry.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Grumpy Senator

      The United States has no official language.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Birddog

    Really folks, this is America and THE language is English. If the trend continues the way it is, the official language will be spanish and I being a white male will be in the minority in this country. My German friend Guy,has said it best and there is always some loudmouth out there that has to bring up some Republican crap like its our fault, WTH. Who wants to give illegals drivers licenses? Who wants to give illegals medical coverage? Who wants to give illegals the same right as me to pay state costs for college for their kids. LIBERAL *******

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

    If you're running to be on city counsel you should speak fluent in the first language of that country regardless of how great you would be in the counsel, because if someone can not understand you then how will others? Also someone should not take offense if they are rejected to be on the council because they cannot speak fluent English. Instead they should learn the language and apply to be on city counsel when they learn the language.

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

      Agreed. but I think I would be an even better at the job. Elect me.

      See...its easy for someone to say they would be good at a job....but are you truly qualified for that job? The woman was clearly...NOT.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kat

      I agree with you fully. I was not trying to imply that other's say that they are great with the job in city counsel, but more focused on if other's can understand a person they are electing to be in the counsel.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Gotthumbs

    It take more than just speaking English....she needs to understand the legal matters/terms that she would be responsible for when working as a city representative. The simple fact, that she did NOT do the interview in English... clearly shows she would be a poor choice and is NOT prepared. This is ONLY the beginning. Newt has said English will become the official government language. We should expect any government representative to be competent in speaking and English comprehension when it comes to legal terms.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. casey

    she thinks she doesn't need to speak good english becasue she is not going to be speaking to obama in the white house, then she is noy intelligent enought for the job either!

    January 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bent

    Whiteman..Thank you for that post. Only post, on both sides, (that i've read) to be valid

    January 30, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Repulpicans

    Could always change it to spanglish. jou know that's what we speak here in New Jork

    January 30, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. josh

    Well, since the US doesn't have an official language, this shouldn't be a problem. I mean if she can speak more than one language, that should be impressive since most of Americans can barely speak grammatically correct English.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kat

      The U.S does not have an official language, but English is the most widely spoken language in the U.S. Plus mostly all schools in the U.S teach in English. Cabrera cannot speak fluent english (when the majority of people in the U.S can) and she admits it herself. If most of the population or even some of the population can not understand her and she can not understand them, she technically would not be the best candidate for the city counsel. I have nothing against her, but I would rather have someone that I know I can understand.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Liz Horkan

    If your running for office then you should speak the language as well as be able to read English.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • karlmarx11


      If you're going to make a statement like that, perhaps you take your own advice and learn proper english. There is a difference between "your" and "you're".

      January 30, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Halkes

    When my wife came to this country she couldn't speak a word of English, all she knew was Spanish. Now, she's working on her Master's Degree and has a better command of the language, both written and spoken, than most people born here. It didn't happen by accident, she worked hard to learn the language and be where she is today. This is in South Florida by the way, where people don't need to speak English to get by, but she did it anyway. That is exactly what I expect from anyone who wants to have the privilege of moving to a country that is not their own. I would never even dream of moving to Mexico and refusing the learn Spanish, and there are several reasons why. For one, it's not practical. These people condemn themselves to ignorance out of some misplaced sense of pride, or nationalism, or just plain laziness. I don't know how they can even be comfortable living here without understanding what the vast majority of the country speaks. And the second reason is that it's extremely disrespectful, rude, and arrogant to think you can move to a new country and simply refuse to learn their language. Frankly, I'm surprised she was allowed to graduate from high school at all, but then again I'm from Canada so maybe we're just more strict with that. There's no way she could have gotten a high school diploma in Canada, that's for sure. Furthermore, she obviously doesn't realize that she needs to be able to communicate with state officials about a broad range of topics, and without the use of an interpreter. She would be in way over her head, I think that's obvious to anyone, no matter how they feel about the subject emotionally.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. john

    your not from mexico, she is from the us...quite different

    January 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Orlando

    We got ourselves into this real messy situation. For many years, our government looked the other way; it allowed illegal inmigration by not enforcing the laws in place, mostly for economic reasons: cheap labor. Now, this is a big problem with a huge cost attached to it. But we now only want to blame the illegal people.

    January 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Wil Munny

    What if she was mute? Would people have an issue if she had a translator to convey her words to english speakers?

    January 30, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Halkes

      The Americans With Disabilities Act would allow deaf and/or mute Americans to run for public office. However, refusing to learn English is not a disability.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Joe Camel

    That requirement wasn't an obstacle for GWB

    January 30, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
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