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. Erica

    So what? I was fired from Arby's when I was 16 for not knowing enough Spanish. Give me a break.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Repulpicans

    Most intelligent post put up here today.I

    January 30, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Repulpicans

    That was the most intelligent post put up here today.I

    January 30, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. EMS

    Well if they ever decide correct spelling and punctuation are required they can eliminate 90% of those leaving comments....

    Frankly, I think more people ought to be upset at the fact that anyone holding a diploma from a US high school could be found to be sufficiently uneducated to run for a local election. Maybe everyone should worry less about her inability to speak English fluently and more about the failure of the school system to teach English.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. The Grumpy Senator

    The United States has no "legal language" (official language for those of us that learned to speak it properly)..

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

    This article shows how far this country has degenerated. English should have been the official language of the USA in 1780 and even more so now. We need to repeal the Hart-Cellar act of 1965 and deport everyone who gained their citizenship by that bill. Puerto Rico should be made an independent nation and everyone in the USA of Puerto Rican descent deported there. We need to stop bringing third world refuges in here like Haitians, Pakistanis, Vietnamese etc.
    We had one of the truly great nations in history but with mass immigration this country is being destroyed.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • gcamacho

      Haha you are crazy! I am Puerto Rican and am definitely contributing to society more than you are. My income is solid, 100% bilingual, college educated, and happily married. I should run for president but the previous things would make me overqualified!

      January 30, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Josh Jaye

      You have gotten right to the heart of the matter. You would be amazed by how many millions of Americans feel the same way. I don't want goats and pigs slaughtered in my suburban neighborhood. However, it has already happened. If foreigners simply cannot or will not, leave their third-world, bizarre culture behind, they really should not migrate to America.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Ana Zuniga-Maus

    I also think that this is America and here we speak English, if she wants to run for office with her level of English, may be she should consider running in Mexico. I am a Hispanic and fluent in both languages and I sure will not like her to represent me. One think I did notice, is that she graduated from one of those so call BILINGUAL SCHOOLS, and we can all see that they are not bilingual at all, because if they were, she will graduated fluent on both languages and obviously that is not the case. All of this so call bilingual schools are nothing but catering to different people, that refuse to learn the English language.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • KennethFFT

      What is it to be American? What are the common threads that tie us together? True, we are a nation of immigrants with many cultures contributing to our society. It is indeed part of our strength. It has from time to time hurt us but by far it has been a source of strength. When you come to this country and say you want to be an American, what does that mean to you? If you truly love this country and want to become a citizen by all means, for my part I welcome you. It is the people who don't care about this country, come here illegally and take advantage of our society to profit themselves and their families back home. Another words their only reason for being here is to earn what they can to send back home where they will be returning once they have earned enough. I couldn't care less if you are illegal or not, if you truly love this country and what to be here. I don't even care if you send what you can back home to help support your family so long as you really want to be here as an American. But again, what does that mean? I'm sure to many it might mean something different but one thing I am sure most can agree with is that the English language is one of them. As an English Speaking American I can go anywhere in this country and function. I can go into the Military (and have), or I can run for office. The thing that gets me is that some of these communities down south not only primarily speak Spanish, they only speak Spanish. I use to take calls for the AZ area and if you didn't speak Spanish some of the people didn't even want to talk to you. Why should I as an English speaking American find it hard to function in their communities because they refuse to learn English when the rest of the country speaks English? I have nothing against Spanish, or the Hispanic culture. I wish my school taught Spanish when I was a kid. Spanish has contributed quite a bit to our American culture. I simply feel some of these people (not all) have more of a loyalty to Mexico than to America. If war with Mexico broke out tomorrow, which side would they be on? For those who would like to say America stole some of those territories from Mexico, like how long ago was that? Is there anyone alive today on either side of the border who remembers a time when the area belonged to Mexico? Be proud of who you are and where you come from. Simply ask yourself what it means to you to be American.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Yuma resident

    I live in Yuma and deal with bilingual people all the time. On the KYMA news the other night it ran part of the court procedings questioning Cabrera. They asked her were did you go to school multiple times and her reply was simply "yes". She is by no means proficient in English and should not be allowed to run. She needs to continue with her tutor, improve her language skills, and run again in a few years. If CNN really wants a good story, they should look into all the political fighting that has come out of this rown over the past few years, it would make a better story.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Halkes

      Thanks for informing us of that, these bilingual schools sound like more of a hindrance than anything useful or practical, since graduates are unable to communicate that they had been there.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Drew

    Learn Americanese like the rest of us, lady!

    January 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. D

    There is no language called Mexican it's Castillian.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Marine5484

    My English is good sweetheart it is not....If I were to move to another country they would expect me to learn the language before I could have a job.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Devon

    There's no problem here. Learn English better and apply for the job next time around.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pat

      Like applying for a job as a heart surgeon and don't know where the heart is.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mary

    It is sad that she graduated from a U.S. high school cannot answer a question in English about where she went to high school. But, it will be a much sadder and disturbing day if someone is elected to participate in city council meetings – which are in English – and cannot speak the English language! But I guess there is a solution – hire an interpreter for her – their city council could be a mini United Nations and someone could translate everything else she needs to do her job. Pathetic! Let her learn English and become proficient and THEN run for office if she really wats to do that job.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • William Wilgus

      Unfortunately, much is lost in translation from one language to another unless done by an extremely fluent person in both languages. Even so, much can be lost or mis-interpreted. Can she read and understand the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, . . . her own state's Constitution and laws? From what I've read that's doubtful.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Drew

    CNN, before you tell me I should be outraged, please offer me up a copy of some video with this candidate speaking in English. At that time, you'll have my opinion. If she can't speak English, then there is no case. If she can speak English, then she should be able to run. Simple as that.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yuma resident

      I don't know why they don't have a clip. It played on the local news channels.. Also, I have never heard of any of the local high schools, Kofa included, to have a biligual programs. We have intensive English Language Learners ELL programs in the state which require all students to be taught only in English.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Pat

    English is not the national language. There is no NATIONAL LANGUAGE anywhere in the USA. Also, ignorance of the law is no excuse too, therefore she obviously must know all the laws and qualifies for the position of "City Council".

    On the other hand.

    Like my teachers told me in English class many decades ago, I need to get good grades in English if I expect to get a job some day when I grow up.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      English is the de facto national language of the US, but you're right about there being no official statement on the books making English the national language.

      Arizona, however, has a state law that covers this. English is the official language of the state. And more importantly, it's the language that city council meetings are going to be conducted in.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
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