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. Michael

    At least this one is attempting to learn english which is more than you can say for just about all the rest.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • michael clownboy

      hey clown, how many languages do you speak? lazy clown has empty cluebag.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  2. Adam

    This is what's wrong with America. People who can't even speak English trying to get into office. Learn to speak the langauge your "rights" were written in or get the hell out.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • poor adam

      adam, you might want to cover up...your stupidity is showing.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Really? This? I haven't taken a survey but I would say with confidence that most people running for office speak English fluently. And perhaps Ms. Cabrara's the only reason I can't say ALL, but stick with most. At any rate, no one told Arnold his English wasn't good enough to run California. Also, she's running to represent a community that's 98% latin-Americans, who speak both. To elect someone who only knows English would be a complete underrepresentation, as such official would represent, at most, only 2%. How is that democratic? In America, the leading democracy?

      January 31, 2012 at 12:10 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Do not confuse a foreign accent with poor English. Henry Kissinger has a foreign accent too, similar to
      Arnold. And so did Albert Einstein. That said, in order to function properly in that neighborhood, you should speak both English and Spanish. And both English and Spanish should be taught in school. Many countries have more than one language (multiple languages mandatory in school) and their natural born citizens are often multilingual. The language they speak at home and the languages they speak at work and in business environments. Check out countries like Switzerland, Luxembourg and there are many more on all continents...
      Many English speaking Americans are rather the exception with only one spoken language. LOL, and it looks like some of the Spanish speaking Americans are just the same. There is nothing wrong with English as the common language in the USA. Many countries with multiple languages ( and English is not one of them), still have English mandatory in school. English is an international language and the most common as a second language all over the world.
      And (only) English Americans are also rather the exception with making fun at somebody speaking with an accent.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:24 am | Report abuse |
  3. what_r_we_thinking

    Exactly how do you want to make English the official laguage of the U.S. if you have territories and control over places like Puerto Rico where the official language is Espanol and Alaska where they still speak dialects?

    January 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yuma resident

      I think a common binding language is needed. English should be required by all to conduct business/government. What people speak at home is their business, but a way to communicate with all is needed.It worked for my ancestor to learn English when they came to this country, why can't it work for others?

      January 30, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      There's nothing wrong with people speaking other languages. The issue is that legal matters need to be handled in one language, unless you want to make duplicate (or triplicate, etc.) copies of every document.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      Since all government business is conducted in English, it's not unreasonable to expect people who want to work in the government to learn it.

      Heck, I try to learn a foreign language if I'm just going to visit somewhere. I'd darn well get fluent if I wanted to live there, much less participate in their government.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • VeniVidiDejaVu

      This is still America, and the VOTERS should decide, not a judge.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      The Judge made his decision based on current law. The voters vote for their State legislators who in turn introduce/revise new/ existing laws. . If voters do not like the current law, there are vehicles to change the law by a majority vote. Providing it does not violate Federals laws.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:31 am | Report abuse |
  4. USMC70114

    The legal issue here is whether the city has an established rule requiring English, and it apparently doesn't. The city can't enforce a rule which doesn't exist. Its tragic that a high school graduate in America can't understand English. We make exceptions because its Spanish – what if its a Chinese, Arabic, or Russian next time? Do we make an exception?

    I bet she makes an argument under the Americans with Disabilities Act, making a paralell to someone who is deaf, requring a translator.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      The state of Arizona has a law on the books establishing English as their official language. As far as I know, there's no need for every city in a state to issue their own ordinances on the subject once the state's ruled on it.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
  5. sandan

    To all you posters, it's closed to midnight my time and I need my beddie-bye-time.

    Ovef the years, I have engaged in many blogs such as this one, but they were sometimes ugly where comments had no meaning otere than to cast a spell on the opposition with not factual information.

    I thank you all for an intersting discussion. Keep the hypocrits thinking! Thanks, all you good people!

    January 30, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
  6. smokinbluebear

    she cant even read at a 3rd grade english level....cant speak enough english to say what high school she went to.... how did she pass middle school? how did she pass high scool?

    January 30, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Esperanza

    She couldn't hold the interview in English. She had difficulty testifying in English. While she may know enough English to get by in her neighborhood, it doesn't necessarily mean she's fluent enough to keep up at the job. Especially when she answered "yes" to the where did you attend school question. The city has a mayor and council members that are not only Hispanic, but are also bilingual. So who would she be representing that they can't?

    January 30, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. B4Real2Me

    What, some people are still questioning President Obama’s citizenship and he speaks perfect English!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Karen

    Oh my God! Fluid??!!

    It takes much more than just speak English to run for anything in America, even a regular job!

    Clearly the issue is bigger than she thinks. No vocabulary, no knowledge of any laws and regulations. She can't even represent herself!

    Another case that amazed me last week, was the booklet that's given on the naturalization cerimony

    January 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Esperanza

    The official language of China is Chinese, Portugese for Portugal, Russian for Russia, Spanish for Spain, Philipino for the Philippines, French for France, German for Germany and nothing for America. I had to learn English in order to attend school, but this country is sooo far behind in languages.
    Joke: Wha

    January 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pilipino Boi

      Tagalog, not Philipino, my priend. Just because we can't say the "ph" sound, it doesn't mean you should not get the name right... Here's a disjointed thought: imagine John McCain saying, with a Pilipino accent: "Priends..., look it, what we hab to do is..." wouldnt that be just hilarious?

      January 31, 2012 at 12:23 am | Report abuse |
  11. James

    I agree with the Judge's decision. I moved to Arizona from New York and I cannot tell you how absolutely ridiculous I feel this state is when it comes to English proficiency. How did this woman graduate high school, and better yet; who is the person who granted her the diploma. Proficiency in English is very important considering the fact that she is attempting to run for a position in state gov't. This is the United States...since when is it ok for one American to represent another American and she speaks English no better than my 4 year old. I work in the medical profession and have co-workers who cannot communicate with her patients because her English is at a level where it's sad. This is never a good thing. The fact that she states that her English is "good enough" is scary we are tired of gov't officials and politicians with their "good enough" attitudes we want someone who strives to exceed our wildest expectations and at the very least we want someone representing us who speaks our country's language...ENGLISH at an educated adult's level.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Repulpicans

    She was raised in the US, if i was raised in Mexico I would be speaking Spanish.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. AGrey

    Here is the problem. A lot of 1st generation Mexican Americans think they speak Spanish, but they don't. Unfortunately they don't speak English either. They speak some conglomeration of unintelligible street Spanish, and poor English. I cannot tell you how many times I've had to ask for directions in a primarily "Spanish speaking" area only to be told "No speak English." When I ask in English, and "No speak English" when I ask in FLUENT Spanish. If you live in a country and intend to stay there you should speak the language. In fact immigrants should not be given citizenships if they can't speak fluent English, and ballots should only be printed in English. This is not an anti-hispanic stance, it's not a matter of unfair discrimination or oppression, it's a matter of practicality.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Esperanza

    Joke: What do you call someone who speaks many languages? Polyglot. What do you call someone who can speak two languages? Bi lingual What do you call someone who speaks only one language? American

    January 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Tare

    If she makes the effort to learn the language of the country she is living in, then she will be eligible for the office.
    All it would take is a little effort, rather than the opposite tactic of trying to force us to provide Spanish interpreters for every branch of government. As taxpayers we should all be concerned about this completely unnecessary expense.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
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