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. Chris

    This might seem like too simple an idea for anyone in Arizona to have thought of, but why not have her take a civil service exam (in English) and if she passes it. If she does, she should be allowed to be on the ballot. Fair enough?

    January 31, 2012 at 3:34 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Too many would not make it. Including only English speaking dudes.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      As I understand it, she can read and write in English, but has trouble with oral, both speaking and understanding.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:41 am | Report abuse |
  2. Americanpie

    The laws are complex. Will she have an interpreter read or translate them for her? What are the odds they'll be
    misunderstanding? I'm fairly competent in the English language, but still have a tough time understanding legal
    mumbo jumbo.

    January 31, 2012 at 3:43 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Man, ditto here. Although that is not really a requirement for a council member. Most councils , if not all, use a paid solicitor for interpretation.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:01 am | Report abuse |
    • MsDCpie

      Yes, Americanpie, I agree with you. Ms. Cabrera needs to be extraordinarily fluent in both languages in order to fairly represent her community AS WELL as to fairly represent San Luis' City Council; she would be doing both sides a disservice otherwise. If she needs an interpretor to perform this elected duty, who pays for? YOUR taxes...

      January 31, 2012 at 6:43 am | Report abuse |
  3. adam

    How is this really any different that someone who has a disability and is unable to speak? Would they bar someone who was deaf or mute from running for political office? I am no fan of this women and her lack of the English language but if this is who the people ( in her community) want to represent them then that is their business. I would prefer her to master the English language better than she has currently displayed not only because it may hender her & her community for business and in case of emergencies but also for the fact she will be role model for others and that she may be encouraging others to only go for " good enough" English as well.

    January 31, 2012 at 4:30 am | Report abuse |
    • d89

      I think the only difference between Cabrera's problem and for someone with a disability such as the ones you listed, is that those who are deaf or mute cannot in most cases cannot get better. Whereas in Cabrera's case, her disability is her lack of a motivation to learn the english language so that she may better server her people in public office. Also, a deaf or mute person could still communicate with others in public office, either by means of writing or learning to read lips (reading lips may not always be accurate, but it would be a step), I guess the reason why I'm outraged by this is the fact that Cabrera refuses to better learn to speak and understand english, and instead claims discrimination,

      January 31, 2012 at 5:30 am | Report abuse |
  4. RD Carrington

    She doesn't have a disability. She's refused to learn the language on which laws, rules. and regulations she may have an impact on are written in English, in a predominantly English-speaking country. The ways things are going, she will probably be "helping out" at the White House...

    January 31, 2012 at 5:15 am | Report abuse |
  5. borisjimbo

    She probably speaks it better than George W. ever did.

    January 31, 2012 at 5:43 am | Report abuse |
    • pete

      democrats stink!!

      January 31, 2012 at 7:04 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jonathan W

    There have been alot of comments saying that Latinos do not want to learn English or that the US is "catering" to the Latino population. For all of those people that agree with the above statement, this is for you. In the 2004 Pew/Kaiser Hispanic Survey, 69.1 percent believed that is either important or somewhat important to change in order to blend in with larger society. In the 2004 Pew National Survey of Hispanics: Education, 91.6% of Latinos though it was very important to teach English in public schools to children of immigrants compared to 87.9% whites and 84.1% blacks. Keep those figures in mind before you say something like Latinos do not want to learn or feel the need to know English. Stay educated, stay classy.

    January 31, 2012 at 6:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Greg

      Nice stats. Ok, so why do they whine about it so much? Just get on with it a learn the stupid language and be done with it. Yes, English is a tough and illogical language (at least compared to Spanish) and takes a lot of effort to learn. So be it, just DO IT.

      And regarding 'Stats', they are meaningless. They can be manipulated in any way to promote a certain POV. Ask any stats professor at the graduate degree level and they will confirm.

      January 31, 2012 at 6:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan W

      Where are you getting "why do they whine about it so much"? Can you show me proof that a majority of Latinos whine about not wanting to learn English or is it that CERTAIN INDIVIDUALS you encounter or hear about who may whine not wanting to learn English, and its just made salient to your mind? As for your sarcastic remark on "stats", yes statistics to a certain extent can be manipulated to promote a certain point of view but I wished you took the time to look at where I got those "stats" from instead of just assuming (you seem to be extremely good at that) it is automatically manipulated. The Pew Research Center is a NONPARTISAN FACT TANK and has perhaps the best statistics on Latinos in the US. The statistics are minimally manipulated because the sample size was high and the poll questions were fair (this is Pew we're talking about). Stay educated, stay classy.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan W

      I look forward to your response.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Hum....

      But she wants to represent "our people"....that's the problem I have, if a white male said he wanted to represent his people, he would be immediately label a racist. If you are running for a political office in the United States of America you should be running for office to represent everyone one and not just the people that look or speak like you. Reverse racism is rampant in this country and no one ever says anything about it and why, because as soon as you do you are called a racist. With that said, if you aren't smart enough to learn proficient English, then you're too stupid to represent your people, just saying......

      January 31, 2012 at 7:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan W

      @ hum... I never took a side whether or not she is proficient enough to hold office. My issue was with people saying that Latinos do not want to assimilate or learn the English language when clearly they do. Your statement "If you are running for a political office in the United States of America you should be running for office to represent everyone one and not just the people that look or speak like you." actually brings up a good point about substantive and descriptive representation. Check those terms up and the I would love to have a conversation about the pros and cons between the two representations. Stay educated, stay classy.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. J R Brown

    She may well represent those in her community well and resemble them/their abilities but that is not the entire equation...she needs to be able to interact with the other members of the board, her regional leadership and even the state level proficiently to DO her job...which she has not demonstated the ability to do. If she was really, truly interested in being the voice of her community, tell her to get Rosetta Stone or something and learn's the means to an end. It's not up to everyone else to learn to understand's up to her to learn to be able to communicate with everyone else.

    January 31, 2012 at 6:13 am | Report abuse |
    • AzPatriot

      87% of San Luis residents speak spanish at home.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      and 100% of the laws are written in English.

      I'd bet most of the folks in the county and state government don't speak Spanish, too.

      Fact is, she failed to meet a legal, state requirement for elected office, and that is the ability to speak and understand English.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:46 am | Report abuse |
  8. Fedup

    This is America!! Learn to speak our language (English) or go back home. If I went to your country I would be treated the same way. Get over it!!

    January 31, 2012 at 6:46 am | Report abuse |
  9. CraigM

    Here's a solution....just cede the town to Mexico and be done with it....all problems solved and these people who refuse to take English as their first language in America can live and speak and write and read all in Spanish because they will be living in a Spanish speaking country........Mexico!! End of story!!

    January 31, 2012 at 7:15 am | Report abuse |
  10. Bob Havecker

    Instead of spending time and money fighting our government and our language, why not use the time and money to take English courses to help resolve the issue? Why do people come to our country and then want to change it so that it looks like the country that they left behind? If their country was so wonderful perhaps they should consider moving back.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:25 am | Report abuse |
  11. Really?

    Considering that there are tests for high school students to take which are English proficiency tests for people who learn it as a second language, I imagine that she could simply be administered it and judged based on her score. If she passes, she's eligible. If she fails, she is not. I know that's not what happened here, but in any appeal or ensuing law suit, that would seem to be a pretty good indicator for the legitimacy of her claim. I am glad that there is a woman in that community so dedicated to helping her fellow residents out and I applaud her drive to make their lives better. There are many things she could do in that community to fulfill her desires without running for office. That said, if the proceedings she'd need to take part in are done in English, (and with the state's official language being English, this is likely now a legal requirement) she needs to be able to understand them well enough to follow along at a rapid pace without misunderstanding. The 1910 law is specific in stating that it must be done without an interpreter. I encourage her to work on her English skills until she can prove that she is fluent, and if she applies herself to this task with half as much drive as she shows to help her community, I'm sure she'll be on the ballot in no time.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:32 am | Report abuse |
  12. rad666

    If Mr. Potatoe Head, Dan Quayle, can be vice president of the United States, then this guy can be on a city council.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Common Sense

      Problems reading, they are talking about a woman not a guy.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
  13. ray

    Prejudices are what fools use for reason – Voltaire –

    Any of you see yourselves in this statement?

    January 31, 2012 at 7:53 am | Report abuse |
  14. reality hater

    This is really a joke – "These People" come into our county and are arrogant SOB's about learning the language -I don't give a rats ass what you speak at home , but conducting business as a public official in AMERICA – you better damn sure speak and understand ENGLISH. so the rest of us Americans that do speak English can understand YOU. My grandfather came off of a boat in NYC during the 1930's from Germany and he learned the language as did thousands of refugees from all over the world – none were as arrogant as the Latin's refusal to learn or speak English , this is not just a little issue in Arizona . This lack of respect is taking place in Texas , Florida , New York, Tennessee and worse yet it causes a capital drain having to print everything in two or more languages.Hell In Miami street signs and billboards are written in Spanish....Hey no one is trying to take away your culture , but if your going to benefit from living and working in the good ole USA – give us the respect we deserve and learn the language ! How the HELL CAN YOU LIVE IN A COUNTRY FOR YEARS AND NEVER BOTHER TO LEARN THE LANGUAGE IS BEYOND ME.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
    • ally buster

      You'll find that hatred and profanity achieve exactly one thing: High blood pressure.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike G.

      You forget that there is no official "National Language" in the United States. English is spoken by custom, not by law. We can debate the virtues of making English the national language by an act of Congress, but until that time there is no legal precedent or justification for refusing someone's run for office based on their language proficiency. The judge's decision will have to be overturned. As for your own failed self analysis, I would say you are about as xenophobic as they come.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:11 am | Report abuse |
    • AmericanSam

      States like Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico were once a part of Mexico, ya know? There are tons of Native American languages spoken in the United States, too. The reason they aren't as widespread as English is because, woops, we murdered most of them.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
    • jus sayin

      Although the media focuses on those who have come over the border recently, it's important to remember that some hispanics were already in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas when we took the land from them. We don't know when this lady come to her hometown or whether she was born and bred there. That makes a completely different scenario than getting off a boat at a new country.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      You know, technically the US does not have an official language... Just prevalent one(s)...

      January 31, 2012 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      See the problem is....You're speaking in the language of "Common Sense"....pastie faced liberals don't speak that language, so when thye hear you speak, they stand there like a deer in headlights.
      You most everyone else in this country have nothing against the sound if it.
      We just don't think the whole country should be "refit" to accomodate a single race.

      "Common Sense".

      January 31, 2012 at 8:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Fast Eddie

      Only in America do you find a populace so arrogant as to only know —and only WANT to know— one language, and to present that ignorance as a point of national pride.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:37 am | Report abuse |
    • DT

      Mike G, I guess you missed the fact that the article mentioned that English is the official language of Arizona. There's your legal basis.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
    • madbomber98

      I hear ya & I'm right there with you. Can you imagine an American living for 5 or 10 or more years in a different country & not learning enough about the language to live everyday life? What does that prove? Who does that serve? How can anyone be so damned arrogant?

      January 31, 2012 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      What do you expect REALITY HATER? Do you think the white men who invaded Mexico and stole Arizona, Texas, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, OR the white men who started beef with the Spaniards and stole Florida and Puerto Rico, were concerned with getting RESPECT from the Spanish speaking people they were kiling, raping, and plundering? The answer is no, so now, over a hundred years later, you have to suffer the consequences of the crimes other white racist menc ommitted. Sorry.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan W

      There have been comments saying that Latinos do not want to learn English or that the US is "catering" to the Latino population. For all of those people that agree with the above statement, this is for you. In the 2004 Pew/Kaiser Hispanic Survey, 69.1 percent believed that is either important or somewhat important to change in order to blend in with larger society. In the 2004 Pew National Survey of Hispanics: Education, 91.6% of Latinos though it was very important to teach English in public schools to children of immigrants compared to 87.9% whites and 84.1% blacks. Keep those figures in mind before you say something like Latinos do not want to learn or feel the need to know English. Stay educated, stay classy.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Claire

    Arizona is a breeding ground for bigots. Voters should be able to vote for the candidate of their choice. What's next only people with Boston Brahmin accents? No slang? No southern accents? People who say 'anyways' 'yous' and 'yall' can't run for office? If the woman is a legal citizen, then voters should have the option of voting for her. If they don't like her limited English then they won't support her.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:04 am | Report abuse |
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