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. kh

    I want to know who is paying her legal bills. Is there an "advocacy group" behind her? What this article doesn't state is that Ms. Cabrera was given linguistics tests – three different types of linguistics tests and she did not pass them. I read this in another article covering this same story. The fact that she interviewed with CNN with a Spanish interpreter really shows that she is not capable of understanding or responding to people who speak English. How she graduated from High School should really make every American wonder what is happening in our public school systems. This "lawsuit" is ridiculous and a waste of time and money. Ms. Cabrera should find a way to learn English, then run for public office.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:04 am | Report abuse |
  2. ally buster

    Without a video, one cannot tell whether this woman's English is indeed acceptable for public office.

    Airline pilots have to be able to "read, speak, and understand the English language", since this is the international standard. Aviation medical examiners determine whether a candidate for a pilots license can speak the language properly. In this instance, I believe that this is a good standard. If an aviation medical examiner would give her a medical certificate, then she should be eligible for office.

    I'm not xenophobic at all, I am all for immigration. But countries like Belgium teach us what happens when you have two official languages: Chaos. Language unites, it destroys labels, makes a people one with each other. YES we need an official language, and YES it should be English.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
    • kh

      Cabrera was given three independent linguistics tests – why this reporter from CNN left out this information (I read it elsewhere) is puzzling and does not give the reader a complete picture of the situation.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Simon

      There's chaos in Belgium?

      January 31, 2012 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Simon

      Not to mention all the chaos in Canada, Hong Kong, (2 languages each) and Switzerland (4 languages). It's all over the news.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:50 am | Report abuse |
  3. Mike G.

    Because you "read it somewhere else" does not lend confidence to the accuracy of your statement. What's your source?

    January 31, 2012 at 8:12 am | Report abuse |
  4. Larry

    English should be be made the National language. All signs sholud be in English. All new LEGAL citizens should have two years to be able to speak English or be deported. This women does not care about the English language, only her spanish speaking voters.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike G.

      "This women does not care about the English language, only her spanish speaking voters."
      Unfortunately, there is no such law and no such standard. The US does not have a national language, end of story. And yes, a representative should care more about the people they serve than the language spoken by them. Ir sis sickening to see the blatant racism that still infects many of the small-minded in this declining country.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:20 am | Report abuse |
  5. Mike G.

    The choice of whether Cabrera is fit to serve or not is up to her peers and her electorate. The only question is whether she is fit to serve and represent her community, and, again, that is not a legal decision. She is US citizen representing a voting public. It is the decision of the people she wishes to represent.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:16 am | Report abuse |
  6. Mike G.

    You favor deporting US citizens because their first language is Spanish? lol.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
  7. just curious

    The idea that earlier generations of immigrants learned English well and the new wave of Hispanic immigrants "arrogantly refuse" is a myth.
    Most first generation immigrants, throughout our history learned only limited or "broken" English, and relied on living in ethnic enclaves to work and socialize. Second generations were overwhelmingly bi-lingual, and third generations tend to be mostly English speaking only.
    That pattern has not changed. Nor has anti-immigrant sentiment whenever a large new wave hits, be they Italian, Irish or whatever.
    Those who criticize Hispanics on this issue are ignorant of American history.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:18 am | Report abuse |
  8. Mike G.

    "Those who criticize Hispanics on this issue are ignorant of American history."
    Well said! They are also perhaps ignorant of their own family history.

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

      Not really – My Great Grandfather and Grandfather both took pride in learning the language of their new adopted county – Both spoke and wrote English fluently all it takes is a little effort !

      January 31, 2012 at 9:04 am | Report abuse |
  9. TruthFinally

    Interview conducted in Spanish, hmmmmmmmmmm why was the interview not conducted in English?
    Can I go to Mexico and demand things?

    January 31, 2012 at 8:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Fast Eddie

      If you went to Mexico (or Guatemala, or Honduras, or Bolivia or almost anywhere in Central or South America) you would have no problem finding people who speak some English or finding signs written in English.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
  10. TruthFinally

    She should be on the ballot as a citizen although she will support the Hispanic invasion

    January 31, 2012 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |
  11. JMTX

    The fact that she is demographically similar to the people in the district is irrelevant, and it's a smokescreen. Her job isn't to sit around all day talking to people in her district. It's certainly a part of jer job, but not exclusively. She has to have meetings, both internal and external, attend official functions, and interface with English-speaking people on a regular basis. SPEAKING English is a prerequisitie for her job, not BEING Spanish. She was tested and she failed. Boo hoo, learn English.

    I get mad about this topic because of the arrogance of latino immigrants (and more importantly, the activist attorneys that file these suits). It would be like me going to Mexico and suing because Merida wouldn't allow me be on the city council. I speak Spanish, but i am not fluent. She thinks she'd be doing a better job because she is more prepresentative of the people; I think she would do a worse job because while the English-speaking members are yucking it up with a state official that can help bring resources to their community, she's off to the side smiling and nodding, having no clue what is being discussed until someone translates it for her. That's the daily reality of politics. So the English-speaking members do thier job, and she gets credit for it in the latin community. And all the democrats rejoice for having brought diversity and fairness to a world full of inequality. Yay them. Group hug.

    It is politically motivated. I'm guessing an activist found a willing participant to ride the train all the way. It's like the firefighter debates in the 80s. Yes, women can become firefighters, but if they are disqualified it is because they can't lift the equipment, not because they are female.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
  12. Alex

    I can barely understand what "Governator" says and he got to be Governor! This is clearly a discrimination case against this woman.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
  13. DT

    2 Words: Lean English

    Why? It's the official language of the state she's running in.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Billy Bob Boom Bang Bubbis Bingo


      LEARN English.

      "Lean English" sounds like some wicked spin you'd put on the cue ball. "Wow, Jim really put some lean English on that shot." 😉

      January 31, 2012 at 9:00 am | Report abuse |
    • M

      According to this article, she does speak "lean" English.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:02 am | Report abuse |
  14. 99sparky

    No need for hate and no need to cry racism/bigotry.
    It's plain and simple, there are state mandated pre-requisites for holding this office.
    She does NOT meet these pre-requisites.
    Therefore, she cannot hold this office.
    So she cannot be allowed to run for an office which she cannot hold.
    Plain and simple.
    If you do not like the law then either change it or go somewhere else.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
  15. Matty V

    Can we initiate a tax audit for the entire county now please?

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