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. WeHadGeorgeBushJR

    We had a president that could not speak proper engilish and he seemed to get elected. 🙂

    January 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Zavi13

      LMAO!! So true.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • BinaryTruth

      Because, as always, it's okay if you are Republican. No matter what you do.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Terrils

      He was a rich white male with rich white male friends. No other qualifications are required.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  2. firefly

    If she was born in the US then how in he11 does she NOT speak English? She through 12 years of school and can't speak English! are you Fing kidding me!Q

    January 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • vtguy

      Thank the corrupt teachers unions.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kelly

      OMG, I was thinking the exact same thing – and for the record, I'm a liberal democrat. It would seem to be a no-brainer that English proficiency would be a requirement for graduation from an American high school.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jesse

      Presumably you've had more training than the candidate, and yet you can barely compose a two sentence summary without spelling and grammatical errors.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • L

      Being a US citizen does not necessarily mean that she was born here. She could be a naturalized citizen, which she most likely is. I find it puzzling that most people who are so strongly opinionated on issues of immigration have no knowledge of US immigration whatsoever.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • jota

      Speak for yourself, you obviously can't read. The article states she is a US Citizen and graduated from High School here, it never says she was born here. She may have immigrated to the US when she was 17 for all we know.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rose

      Don't forget, she graduated bilingual HS. Bilingual is a buzz word.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mark

    This is an issue of functionality. Our government cannot function if everyone holding office doesn't speak, read, and write the same language. Translations leave a lot to be desired. So, we can't even say that she could hold office and have translators. I work in international insurance, and English is the language of insurance across the GLOBE. Yes, there are translations of brochures, marketing materials, etc. but every one of them has some sort of disclaimer that says, "Please refer to the policy certificate in English for exact wording", or something to that effect. This eliminates the probability that there are different interprestations to words or phrases than the original English meaning. In France, the government speaks, reads and writes French, and it is required to hold office. The same is true for virtually every other country int he world. We can't have a government made up of hundreds of office holders speaking an untold number of languages. This would cause our government to be completely impotent. No one would understand anything; at least not very quickly. You think things are slow now? Wait till we have to have a blue million translators not only translating the words, but explaining dialects, phraseology, etc. It would be a nightmare.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Mark, you seem to forget Canada. They use both English and French. The English say too much French, the French too much English, so it must be somewhat balanced. It costs, but, their economy is one of the best in the world and their banks second to none. It can be done but there are too many out there that don't want it done. Most forget their families were also immigrants back in the day!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. twgloege

    The judge is right to try to stop this now before it gets out of hand. We need a law that makes english the offical language.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Epluribusunum

      The law to make English as the main language in the United States of America show have been passed in 1976. I mean at least the currency of this country still has the english language on both sides.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:01 am | Report abuse |
  5. Steven

    The judge made the right call. Every rule and regulation that she would be called upon to read, interpret, advocate for/against, and enforce would be written in English. There's no way she's qualified to do this job if she can't answer "Where did you graduate from?" without an interpreter. No way.

    And keep the racism charge out of this. Her challenger in the election is named Juan Carlos Escamilla.

    On the flip side, should any candidate run in this election who isn't 100% fluent in Spanish, the voters would vote against that person, and that would be the proper outcome because proficiency in Spanish is a legitimate criterion for serving this community.

    But in that case it would be the result of a popular vote in a particular community, not a change in the rules that govern AZ or the USA.

    If the population in this town were to change over time so that the dominant language became Chinese, then the electorate would (appropriately) demand a candidate fluent in Chinese, and the law would continue to require a candidate fluent in English.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • 1 US Citizen

      Your post is the first intelligent response I have read. I agree with you 100%. A bilingual representative MUST possess the ability to attend the meetings and digest (understand) what is being addressed in English and then effectively communicate all the information back to the constituents in spanish. If the representative cannot speak fluent english in the meeting, how is she going to communicate with her council peers and any other government associates the NEEDS of her community?
      Candidates should meet ALL the criteria (including SPEAKING ENGLISH) to be eligible to be placed on the ballad. A more suitable Bilingual candidate should come forth within the community and be selected. Unfortunately she does not meet the criteria and should not be allowed to go on the ticket. In the meantime, she should make a mature and educated decision to further study the english language with a goal of becoming proficient with speaking it. Ultimately, this will make her a more suitable candidate for an election in the future.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
  6. Zavi13

    Spanish was spoken in Arizona long before English was, the city is called SAN LUIS for God's sake! Maybe all candidates in Arizona should be required to have knowledge of the Navajo (Dine) language as that was the largest native american language and still has 150,000 native speakers. This isn't surprising in a state with a racist, xenophobic govenor like Jan Brewer, she want's to re-create the Mississippi of the old days out west!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • vtguy

      What part of English is the national language don't you understand. Do you expect people in vermont to speak french? How about latino's learning French before attending a town meeting in Vermont. What... you don't understand French? Why don't you learn it..... racist, blah, blah, blah.... pull your head out of your arss.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • MashaSobaka

      vtguy, what part of the United States *not having a national language* do YOU not understand?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mike C

    I agree with the court ruling. I think that English should be the the only language spoken in all forms of government. If a person can't remember what High School they went to seems to me to be a problem. I agree with Somebodywhoknows.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • MashaSobaka

      If you're going to criticize someone else's language skills then you might want to brush up on your own.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Catmandew

    When did we turn into a nation of wimps worryin about political correctness! Why are you wasting my taxes to figure out stupidity!? She does not meet the requirements nuff said!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  9. vtguy

    English is the national language. if I want to attend a town meeting, it better damn well be in fluent english. I do know that spanish is spoken accross the border, and she certianly can run there. Enough of this latino BS is our faces. This is why more and more, people will see a revolt against latino based crap.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Zavi13

      It was a Spanish speaking area first you cretin!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Samuel LJ

      Are you retarted? The US does not have an official national language.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. firefly

    She was born in the US and cannot speak English? She went to scholl for 12 years and cannot speak English? are you kidding me!!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • MashaSobaka

      Uh...she CAN speak English.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • As Far As Siam

      Shouldnt you be in scholl ?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Dino Droppings

    Only rich, white, republican christians should be allowed to hold office.
    Time to clean this country up.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brayden


      January 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  12. MashaSobaka

    Okay. Don't let her run. But from now on I want English proficiency tests for ALL candidates, regardless of skin color or the language spoken at home. Too many of our politicians have abysmal language skills as it is. Time to weed them out. No more restricting it to certain groups of people. Time to demand that ALL politicians speak pristine English.

    ...Or we could realize that this is all absurd and let this American citizen run for public office so that she can serve her community.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • ?

      If she can barely answer "What high school did you attend?", how will she fare with complex (English-written) laws? My family are immigrants, and all learned the "unofficial" (albeit-majority) language of the US.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Progress

    While we're at it, why don't we just ban Ignorants from posting comments to CNN articles (or ANY articles, for that matter)??

    January 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Steven

    As a follow-on to my comment above, similar rules apply in aviation. English is the accepted and required language for aviation in all countries because it ensures that people can communicate. Therefore all commercial pilots who fly internationally must have a functional knowledge of English, or else you don't fly.

    But if you want to fly for Aeromexico you'd better also speak Spanish, and for Alitalia Italian, AIr China Chinese, etc.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jim in San Mateo

    The detail she forgot is that she is trying to do this in Arizona where fairness doesn't apply.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nah

      jim: "The detail she forgot is that she is trying to do this in Arizona where fairness doesn't apply."

      Yeah, it's unfair to require a councilwoman to speak and understand the language that ordinances, etc. are written in.

      Stupid much?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
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