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. madbomber98

    This is America, yes, & ANY job that requires proficiency in a particular language has minimum requirements. Why does this person think she is any different than anyone else who wants to hold any office? It doesn't matter if she represents mostly people who speak Spanish – her Spanish proficiency is not in question; it's whether she can function in the office she seeks IN THE LANGUAGE THAT IS REQUIRED. Don't like it? Find another way. Stop trying to bend the rules to conform to your particular situation. You know the requirements; MEET them BEFORE you run for office. This person would not have hired a tutor if they didn't know their English was not meeting minimum requirements. How about trying to tell an air traffic controller ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD that he doesn't have to be proficient in English before he applies for the position? Yeah.... good luck with that too.....

    January 31, 2012 at 8:47 am | Report abuse |
  2. 99sparky

    It's really sad though that she considers local government so much less important than the federal government. She should really take the time to look into it and realize that the things happening on the local level have a greater impact in our day to day lives than what goes on at the federal level. Sad to have our local government belittled by someone who wants so desperately to be a part of it.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:49 am | Report abuse |
  3. David

    Anchor babies and illegals out now.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
    • 99sparky

      See, that's ridiculous to make that statement in conjuction with this story!
      She IS a US citizen.
      That statement has NOTHING to do with her or the story.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
  4. catmomof13

    If you want to assimilate, learn to speak English. If you don't...then leave. It's that simple. As for immigrants who speak Spanish, quit thinking the world should change to accommodate you. The US has a history of immigrants...but having to press 1 for English is done only for those who speak Spanish and don't want to work hard enough to learn English. The other immigrants never insisted we learn their language. They learned English. In the long run, such arrogance on the part of the Spanish speakers only hurts their cause and alienates people. Plus, you need to know English to fill out the papers for the welfare, food stamps and the rest of the free ride you came here for.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
    • 99sparky

      Agree but there is nothing wrong with some accomodation while someone learns the language.
      As long as they ARE making the effort to learn.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
    • M

      One: She is a US citizen.
      Two: We do NOT have an official language in this country.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:04 am | Report abuse |
  5. brujo123

    I have to agree with the majority here. She has to learn English. Even she admits that her proficiency is not good (a 5 out of 10!!). She is also not doing herself a favor by minimizing the position she seeks. It is a position where she will have to talk to not just people of her community but she will have to talk to people outside of her community and she can only do that successfully if she learns the language of this country.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  6. Bill

    This is the problem because people don't think the rules apply to them. English is the official language of this country and guess what she doest meet the criteria. Oh and don't forget she sues and everything becomes a discrimination issue. I'd would like to see what other country anywhere puts up with this nonsense. I say go home your ridiculous law suit costs ghre taxpayers! All tax payers including those not proficient in English!

    January 31, 2012 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
    • LivinginVA

      English is not the official language this is her home.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
  7. maniacmudd

    juge juan hates mexicans...

    January 31, 2012 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ben

    There was a time in America when any group of Immigrants elected the member of their community who could best speak English and was the most integrated into American Society because that is what they all aspired to.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  9. AmericanSam

    Oh I have a good idea. Sort of a let's-meet-in-the-middle kind of plan. Why not offer free English as a second language courses in communities? Most people who come here seem to be working really, really hard, so study time isn't really easy to come by, but free classes would be a good avenue for learning English. But honestly, I've never really been angry at a Mexican because they spoke Spanish. It would be kind of arrogant of me to say, "I don't have to try as hard because of the geographic location in which I was born! However, you should have to work much, much harder than me on account of the geographic location in which you were born!" In fact, let's all just be friends. If we all just liked each other, learning the language would probably come a lot easier.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:11 am | Report abuse |
    • AGuest9

      "Free"??? You mean "paid for by the taxpayers"? Even if the courses are taught by volunteers, someone has to pay for the room/building to be open/heated/lighted/guarded. Even if held in a public library, this isn't "free". My great-grandparents didn't come here expecting everything for free – why should these invaders expect it?

      January 31, 2012 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      You want to offer up a free program like that, then get out your checkbook and YOU pay for it.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
    • AurelioJose

      Immigration is an act of volition, nobody was invited to come here. You are here because you want. But before you came, you knew that the languages was english and the culture, anglo. Why is it so difficult to learn the language of the country you chosen to reside? Europeans speak several languages and that's nothing. The children of chinese immigrants in Miami speak Mandarin, English and Spanish without the trace of an accent. Is she mentally incapable of learning at least enough english to communicate effectively and run for office? or the main idea is to replace English for Spanish? It is just simply stupid.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      AGUEST 9 Invaders? Really? You really need to brush up on your history. Your white grandparents invaded Mexico and went to war with Spain during the two wars from which the United States gained the land where Spanish speakers reside today ( ever heard of the Mexican War and the Spanish War?). So please, don't complain about invaders and taxpayer money. Your grandparents invaded Mexico, your grandparents and parents and you have benefited from the wealth and land stolen from the Mexican people. Now, it is only fair the children of the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans killed by the US military in the 1867 war be compensated. Sorry, but what goes around comes around. It's called karma.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      AURELIOJOSE No issue is "just simply stupid." You just gave examples of how different ethinic groups coexist by learning different languages. If you are going to put down this woman, why don't you also criticize a state that has refused to integrate its Hispanic community and is instead looking for ways to deport or marginalize every single Hispanic in the state, whether he/she is a citizen or not? Yes, immigrants should learn English, but what about her CIVIL RIGHTS as a US CITIZEN? She can't run for office because you, Janet Breuer, or any old anglo bigot viejito hates anyone who is not white and is cranky because the brown people are moving into the neighborhood. Really AurelioJose, don't be a DESCASTADO, show some pride in your culture, no seas MALINCHISTA. Defend Spanish just as much as you do English. That is the least you can do. Remember where you come from and the language your mother and father, grandfather/grandmother, greatgranparents, spoke. We have been in AZ far longer than the angry white Republicans.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
  10. Itreallydoesntmatterwhatwethink

    I want to be a pisacist, I can't spell physicist but I think I am otherwise qualified.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Well, just move to a place where the majority of the voters are pisacists and you can get elected – to anything. Mayor, physicist, whatever. The power is in the numbers, not the ability. We will learn that all too late.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
  11. Nick

    No need to speak English, didn't you know you can come here and bring your old culture with you? Assimilate and become an American?.....Preposterous, who ever heard such a thing. Why would anyone want to do that.........Just shows how far down the toilet this country has gone. I feel bad for my children for they will inherit what we don't have the gonads to do.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
    • AurelioJose

      Nick, I can't agree more with you. It stinks that the cultures that created the economic and social disasters in Latin American are then upheld by these people. I think that for once English should be declared the Official Language of the USA and that government enforces it. Look at Canada.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
  12. Mike

    Learn to speak English

    January 31, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
  13. sid206

    Your are in America. We speak English. You should to.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
    • reality hater

      Very well said !

      January 31, 2012 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Nojabo


      January 31, 2012 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
    • derp

      I absolutely when the English only" morons come out and proceed to butcher the language. Americans are so fuc king stupid.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Hem

      @Derp: "I absolutely when ..."..based on your statement, you must be one of those f'ng stupid Americans.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      @Sid, it's either "You're in America" or "You are in America". And it's "too", not "to". Perhaps you need a refresher in English grammar as well.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  14. The One

    I agree with the judge in the terms that if you want to run for any public spot, you should learn the language well enough to converse with the standard language in this country. If she learns english better, good for her, I believe she should be allowed to run then.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:22 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jen

    She DOES speak English; she just says she doesn't speak it very well. According to some of these comments, I'd wager a guess a lot of you don't speak it very well either.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:22 am | Report abuse |
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