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. Rika33

    English should be the official language of the United States. Good for Arizona to have recognized that 100 years ago.

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

    I give the woman credit for being honest and sincerely wanting to work to better the community. Running for elected office takes courage; people sitting at a keyboard making barely coherent insults are cowards.

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

      That's stupid. if you want to be doctor, you study medicine, likewise for everything you want to become, there are basic educational requirements. if she wanted to run for office, all she had to do was to learn to speak english. Why is that so difficult to understand. This is silly.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
  3. ru serious about coming to this great country and assimilating?? How about learning the language first and THEN running for office? Just another indication of how far we have fallen, where this woman thinks it is perfectly A-OK to come to America, don't bother learning the language and then run for office. Go away, go back and fix your OWN country, leave ours alone.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
    • akmike64

      Ms. Cabrera is an American citizen, not some illegal immigrant. There are many English speaking Americans who cannot display adequate reading comprehension if they are tested at any reasonable level. Many of them comment on news articles.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
  4. JOHN

    What disturbs me most about this report is what the journalists are asking? Whether English should be the official language of the country. English is the official language of the country. And whether you like it or not, it is going to stay that way.
    The president has made that clear. So where have you been?

    January 31, 2012 at 9:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Where have YOU been? California, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, every state stolen from Mexico during the Mexican War of 1867 is a bilingual state. Spanish is alive and well and when Hispanics OVERCOME the racism you and your fellow radicals are spewing, Spanish speakers will have to shown the same respect English speakers now enjoy. So start learning Spanish.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  5. akmike64

    There are a large number of native born Americans, whose English skills are well below average, and English is their first language. At worst, if there are going to be literacy tests, the standards must be set and published so those affected by those standards have the choice to obtain additional education.

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

      and then, for that reason should they become mute?

      January 31, 2012 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Amen to that, I have several around me I can't understand at all, between coloqialisms and garbled accents I am not sure it really qualifies as English.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Nojabo

      The word is "moot" not "mute".

      January 31, 2012 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  6. Victoria

    what is totally bizarre is that one of her attorneys represents "yuma county Patriots"; busy he is keeping people out of this county; now, he is championing the "limited" English speaking candidates for office? basically bringing "little Mexico" into this State? Great decision Judge Nelson!

    January 31, 2012 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Mexico has never left Arizona and the only thing that is little is your intellect and your values. Shame on you Judge Nelson.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
  7. George Harmes

    Ay Caramba! ... This ser uno duro taco para comer!! – Me for presidento de Mexico! YeeeHAaaah!!

    January 31, 2012 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Hey redneck, go deep fry yourself some roadkill and leave the comments to those with a moral compass and a high school diploma.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
  8. Hem

    What she doesn't seem to understand is that if elected to public office, she represenst EVERYONE, not just a specific segment of the population, even if it's the majority. If she doesn't, or worse yet chooses to ignore this fact, then she definitely is not qualified.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  9. Segeny

    More proof that the 'bilingual' program is a crock. As far as cabrera goes, she SHOULD go – – back to her homeland – – you know, the one in whose language she IS proficient.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Says who ignorant redneck? I went through a bilingual program because my parents wanted me to learn another language. I made it to an Ivy League school and I saved myself a lot of money placing out of the language requirement classes. All thanks to bilingual education. You are an inbred, ignorant bigot who wants everyone to be as ignorant and hateful as you. Stop making the rest of America look inbred and bigoted like you.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
  10. bravo

    This is an insult to us not to learn OUR language.
    Get the f out if you don't respect us, that is as easy as that.

    January 31, 2012 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      You are an inbred bigot. We will never get out. Jamas nos iremos de este pais. We will become the majority and you will have to learn both English and Spanish. Unfortunately, we your parents missed the boat on teaching you to be a decent human being.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      You are the biggest insult to our language and to your parents. They must be hiding in shame in some cave.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      You are the biggest insult to our language and to your parents.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  11. algorithmSC

    Any other country in the world would laugh me right out of that country if I didn't speak their language well enough to run for office. Who do these people think they are?

    January 31, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Airdale

      Answer: They think they should receive better treatment and more rights than native born citizens. And our progressive government leaders and courts usually comply.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      No algorithm, what people are laughing at right now is your limited intellect. The rest of the world is also in shock at how easily a majority can discriminate against another group in America and make it sound OK just because a partisan judge says it's OK. Good people of Arizona, fight for your rights.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
  12. Kerry Baranek

    How did she graduate High School if she can't read and write English? Is there a requirement to be a HS graduate for this position?

    January 31, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan can graduate from high schools in other languages than english...

      January 31, 2012 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Airdale

      Duh....Maybe that's one of the problems with our public education standards.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Kerry Baranek

      Hey Dan, which Public High School can you graduate without knowing how to read and write English? I challenge you to produce the name of a school in the United States that does not have this requirement.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  13. barabbas2010

    How nice ! Racism and xenophobia are alive and well in the US.

    January 31, 2012 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
  14. rtbrno65

    What a racist judge. Let the voters decide if she doesn't speak English well enough.

    January 31, 2012 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
  15. David Cimperman

    This is CRAP....... People tried his with Blacks, and Women. It was crap then too. I am a WHITE, Middle Class, 47 year old Midwestern Police Officer. I am by definition, conservative...... But Wrong.... IS ...... WRONG !!!!!

    Yes, English shoud be the only premitted language in meetings, If she cant understand, or get her poition across at meetings... Too Bad..... She does deservce a chance to run, and the people deserve a chance to vote for her or not. DO we give a test for alzheimer's for elderly candidates? How about an IQ test?

    The mayor is not fooling anyone. Payback Time" is all it is. If she is an American, then She IS an American....... WHat? Are we going to claim her Birth Certificate is a Certification of Live Birth?

    I AM an American Citizen, and I approved this message!

    January 31, 2012 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
    • simulacrum

      She's running for an office that involves writing ordinances in English, genius. How the heck is she supposed to write laws that make sense when she can't even get through a simple interview with a judge? She is a legal nightmare waiting to happen.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Ed

      So you are saying if someone is elected and unable, due to langauge, to represent the people that voted for her – that is O.K. It is important that a candidate actually be able to represent the people – not that the candidate "thinks" they can. The political system must make sure candidates are qualified – if they don't speak or comprehend English well enough to be effective they are not qualified period. She is working to improve her English (finally) and when she does she can then run for office.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Funny how everybody knows that the one qualification you can not do without to run for office is money. George Bush was a walking dead brain. Romsfield and Dick had to use ventriloquy to make that guy sound half coherent. Why don't you bash on them and leave the Mexican-American community in Yuma decide who they want to vote for? Oh, no, you Arizona Republican Radicals can't let that happen, no siree. Cut the BS and come on out and say it. You are bigots and you hate immigrants, specially Hispanics.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gouyonnet

      the problem is that she would not have an understanding of how to interpret and apply the law because it is written in English. how is she going to effectivey argue her constuent's issues and problems if she is not able to communicate???

      January 31, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
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