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. Airdale

    This is absurd. Tolerance is one thing, but if she can't speak English well enough to communicate to the other English speaking members of the governing group her effectiveness is diminished. This over- tolerance for immigants who fail to assimilate into our culture and learn our language is beyond reasonable. Learn our language or live with the consequenses!

    January 31, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Michelle

      I completely agree Airdale. Learn OUR language. My Grandparents came from Portugal in 1910, they learned the language because they wanted to be Americans! If you just want to be Hispanic and live in a better country than your own, it's not the same. Any person who wants to come to America and be proud to live here, needs to learn the language.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Assimilation is not the only option. My ancestors came to American, learned English, and continued to work and live in Spanish. Bilingualism is the option for stronger minds. Stop trying to give excuses for your intellectual weakness and bigotry.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
    • KG What

      Last time I checked Ivy League White Guy a pre-req to be considered bilingual is that you must be fluent in BOTH languages. Not fluent and one and kinda good at the other. This is another example of immigrants trying to use racism as an excuse for why they cannot get a job they are UNQUALIFIED for.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. kh

    Again, I would interested in knowing who is paying this woman's legal bills....

    January 31, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      I am paying for the bills. I am a taxpaying, US citizen, and I am perfectly OK with this lady running for office. What I am not OK with is bigots trying to stomp on minorities' civil rights. Sign up of another 10K, Obama, we have to stop the Republican Radicals from taking us back in time to Nazi Germany, the Slaving Conferacy, and Apartheid South Africa.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. chay

    Does President Obama speak Chinese? when he meet with Chinese General Secretary Hu Jintao, obviously not. They both conduct world super power affair thru translator. Cabrera should be allowed on the ballot if she a US Citizen, after she got elected by mojority of the people in her city, they (city) should hire a translator for her to conduct people business of that city. May be she will become a better politican ever in that city and speaking better English at the end of her term.

    January 31, 2012 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
    • conradshull

      Hire a translator at whose expense? Yours?

      January 31, 2012 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Sure, just deduct the translator from her pay as now you need two people to do one job.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
  4. Ivy League White Guy

    Why don't you worry about the ugliness inside you, buddy? What did this woman, or any other immigrant for that matter,ever do to you?

    January 31, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
  5. conradshull

    I generally do not like that so many CNN news stories are only in the form of video. This is one that should be so we can decide if her English is intelligible or not.

    January 31, 2012 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  6. Veteran

    when will it ever end.
    English is our Language – and when the Latinos outnumber us, then we will be just another 3rd world country. President Roosevelt in 1907 " Quote: We have room for but one Language, and that is the English Language"
    it's nice to know more then one Language (3 for me) but it's English for the US of A.

    January 31, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      OK Fuhrer, thanks for the update from your bunker of hate and fascism. You don't speak for all of us, this is our country, too. A bilingual or a multilingual country is better than some backwards redneck state.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
  7. carby

    Latinos will be the MAJORITY and all of you bigoted racist will HAVE to learn SPANISH! Including the BIGGEST racist of all, J. BREWER!!!!! (Make a call to ANY BIG COMPANY – "press 1 for english – press 2 for spanish" ) – or vice versa....HA!!!!! They're HERE!!!!!!!!!!

    January 31, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ivy League White Guy

    Hopefully, when Hispanics become the majority and our country will have evolved and Spanish speakers will be respected by the Anglo-English-Only minority. Hopefully, Hispanics will not have all the hate and racism that many English-Only people demonstrate now adays. And hopefully, we will respect the rights of the racist Republicans who are putting their nazi boots over immigrants' and minorities' necks right now. Unbelievable, it's been at least four decades since the Civil Rights Movement and this bigotry is still going on in our country.

    January 31, 2012 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Lou

      Ivy, Ivy, Ivy, your passion for the cause is admirable, but you too have gone way overboard by berating the people you "try" to educate. The question is "Are you, really that arrogant". Just because you say it louder and more forcefully, does not make it true.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      LOU I will see you on election day and we will find out whose "truth" wins and you can "say it louder." White, Black, or Hispanic, we all have rights and this is an issue that has the potential to affect my kids and your kids. If I don't do anything to speak up when they Nazi breaks into my neighbor's house, how can I expect anybody to help me when they come for me?

      January 31, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      LOU Today a politican, who happens to be a fellow Hispanic, stomps on this woman's rights to participate in our democracy. Tomorrow, another power-tripping politico stomps on your rights, my rights, someone else's rights. It is not OK to stomp on a fellow US citizen's rights just because some politician found a way to eliminate a Hispanic opponent from the ballot. How would you react if the tables were turned and I was trying to defend your right as an English speaker to participate in our democracy in a Spanish Only majority ruled Arizona?

      January 31, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Kenny

    White people do not have to be concerned about Spanish becoming the launguage of the USA. At the rate we are going Hispanics will soon become the majority but also at the rate this country is going, it will self destruct before Whites have to learn Spanish.

    January 31, 2012 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      You have been reading too much nazi sci-fi and drinking to much Tea Party racist koolaid, mi hermano. Pick up a Bible and Spanish 1 book and use your brain for something positive like helping your community. That's what this lady is trying to do. You should learn from her.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  10. Ivy League White Guy

    Y ahora para que aprendan, ahi les va el mensaje en espanol. ?Como es posible que una minoria Republicana racista tenga tan asustada a tanta gente y logre convencerlos de que el diablo habla espanol y de que la causa de todos los problemas de este pais es la imigracion y el idioma espanol? ?En un pais que mando a los primeros seres humanos a la luna? Increible.

    January 31, 2012 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • NotUnitedStatesofSouthAmerica

      This is the United States of America, we speak english here. You can speak whatever language you want at home and with friends but in society you should know how to speak english because that is the language of the majority of the people in this country. There is a reason english is taught to people who are applying to be citizens of this country. The problem is when people hop a border they dont bother learning our language they just keep speaking theirs and have the audacity to believe we should change our language for them. If you dont like it you are welcome to go back the way you snuck in.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      NOTINTHEUNITEDSTATES You are wrong and you should seek psychiatric help immediately. Hispanics have been present in the United States and have participated in the life of this country and tolerated the bigotry that small minded people like you spew for far too long. They way you try to disqualifty a Hispanic-American as illegal and the way you call for us to sneak back out and go back to whereever you think we are from shows how racist and backwards you are. Your punishment will be to live in a country where Hispanics will soon be the majority and where Spanish will be an every day sound. May God forgive you for your racism.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
    • NotUnitedStatesofSouthAmerica

      Your use of the term "hispanic-american" is what truly lies at the root of this problem. People dont view themselves as American anymore, they are somthing else plus american. If you are holding onto that part of your past where you lived in another country you can never truly be an american. America has always had people of different races and from different cultures but they were first and foremost Americans. They knew that it was important to assimilate into american culture and the biggest part of a culture is the language. Hispanics today do not find this necessary so you have people like this woman who dont feel it is necessary to speak the language of the culture she is choosing to live in.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      NOTTHEUNITEDSTATESOFSOUTHAMERICA Human beings are not clones or cookie-cutter copies of a white, English Only ideal. Hispanics are an integral part of our nation. A presidential candidate needs 40% of the Hispanic vote to win the White House from what I have heard in the media, so English-Only Supremacists must now understand that we have a place at the table now and we will vote and make our voices heard.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Wayne

    So if I travel to San Luis, Arizona it will be like visiting a foreign country? Will I have to learn a different language to be comfortable in an American city? Arizona has a right to make their laws, she has broken them.

    January 31, 2012 at 11:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      OK, let me get this straight. If I speak English with an accent, then I have broken the law in Arizona. And if I broke the law I should be A. Put in prison B. Deported C. Put in Arpaio's pink tent nazi concentration camp. Unbelievable. Somebody call the Allies and the D-Day heroes because the Nazis are back with a vengeance.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  12. carby

    IVY LEAGUE WHITE GUY – entendido....gracias.....

    January 31, 2012 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
  13. Wayne

    You can tell she tries to fit in, a bleached blonde mexican. Just the person I'd answer to.LOL

    January 31, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      CNN BE FAIR, DON'T DELETE MY COMMENTS IN SPANISH ?A alguien mas le parece racista como atacan a esta persona de origen hispano por su apariencia hispana y por su acento al hablar ingles? Dign lo que piensan, diganlo en espanol o en ingles, no dejen que los racistas destruyan la autoestima y la cultura de nuestros hijos. Los racistas tienen que saber que lucharemos en las elecciones y que no nos vamos a dejar.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Johnny Drama

    I can't wait until my kids get easy entry to college since they're part of the white minority. English is the language of the US. Learn it.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      With a role model like you there is no way your kids are getting into college, so give up that dream. English Only supremacists are only a few goose steps away from taking way our civil liberties and returning us to the dark ages of nazism and slavery. Learn a second language and get a clue, redneck.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  15. hjt2008

    The way the the Enabling Act was written ("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,"), seems pretty clear to me. I could care less what language you speak in your house or with your friends and family. When you go to a foreign country, you are expected to at least know their basic fundamentals. Last time I checked we live in the United States. She needs to understand english to be able to do her job and serve her commuinty properly because a misinterpretation of something could be very costly in the long run. If she has a problem with the requirements to do the job then she should not be allowed to run.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Look fascist, don't tell us which US citizens are going to be allowed to run for office and which ones are not. This is a freee country and all citizens should have a right to run for office regardless of whichever characteristics you find disagreeable. Who do you think you are? God? Arrogant, goose-stepping fascist.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
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