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. Speckly

    Cabrera is not an immigrant, she is American. What evidence is there that she or anyone else in San Luis has "contempt and disdain for this country"? You don't need to speak a certain langauge to be a good American, you only need to believe that government exists to safeguard our freedoms. Is one of our freedoms the freedom of the majority to deny another person their rights because of the language they speak? I don't think so.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Flavia Stevens

    Are all the people registered to vote in Arizona fluent in English? Is their linguistic skill considered when 'fluent' candidates ask for their votes?

    January 31, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Den

    This is a simple one isn't it. She meets the legal qualifications to run for office. As far as her language skills are concerned, leave it up to the voters to decide whether it's a problem for them or not.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. BHines

    If Ms. Cabrera only speaks "a little bit" of English, and mostly speaks Spanish, it would mean that as a US citizen of Chinese, Egyptian, German, Greek, etc. descent I would be required to learn Spanish or "Spanglish" to understand my elected official. That has nothing to do with freedom, it has to do with the common sense that we all need a language to understand each other. If Ms. Cabrera wants to run for office, and has the intellectual capability to understand city issues, she certainly will be capable of improving her English skills.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mike

    G W became president with the linguistic level of a three year old!

    January 31, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ivy League White Guy

    CNN BE FAIR DO NOT DELETE MY COMMENTS IN SPANISH This is a wake up call to Hispanics! Esto es un recordatorio para los hispanos, si no se preparan, si no apoyan a sus hijos en la escuela, si no se educan sobre los temas politicos, si no se hacen ciudadanos de este pais una vez que obtienen la residencia (asumiendo que inmigraron porque los hispanos nacidos aqui somos ciudadanos por nacimiento) entonces cualquier politiquillo racista como las governadoras de Arizona y Nuevo Mexico pisotearan nuestros derechos y los derechos de nuestros hijos. Defiendanse, hablen, voten! No seamos agachados! Ya estuvo bueno de racismo Republicano. A votar a estos racistas a la chingada.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tony

      To be fair to those of us who don't speak Spanish, I have translated via google:
      This is a reminder for Hispanics, if not prepared, if not support their children in school, if not educated on political issues, if not become citizens of this country once they get the home (assuming they immigrated because Hispanics born here are citizens by birth) then any racist petty politicians as governor of Arizona and New Mexico to trample our rights and the rights of our children. Defend yourself, speak, vote! Do not be squatting! It was good of Republican racism. A vote for this racist s**t. ( I added the ** myself) Thanks for keeping it clean doofus.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Tony – your translation is very poor. And I didn't use the word Sh$#*@! I said chingada which is a perfectly valid Mexican idiom. But kuddos on trying to bridge the linguistic barrier through technology. Peace to you, duffus.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ana Sofia

      Please people stop arguing, remember that you do not get the complete and true story from the media. There are two sides to the story. Nobody asked the citizen of San Luis, Az if they wanted to use the City's money and attorney to represent the Mayor on his lawsuit presented as an individual, it was decided by Council at a Special Council meeting. You should research the current and previous council members proficiency and level of education, how come this was never an issue before? There are many educated, fluent and proficient in both English and Spanish in this town. It is a very embarrassing and offensive situation for them.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. libs fail

    This could have simply be resolved with the declaration of an official national language. You can't speak, you can't serve. You can't read, you can't get a drivers license (which is retarded that its offered in like 50 languages since signs are in english). And those of you saying others are racist and that "she's an american, not an immigrant"... well guess what?? AMERICANS SPEAK ENGLISH.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      LIBS CONS WHO CARES Hey, guess what, I speak two languages and I am an American. Guess that's a shock to you since you have been hiding in some cave since before the Civil Rights Movement, haven't you? Stop being so backwards minded and pick up a Bible and a Spanish 1 textbook.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lily

      It is definitely beneficial for someone in a government position (and many others) to be bilingual. However, that means that he or she should be equally skilled in both languages. While San Luis is composed of largely a Hispanic or Spanish-speaking population, she does need to have better English skills to represent the whole of the population.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Samuel (Sam) Getaneh Bogale Kathy Stumm-Bogale Calgary Alberta

    Learning English should definitely be encouraged but those that speak second languages, other languages – have immigrated to the US from other countries should NEVER be discriminated against on the basis of language! Diversity is what makes any country great!

    January 31, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ivy League White Guy

    Citizens of Arizona, New Mexico, Alabama: Organize, start the process to recall your racist Republican governors. Good people fo AZ, NMX, AL, fight for what is moral. Christ does not discrimate.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. casey

    She wants to take this all the way to the Arizona supreme court? – Which the taxpayers will have to pay Just another immigrant sucking this country dry! Make her pay her own court costs and see how far she gets! Anyway, do you really want a representative that doesnt' have a college education? Pathetic!

    January 31, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, US citizens contributed to promote racial equality by giving money, the poor gave a little and rich gave a lot, to cover the court costs of civil rights cases going up through the court system. One case was Hernandez v. Texas. I will gladly contribute my money to see this woman's right to participate in our democracy and to stop racism from spreading accross my country.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  11. David C

    Just have them use Google Transate!

    January 31, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. KJ

    According to a Phoenix newspaper, the issue is not just that she doesn't speak English well enough. It's also that she cannot read or write English well enough. It didn't sound to me like she was being discriminated against. When she learns to read, write and speak English, she can run again. Would someone who did not speak, read or write Spanish competently be eligible for election in Mexico? I think not.

    January 31, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      American Manifest Destiny stole half of Mexico. Now you are complaining about English Only supremacist's rights in Mexico? They don't have to run for office. The one million plus Americans living in Mexico are rich and can pay someone down there to look after their interests. How do I know, because I grew up with them. They live in golf clubs with private security, the most expensive and elitists parts of Mexico, lakeside property and all. So stop your b$#(#*ing and get real.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
  13. L

    I have 35 years experience in my field, but if I were to apply for a job in the same field that required me to speak Spanish, here in America, I would not even get an interview because I do not speak Spanish.
    If I wanted to communicate with a city council member who did not speak enough English to make me understand, are we going to use tax dollars to have a translator handy so I can understand the representative of my city?
    Why should she be allowed to spend tax dollars on a law suite rather than just learning better English? C'mon people, this is not about civil rights, it's about clear and concise communication from a representative to the people. Just freakin' learn English, in and English speaking country!!!

    January 31, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Sorry, but the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo didn't say anything about Mexicans staying in their lands (after they the USs criminal actions during the Mexican War) having to learn English. Lo siento, your manifest destiny lawyers forgot to put that into the treaty back in 1867. Blame them, President Polk, and the rest of the white bigots who invaded Mexico back in 1867 for your anger and your constipation.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  14. L

    The way I see it is the racist card is being used because she doesn't have the proper education to run for a seat on the city council. Boohoo! Go learn a second language, America's primary language, and then come back and readdress running for a seat.

    January 31, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      me thinks ivy league mexican guy is gonna stay po'd until his welfare check shows up, should be today amigo, cheer up.

      February 1, 2012 at 4:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      MIKE What are you talking about, welfare? My taxes are what's feeding you, your ten inbred kids, and the Duggars.

      February 1, 2012 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
  15. L

    Ivyleaguewhiteguy, in your attempt to defend Hispanic rights in the US and throwing out the "racist" card again and again, you have come off sounding like a racists yourself.
    This matter could easily be resolved by this woman spending her money and energy to learn a second language, English specifically, thereby making her more valuable in the position she wants so badly, or so many other positions for that matter.
    If education is so important, and we all know that Latino's have fought long and hard to be able to get a good education in this country, on the Countries dime, then the issue of her learning what she needs to know to be a valuable leader of the community shouldn't be an issue at all. She has the same opportunities to learn English as I do to learn Spanish so I can be more valuable in my field. Why should she get special attention if she isn't willing to get properly educated for the position she is interested in, like the rest of us? That is a rhetorical question, and hopefully she will do just that.

    January 31, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Funny how when you call English Only supremacists out on their racism, they get all offended and start throwing the reverse-racism card. You assume to much. Hopefully she will learn more English. Great. But if she doesn't, she is still a US citizen with the right to participate in our democracy, and you are still a bigot looking for a way to justify your hate and stomp on Hispanics' civil rights.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
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