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. Chris

    How does a citizen of the U.S. not speak English? Additionally, San Luis is so close to the border you can spit. So why live in the U.S. if you're going to act like you live in Mexico? They're in such a hurry to leave Mexico cause thier country allegedly doesn't provide them rights, yet they're not willing got assimiliate.

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


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

      The United States does not have an official language... English is the de facto national language. If you want this changed, push for a national language law like in Canada.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • 4sanity

      US citizens are guaranteed equal rights. The fact that there are plenty of US citizens who are not fluent in English shouldn't disqualify anyone from running for office. Is it a handicap – yes. Should local voters use it to decide who can best represent them – yes. Is it anyone else's business – no. Infact, by this argument anyone who can't speak Spanish in a community where 99 % are Hispanic, should be disqualified.

      BTW do you speak American ? i.e. Algonquin or Athabaskan or any of the other American languages. I'd bet not. And it's a good thing that the French didn't fortify their foothold up the Missisippi because otherwise you'd be speaking French now.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • D'lish S. Ironknee

      And there you rock your perfect grammar. Ain't you 'murican?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. C.Shockley

    It is sad that a mayor who felt his power would be at risk is taking the rights of a US CITIZEN! If she was attempting to be a local representative in Detroit, I think she would be a fool because of her language barrier. But ladies and gentlemen, her city 87% speak something other than english and 97% are hispanic? How many of these LEAGAL CITIZENS want someone just like them in their polotics? All of you that have something negative to say about this are bigots because the people of her city should be able to vote, if they would like a representative who does not speak perfect english!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • TheIndependentThinker

      So because her city has a bunch of native Spanish speakers, she doesn't have to communicate in English to the rest of the council and people in the State? Isn't this the same argument fundamental Islamists make when they all move into a city and try to take it over and force Islamic law on people?

      Sorry, but the is the United States, we don't just allow pockets of the country to become part of Mexico. Just because the rest of the people in that city are ignorant of the bare minimum it should take to be part of US culture, that is no excuse for her. I applaud her efforts to learn English, but until she does, she should not be a part of US government at any level.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Fu Manchu

    This is America, the God is just the American the fact that it runs for the office should be permitted.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Nah

    came: "There is no official language of the USA. She can speak whatever she wants to. Let the voters decide."

    And if the voters, through their representatives on the city council, say they want people who can read, speak and write in the language that the council works in, you'd still be crying about racism, wouldn't you?

    January 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Read the article

      Arizona Law states English is the official language of the state... It was in the article, did you read it?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Challeger

    My real concern here is the legislative process. If laws /legislation are written and conducted in english it woild concern me if anyone seeking office could not follow a discussion or read a proposed bill... But she is a citizen and if people want to elect her they should have that opportuniy....but thet might not like the results....

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

    Send it back to mexico.

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

      en español por favor

      January 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • 4sanity

      it ?! Really now. What ever "it" is I hope "it" votes and stays and outcompetes the "it-iots"

      January 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  7. omgdaidiots

    that's why 1st generation asian immigrants excel and become the doctors and lawyers and engineers and business people that build up this country, while latinos desire to stay stupid, gardeners spawning gardeners and when they do get an education fight for the right to speak spanish only. really, it's just amazing how stupid their culture is.

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

      Hey, I'm an Asian, and I completely disagree with you. My parents are hardworking immigrants who struggle to survive in this country as cashiers in a gas station, just like many of the people you are insulting in this forum. If you haven't met any of these people or talked to them about their lives and daily struggles, you have no right to insult them.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • joseph

      You are an ignorant, why do you speak about all Hispanics. For your information I am not event first generation Latino, I migrated legally. I hold a bachelors in mechanical engineering, a master in bussiness and persuading my PHD, please more respect and less arrogance. I seen many asian selling this on the market in LA

      January 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jaellon

    Politics aside, this is the most important statement to me: “All our meetings are in English.”

    If she's not proficient enough to both listen to the meetings AND contribute to the conversation, then she's not qualified to be a council member. Her ideas might be good, and she might otherwise be a good representative, but she has to be able to communicate. The only other alternative is to hold the meetings in Spanish, but you would run into an even bigger issue with any English-only council members, as well as English-only residents, neighboring cities, and the state itself.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  9. TheIndependentThinker

    You should be able to read, write, and speak English fluently in order to hold not only office, but also for a job and citizenship in this country. This is not a question of racism or the US being unsensitive to culture. Instead the adoption of this one aspect of US culture should be a statement from anyone that comes here that they truly want to be here.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • PennyNot

      Although I agree with you, she graduated from an Arizona high school with this level of english. If the state wants to impose these requirements, shouldn't they be at least required to make sure its graduates can meet the minimum english requirement.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arpita

      Why? When colonists came to America, they destroyed the actual native languages of North America. If Americans want to truly be Americans, then they should consider learning from their Native American brethren.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Thor

    Even before the vikings took over Normandy and there became a "Duchy of Normandy", even THEY learned the local language... French! Why can't these Hispanic invaders do the same?

    January 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Elia

    This is the United States of America.....and English is our language. There are many immigrants in this country, but our language is still English. Whether we live in a community largely made up of the same ethnic background, English is our first language and is taught in our schools and in order to serve any community in this country, you should be able to speak our first language. I am an immigrant and did not speak the language when I moved to the U.S., but English is my first language regardless of what I speak at home. It is a fair decision by the judge. If you cannot speak the first language of this country, then you are not qualified for any political seat!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arpita

      But why does it have to be English if it can be anything?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Gina

    She needs to be able to speak and write English in order to be able to even run for office. If she needs an interpreter, she has no business trying to run for office. No one is taking her rights, they're just telling her English is a requirement in order to do the job. HOW is she going to represent anyone in a meeting that is held in English if she can't speak the language? She needs to go back to school, learn the language and then think about running for office.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arpita

      I think "NJ for Justice" had it right when he said, "How about we let her go on the ballot and let the people decide if they want somone who speaks less than perfect English or not representing them? Since when is it the govement's job to test the language proficiency of candidates running for office?"

      January 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  13. tluv00

    "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."

    She may not speak well but she has pandering down.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Tim

    She should study with her tutor, become fluent in English and run on the ticket next election. No one is taking away her rights, she has the right to vote and the right to speak fluent English (if she wants to run for noffice).

    January 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. NJ for Justice

    How about we let her go on the ballot and let the people decide if they want somone who speaks less than perfect English or not representing them? Since when is it the govement's job to test the language proficiency of candidates running for office?

    January 30, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arpita

      I completely agree with you =)

      January 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
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