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. Jeremy

    Spanish should be the offical second language of America, the same way that french is the offical second language of Canada. There are so many folks of latin descent living in America now and they deserve to be represented in government. Times are changing, the population of America is changing, government needs to change along side of it

    January 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jesus The Lawn Mower


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

      No, no, no, no, no, no, NO, NO, NO!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • d

      French is second in Canada because it was settled by the French and the English language became more dominant. If that is your logic, we might as well make Navajo, Creek, and Cherokee all official languages.

      It's English you fools, learn it or shut up. It's not that hard to learn. Did any of you watch Moonshiners on Discovery? If those mountain goats can speak English, so can you.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • qwerty

      Absolutely NOT!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris R

      d – you may not know this but before we took over California and the South West they were part of the Spanish colony of Mexico. Everyone there spoke Spanish. Everyone. These Mexicans didn't cross the border – the border crossed them – in effect a large portion of the US was settled by Spanish speakers. Using your logic – that it's okay for Canada to have two languages because it was settled in part by the French – you should have no problem with Spanish being an official second language.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thor

      I would like all the Hispanics to learn Swedish. I don't appreciate the fact that they don't take the time to learn my language. It is not right.

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

      hello? there is no "offical " language in America. But if you want to hold political office, speak the language of its people, which is English.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • bobby

      January 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • bobby

      Ingles es la langua que los estados unidos....terminado!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richard Carranza

      So is our economy down the hole cause our politicians don't know English 100%? Maybe its because they misspelled a word, or had other grammatical errors. Look I am Mexican-American and to me this is just another way to say "If you have an accent in your voice, you can't make it in America." Let the people decide who gets into office. If any test were to be done you should make our political officials take a Math/Economic test before they put their names on the ballot and we shall see how many don't make it. Maybe that would help our economy a lot more than this B.S.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • kirk3030

      Absolutely not.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ugh...

      A couple things for some of our brilliant comment authors:
      1) It is the United States. NOT America. North AMERICA and South AMERICA are continents.
      2) Mexicans are Hispanic. Olmec, Mayan, Teotihuacan, Toltec, Aztec, descent. As a majority NOT of Latin descent. Please learn your history as it is exciting and rich. Just because I speak English doesn't mean I am of English descent. I am actually of Italian descent and I'm pretty sure our bloodlines don't touch. This is important point to make because Hispanics that say they are Latin(o/a) are embarrassing themselves.
      Educate yourself and maybe one day you will have a voice in these "discrimination" matters. Otherwise, get with the program and understand that when a council holds their meetings in English and expect you to understand and participate just like them, it is a rule of the house, not a racist judgement against you.
      Wake up. Read a Book. Know who you are (there is plenty to be proud of).

      January 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Roadrunner

    A German accent, and some questionable English didn't deter Arnold Schwarzenegger from becoming governor of California. This is just a trick the opposition is playing to shut Alejandrina out – just because they can!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jesus The Lawn Mower


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

      wir mussen bier trinken jaden tag.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • dave

      arnold understands the language.....its not his accent.....

      I work with several latino's all speak the language... and 95% of the time understand me... if they didnt....I couldnt hire them
      they dont need altavistabablefish to communicate

      January 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. The Ripper

    If someone were to represent me, I'd expect them to have a firm grasp on my language, not have to rely on an interpreter. Otherwise, she fails to represent me.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jeff

    I live in Texas, where elected school board members act on issues all the time that require knowledge of curriculum, legal requirements, and budget/finance regulations. You know what is NOT required to run for and serve on a school board? A high school diploma. So if this woman's ability to fully comprehend the materials she will be examining is such a priority, it seems we need a little parity among elected officials everywhere. Interesting how in one venue, being a taxpayer and a citizen is considered "enough" of a background to fulfil duties, but in another, even an educated person whose first language is not English is considered lacking.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. dla

    I have had enough of listening to non English speaking people claim their rights are trampled on. You are living in America where we read, write and communicate verbally in English. If you want to be in any type of government office you are required to know it. Deal with it.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jesus The Lawn Mower


      January 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sue-helen

      Nothing in America can seriously be regarded as correct english. Most americans cannot spell or speak correct english to save their lives! Ignorance is the rule. Goodness me!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. d

    I like the voter who said, " we don't want someone from Harvard." Why in the world would you not want someone smarter than you to be in charge. Are you ok with the toilet you live in?

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

    I have a real problem with any US politician in any office who isn't "fluid" in English. Wow. It's FLUENT, not FLUID. If she can't handle those two little nouns, which have vastly different meanings, what's she going to do with legal terms?

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

      By the way, to the fool that said that fluent and in the way fluid was meant to be used are considered adjectives, not nouns. Way to go white grammar expert.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  8. bigtimebilly

    1: she must obviously be a democrat, because only Republicans are racist enough to bull crap like that. 2: I'm mexican, i was born here, and I don't know any spanish. 3. this is RACIST!!!

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

      No, Billy. If you were born here, you are 100% American. Sorry.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. AZMAN

    I lived in Nogales, Arizona for several years. I had to learn to speak Spanish just to go to Walmart. Very few people in the town could speak English. Yet, I could go across the border into Nogales, Sonora and find plenty of people to do business with in English. It's a tough call. People live in their communities and communicate in the way they are comfortable. Unfortunately, government needs to be clear and concise in the way it is organized and the way it communicates with the public. Sometimes, good people get caught in the middle. I do question how the high school got away with giving diplomas to people who hadn't met requirements of graduating. That is the real culprit of the story.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  10. George

    English is the only thing that binds us all together as people. The ability for an elected official – in any position – to speak english is simply common sense and has absolutely nothing to do with racism.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Josh

    There is no official language in the United States so I can't wait to see go up through the courts!

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

      If the High Court had any sense of humor, they should render the future decision in Modern Standard Arabic.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • reading comprehension is a terrible thing to waste

      your right, no official language in the US, however some states do have it as an official language for state and local business, the article states that AZ is one such state, therefore not speaking English would mean not meeting a job requirement set forth by the state. Kind of like if you are 65 and can't lift 50lbs applying for a job that requires you to be able to lift 50lb objects and move them all day, and you don't get the job, that is not meeting the job requirements not age discrimination. Different scenario in the latter one, but 2 clear cases of someone not meeting the job requirements.

      The good thing is, she can self study or take a course in English to help her meet the requirements for running for office, and still work as a community activist while doing so, just not a city council member.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Alberto

    I'm a U.S. legal resident from Mexico and I am clear about one thing; if I want to speak Spanish, eat just as I did in Mexico and keep all my native culture there is a very simple solution... Stay in Mexico.
    Some year ago we decided to move to the U.S. and that means learning to live under new rules, new culture and become good U.S. citizens which is what you do when you move to another culture of you own free will.
    Finally, a country that does not enforce a common language, and certain key common values, rituals, principles and beliefs is no longer a country and I would definitely not wish that to happen here. The worst we Mexicans should be trying to do is make the U.S. into another Mexico since that is not working out too well and we have been unable to prosper with the land we have now (rich in all kinds of ways but so poorly managed that it's on the verge of collapse). By the way for those that say this used to be Mexico no it wasn't, it used to be Hopi, Apache, etc. we Mexican stole it from them and again did a very poor job of building a prosperous thieving society during the 300 years of Spanish ownership and even worse during the 30-odd years of Mexican ownership.

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

      Right on to you, Alberto, and thanks for posting! It's nice to see people posting common sense.

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

      Interesting perspective Alberto.

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

    hey even I don't speak english that well....but then again I shouldn't be in politics either

    January 30, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  14. VR

    This is huge problem with spanish community. If she was born in US she should be able to speak the language of the land. I am glad the judge stood up for the law of the land; hopefully this is going to be good example to those young kids in school today to spend more time learning the official language of the land.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  15. brianNH

    more of the usual – hispanics who demand special treatment because they refuse to adopt our language and culture, and who cry "racist" every time they don't get their own way.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
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