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. Alberto

    I meant "thriving" not "thieving" (subcouncious slip of the mind?)

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

    Juan Carlos Escamilla, the mayor of San Luis, is not much of a citizen. He appears ignorant, deceitful, disloyal, and dishonest. Let's take him out of office and call it even.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Al

    This article was run last week. The majority of posts supported the state's view. I notice that all those posts have been removed.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jryamaha

    The judge made the absolutely correct decision. If you can't speak the language of the land, then how do you expect to communicate with the residents, and lawmakers, of the land? This is the United States, where the official language is ENGLISH. Learn it, fluently and completely, or go to anothere country where your language of choice is their official language. Think you can go to China and get elected to a governmental position without speaking Chinese fluently? Think again.

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

      The point is that the US does not have an official language.

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

      There is no official language for the United States. Arizona might have passed a law, but the United States as a whole does not have an official language.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lokari

      "This is the United States, where the official language is ENGLISH."
      Where did you learn that rubbish? I am appalled how many citizens of the US have so little knowledge of their country.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  5. 4RealUSA

    What if our president decided to just start speaking and conducting business in Russian? Do you see how this really does not work? There is a logical reason to assimilate into a single nationwide language and that is because it allows everyone to communicate. English just happends to be that language. Don't hate, participate.

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

      Good Job! Keep her off the Ballot if she cannot speak English. Learn English, I am surprised she passed high school with no English proficiency. They must have all Spanish teachers to make it tough on the Anglo kids.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • K

      LOL! That was good!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Joseph P.

    This country was founded upon our ancestors who spoke English and some who did not. America is truly a melting pot with different languages and cultures still today. That is what makes America so beautiful. The southern United States are populated predominately by hispanics. Given the current statistics of 87% being residents who speak English AND Spanish in San Luis, there should be no reason as to why she cannot run for public office. As it was stated previously, she is not working in D.C.. I see nothing wrong with her holding office, her English is sufficient enough!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Rhonda

    If she understand english then why can't she speak it?

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

      I took college French, and I've had some exposure to Spanish along the way. If I see either one on paper, I can work my way through them fairly quickly. The spoken word is harder – think about it. If your native accent is Minnesota or Massachusetts or Manchester UK, you may need to really concentrate to decode what another English speaker, from, say, Texas or India, is saying. And to speak the language on the fly is even harder. So many Americans are barely articulate in English themselves (read some posts on CNN), that it doesn't seem unreasonable that a woman in a town where 87% of the people speak Spanish who speaks Spanish fluently and English at a survival level should be allowed to run for political office.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  8. gramps1941

    When my wife came to this country in 1969 she wanted to become an American Citizen. She went to many hours of classfroom study at Tripler Hospital in Honolulu Hawaii and took her citizenship examination IN ENGLISH, even though it is not her native language. It is still important for American citizens to speak, read and UNDERSTAND the official and legal language of the country in which they live. For this person to want to actually run for political office in the United States of America, where the official language is ENGLISH, not Spanish, may be admirable but it is also wrong. If she wants to run for office in a place where Spanish is the official language, I suggest she move to Mexico, become a citizen there and run for office there. In other words, if u want to participate in politicas in ANY country, you must be fluent in that language. ANY COUNTRY. In all other places in the world, she would not even be considered.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Samuel McCray

    This look a lot like the "literacy test" given African American and a few other non white to prevent them from fully participating in the electoral process. The VOTERS should have the right to elect the candidate(s) of their choice. We tell the WORLD the United States is a multi-cultural society, we welcome diversity and the majority "rule" respecting and protecting the rights of all. The majority speak the same language. The only ones that appears to have problems are the one that don't want to give her a fair chance. SHAME.

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

      " The VOTERS should have the right to elect the candidate(s) of their choice"

      Not quite accurate. The voters have the right to vote for a candidate that has been approved elligable for the office.

      If, the courts rule that the language issue is a valid reason to make this candidate inelligable for this office, then who the voters want is a moot point.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  10. KS

    It is good that she has a tutor and is trying, but until she is sufficiently fluent she needs to stay out of office.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mikey

    The issue here is where does it stop? American Culture is a melting pot. If I live in Germantown, AZ and the town next to us is San Pedro, AZ. We have to be able to communicate effectively with the entire county (and State) to coordinate County Ordinances & State Ordinances (Street Departments, Transportation, Sales Taxes, etc. If Germantown speaks German and San Pedro speaks Spanish and the laws/regulations are in English it is counterproductive and will be "lost in translation."

    English is the glue that holds our ever changing melting pot of American Culture together.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  12. jinx

    OMG! FWIW IMO wait another 10 yrs, most of the Eng words and phrases will vanish, by Texters....LOL, LMAO, WEG 🙂 B4N...

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

    English is and should be legally defined as our national language. Immigrants should be requird to learn it. We should not have to learn Spanish. What is truly concerning, is that she is a US Citizen educated in a bilingual school and is entering the adult real world with such a deficiency in English that she did not understand the questions "What high school did you graduate from?" In fact, she consideres that an "adanced" question. Someting went terribly wrong with her education.

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

      While I don't agree with your first statements about needing an official language or requiring immigrants to learn it (though I do admit it would be helpful for them), I absolutely agree with your question about how this woman, who IS a citizen, graduated from an American high school with such a rudimentary grasp on the language. Even it it was a bilingual school, surely the education in English was more than cursory.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  14. eyeris625

    Just learn English for crying outloud!! Then she will be bilingual.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  15. AJ

    I could not agree more with the Judge. This woman, according to the article, went to school in the US and could not even clearly pronounce the schools name. Is this really the woman you want in public office. REALLY!!!!

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

      Even so, let the people decide. As has been said "the people deserve the government they get." If they want to vote her in, give them a fair chance to do so, if she's defeated in the election then the people have spoken also.

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

      Jeremy what hasn't been said is that local issue become national ones. What happens when/if a whole district is of the same culture/language? Then we could have her elected to national office by your logic.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
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