Arizona woman off ballot after high court agrees her English isn't good enough
Alejandrina Cabrera answers questions about her ability to speak English in Arizona's Yuma County Superior Court.
February 8th, 2012
12:31 PM ET

Arizona woman off ballot after high court agrees her English isn't good enough

A woman trying to run for the San Luis, Arizona, City Council will not appear on the ballot after the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a ruling that her English was not good enough.

Alejandrina Cabrera has been locked in a political battle regarding her proficiency in the English language.  But her story is more than a local election dispute, with possibly widespread implications in a country that prides itself as a melting pot.

In the border town of San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their homes, and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. census data.  Most of the people there, by all accounts, speak both English and Spanish.

“I think my English is good enough to hold public office in San Luis, Arizona,” Cabrera told CNN en Español in an interview conducted in Spanish.

“I am not going to help (at the White House). I will be helping here.”

Last month, Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson ruled the woman's name should be taken off the ballot after testimony from linguistics experts and Cabrera. A U.S. citizen born in Yuma, Arizona, Cabrera moved to Mexico and then returned to Yuma for the last three years of  school, graduating from Kofa High School.

Cabrera was able to tell her attorney her name and where she was born but struggled with what school she had graduated from, according to the Yuma Sun. After being asked the question three times, without being able to answer in English, the judge allowed Cabrera to leave the witness stand and issued his ruling, the paper reported. In his ruling, Nelson said he wanted to be clear he wasn't saying that Cabrera had an "intelligence" issue but felt she should be removed from the ballot because of her lack of proficiency in English.

Cabrera appealed the ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court Tuesday. CNN has not been able to reach Cabrera, her attorneys and city officials for responses to the ruling.

“It is ordered that the trial court's judgment and orders filed January 27, 2012 are affirmed,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch said. “The City Clerk shall not include appellant's name on the March 13, 2012, City Council election ballot. A written decision of this court shall follow in due course.”

At present it's unclear what factored into the justices' decision, but Cabrera's story has caught the attention of people nationwide and sparked a debate about who is best able to represent the people of a certain community.

“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 after the judge's initial ruling.

As Cabrera's story attracted attention, much of the debate centered on two issues. First, some of CNN's readers said candidates for public office should be able to speak English well. But others argued that the people of San Luis could decide if Cabrera was qualified and choose whether or not to vote for her.

The dispute 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 asking a court to determine whether Cabrera's skills qualified her under state law to run for the council seat.

Cabrera admits she isn't the most fluent in English.

Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish, Cabrera talks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with less conviction, when she switches to English. She says she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives. She grades her English proficiency as a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10.

“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 letter. I can read a book,” Cabrera said. “Right now I have a private tutor helping me improve my English.”

In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Nearly a century before, 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 attorneys argued in court that her disqualification was unfair and may be unconstitutional, saying there is no standard for a specific level of proficiency for a City Council candidate.

“Unbelievable,” John Minore, one of Cabrera's attorneys told the Yuma Sun after the high court ruling. “This is a fine example of judicial activism. Arizona now has a English standard to be on a ballot but doesn't tell you what that standard is. It's amazing that people in government who are in power can spend taxpayer money to keep people off the ballot. This is Hispanics keeping Hispanics off the ballot, compliments of the San Luis City Council.”

The court battle is part of a growing discussion about English in a country where people come from a variety of backgrounds. During a recent presidential debate, GOP candidates said that English should be the official U.S. language and should be the only one taught in school.

Bob Vandevoort of the advocacy group ProEnglish said that the country would be more cohesive if English were made the standard language in government.

"We are concerned as far as government goes; we don't want to see us become a multilanguage nation. We want to see a nation that has one language as far as government is concerned," he said, adding that what people speak at home is a different issue.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said there should be more opportunities to ensure everyone has the resources to learn English. He said there are long lines to get into classes in several cities, with so many people trying to learn English.

But Vargas argues a candidate doesn't necessarily need to have full English proficiency to run for office.

"I think it should be up to the voters to decide what kind of representative they want," he said. "I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to not be able, to not allow someone to present themselves to the voters as a candidate because of their language abilities."

It's unclear what Cabrera's next move may be, but there may still be one way for her to run for the San Luis City Council: as a write-in candidate.

Nevertheless, Cabrera's battle will surely advance the debate about language in America and politics.

Let us know what you think about the issue in the comments below. Do you think the right decision was made?

soundoff (2,004 Responses)
  1. technophile50

    I think the judge may have misunderestimated her English abilities

    February 11, 2012 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
  2. technophile50

    Maybe the verdict will be refudiated on appeal.

    February 11, 2012 at 12:53 am | Report abuse |
  3. KP

    ... And thanks to this precedent, we never get another president from the south. 🙂

    February 11, 2012 at 1:39 am | Report abuse |
  4. Bien

    This is America and the official language is ENGLISH. If Cabrera insist she can serve inspite of her barrier in communication thru English let her learn English before she is eligible for public office.

    February 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Emma

      technically, the United States does not have an official language. Some states have one, but the country doesn't.

      March 4, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. JPS

    I pity for her though she really wants to run, she is really required to fluently speak in english. I think she would just pursue more in learning english and then maybe next time she can run for a position.

    February 13, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
  6. KAU

    In my opinion, language is not a problem in this situation since the majority of the people in Mexico speaks Spanish more than english so I think that is an advantage for her, to communicate more to the people. And besides,she is running for a position in a place where Spanish is her first language. And the fact that she knows and understand basic english is already enough for her to keep up!

    February 13, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. CLS

    I salute her confidence for running to her desired position, but rules are rules. She must have that determination first to learn English well. And we can't do anything about it since it was the people's decision.

    February 13, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. PLIM

    Able to speak good english is important in our society nowadays. It is one of our main languages, considering that you entered politics, people expect so much from you. you need to show that you have the skills and the brains to get the job done. unable to speak english fluently is a very big NO because what if in the long run there would be problems to be discuss? how can she communicate with others well? i think the courts decision is just right,

    February 13, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Elle

    This is rediculous. First, the rule about police allowed to pull anybody over. Then, this lady isn't allowed on ballot. COME ON PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THIS IS SAD!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 14, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Droo

      soooo, if she won the election and had a percentage of her district that did NOT speak Spanish, how would she represent them?

      February 18, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • AVE

      She is able to speak English, and for what she can not understand of English she would be able to hire a translator while in office. She appeals to the majority of the population and is able to cooperate with the rest of the population that does not speak Spanish. Her position should have put her at an advantage in the poll instead of having her displaced from the ballot.

      September 27, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
  10. aebe

    Three years at an American high school,makes me wonder if they offer an english as a second language class.And the mayor said she doesn't understand english.Not good.Is good to be able to speak languages other than english,but,we do need one common language.

    Validate your 2nd Amendment Rights.Carry.
    And with that,you just need to be proficient
    in responsiblity.

    February 15, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tod



    February 29, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
  12. Megan Grawe

    Why is it that the law only applies to Republicans and not Democrats! ...Speaking English and showing a valid birth certificate is a prerequisit in most states!

    March 24, 2012 at 1:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      Those same prerequisits should apply for our president too!

      March 24, 2012 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  13. Brandon

    This is America, not Mexico. If we allow this, then it creates a domino effect. You have to draw a line somewhere. I would like to see her high school transcripts.

    May 13, 2012 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
  14. vinos ribera del duero

    I feel that is one of the most significant info for me. And i am glad studying your article. But should commentary on few normal things, The website taste is perfect, the articles is really excellent : D. Just right job, cheers

    October 7, 2012 at 5:29 am | Report abuse |
  15. Latest US News

    I salute her confidence for running to her desired position, but rules are rules. She must have that determination first to learn English well. And we can't do anything about it since it was the people's decision.

    January 8, 2014 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
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