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. poppajohn818

    That is why we need to make sure English is the Official Language of America

    February 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • sd75

      Using this rationale, George W. Bush should never have been allowed to run for public office. That guy took the English language outside and beat the crap out of it. Hypocrites

      February 8, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • paul

      EXACTLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      February 8, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • LKHamblin

      @sd75 did you even read the article? She couldn't even tell the court what highschool sche graduated from when they asked her. GWB butchered english, but that is very different than not speaking the language at all

      February 8, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      you are absolutely correct, these other posts to you are just illegals and should be wiped from this earth

      February 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • rad666

      proficiency in English.????-– WHY? San Luis, Arizona has a link on their site that has everything in Spanish.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • I can see Russian tanker from my house

      How did Rick Perry become a candidate, since he can barely speak proper English. In fact, when I travel south, I can barely understand what they are saying.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ed

      You mean the United States, not America. America is bigger than the U.S, in case you didn't know. Why do Americans insist on that misnomer?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      @lkhamblin: Want to proof-read your post, correct your English and repost?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      Most Definitely-there are already way too many places that dont even resemble America now in terms of Language

      February 9, 2012 at 2:15 am | Report abuse |
    • stateschool

      I think that too many people forget that English is not the language of white people. None of my ancestors (from Ireland, Germany, or Italy) originally spoke English. When my great-grandfather brought his family over on the boat from Italy, he insisted that his family speak English because he believed that immigrants to a new country should adopt that country's language. We still retain some cultural traditions from the Old World, but it would be ridiculous of me to insist that my children speak Irish, German, or Italian over English. We are not the United Nations, but the United States of America, and hablamos Ingles aqui.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. SUPERMAN

    Sure it is ! But why didnt california fight against our last state governor? Remember arnold? He could barely speak english! But there was not a big hoopla about it was there? So maybe money does shut people up. Or is it your status arnold? It seems a bit unfair for this to happen. She would probably be a good leader. Or maybe her rivals see her as a threat.

    February 8, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      Arnold had an accent. That's a bit different than not being able to answer a simple question in English.

      February 8, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • becky, Las Vegas

      Arnie understood English without an interpreter and could answer in English. You are referring to his thick accent. In this case the person running can not understand spoken English and according to the 2006 AZ law can not conduct business in English. Therefore, she can not run. I wish this law was nationwide. It doesn't proclaim English as the official language but requires all business done in English. One way to save the government BOAT LOADS of cash would be to stop printing forms, signs and such in anything but English. You want a form in another language, print it yourself from the web.

      February 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • sam

      thank you becky, seriously.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Captain Obvious Jr.

      Or maybe, although Arnold obviously spoke with an Austrian accent, he was actually fluent in English? Nah, I'm sure it's just because she's being victimized. Poor dear.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Al Sanchez

      HEY SUPERMAN. ARNOLD HAD AN ACCENT BUT UNDERSTOOD COMPLETELY WHAT WAS BEING TALKED ABOUT IN MEETINGS, BOARD ROOMS, CONFERENCES, ETC. SO, YOUR POINT IS NULL AND VOID!! SHE SPEAKS BROKEN ENGLISH AND DOESN'T UNDERSTAND MUCH OF WHAT THE OTHER BOARD MEMBERS, ETC. ARE TALKING ABOUT. THAT'S JUST PLAIN AND SIMPLY WRONG!! I'M LATINO–DO YOU THINK THAT I WOULD STICK UP FOR HER JUST BECAUSE I'M LATINO?!?!? NO!!! WHAT'S WRONG IS WRONG, AND IN THIS INSTANCE IT'S IN YOUR FACE WRONG!! GO LEARN GOOD ENGLISH AND MAYBE WE CAN TALK! GEESH!!!

      AL SANCHEZ

      February 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • boarddog

      Yeah superboy; Arnold spoke english just fine albeit with an accent.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • wow

      Lol... man this comment and many are jus to funny. why would you try to help ppl when you can't help yourself.. As in not knowing what HS you went to.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • stateschool

      If you had read the article, you would have seen that this is an argument over an Arizona law, not a U.S. or California law. You also would have read that her town is 98.7% latino, and that 87% of them do not speak English at home. I'm pretty sure her "rivals" are not threatened by her lack of English proficiency.
      Please read articles before trying to discuss them.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. bobcat (w/o a hat) ©

    That was absolutely the right decision. You want to hold office, learn the language.

    February 8, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  4. mike58

    finally some common sense from the courts

    February 8, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  5. just eye

    Where is this womens equal protection under the law?

    February 8, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pedro

      Que?

      February 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • jjb1313

      let her file a complaint... in English

      February 8, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Al Sanchez

      STUPID IS AS STUPID DOES!!! WISE-UP!!

      February 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      Equal rights isn't the issue here, she was given the chance in front of a judge to see if she could be considered as qualified to hold public office, and

      "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."

      So clearly it has nothing to do with equal rights, as she was given a chance, just as any other US citizen would be, she just didn't pass the test.

      It's also not about learning the language, it's about knowing the language well enough to be able to make decisions with other English speaking board members and making a decision. If there wasn't 100% chance of her being able to do this, she shouldn't be allowed on the ballot until it is determined that she knows the language well enough "to do her job", not just"enough".

      February 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • cruiser

      There was no discrimination in this case. The law states that fluency in English is required to hold public office, and the judge upheld the law, which is his job. The law should be looked at and perhaps modified to better fit current times.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • dagger

      that is a cop out response..how can you fairly run an office like that if YOU CANT SPEAK ENGLISH...geeeesh!

      February 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • stateschool

      Conditions for holding public office are often based on pragmatism that does not always reflect our ideals of equality. For instance, minimum age requirements for holding certain offices are an example of age discrimination, but are upheld by the courts because they make sense.
      p.s. You mean to say "this woman's," not "this womens"

      February 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jimbotoms

    If her English is not good enough to hold public office, how in hell did she graduate from an American high school?

    February 8, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • becky, Las Vegas

      The same way totally illiterate children graduate. They get passed along or special compensation is made.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Junius Gallio

      Graduating high school was quite a few years ago, and she's lived in Mexico and largely Spanish-speaking border towns since. Language skills degrade if not used.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • LKHamblin

      Just got passed along like half of high school students

      February 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jake

      To the comment about schools graduating illiterate kids...at least they can still run for office and that is not being challenged in the court...at least this woman has the honesty, something you dont see in politicians to admit to it and seek the help of an interpreter.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • pmk1953

      This is going to happen more and more the longer we have no child left behind. You can't flunk 'em because it'll hurt their poor little self-esteem and ruin the schools funding.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      @becky, Las Vegas: You mean special "dispensation" right? I understand, you must have missed that 10th Grade English lesson.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • GrouchyKat

      Why Jane can't read!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • r-hope

      Jimbotoms and all those who replied to your posts did not read the whole article...or you did not understand it. It says she was born in US, went to school in Mexico (cheaper standards of living) then came back to the US when she was 17 – obviously after high schoo. So there.... you have it.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • AZ Native

      @ r-hope – looks as thought you didnt read or understand the article. it specifically states that she returned to Yuma, a city in southwest Arizona, for her final 3 years of schooling and graduated from Kofa High.

      it is a wonder how she graduated, but not really a surprise

      February 8, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  7. John

    I disagree. Why is speaking english required when the vast majority of the town speak spanish? If the best person for the job speaks spanish should the town have to settle for second best because that person speaks english? I suspect it's just a means to get her off the ballot and has nothing to do with her ability to serve. God forbid someone in the US gets an honest politician.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • derwood

      Towns no matter how remote are not Islands and do work with the county, other towns in the area and the state. If she can't communicate with them in an efficient manner then that will hinder a town's opportunities for growth, county/state money & much more.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • marycontrary

      And how is the town council (or whatever they call it in her town) supposed to deal with her if she's voted in? Provide Spanish translater for meetings? Interpret all paperwork just for her? This poor woman can't even tell you the name of the high school she "graduated" from. She may be well intentioned and even intelligent in her native tongue. But this is the U.S. Learn the language.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      But if she cannot speak the same language as the other board members well enough to do the best job, then she isn't the best candidate for the job, the person who can speak both English AND Spanish is automatically more qualified than her.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ben

      Actually, that would develop a whole new problem. Imagine as hispanics overtake the majority 'whites' in more and more areas, that most of the governing people in these towns speak spanish and not english? That could develop problems, as well as a 'great divide' in the USA that would turn us against ourself.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • steven STEVENS

      agreed !!!! what will the law look like when we white folks are in the minority?? nd my ulnderstanding is that that will not be in the not too distant future....hasta luego!!!

      February 9, 2012 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Sheila

      How can she represent anyone if she can't catch the nuances of what is being said?

      February 9, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  8. llama

    Arnold has a thick accent to be sure, but he speaks English well enough to be undestood. Maybe when he first came to this county no but by the time he ran for office, yes. She couldnt even say the name of her school in English. That signifies a problem to me.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
  9. cj

    Yep it has begun!

    February 8, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. angry bob

    The English proficiency rule is nothing but a elitist practice to insure "commoners" can't be elected to office. It's class warfare plain and simple. It's intended to keep the plebeians in their place and out of power.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • jjb1313

      FAIL...

      February 8, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Really? I speak better than most of the elite, and I am a "commoner"...you just wanted to use the word Plebeian, didn't you?
      In her case, she could not speak English.
      Class warfare, my left foot.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      This is NOT class warfare at all. People of any class can speak English and not Spanish, and people of any class can speak Spanish and not English. So class has nothing to do with it. This is a state judge, who's job it is to make these types of rulings, saying she is not qualified to be on the ballot, because of a lack of communication skills. When she is able to speak and understand the same language as the rest of the city counsel board members, then I'm sure they will let her on the ballot

      February 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • boarddog

      That has to be the most ignorant comment on this board today.
      Congratulations! You win!

      February 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • youarekiddingme

      Horsepucky! Ever notice that the TRAFFIC SIGNAGE is ONLY IN ENGLISH...this has nothing to do with class warfare. People need to have a mastery of the English language to function in this society. If you don't like it – MOVE OUT.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sheila

      It's not a class thing at all – if you want to run with the wolves, you gotta speak wolf.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Andrew

    I just had my stupid moment of the day. Before I read the article, I thought the headline meant that people from England didn't have enough money to get on the ballot.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Martina

      Hey! Don't worry. This would make a lot more sense than some uneducated woman trying to run for a public office.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:32 am | Report abuse |
  12. Jeneira

    I completely agree with the comment above. If you need to hold or run for a great position, learn the language. Plain and simple!!

    February 8, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Middleoftheroad

    It's a fair rule that someone should be proficient in English to hold office. Would taxpayers be required to pay for a translator for her otherwise? I don't speak Spanish and if I wanted to talk to a represenative I wouldn't want to have to go through a translator or risk them not understanding.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Idk

    Hey! Arizona law makers can you please come to CALIFORNIA!! WE REALLY COULD USE YOU GUYS OUT HERE!!! GREAT JOB ARIZONA!!

    February 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Al Sanchez

      YOU SAID IT!!!! CALIFORNIA IS LONG OVERDUE WITH SOME COMMON SENSE!!!!

      February 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ed

      You're just a xenophobe like the rest of Arizona.
      One of the reasons the U.S is criticized is for its lack of cultural awareness.
      Don't forget that this nation is comprised of people from all corners of the globe, and a large part of our population
      comes from our neighbors down south.
      You seem to want people to forsake their language and adopt some uniformity that conforms to the standards
      of jingoists like you. Get out.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Andrew

    oh, and I guess I'll give my opinion on the matter: let the number of votes decide if her English is important or not. If she wins, the votes have spoken.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • state university student

      Andrew, the votes don't speak for the people. California voted down Prop 8 but it got overturned. So, votes are for fun.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
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