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. Nichollet

    I do agreE that people should pick whoever they want to represent them (Idk something about democracy). But people should also be made aware of the possible back-lash for having a representative who can't communicate with the outside world, outside of their Yuma bubble. I'm thinking of missed opportunities.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Frank Mondana

    I am very liberal but I agree that anyone holding political office here needs to have command of English.

    President Bush is a perfect example of just what happens when a politician can't use English correctly...

    February 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Norm

      It was good enough to get him a Harvard MBA.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kim

      I'm sorry but a Southern accent isn't "poor English" Its just the way people talk in the South. We can communicate with people unlike Mexicans who don't speak English at all and think they can hold public office.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
  3. Phil

    I find it interesting that she passed high school considering she doesn't know English well enough to tell what High School she graduated from.... While she may be an intelligent woman, this doesn't say much for the level of education she received.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Speak English

    I bet she's got a welfare card in her pocket & a Mexican flag in her car......

    February 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • And you...

      And you have a car up on cinder blocks in front of your mobile home

      February 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      And You.....go fu(k yourself.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  5. guitargeek85

    It is amusingly ironic that most of the comments below which are condemning her broken English are written without punctuation in either run on or fragmented sentances. To top it off, most of these "masters of the English language" have yet to distinguish "there," "their," and "they're."

    February 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimbo

      Agreed, but if you were to have a conversation with them you would know exactly what they were saying and they would understand you. That wouldn't be the case with this women.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • TORI ©

      @guitargeek85- You are incorrect on your spelling of sentences.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      TORI ©
      I caught that, too...lol!

      February 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • guitargeek85

      Tooshay

      February 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jimbo

    Her attire didn't help either or her physeek. I'm sure she is really smart, passing high school and all...that takes some hard work.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Gopherit

    Unless the U.S. is to become a country of sub-countries, with each tied to its own language and unable to converse coherently with those of the other sub-countries, it seems logical that political candidates should be at least bilingual with English being one of those languages. The "melting pot" theory about the U.S. presumes that people are able to communicate with each other in a nationwide common language, presumably at least for now, English.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. LetsGetReal

    I am glad and a little surprised at this decision. Only because it made perfect common sense. English fluency is necessary to govern in this country period. There should be no debate about this point. If some candidate wants to learn another language to supplement ... fine. It is so nice to see common sense prevail. I am sure the PC police and their ilk are positively apoplectic over this.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Schulze

    David Floridensis, did it ever occur to that ALL language is imported. That Spanish itself is also an imported language from Europe. That based on your logic we should all still be speaking Latin (seeing as most European language is based on it, including Spanish) or better yet Ancient Sumarian? It has been over 400 years since Europeans landed in America. Over 200 since the United States officially became a country, a country where English was designated as the official language. English has always been the official language as long as this country...that you live in and whose freedoms you enjoy...has existed.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Andy Smith

    Lacking mastery of the English language? Not an issue. There's an app for that....the translation from Spanish to English or vice versa.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Norm

    I'm sorry but she should fail on intelligence. From the article:

    "Cabrera was able to tell her attorney her name and where she was born but struggled with what school she had graduated from"

    HER OWN ATTORNEY ASKED HER! She knew the question was coming and she still couldn't answer. Sweet fancy Moses!!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  12. American Boy

    This is an example of "Anchor Baby".

    February 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Carmellia

    She agrees that she is not "fluid" in English....? Errrrr. perhaps meaning she is not (fluent) in speaking English, orally or verbally, it appears.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Brokenwatch

    Regardless of what langauge the majority of the citizens speak, she MUST be fluent in English to hold public office. Remember, she won't be talking to citizens all day everyday, but most likely working with other municipal departments, police, fire, and the surrounding public offices in her county/region. She may also (however unlikely in that town) be a representative of Arizona and her city should she be host to domestic or foreign politicians and dignitaries. If she improves upon her English, then that's fantastic, but don't lower the standards for public office out of sympathy.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bosnm8

    Does anyone realize that Spanish is not native to north america that the Europeans brought it here you want to get to the real core of it.. start talking aztec/inca/myans get it right

    February 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Glenn

      Comanche, Navajo.....

      February 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • AZ guy

      Don't you mean Apache, Navajo, Sioux? the languages you mentioned are of people indigenous to Mexico.

      Bubba she when to high school in Mexico, not here.

      We do nothing but pander to these La Raza types, look at Raul Graviala (Sp) the AZ congressman to told businesses to boycott Arizona. Why, because the majority of the population passed LB 1070, going after employers who hire illegals.

      For that matter why is I-19 in Metric, the only freeway in the country in Metric, The reason all of the poor Mexicans are too ignorant to learn what a mile is or that we do not use the Metric system in America. Speed limit is MPH but all the signs are in Kilometers.

      America Needs to take a stand, International language of aviation is English, So Air Traffic controllers worldwide speak English.

      Lets just declare English our national language.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • MLS

      Do you realize that there are no languages native to the americas? Do you know that Arizona and a few other states were the possession of Mexico for only a few years?

      February 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wen

      So who brought the English language to North America? English is certainly is not native to North America.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
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