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. Somewherinamerica

    Her lawyer posed an interesting argument. The law says the candidate must be proficient in the English language, but the law does not define proficient. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in court. Additionally, to all the people who claim English is the official language, as a country we have no official language. French has long been spoken in Louisiana, and I have relatives who are still more comfortable in Cajun than English. Also, Spanish has been spoken New Mexico pretty much since its inception.

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

      Our laws ... the ones this person is expected to understand, alter, enforce, adhere to ... are in English.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Taysha

      There is a test for that. The TOEFL (Test of English as a foreign language) is typically used to measure proficiency in exchange students.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. stellarsjay

    Wow. Where was this judge when the country was asking if George W. Bush's BRAIN was good enough to hold public office?

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

      Get over it already loser...that was almost 4 years ago...got nothing else.....does your loser prez have nothing good to speak of...what a tool you are!

      February 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rich

      Too bad there aren't laws regarding brainpower necessary to post to online forums; you just might be banned, my friend. Seriously, give it a rest.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  3. shawn l

    Could someone who didn't speak spanish run for office in Mexico?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • shutyaface

      100% irrelevant to the article. Nobody is trying to do that and the laws are not the same in both countries.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • shawn l

      Not irrelevant at all, considering that the law of the land in Arizona was enforced.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  4. space alien

    Having been born in the border city of Brownsville Texas prior to 1950, I do have a dog in this fight. There was then of course no bi-lingual education. HOWEVER, total immersion at school WORKED. My classmates might come in speaking little to no English at first, but by years end were fluent. 100% of the city governments business was conducted in English. It worked. There is no excuse to attempt to further divide us by using language as a wedge. And that is all this is about.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ieat

    the bar must be really low there if she is even considered. There are plenty of bilingual people who are proficient in Spanish and English.

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

    Good...learn to speak English or get the Heck out of here, much less run for office...this is NOT mexico people, it really isn't!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  7. WhoCares--I do

    What is the standard measurement of fluency for the English language? Pass High School? Check. Pay taxes? Check. Pronounce 'nuclear' correctly? uhhh. If the voters want to vote in someone to represent them that can't interact with the system, who should stop them. Most current elected officials can't work with each other and they supposedly speak the same language. If the judge ruled this way, then they should have set the guidelines for being on the ballot.

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

    Well Duh! It's like going to any other country LEARN THE LANGUAGE! Why should anyone accommodate me for not knowing their language. Same goes for people in the US we speak english learn it or go somewhere else.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Julie

    Why is this even a question? Of course we speak English here! We were founded by the English!! We got to decide.Every other group of immigrants learned English and assimilated,why are Spanish speakers different?Why do they have to be accommodated? Ever read the biblical story of the tower of Babel? It was chaos.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. joe t

    If English proficiency is a requisite for holding political office how in God's name was George W. Bush allowed to be elected to anything?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      This. A thousand times this.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  11. dan

    She just has to invest a year in English classes. Then she could talk to the world beyond her own town, and to us, as any official should be able to do. What's her hurry, she is young and can invest in her future. I have a foreign manager from Asia who cannot speak English well enough to explain complex ideas. So when she reports back from a managers meeting, and she cannot explain in English, she just says "anyway.." and goes on to another topic, or she says "well you don't need to know about that" - everyone is really frustrated, some don't come to hear her report, we have to go to colleagues to hear their managers reports to find out what is happening and what we need to know. We have mentioned it to the people above, but they just think she's cute and think that we're being too critical, even though among us there is one of her countrywomen, and another of Asian descent. It is not only her command of English, but her accent when she speaks fast, that no-one can understand. It should be a no-brainer how crucial it is on so many fronts. She is also role modelling for people in her community, who should see that it is important to learn English in order to have life and career options. And no, the whole of America does not have to learn Spanish to accommodate these people – some other English speakers already have their own second language they speak at home and in community.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  12. JS

    Finally. Someone in a position of authority (State Supreme Court) standing up for America. We communicate in English here. If you can't speak, read or write the language, learn it. When you can read, write and speak the language clearly and succinctly, you can run for office.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Beth

    Could one be elected to office in Mexico if unable to speak their version of Spanish? Are ballots in Mexico printed in English? No! Why are we considered bigoted for wanting Hispanics to learn the language our grandparents had to learn in order to become citizens of the USA?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      It's the welfare mentality of lazy people......"why should I have to do anything?"......"where's my check?"

      February 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • geek in the pink

      Let's get real here you dont give a damn if she is fluent in English or not. You are the typical loser who feels that immigrants are taking things away from you. Stop complaining about her English and do something really patriotic for your country.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      @ geek: Not sure if you were directing that comment at me but I will respond. I do care about her English. And it not a question of being fluent......she can barely speak it! She is also not an immigrant......she was born here! So yes, to me it's offensive.

      By the way, I served in the military voluntarily. What have you done?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Gustavo

    As a Hispanic I agree she shouldn't run for office but that doesn't take away the merit for trying; which is more than I can say for a lot of very fluent English speaking U.S. citizens. If half of Americans showed the will to help that this woman has we wouldn't have half the problems we have today. I'm proud of her for trying and very disgusted with the ignorant racist comments from some people on this board blaming her for not speaking English. What does that say about you? That you even though you speak English would have NEVER had the courage to do what this woman is doing.

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

      You sound rather ignorant. Oh yes, you are Hispanic.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  15. pilgrm

    i'd write in for her. with 85% of the population there speaking Spanish, they deserve a voice in the local government that they can identify with. her English is on a par with most other folks i've listened to and better than what i get with most customer service/tech support people i've had to deal with over the phone! so for me, no big deal.

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

      The problem with most of that 85% is that they CAN'T VOTE because they ARE ILLEGAL! My question is...how did she graduate from high school without being able to speak a lick of English?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • sharky

      @Chris–

      No Child Left Behind. Why do you think our education system is fracked beyond all reason.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • karma

      How is she going to have a "voice" in the community when she can't speak English well enough to debate with the other council members? Oh, the taxpayers should pay for her an interpreter, you say. No, she needs to learn how to speak English, and that 85% she would represent need to become legal citizens. It's ridiculous that English is not the official language of this country, since everyone else immigrating here seems to be able to learn enough to get by. I applaud this judge for having the snese that seems to have left others in this country.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yocelin

      Crappy customer service is one thing, but holding a government position is a whole diffrent ball game.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      You get out of school what you put into it. Period. You can go to Harvard or a community college and learn the same information. Our schools are horrible but that doesn't mean you don't need to learn English.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Comonsns

      Chris, she was able to graduate high school because our government spends MILLIONS on spanish-speaking ONLY high schools.....and of course, there is a very high crime rate at them schools (not surprising).....these ILLEGALS are financially draining this country.....taxpayers spend over $240 BILLION on ILLEGALS last year

      February 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
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