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. Jim M

    I say let the voters decide, not the courts. For other types of jobs, English proficiency may be necessary but this is a public representative position. In any case, I wish we could leave provincialism and hatred out of the discussion.

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

      "For other types of jobs, English proficiency may be necessary but this is a public representative position."

      Nope the truth is exactly opposite of what you said.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill the Cat

      So, the people of California are unable to speak for themselves, but the people of this town can... right...

      February 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      get out of this country u use less P O S

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

      Shouldn't a public representative be able to communicate easily with the public and other representatives?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sal

    W couldn't speak English well either and he was Prez! Twice no less.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  3. octopus

    "..country that .prides itself as a melting pot."

    Well, that exactly means that people who come to that country should adapt themselves to its customs.

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

      Mexicans have no desire to become Americanized....they just wanna turn America into Mexico.....this country is gonna look like a 3rd world country because of these animals

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

      @ Comonsns,
      How does it feel to loose your conutry to the majority? Now you know how Native Americans felt!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jack

    Perhaps the white hillbillies posting above should check their own English grammar and diction before pressing send...

    February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      I'll white hillbilly you backside you no good for anything P O S

      February 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  5. James

    Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla should change his name to John Charles Smith... Alejandrina's English is good enough to run a small ass town of a ghetto ass state such as Arizona in this case...

    February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. nomercy101

    She cannot speak english, she does not provide mstr ba tion material for being sooooo fug ly, sorry cannot be on the ballot.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  7. cruiser

    The law clearly states that fluency in English is a requirement to hold public office, and the judge correctly interpreted that law in this case. Perhaps the law needs to be changed to allow for situations such as this.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      Watch the comma splice Cruiser. Care to check you grammar and repost?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • B-Rye

      I'm an objective party attempting to learn more about this particular situation. Could you please site the law/statue to which you are referring?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • B-Rye

      And to the trolls out there, yes, I already noticed my mistake in site/cite as well as my grammar mistakes in the previous post, as well as this one. I'm just looking for some productive information. Thanks.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Gustavo

    Wow. I am astonished as to how people react. Why can't people say "Well at least she's trying to help her community". Instead all you read is ignorant trash complaining that why she doesn't speak English or that she should have her papers removed; seriously? Are you that scared of a little Hispanic woman that even though shes trying to help our country the best she can you still have to insult her and degrade her? Are you that self confident that you resort to hide behind your keyboard to calm your fears about a different race and culture? Wow.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      Hey stupid, how do u know her intentions? Help this country my american @ $ $. Don't you get it, can't speak english and ugly sorry she has to have one or the other. I can't even self pleasure with that ugliness

      February 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • silverback

      @ no mercy 1+1,
      Just use your two little fingers and fantisize on your hillbilly sister to pleasure yourself, you should be fine.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. SixDegrees

    Although I'm not a fan of the idea of an official language for the US, English is the de facto standard. And there is not a single thing that unites a nation more than a common language. A region with a multiplicity of languages spoken exclusively of one another is a multiplicity of nations, not a single, unified whole. And learning the nation's default language is the surest way forward toward acceptance and full participation in that nation's affairs. This may not be a popular decision in some quarters, but it is absolutely the correct one.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. tutuvabene

    It's interesting that Arizona has an official language but the U.S., as a whole, does not.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  11. EX-Squid

    @Chris why cant she speak English? its easy, its those liberals that forced Spanish speaking teachers on schools.
    If they taught in English they'd have to learn English to graduate.

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

      @Ex-Squid: You forgot your apostrophe in sentence one. You failed to capitalize the first word in sentence two. That would be a failing grade in third grade English.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Augiedog

    If she was deaf and only used and understood sign language would she also be barred from holding office?

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

      Probably not. Deafness is a disability, so an exception would be made because of the ADA. Speaking Spanish, and only Spanish, however, is not a disability, as far as I know, so your comparison is meaningless.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Iris

    Sorry, but you should not be able to run if you are not fluent in English in this country. Everyone knows that most of our private and public sector business is done using the English language. The courts made the right decision. She should make an effort to learn it well and run again when she is fluent.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dan

    She sounds like a mongoloid... "UHHMMMM"

    February 8, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Richard

    It is not a question that she can communicate well with the people she represents but how will she be able to communicate with the others in Government that she will have to work with? All of the people in Government will be able to communicate with her in Spanish so she is going to have to be proficient in English or be a poor representative.

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

      Actually, in the specific position she wants to run for, speaking in Spanish and being able to listen/read (but not speak) English is most-likely good enough and the competency in speaking English may very well not be needed at all to perform her duties in that office.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
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