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. zephyr2

    She should move to Miami or Hialeah. A good number of local politicians and school board members here are so difficult to listen to because their English is so bad it gets on the nerves. But no one seems to care. She'll do well here.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Chris

    How in the world did she graduate high school without being able to read/write/speak English?

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

      They probably have teachers who speak Spanish and can teach in Spanish and can assess the proficiency of students in the subjects required to be taught for a high school diploma without needing the students to be "proficient" (as defined haphazardly and not objectively by any standard by a judge) in the English language.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      And if you read the article, you will find that she can read English, at least she claims she can.

      Filling in ovals for a standardized test does not require you be able to speak English. You only need to be able to read it.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. mike58

    I dont want to has to push one to speak in English to my Gov Rep

    February 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. pat

    The law in Arizona says she can't use a translator? I think they're going out of their way to halt the spread of Hispanic culture, not just a language.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      I think she can use a translator but can't ask the government to pay for the translator.

      If she were deaf/mute and could only speak with sign language but understood English, however, the government would have to pay for a sign language translator if she were elected...

      February 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • sumo

      English is the language of this country. Learn it and like it or go back to where you all came from. That includes all those from different countries.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      You first, sumo.

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

      Excuse me? The Hispanic culture is currently overtaking the United States. How many illegal immigrants are there in this country? They don't learn English and they don't assimilate into our country and/or culture. They will fly their flag above ours! I know that the woman talked about in this article was born here, but she did not grow up here and does not know the spoken language well enough to communicate to the majority. She should not be in public office because she can only communicate with Spanish speakers. Also, the judge was not being racist; he was being only considerate of the consequences if someone were in office who could not speak the language.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      "[Cabrera] does not know the spoken language well enough to communicate to the majority."

      You are wrong. She can communicate to the vast majority of the people she wants to represent quite well. Better than you could, in fact.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mike

    Whether or not she is qualified should be left up to the voters not the courts. I am sick of hearing conservatives complain about "judicial activism" then turning around and using the courts to impose their prefered policies. People are smart enough to decide whether or not they should elect someone to represent them who has trouble speaking English, and if not, then so be it, they'll get the government they deserve. Its called democracy, people.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  6. NC Narrator

    "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"

    If this is meant to be taken literally, then it would also seem to prevent anyone with a hearing/speech issue that uses sign language or an interpreter from holding office. If they aren't willing to apply it there, then they can't apply it anywhere. In this case, I would let the people she is representing make the decision on whether or not she is capable of representing their interests.

    I'm also going to point out that I've listened to a few local politicians talk...and if they were to be held to this standard, they would be in trouble, since (judging by the things they write and say), I would rate their ability with the English language at about a 3 on a scale of 1-10. Sad, considering they don't have the excuse that it's not their primary language – they're just ignorant and proud of it.

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

      Also, if I'm not mistaken, a City Council member does not hold a state office... How on earth does this law apply in this circu.mstance?

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

      Hearing impaired individuals are considered to have a disability. Not knowing a second language is not a disability.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Comonsns

    Mexicans are animals.....if you havent noticed it yet, you soon will when your city/town is overrun by them

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

    Can we please, finally agree to make ENGLISH the official language of the United States?!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pepita

      You've got that right!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  9. SPENT

    simple solution: learn english

    February 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. RMAnderson

    If any American moved/immigrated to France, Itally, Spain, etc....it would be VERY difficult to get by without speaking the language, much less get a good paying job, RUN FOR MAYOR.....This is America! Learn to speak English (like the rest of the world would require of their own language) and speak it fluently!

    If I moved/immigrated to Mexico or another Spanish speaking part of the world, Id feel I would need to learn the language. Why is this so difficult for people to understand!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marla

      Maybe we should all learn American Indian, the real native language.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. henry

    1st off.She's American born,she graduated high school,so she can read & write in english,( important for understanding the laws and ordinances and paperwork she probably has to deal with).So? she has an accent(the Govenator had a thick accent,yet he,with all his fame and $ could never be president of the U.S. for not being born here.Lets face the facts.the world is a small place,globalization.If the people vote for her,that's who the people want to represent them.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  12. mzdameanor

    What about someone who is deaf or mute and uses sign language to communicate? Would that prevent him or her from holding office?

    Perhaps this person would need an interpreter to communicate with both government officials and the public, but why would that exclude the person from office?

    A deaf person's first language in the US is NOT English.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Timbuck2

    This is pure entertainment! I love it!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dan Carter

    Send the wretch back to Mexico.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      put her down like the ugly dog she is!!!!!!!!!!!!

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

      She's "undereducated," that's all.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ian

    Because all of those proficient English speaker currently in government are doing such a great job. I see.

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

      And they would work even more efficiently if they all spoke different languages

      February 8, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
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