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. RM13

    How is this legal? while I agree that English should be the national language, I can't believe that a court can ban a citizen from running for public office. Does this mean that no mutes can hold public office? what about a stroke victim that has trouble speaking. How can we claim to be democratic if the current government can dictate who is allowed to run for office?

    February 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gort01

      what is the problem? In Russia, Ill bet a person cant be in political office if they dont speak Russian, in Norway, Sweden, France....etc ....cmon people, get smart...why would we have an elected official that cant speak the native language of our country ENGLISH...

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

      There's a big difference between not being physically able to speak, and choosing not to learn English. This requirement has been in place for over 100 years, why should it change for one person?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carl

      The court is enforcing the law as it is written. Any communications from state, county and other municipalities would be in English. It is not just her ability to speak English, but to read, understand and communicate in it. And as for being democratic, we do have laws in place that indicate, not dictate, who can or can not run for elected office.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Locco

      They didn't permantly ban her from ever running for office, she just needs to speak the language that is necessary to competently do her job. Once she can speak english she can run.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stein

      Err – there is no requirement that you are fluent in Norwegian to run for office in Norway.

      To run for municipal board, province board or parliament, you need to be eligible to vote in the same elections.

      To be eligible to vote in local elections (municipal or provincial), you need to be either a Norwegian citizen, a citizen of one of the other Scandinavian countries living in Norway, or having been a legal resident of Norway for at least three years.

      To be eligible to vote in national (parliament) elections, you need to be a Norwegian citizen.

      That's it. If you want to run for election without speaking Norwegian, you can certainly do so.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  2. bluemax77

    Sounds reasonable...

    February 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  3. LWZRGHT

    totally messed up, judge Nelson. Let the voters decide.

    If she can't represent her people well enough after she's elected, then they'll take care of that too. It's a city election, right? In a city that's 99% Mexican? Just doesn't add up if a Spanish speaker can't be in government there.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • one-time86

      Becuase this is not mexico......duh.....

      February 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      In this specific case, at least, one could effectively argue that to represent this group of people effectively you would need to be able to speak Spanish effectively first-and-foremost, because that is the language that the vast majority of people use in this particular community.

      If you have to choose between someone who can speak Spanish very effectively but has trouble with English and someone who speaks English fluently but doesn't know a lick of Spanish, in this case the former has a much better chance of serving these people effectively than the latter.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • duane

      no, she needs to learn English.....or leave.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • bluemax77

      With the state of US unemployment they all need to leave, English or not...

      February 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. NoRa

    Perhaps a standardized test is in order. I am an Immigrant from Germany and I speak fluent spanish, no one even knows it's my second language! I was 20 when I moved to the US. If running for office, I expect my officials to be fluent! Accents are fine, but she CLEARLY lacks the ability to speak and understand English! So what fi a majority of people there speak Spanish, she still will work in an environment that mainly speaks English! Go study, and run again next time around with a better grasp of teh language! I understand that this is an odd case, and perhaps from it some regulation will come! Then again, I also think that presidential canditates ought to pass a few tests before running for office, mental health and an understanding of the US and World history being a few I'd like to see each one pass!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • one-time86

      How bout economics too its obvious they dont know how to handle money properly...

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

    If it's a requirement of office to speak English properly, then what's the problem? Perhaps she should spend more time brushing up on her English skills and less time complaining that nobody can understand her.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  6. John Schwendler

    One nation, one language. It's not a difficult concept to grasp. No one is telling anyone they have to speak English all the time. However, she is an American citizen by birth, some raising, and some education. I do know that store items would cost less if stores didn't have to post bi-lingual signs and hire bi-lingual staff. I do know that schools could be run more economically if they weren't forced to hire bi-lingual staff to handle translation duties and deal with non-English speaking parents who have made zero effort to learn our language; bus aides; sending all communications home in two languages, etc. It all adds up. I know it is cheaper to run a jail, and a courthouse, when everyone speaks English and again, everything does not have to be done in two languages, because a portion of the population refuses to assimiliate and learn English and become citizens. For those of you who don't live here in AZ, you have not experienced the thrill of having bicycle peddlers ringing a bell through your streets, selling food without a license or health dept. clearance. You have not had the thrill of having stash houses raided at 3 a.m., with helicopters whirling overhead with their searchlights, where 100 illegals are kept in boarded-up rooms until their relatives pay a ransom, or until their entry fee of up to $6k is paid. It is not an Arizona or California or New Mexico or Texas issue, it is national. And we have had enough.

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

    My father was British and would always remind me that he didn't speak funny, it was the Americans that didn't know how to use "The Queen's English."

    February 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  8. alex

    Cry me a river sunshine. When my sister was offered a job at Latina Magazine, she was told that she had to speak Spanish fluently. She didn't speak a word of it but she wanted the job. So she took a Berlitz language class and in ONE WEEK she was speaking Spanish like a native! So this woman is either lazy, or full of it, because she was born in the USA. She has no excuse for not learning the language,

    February 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Corey

    Instead of spending her time fighting this out in court and the media maybe she should just go to school and learn English. She wants to hold a position of public office and be trusted with the responsibility that comes with it? Not if you aren't responsible enough to take steps to ensure that you have the qualifications for the job then you have no business making a fuss about not getting your way.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jack

    Reply by nomercy101:

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

    Any questions?

    February 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  11. davec

    Doesn't it seem funny to anyone that after (assuming) 4 years of high school she can't remember or say the School's name?
    GET REAL!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. goodegyptian

    christianity is vile and evil.. they don't allow spanish speaking people to run for the united states of satanic america?

    February 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • duane

      go stone a girl you freak

      February 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • goodegyptian

      go shoot people randomly you freak

      February 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Al2002

    German used to be the primary language in much of Central Texas and the area used to have schools that had the entire curriculums taught in German up until the middle of the 1900s (until Germans became the bad guys). I wonder what people would think of an enclave of German speakers in Texas that had a German speaking local government.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. conradshull

    If her English is that bad, she should have become a doctor.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Now *that* is funny!!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Time Bandit

    Wow! I had one girl work for me, newly graduated from college at that. After every sentence she would say "Man", "Young" or "You know", our job required communicating with Navy & Gov't Personnel at the Navy Yard. The funny part is I was passed up for promotions because I didn't have a degree but she gets moved up the ladder, go figure that one out.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      I'm sure shee gives good h@#d, maybe you should practice

      February 8, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • bunnymama

      Go get a college degree.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
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