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)

    Yea, send her back to Mexico right? And just imagine what kind of democracy America would have been had we send all the European immigrants back home when they entered our shores in the 20th century. Don't worry Ms. Cabrera, you have made most of America proud because of your courage and willingness to strive for the American Dream. All the best to you honey!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      No, you don't speak for “most” of Americans, you speak for the small portion of bedwetting liberals who think like you do. Most Americans think she's an idiot for even trying to get elected.

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

      May as well adapt. Espanish ees the new language. If you're gay and illegal Obama welcomes you with open arms.

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

      The only problem with your argument is that those immigrants came here, learned English immediately, or knew it fairly well before arriving, and for the most part spoke English predominantly in the home. In addition, they immediately applied for citizenship upon arrival. The proof of this is that their descendants overwhelmingly have no ability to speak the native language of their ancestors.

      It is amazing to me that for some reason the hispanic heritage clings to their language and culture and unlike other immigrant groups wants the majority to change, and not vice versa.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wendy

      Wrong. To hold office in the country where business is conducted in English a person running for office should be proficient. Next what immigrants ran for office back in the good old days who also didn;t speak English. English is the language of commerce, it is also the common language of airline pilots who fly internationally – including, Saudis, Turks, Mexicans, Brazilians and Russians. Last she graduated from an American High School – you souldn;t be allowed to graduate from an American High School if you aren;t proficient in English – this is America notMexico. Sos peak for youeself when you tell her everyone is proud. I'm actually appalled!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  2. davec0121

    Do I think the court made the right decision? Por cierto.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Chris

    How on earth did she graduate from an American high school in Yuma if she can't speak passable English? She shouldn't have been able to get a diploma without it. Kudos to her for trying to make a difference but her case certainly speaks volumes about the quality of education in this country.

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

      Because English isn't the primary language in Yuma anymore. Arizona is virtually just an extension of Mexico.

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

      Because the requirement to be able to Read, Write, and understand ENGLISH to be an American Citizen doesn't seem to apply to mexicans only everyone else.

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

      Wow, it is really amazing someone that is smart enough to graduate high school does not speak English. I agree that no matter how smart someone is, dag gummit they should NOT be able to get a diploma, which is necessary to succeed in jobs, if they do not speak English.

      Your comment indicates ignorance on so many levels.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. nomercy101

    she looks like a l es bian, can't speak english, if they let her on the ballot it will be another nick in the american oak tree trunk. These hispanics only want to take over texas, arizona, new mexico and southern Cali. they are ter ro rist just like the moose lims want to take over Europe all the way to spain. It's time for our spc. ops. start taking care of business south of the border and work its way up and kill them all

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

      A moose lim? A moose's arm?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Stephen

    I'm not seeing the issue here. If I moved to another country and I ran for political office (Which I'm sure wouldn't be permissible), I would expect that I'd need to speak the native language fluently.

    I find it sad that we've reached the point where this is even a polarizing issue. How much sense does it make to elect someone who can't communicate with their political peers? If this woman wants to run for office, then learn the friggin' language!

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

      I couldn't agree more... and I'm hispanic!!!!!!!!!

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

      I agree 100%. No English, no office..

      February 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • bunnymama

      The question in this article is not whether she can do the job well or not – is whether she should be allowed to run for office, and the answer is yes, she should... why? Because she is an American citizen. It is her right to run for office. Now if the question is whether she will do a good job – that's the public's decision. If her lack of English proficiency became the deciding factor of whether or not she is elected, so be it, it is the voice of the people and that needs to be respected. But taking her rights to even run for office... that's NOT right.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  6. c'mon America

    Please read the article before you post . Perhaps then your post might have more relevance . Also , this is about an " understanding of " , not about thick accents or mutilated tongues .

    February 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |

    @David Floridensis

    Very well stated!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  8. The W

    If they had given George W the same test, we would have had a different 2000-2008.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Stacy

    I think the concern is not running in the election, but the problems that will occur if she is elected into office. She must be able to communicate with everyone, and be able to fully comprehend all legislature she will come across.

    In the video, someone mentioned that there was no standardized proficiency test. In that case, there should be one.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. LV7

    A lot of people think that she should be permitted to use a translator. Who would pay for the translator's services? And why should the other council members be forced to accept the interruption and distraction of an interpreter? How much longer would those meetings take because one person doens't want o lean the English language adequately before running for office? She can still run for office once she improves her skills. I agree 100% with the law and the judges ruling!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |

    @ The W

    Very well stated!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Person

    I agree with the ruling.
    Why? Because like it our not, the country's official/business language is English.
    If you can't speak English, and you're in a position where you have to speak/perform business, especially as a representative of an English country, then you have no business trying to get said job.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rafi

    She is a native and a resident of the United States. She was trying to run for office in a city where the majority of the populace can understand Spanish. Given the fact that some U.S presidents, state governors had difficulties in speaking English, it is unfair to keep Ms. Cabrera off the ballot. It should have been left up to the voters to decide if she was fit to run for office.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Taysha

      The key point here is "the majority of the populace", which indicates that she would not be able to communicate with a part of the population. So basically, you would give no voice to those who could not speak Spanish, or you would have to spend a significant amount of money for translation.

      I would very much welcome bilingual candidates. I highly encourage her to work on it and keep trying.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  14. GrouchyKat

    It's not payback, when her own skills show she's not fluent enough in English to really do her job.

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


      February 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
  15. luvlar

    They still speak English in Arizona? I thought it had gone the way of Miami where everyone speaks Spanish.

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