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. Marla

    Maybe we should all learn one of the American Indian languages...the true native language. English is not the official language of the U.S., maybe you need to go back to school.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      so, your parents are right, you are that stupid

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

      Maria, do you honestly believe this? Try to be reasonable for a moment... if you dispute that the national language of America is English (whether by law or by observation) then you are choosing to be difficult. Speak amongst your family and friends however you like, but make no mistake, you are expected to learn English to excel in this country. If you don't want to learn English and PURPOSEFULLY make an effort not to or FORCE systems to CATER to those who refuse, those are the signs of a weak society, a weak government infrastructure, and frankly, NOTHING would work that way.........

      Get real please?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patricia

      I would certainly learn a Native American language if I felt that it would benefit me in my life. However, I doubt putting any of those down as a second language is going to help me compete in this economy.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rick

      Since when is English not the official language of United States of America? It sure the heck is not Spanish!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • kl

      test

      February 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      It's the official language of this country. It's laws are written and printed in English. If you don't like it that's to bad it's the way of the world. It is still a melting pot that says you need to speak English. Americans bend over back wards for honestly second class citizens. In France if that woman spoke that little French she would be told the same. English isn't that hard to learn.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • pete

      The english language was adopted years ago as the language spoken in the United States. Every country in this world has a language that they accept as their default language. If you want to live in this country learn to read and speak the language. Have respect for the country you live in.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      English SHOULD be the offical language of the US. No other language should be taught... Part of the iimgration process should be to know English, otherwise you would not be able to be a citizen. If you are here illegally, it should a capital offense... No deportation... That would stop those coming here illegally...

      February 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Person

      I'm not going to argue about the United States, but I know for a fact that Arizona DOES have an official language.
      http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Arizona_English_as_the_Official_Language,_Proposition_103_%282006%29

      February 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marla

      Timmy...Mexicans are not lazy, most of us know two languages, and we know when to use punctuations, unlike you. Your sentence starts with "Mexican's" not the plural "Mexicans". Go back to Canada.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • timmy

      "Timmy...Mexicans are not lazy, most of us know two languages, and we know when to use punctuations, unlike you. Your sentence starts with "Mexican's" not the plural "Mexicans". Go back to Canada."

      LOL thank you grammar nazi. When writing on an informal blog such as this, I will not check my grammar, punctuation or typo's. I actually have a job and only have a few breaks a day to read stooopid posts such as yours on why mexiCANTs shouldnt be held to the same standard as everyone else. Congrats, you can speak english. Not very many of your mexican brethren do. At least I can speak the language the majority (95%) of this country speaks. At least I am not illegally entering a country then refusing to speak its language when I am getting tax dollars for free health care. At least my ancestors worked hard to learn the language, which was required when immigrating to this country, and succeeded because of their hard work. At least I am not border hopping to have babies in the US on taxpayer money. At least I am not getting a job illegally, then sending all of that money out of the country that employed you illegally. If you dont like the language, go back to mexico. Try a little work and learn the language, I am sure if americans were immigrating to mexico we would need to learn spanish.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  2. FREEDOM OF SPEECH

    Ms. Cabrera I'm so envious of you! Some of us Americans pay tons of dollars and take all kinds of classes just to learn basic spanish and you are fluent in spanish. Honey, be proud of your native spanish and your heritage. I sure envy you!

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

    "oiler_head

    Tell that to the INS office in Brownsville, TX. All signs and communications are done Spanish first – English only if asked. I went through this numerous times while awaiting my green card (I'm a Canadian citizen). The english only sentiment is a joke and not based in reality. The US should embrace the fact that Spanish is widely spoken in the lower 48 and should offically adopt it as a national language. Its happening unoffically anyways..."

    So illegals get to stay in this country, take free health care, get jobs, not pay taxes and now you want to allow Spanish to be spoken fluently in this country? What is this? The United States of Mexico? My ancestors were forced to learn english if they wanted to be successful in this country. Today, we are too politically correct to tell someone that they need to learn the language the majority of the country speaks.

    Mexican's are so lazy they dont even want to try and learn the language.

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

      Umm...You realize she was born in Arizona...

      February 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      I still consider her an illegal, ship her and her family out of here to any hispanic country

      February 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      Just because you are born here, you should not be a citizen... She went to mexico and was out of the country for years... That right there unless you delcaire that you are goign to live out of the country for a specific purpose, business related, etc... That you would lose your citizenship

      February 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Really?

      You clearly haven't been to the lower 48 states, or only to a limited number of them. Spanish IS NOT the most widely spoken language. The widespread usae of Spanish can also be attributed to the large number of illegal immigrants. You also need to remember we do not have an open door policy to all hispanics and immigration is extended to most of the world, not just Mexico, Cuba, or other. Why not make it German? We allow them to immigrate. It would also benefit you to remember, they want to be a part of the United States. We did not ask to be part of Mexico/Cuba/Other. How about we flood Quebec and demand they be required to speak English to accommodate us? I'm sure that would go over well.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • timmy

      "Umm...You realize she was born in Arizona..."

      Yes I do which makes it even worse that she cant speak english.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • timmy

      "Really?

      You clearly haven't been to the lower 48 states, or only to a limited number of them. Spanish IS NOT the most widely spoken language. The widespread usae of Spanish can also be attributed to the large number of illegal immigrants. You also need to remember we do not have an open door policy to all hispanics and immigration is extended to most of the world, not just Mexico, Cuba, or other. Why not make it German? We allow them to immigrate. It would also benefit you to remember, they want to be a part of the United States. We did not ask to be part of Mexico/Cuba/Other. How about we flood Quebec and demand they be required to speak English to accommodate us? I'm sure that would go over well."

      LOLOLOL best post here!

      Quebec would tell us to POUND SAND

      February 8, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. TCB1835

    What about Barney Frank? I can't understand anything he says either.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Democrats are Good

    Good. She was supposed to clean my house anyway.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Joe in Kalispell, MT

    I think I see a town that needs a visit from ICE.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. truth

    English is the official language. Our laws are written in English. Spanish is not our official language. Deal with it or get out of the U.S.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • the real truth

      The US has no official language. Don't let the door hit you in the rear on the way out!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Person

      Hey the real truth? Arizona does.
      http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Arizona_English_as_the_Official_Language,_Proposition_103_%282006%29

      February 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jonathan

    I'm torn. From a practical standpoint, this makes sense. If you can't do the job, you shouldn't be eligible to be hired. Most native English speakers would have enough trouble just understanding laws as they're written. She'd be expected to not only read and understand them, but to help write them. And then of course are all the people that she would be required to communicate, most of whom wouldn't know any Spanish.

    I'm also pleased by the precedent that, at least in terms of government, speaking English is a requirement. If you are going to come to another country, you should make every effort to adapt to the existing culture. If you want to keep your own language and traditions, please do. It's that melting pot of cultures that make this country so great. But recognize that we have our own language and customs, and if you want to live here, you're going to have to make the effort to assimilate into that.

    On the other hand, this decision sets a dangerous precedent in allowing the courts to decide who the voters can and cannot choose from. It's a dangerous power to give them, and I'm not entirely certain that it was correct in this case. The voters should have the ultimate power to decide who they feel is qualified to best represent them, and if they decide that they feel she can adequately do the job, they should have the right to make that choice.

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

      The judge can't stop a write-in.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. shoyu 'nuff

    The judge later admitted his ruling was based much more on her horrible wardrobe than on her English proficiency.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Democrats are Good

    Messican is how her version of Spanish is pronounced.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  11. geek in the pink

    @ Beth: 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 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      yea, like get all wet backs out of this country

      February 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Gannt

    This is utter aristocracy- what a fascist state we have become. Heck, the majority of our young generation cannot spell properly enough to save their own lives, but as long as they're not of Hispanic origin, we're a.okay.usa. Our children will reap what we sow- and they'll curse our names for it.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. John

    How many of you defending spanish, would get your undies in a bundle if her language was Arabic?

    February 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. seriously

    If she can't speak english, she can't hold a government job. English is our de facto language. Just because your town is full of spanish people does not mean that spanish is the language. You're still in the united states. I speak high school level spanish, can i go to mexico and become a council member there? doubt it.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jacob M

      Mexico actually has federal laws dictating its national language. The US has no such laws, and neither does Arizona. If the voters of Arizona wish to impose a statute that requires English to be spoken at fluency by all those holding public office, that's one thing. As of now, no such statute exists.

      It should be left to the voters to decide if this person is fit for public office – not the courts.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patricia

      Jacob, The article states: "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.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bryan

      Yes you can if you are a citizen of Mexico...did you not read that she is not only a citizen of the US, but a natural born citizen. I would not vote for her if she was unable to communicate to me in English, but that does not mean that my neighbor who may not consider that to be a deciding factor should not have that opeprtunity to decide for themselves.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Gannt

    White Americans make up more than 60 percent of the country, but they cry they're being oppressed more than 60 percent of the time. What a bunch of privileged, whiny punks. Go back two-hundred years and you were the minority, only you militarily took this country instead of peacefully. Hypocrite nation full of hypocrite stooges.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hooligan2473

      Gannt,

      Go back to the country you are from.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • thinksome1

      Can you say that in Spanish? She can't even say the name of the High School she "graduated" from.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • albert

      Most countries started out the same way, so what is your point? Move if you don't like it.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
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