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)

    If our official language is english, then why are most of the towns in the south west have spanish names? Perhaps we should just return the Mexican states we confiscated.

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

      Did you lean nothing in social science? Do you think Central America spoke Spanish before the Spanish inquisition? Do you think that Christianity was here before the Spanish annihilated those territories? San – Saint in Spanish. Sorry to ruin your Latin bliss of ignorance. Now go back to thinking that the languege south of the boarder is 'Mexican'

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

      Actually, there is no official language. English is the de-facto language; nowhere in the federal laws is there a definition of official language.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • thinksome1

      Because the names were the only thing worth keeping? I'm just guessing.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kurt

    English is the language – get over it or go to a Spanish speaking country. If we allow Spanish, we need to allow German, French, Italian, Chinese, etc. Pretty soon, we won't be able to communicate at all, and our government will be even more dysfunctional.

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

      You've never lived in a multilingual society. They're a heck of a lot smarter and better functioning than the decrepit USA.

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

      English is not the national language. The US federal government – and its citizens – have continually denied the official recognition of any language, including English, for decades.

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

    If you want to hold political office in a nation that relies on the English language, and in a state that by law required it, then learn that language if you want to the position so badly. She is not a victim here.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • mfx3

      And yet she wants to better her community, and you just want to trash her on a message board. I stand behind her, rather than you.

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

      And apparently she didn't consider learning to be proficient in English as important after attending school in America. That speaks that she did not value the opportunity of an American education very highly.

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

      I'm with Abbey !!

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

      He wasn't trashing her mx, he was pointing out the obvious. There are numerous ways she can help out her community other than holding a major government job. Stop being so sensitive you big baby.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Gannt

    Hilarious that the idiots making fun of her English can barely type three words properly in that language.

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

      Look who's talking! Your grammar is very poor.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • thinksome1

      They have a spot for you in Quebec, I think.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. mfx3

    Seeing as how English is not *legally* recognized as the official language of the US, I think this ruling will be hard to defend on appeal.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Person

      Not in the US, but it IS in Arizona.,_Proposition_103_(2006)

      February 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  6. abby

    If she graduates from an American high school and is not sufficiently proficient to communicate in English, there is more of a problem than she realizes. The problem is that she graduated from an American high school lacking the skills to communicate proficiently and effectively in English. And apparently she did not consider learning to communicate in English as that important. That is unacceptable. I have no objections to her running for office once she is proficient in the language she will need in government, which according to my experience having lived in a border town, means English. The government agencies in this country use English, even in border towns. As for her Spanish speaking skills, I am sure they will come in handy. But she needs to be proficient in English first.

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

      I agree, and also would like to add that the article simply says "graduated" but we don't know what her grades were. C's get degrees in this country. Graduation does not necessarily mean someone is necessarily bright- she could have just slid by. One thing is clear; she did not put a lot of effort into English.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. HoneyB

    Go back a hundred years ago when we became the 'melting pot' immigrants came to this country to make a better life and for them to get what they wanted they had to speak the language – English. They still spoke their native languages at home but they learned English so they could work and get their American Dream. Fast forward to today we are so Politically Correct that employers are required to have translators and you can't request people to speak English because that is offensive. It aggravates me to no end that Americans are considered ignorant because they don’t speak Spanish. English is the major language of this country. If I were to live and work in Mexico, France, Germany, Russia I would be sure to learn the language so I could provide for myself and not have to rely on others to translate. But since we are a PC Nation now, English will be extinct because we didn’t want offend someone and make exceptions for all.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • bigbear03

      Well spoken HoneyB. Couldn't agree with you more.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Calco

    Would like to see her take this to the next higher court level.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Democrats are Good

      Will you pay the expenses?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Democrats are Good

    Does she act in a Donkey show?

    February 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. decrepitUSA

    Har here, i rank hi on dem educajuan poins, so i gets to mak the kall!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Shaun

    how does one graduate high school in the US without being fluent in English?

    February 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Eric

    what if she was deaf and could only sign? Am I go assume that deaf people are excluded from holding public office as well?

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

      But Eric, she IS NOT deaf. If she were, she would be using AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE. That is the actual name of this universal sign language.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. decrepitUSA

    we da bes countri in da word wid our white supermasea additood, wees da meltin pot, ya'll

    February 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Romney'sAJabroni


    February 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Michael

    George W. Bush didn't speak very good English and he was president for 2 terms.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Democrats are Good

      Obama always wants to "Ax" a question and he is president now.

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


      February 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Maybe so, but at least he was born in this country, and at least he didn't try to socialize us. I'll take a twang over Obama's BS any day pal.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lomez

      You don't "speak good English" either, pal.

      I guess I really shouldn't be shocked at the staggering stupidity of your average person anymore.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sari

      I've never heard Obama say "aks", but funny enough. GWB, totally fair point. Anyway, I don't think that should disqualify her...deaf people often can't "speak English"...would they be disqualified? That seems to be a bit unreasonable of the courts.

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