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. Chris

    You are a conquered people. Deal with it.

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

      So were the 13 colonies. But they had this thing called revolution. Deal with it when the soon-to-be majority stop taking your fascist dictatorship as word of righteous law.

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

      Apparently, you are not very good on your American history. Not a big deal these days, since all people concern themselves with in this country is exploiting it.

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

      Appawentwy, you know know what i know.

      Get a clue, Beavis.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Gordon Daily

    "At present it's unclear what factored into the justices' decision..."

    Maybe the fact she can't speak English factored in??

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

    Hypocrite USA calls themselves a melting pot. So long as it's melting white, Christian chocolate, a non-native treat. Special places in Hell await hypocrites, according to your own Messiah.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Democrats are Good

      Everyone hates you. Too bad your mother did not abort you. I bet she regets it still while she is working the streets.

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

      Gannt, I'm non-white and a woman, but i want whatever advances america. we're competing with china and india at every level. economically, culturally, world resouces, human rights. let's focus on the real problem.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      When that came out the doctor smacked the mother, btw you are the only democrat I like

      February 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • The all potent one

      Please go to some other non-english speaking country and stay there and refuse to speak the native language. Write us back in a couple years and let us know how you are doing

      February 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nic

      Did you even read this article? Yes, why don't we go ahead and let someone who can't speak English proficiently run for office. Please stop embarrassing yourself with this type of ignorant comment.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gannt

      So as long as you can either fit in with the primary culture, or militarily take it over to make yours supreme? Got it. Here that guys, we've been given the green light to force our will against these people who've been forcing it against the rest of us for generations.

      Hey, by your logic, amirite?

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

    does speaking spanish only advance america? that's the question.

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

      Only one thing matters in running for Public office and that is whether you are a US Citizen and have collected sufficient signatures.

      The electorate can decide if her English is good enough or ... if there is any other reason not to vote for her. That's how our country works. This will go to the Supreme court and Arizona will pay just fines for its bigotry.

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

      it's a matter of efficient government to settle on one official language. can you imagine the confusion if we had a city council of 10 members who spoke 10 different languages?

      February 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. acro

    Nel- If we all need to "learn English to excel in this country", why do I own a successful business teaching Spanish to English speakers who are professionals in their industries?

    The demographic of this country is changing, and that means the culture and the language are too. Thousands of people pay thousands of dollars each month to learn to speak Spanish. They do it because they see that it adds value to their resumes, their workplace skills, their businesses, and their ability to be prosperous Americans.

    If you want to "excel" in this country, you need to be bilingual!

    February 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • The all potent one

      But if you want to run for OFFICE in this country learn english

      February 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nic

      Yes you've made your business from teaching people to speak Spanish. Do you speak Spanish every time you speak? Probably not. This is an English speaking country. And while there are more and more Spanish speaking people living here the fact is that this country's primary language is English.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bruce Small

    Quote: "...I’m not fluid in English..." No, and I suspect you are not fluent either.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Really-though

    Put that woman on the ballot! The point is If the voters in her District vote her in...that's whats important. Put her on the ballot, if she loses moot point! But if she WINS! *MESSAGE*

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

    I'm sure this woman speaks better English than half the black population in this country.

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

      And I'm sure half of the country's population don't run for the office dummy.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Relly

      Just like your cousins in the Mountains of Virgina!! LOL

      February 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  9. hansdick

    LOL. There are tests of english language profeciency. Get one from the State department. Council simply needs to pick a standard. The problem is, if you require a test, a lot of of native-english American's may fail it judging from the quality of english one sees on these fora.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • The all potent one

      great job of making your point

      February 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Pugpwer

    If you have ever tried doing business in Canada, you would never want more than one national language. What a mess.

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

      Canadian's can say America is bankrupt in two official languages. English and French!

      February 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • calmatter

      You could learn French language, would only help never hurt.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Blake

    @Songlian Chen

    Yes, please delete any opinion made that doesn't agree with mine.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      that troll only likes b a lls on chen

      February 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  12. mike

    THIS IS AWESOME! APPARENTLY AMERICA ISN'T QUITE MEXICO... YET.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Gannt

    History will provide ample justice to all decrepit nations.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Democrats are Good

      Free tacos?

      February 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      You are truly a moron.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. California Liberal

    I'm an American citizen of Hispanic heritage and agree with this ruling completely. My mother and father speak English fluently and it enabled them to reach management jobs, while my uncles and aunts who can't speak English well have been at the same minimum wage jobs their entire lives. Why? Because English is the de facto language of this country. Sure, the town might be mostly Hispanic and Spanish speaking, but what about the Hispanic Americans who don't know Spanish? How would this woman be able to effectively represent them?

    February 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nah

      Not to mention the fact that city ordinances, etc. she'd be called on to write, interpret and enforce are most likely in English.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • JiminNM

      Seems like the courts are out of line if she meets the written requirements to be on the ballot. Let the voters decide.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • patrick

      This won't stand as there's no requirement for English proficiency. but who cares about actually obeying the law in Arizona – it's all about 'dem mexcans'.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      defacto language does not mean official language.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. AMERICAN

    get of your mexican lazy butts and learn the dang language. same as every other country. we speak english in america, thats how its alwayse been. if you dont like it, move to another spanish speaking country, there are plenty of them. I dont care what lanuage you speak personally, but when u move to my country, you better speak my dang language. Same as if it were reversed, ill learn your language if i move to your country, thats just how it is people. NEXT SUBJECT.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Russell

      AMAN

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

      Actually, hispanic immigrants are learning English much, much faster than the European immigrants ever did when they came over early in the century. So who's lazy now?

      February 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patricia

      Get off your lazy American ass and learn some grammar skills !!

      February 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Glass house

      No, in all actuality, you dont speak English. Your English is a grammatical nightmare. Good luck Mr. Glass House.....

      February 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • you'vebeencleshed

      cleshflesh.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Segunku

      With all due, respect. I hope that you can speak it better than you can write it.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Colorado

      You may be able to speak it but it is obvious that you cant spell or type it.

      And it is "Amen" ..................idiots

      February 8, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Umm Yeah

      with what you just said, shouldnt we all speak native american? not english.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
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