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. quote

    the fact that offices an officers of the administration even local government need to speak the language of the land, this lady is just another good reason why our borders need to be blocked because they enemy is getting into our politics and our court is allowing it to happen

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

    At least she was trying to do something for her community. How many of you people bashing her, do anything for YOURS? Probably less than 1/2 of 1% of you. Learn spanish or any other language for that matter. Broaden your horizons. Not all of your parents or grandparents were even born in this country, you hypocrites. I hope she tries again in the next election, by then, if she keeps studying with her tutor she should be fine. Of course none of you will have mastered another language by then. You go gir!!!l or in spanish :"Va a Chica! " in italian: Lei va la ragazza! (my Fanters Language) in swedish: Du går flicka! (my mothers language) See how easy it is.... I also speak 2 others that I larned on my own. Now shut the hell up you ignorant wanna be Texans......

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

      My dearest Gwenn: it appears to me like you need tutoring in Spanish. Va a chica? Go to girl? I suggest you start with Spanish 101. Your comments have a grain of legitimacy to them, but they are lost in your desperate attempt to be cool. Next.

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

      Not a word of what you just said has anything to do with the issue at hand. This is America. We speak English. People are welcome to and should be encouraged to speak as many other languages as they want to, especially their native language. Having said that – they need to be able to speak English. And if you're going to run for office, you have to speak English fluently. If you;re running for office in an area with lot's of a particular nationality, you should be required to be fluent in that language also, before being considered for election. That 2nd language should NEVER be offered up to replace a lack on ENGLISH skills. Period. English is the one language everyone in the country should be able to speak fluently.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Huh?

      You're right. A good portion of the people posting have grandparents who weren't born in this country. Guess what? They learned to speak English and didn't insist on people speaking their language. Even you posted in English. Why? Because you wanted to communicate with the most people. No one has a problem with her not speaking English. They have a problem with someone who wants to lead their community being unable to communicate with them. You make no sense when you expect EVERYONE to accommodate ONE. Yes... I speak a foreign language fluently too. Guess what? When I lived in that country for over 10 years, I spoke THEIR language.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • GB

      Gwenn, I agree with you totaly.

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

      Taffy, its not a desperate attempt, I am Cool!! You do not know me at all, and it does not mean "Go to Girl" it means exactly what I said it does,I just forgot the !! points... if you learn the language, you will also learn some slang, chica..... You do not learn slang in Spanish 101, you do however learn by living in some place that isn't "lilly white'

      February 8, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gwenn

      Prolieator: Just what are you supposed to be a "warrior" for.. Spreading bigotry as far and wide as you can. Everything I said, has everything to do with the issue at hand. It really isn't an issue if someone lives here and isn't proficient in english. What matters is that they and she try to improve their english. She has a tutor, she is trying to improve her english, give her some credit for that. Did you even read the entire article? You are exactly what is wrong with this country. Narrow minded bigots like you, will stay the ignorant people you really are, no matter what you 'hide behind'. You do not have to move to San Luis, AZ. Stay in your little corner of the US, and let the voters of Arizona decide for themselves. That state is as messed up as most of the southern states are. Your kind should just form your own state, that way the rest of us do not have to be subjected to that tiny little view you all have of the world.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Taysha

      Um, Gwenn, Taffy's right

      "Va a chica" basically translates to "go to girl" in which girl is treated as a locator, not even a person, based off the wording. There is no expression such as "You go girl" in Spanish or Mexican, which I can only assume you were aiming for.
      There are some other expressions such as "Bien, muchacha/o" "Bien hecho, chica" or slightly less polite "con un par" or "manda huevos, guey" depending on which dialect (European Spanish or Mexican) you'd like to use.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • carolyn walker

      In order to hold any public office in America........the person should be able to...read,write,speak and understand the English language fluently.I speak Texan myself.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Russell

    Guess what? In Germany you must speak German so guess what, If you run for ANY office in the United States of America, you MUST be fluent in ENGLISH!!

    So there is not a problem

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

    Right now she has a private tutor helping her with her English...so clearly she recognizes the need to be able to communicate in the common language of the United States. Once she is able to effectively communicate in English, then she can run for office again. This should be an incentive for her to become proficient in speaking English.

    As a city council person, she will be required to meet with state officials and non-local business leaders on a regular basis. She has to be able to communicate with these people effectively in order to do her job. This isn't without precedent. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Mazie Hirono, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Albio Sires all speak English as a second language, but speak it proficiently enough to serve effectively in office.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  5. mike22

    It's so cute how illegal aliens infest our country and then try to demand representation when they aren't even citizens. It truly is an invasion, and what's scary is that it's working.

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

    "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," .....
    reporter asked her a question in english and she responded......we all have different dialects of english..in fact the english would say we speak american......just be glad we dont have to speak chinese yet...

    February 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Tom

    There are large foreign communities in the United States that don't speak English or Spanish. If a Chinese person had limited English skills and wanted to hold local office then most of these comments would be "learn English". I have no problem what nationality represents me in office but I would like to be able to have a conversation with that person when necessary.

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

    As My Spanish teacher (Mr. Abernathy) said, I don't see this being a problem or news worthy!! Have a nice day!!

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

    So we can have a man who is not a natural born U.S. citizen sitting in the White House with the courts refusing to take action but disqualify a qualified American for poor English; let the voters decide.

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

    Why not make it German? Queen's English? A Slavic language? These nationalities are all welcome in America. Almost 50% of the people I work with are from India, China, or other countries, yet they all speak English. THEY appreciate the opportunity to join our culture. While they may speak their native language amongst themselves, they are not trying to turn the US into their country. They are embracing it as the United States and the American way of life. This isn't Mexico, nor do we want to convert to the Mexican way of life. I don't go into their homes and demand they speak English. Don't come into mine and expect me to. If you can't handle the task of learning English, then I have little confidence in your willingness to contribute to society here as a whole. Yes.... I've lived in other countries for over 10 years and YES, I learned the local language and customs. It's a courtesy to the host country. How about showing a little courtesy to the country that is playing host to you?

    February 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      kick their a $$ es out also, unless they want to cook american chinese and do laundry

      February 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Patricia

    Those who say there is no official law about the English language simply did not read the article- which very clearly states the following:
    "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 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • patrick

      Too bad you don't test the huge majority of rednecks who dirty up in your state, they'd be sent to Mexico too.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Gannt

    Considering that the majority of Americans are illiterate, ignorant of other cultures, and completely introverted, she would make a fine representative of this very shoddy country.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      something tells me you already had her in your imagination, I tried and went limp, she is one ugly chic. Now go beat your mother for having you

      February 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Democrats are Good

      Your sadness at the lack of gay bars avalable to you is apparant.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • MexAm201

      Do you have something to contribute to the conversation that is actually relevant?

      February 9, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Butch

    She's disgusting

    February 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      your not kidding she ran through the ugly forest and didn't miss a tree

      February 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Viva Las Vegas

    If she wants to be a Spanish speaking politicial she can move to Spain. I agree 100% with the AZ decision here.

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

      I think Mexico would be more convenient since she does live on the Az/ Mex border. But I do agree with you in principle. Better solution though, LEARN ENGLISH.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Marvs257

    If you want to speak Spanish at home, go ahead. If you want to speak Spanish at work, go ahead. But if you want to run to public office in the US (the last I checked, Arizona is USA), I think it's only appropriate to be able to speak English. I'm not talking about accents. You can have a heavy accent and still be proficient in English, like Arnold Schazernegger. But if you need an interpreter, I think it's not appropriate for you to run. Because you will be dealing not only with local problems/policies, but also national problems/policies coming from other states or even from Washington DC.

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

      It's not a tooooma!

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