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. Gannt

    United States of Anti-non-comformity-to-our-white-supremacy

    Go nation under God who the world loves so much! No wonder these fools can't take a hint.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Democrats are Good

      Your English is terrible.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      go beat your mother for having you

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

      That's some funny stuff right there! LOL!

      February 8, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • CA Vet

      What does race have to do with it? Most countries require their leaders to speak the national language. most countries have an official language. Its about time we start putting an end to this madness.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  2. bill patteson

    Good ruling. In general, we need a common language to communicate with one another, and it would appear that English should be that language. I would hate to be leading men on a battlefield and have to give orders in 12 languages before we could do anything. There have to be some rules in order for the world to function.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  3. acro

    En mi opinion la mejor opcion es dejar que los ciudadanos de Arizona tienen la oportunidad de elegir a los lideres que ellos quieren. Si los estados unidos son una democracia verdadera, no importa que lengua habla esa mujer. Deja que los ciudadanos escogen. Los lideres de la comunidad deben ser representantes de las personas que sirven.

    This post was brought to you by a 27 year-old white woman from Minnesota who happens to speak Spanish. Please do not assume that the only individuals who speak Spanish in this country are brown. You should know that the people who are really "taking your job" are people like me- educated bilingual professionals.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • CA Vet

      Dios mio! Si tu puedes aprender espanol por que ella no puede aprender ingles?

      February 8, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maria

      Hey Acro: we don't write Spanish here in this , you are in the wrong site,if you want towrite in Spanish go to Telemundo or lol this is CNN in ENGLISH!

      February 8, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marla

      Beautifully said Acro...thank you!

      February 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  4. jackie

    I am shocked- I actually agree with something that Arizona has done!

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

    She was probably very friendly and popular in school and in the Latino community afterward which earned her the respect and votes of the Latino community within her American town. The key words here are "American town". This is not a city in a Latino country. Sorry...

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

    Thelma,you would even not have your job if your parents did not see toit that you learned english, you barely let her speak in the Cnn video,but it is obvious she would even have difficulty working the counter in Mcdonalds in New York where we hear many different accents.Send her to Berlitz and reapply.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  7. JT

    "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,"

    That's all there is to it. It doesn't matter what language your potential voters speak at home. In order to function as part of the government you must be able to speak English. Why is that not obvious to everyone? If you can't communicate with your coworkers then you can't do your job.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  8. face51

    What's the beef? George W. Bush got elected president twice, and he could barely speak English!!

    February 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mexican American war

    If politicians in Arizona were meant to speak Spanish, the Mexicans should have won back in 1847.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. KenALiberal

    How did she manage to graduate from high school in the US without being proficient in English? Were all classes taught in Spanish? If so, I have a big problem with that. Seems to me she should not have been given a diploma. English is the unofficial language of the US and it should be made official. And yes, I am a liberal.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  11. TL

    Let the voters decide if it is an issue.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      hey stupid, voters are too stupid, hense our presindent

      February 8, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • JT

      Think harder. An elected official needs to communicate with the rest of government. She does not speak the language in which the business of government is conducted. It doesn't matter what language her potential voters speak at home. At work she needs to be able to communicate with her coworkers.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  12. J

    Now if only the same requirements could be put in place for internet posting.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Sam

    So much for letting the voters decide

    February 8, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. GeeBee

    The judge based his ruling on the fact that she was not proficient enough in English to do the job adequately. I would like to know what books she read? If she can't speak our language, she cannot read our existing laws nor be able to formulate laws or policy. She has a long way to go to prepare herself. Sotomayer (sp?) set a fine example for her to follow. Taxpayers should not have the added burden of educating her in hopes that she may be able to do the job for which she is applying. We should not be forced financially to hold an election to determine her proficiency in English. The judge can make that decision and should if asked. English is the law of our land. Anyone applying for the the city job is expected to communicate in English and read legal text in English. Since It was not indicated what books she read, I suspect she would have great difficulty reporting on them. It's elementary, my dear Watson. Let's hang to our money and stop wasting it foolishly.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • many elected people in Washington have poor English as well

      Lets not go there, this young lady is a USA citizen and by not allowing her to be in the ballots that's racism and discrimintion, big time.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Justin

      I don't necessarily agree with the law as it stands, but if it's there, then they'll just have to wait for her to get proficient enough. Last I hear, the way things worked in American politics, people in office were elected By The People, For The People; if 90+whatever% speak Spanish, as does their elected official, then what's the big deal? I do think she should learn it well enough to not need a translator for working with other official who may not speak a lick of Spanish. That's just good business sense.

      But to GeeBee: I must have missed the part where it says tax money is being used to pay for her English lessons. I read that she has a private tutor, but can you point me to where it says tax money is paying for that?

      February 8, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Justin

      Rah. 87% speak "other than English", not 90+whatever%. I'm guessing 99% of those 87% are Spanish-speakers, though. Unless there's some MAJOR Vietnamese demographic in SW Arizona that we aren't privy to, lol.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Maria

    When you are in America you speak American...English ,like a saying" when you are in Rome you speak Roman" If you are looking for a voters in English you should speak English! she is not the right person to keep on the job.

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

      I'm pretty sure the Romans spoke Latin.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tal Greywolf

      There is no language called "American", unless you're talking Native American languages. But this is typical thinking in this country, demanding that people speak a language that in some areas of the country you can barely understand what the locals are saying (such as in Texas).

      February 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • sadfsdf

      your an idiot...

      February 8, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      "In Rome you speak Roman"??? Good luck with that, ancient Romans spoke Latin, Roman is not a language. Quit trying to make up sayings.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dalrymple

      When in Europe you speak English. When in South America you speak English. When you are in Africa you speak English and expect other people to learn English. See a pattern. By the way, Christopher Columbus did not speak English, so I guess he should have learned before coming.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |

      In America Continent people speak different languages. So, go refresh your geography.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • HB

      This is hilarious. The ancient Romans spoke Latin; modern Romans, of course, speak Italian. The phrase you're looking for is: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Good luck with your English, though...

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

      When in Rome, one should speak Italian...not Roman.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Gets

      Seniorita Maria..Hable espanol?

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