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. Jackola

    There is a story in the bible about an old nation (Babelonians ) who built a tower so as to reach God, and God said, "Come, let us go down and confound their speech." And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel "because God there confounded the language of all the Earth."(Genesis 11:5-8). I hope history will not repeat itself.

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

      Hilarious response. Didn't understand a word. Sorry

      February 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Democrats are Good

      God hates you.

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

      And the Flying Spaghetti Monster hates you as well, sir.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Marvs257

    If classes in Arizona are taught in Spanish, there is a problem with that. Because I don't care if the population is 98% Spanish speakers, and the town is a border town. As long as that town is INSIDE our border, why are the classes taught in Spanish?

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

      The same reason that classes in southern Louisiana are taught in French... it is the majority language for that region of the country. We do not have a national language, and hopefully we never will.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Billy

    I have a question for CNN. I don't understand why the video interview of Cabrera looks like it takes place in a restaurant in Yuma called La Casa Gutierrez on the North End 25-30 miles away, while her attorney is interviewed at a totally different location in San Luis?

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

    Language proficiency is a critical factor in how effective any politician plans to be in his/her position. An English-only requirement would have made this point much more clear.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tal Greywolf

      Tell that to politicians in Florida and Texas. There, if you don't demonstrate some proficiency in the majority language of the area you're running for office in (and it's not English, it's Spanish), you probably won't gain a lot of votes from the people you're wanting to represent.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. FauxNewz

    What a joke. In Southern Texas, you're lucky if you find a Justice of the Peace that speaks any English at all.

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

      No kidding. I may look the part, but constantly find myself having to settle on Spanglish. I'm highly proficient in the West Tx & Houstonian dialects; damn shame I can't put that on a resume, though, lmao.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. humtake

    "But Vargas argues a candidate doesn't necessarily need to have full English proficiency to run for office."

    Sorry, but there are two sides to the job. Sure, she may be great for the part that interacts with the people since most speak Spanish there. She may be great at dealing with the people. But, like every job, she has to deal with her superiors. And in our government, her superiors need her to be able to understand everything they say and and quickly on it, if needed. She won't be able to do that. There will be times when communication between her and her superiors will not be perfect and that is not acceptable.

    This has nothing to do with her right to speak whatever she wants to speak. And when American politics are full of Spanish speakers, then she will be more than welcome to hold office. But we need EVERYONE to be able to communicate with her effectively, not just the people voting for her.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Nick

    This is clearly a personal preference from the judge that made the ruling. Last time I checked, you must be VOTED into office. Let the people decide. If that's what they want, then that's what they get. I don't know if you've heard the term "advisors". Just like any other official, she would have an advisor that would help with tough items. Arizona is clearly a communist state. Let the people decide!!

    February 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nole77

      You've got to be kidding; let the people decide? If we apply that logic, they could vote in a 5-year old! One has to meet certain basic criteria to qualify to run. A learned judge has ruled she doesn't have competency with English and that's a disqualifier. End of discussion. Let's end the bleeding hearts approach to all of this.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike223

      "Let the people decide"... it's funny how you say this, but then when the people vote to throw out the illegal aliens you cry about how it's just so wrrooong. HAHA!!

      February 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • roscoeiron

      Makes sense. I want to elect a government official who can't communicate with her colleagues and superiors – therefore cannot effectively do her job. More good use of my tax dollars. And, by the way, holding a government position (at any level) requires excellent negotiation skills with your co-workers, boss, key community members, etc. How is she going to negotiate with an English speaking person in politics and in her community/chamber of commerce?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mike223

    Imagine all of these hispanic kids in our schools who can't even speak english and their parents don't even speak english, it causes a lot of extra work for our teachers trying to teach foreigners who don't even want to learn. GOD IT WOULD SUCK BEING A TEACHER IN MEXIC....OOPS I MEAN AMERICA.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  9. john

    As said in many posts here. This is the United States and we speak english.

    If you want to run for office that speaks spanish, I'm sure that there are more than a few positions open in Mexico.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tal Greywolf

      "This is the United States and we speak English"

      Depends on where you go in the United States, there's parts that don't even speak English but instead they speak something that passes for English. And there's regions where French is spoken by more people than English (southern Louisiana), just as there are regions where Spanish is the majority language (south Florida, southern Texas).

      February 8, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike223

      Tal Greywolf, I live in deep south Texas and we speak ENGLISH. Get your facts straight.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee S

      dialect is not a different language, nice try

      February 8, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. SoBugly

    Glad to hear the judge ruled on the side of sanity – I don't care what district you represent and how many people from that district speak Spanish (or German, or French, or whatever other language), if you are a government representative, you need to speak ENGLISH. English is still the dominant language in this country, and it is the ONLY language spoken / written in national government assembly, with translations provided as needed. This country is a melting pot, which means you assimilate into it – please, by all means keep your culture and celebrate it with your family, but learn to be a part of OUR society if you're going to come here.

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

      Good point. Now, be a good Yankee and live like the Indians because you came to their country and land.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • SoBugly

      Actually, John, my family came here from Greece in the 1920s. We learened ENGLISH. We learned a TRADE (the restaurant business). We worked HARD and built a life for ourselves in this country without expecting others to bow down to us or make accommodations for us. The current wave of new entrants to our country could learn a lot from my grandparents.

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

      The white man has imposed his language and culture on every country they invaded but when non-whites ask for the same thing they cry foul.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • SoBugly

      For the love of God, get off the Cross, John. I'm sick and tired of this "foreigner martyrdom" that we're going through in this country. This isn't about the Native Americans anyway, so why are you playing that card? What's next, accusing me of wanting to put Mexicans on a reservation? I thought that's what Texas already was!

      February 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Gets

      The older generation of Greeks and Italians still do not speak good english despite living here for decades and decades.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • SoBugly

      I resent that, and you don't have the right to make generalizations like that. My grandparents spoke English FLUENTLY. You need to re-learn your history; during the great influx of immigrants of the late 1800s up through to the depression, America truly WAS a melting pot – we kept our cultures, but we WANTED to integrate into this great country, and went to great lengths to blend in.

      This conversation is over, I'm through trying to talk sense to a typical uneducated loudmouth with an agenda. I'll tell you what, if you want to support these people as much as you claim, why don't you get down there and start tutoring this woman yourself ... or better yet, why don't you just hop on the next truck, bus, or plane we're using to send them home and do us all a favor.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Gets

      Bugsy..Bugsy..Bugsy..No need to get all excited. We are having a civilized conversation but, perhaps, your redceck beliefs may not value that.

      My Italian friend whose parents came in 1949 still can't speak good english. Everytime I used to call and ask for her....They would respond...Meli no home...

      February 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Gets

      Bugsy..I am ashamed of you. One immigrant telling another immigrant to go home.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. John Gets

    So what if a person has a speech impairment? Can they be kept off the ballot? What if a person is mute? In both of these cases the person may speak little english or no english depending on the severity of the disability. This is the mayor's way of getting revenge?

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

      That's not the same thing, those people are "disabled", they didn't choose to learn Spanish, or German, or French instead of English, a mute can still write in English and so can someone with a speech impediment, but if you don't speak/write in the same language as the majority of the Country/State/County you live in and aren't disabled, then you have the ability to learn English.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • state university student

      I don't think that is the case. They gave her a proficiency English test and she failed. This is like you are asking to get accepted to Medical school even though you failed the MCAT. Or want to be accepted to a company without passing the interview. She is interviewing for a job and that job is an English speaking job. All jobs require to be able to speak and write English proficiency. When you are representing a town that is part of the US, you need to follow the rules. We can't make exception just for political correctness. Through her interview, she has trouble delivering her message.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Gets

      My point is that a person with a speech disability would not be refused a job because they cannot speak. A way would be found to make sure their impairment was not a hindrance. So being able to speak fluently or not at all is not a hindrance or else the disabled person would be refused also.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
  12. kiki

    These people think they can come into the US and change it into Mexico,they have another thing coming thanks to people who still CAJONES.

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

      This land that you call the US was stolen from Indians and Mexicans. I would love to hear what you have to say if the Indians said the same thing.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • wildcat68

      Actually, it's the US who first invaded Mexico and took it away, so don't be too surprised to find Mexicans inside and around the border; second, you probably meant to say "have cajones".. Try learning proper English, kiki, before you condemn others for not using it well.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike223

      John Gets, but those indians stole the land from cavemen who stole the land from the dinosaurs who stole the land from God... right?? See how your logic is so laughable?? HAHA!!

      February 8, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maria

      Kiki ;I don't know why you guys think that only Mexicans came here illegals and speak Spanish ,this is full of Colombians,Cubans,(yes Cubans) Venezuelans,and all the South America Countries and they don't want to speak the language English! get the sources well is not only Mexicans is all South America plus the Cubans ......

      February 8, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Butch

    This is the problem with anchors. They need to return the 14th amendment to its original intentions.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Burbank

    I guess she should have paid attention in school for those 3 years. If she doesn't like it, most of us would be very, very happy if she moved to Mexico. She can run for office there.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. olLIE

    this isnt fair. bush couldn't speak english either and when he did, it was hilarious and he became president. twice. lol.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Colin in Florida

      oILIE, when you graduate from Harvard, like he did, then you can comment. He was a business major, not a public speaker. BTW, how is your public speaking?

      February 8, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve H

      Now that's funny.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ladeebugg

      @oILIE..I agree with you 100%. I even got a little chuckle out of your comment.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • olLIE

      lol. colin in florida. lol. Actually i didn't graduate with a degree in public speaking but i did graduate with a medical school degree. Doesn't excuse me from speaking english poorly. You don't have to be a public speaker to speak properly.

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

      @Colin in Florida.. One would expect more out of Harvard graduate irregardless of his major!

      February 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      @Ladeebugg I hope your post was meant to be a joke, "irregardless" not being a word.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
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