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. Dav

    Make english the only legal language in America

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

      Where did comrade obama learn english ,my guess Russia

      February 8, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rosie Deus-von Homeyer

      Yes,you ,Americans should introduce Englich by law as an official language. When I was residing in Los Angeles,I never ever expected,that people there will speak to me in German. There are more than 350 000 Turkisch people in Berlin alone,but GGermans do not write ANYWHERE in public places in Turkisch.Their opinion is,who wants to live in Germany,ought to learn German. I had had to learn it too,when my family immigrated to West-Berlin in 1971.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. MattLau

    That was the right decision... It's the same rationality behind implementing a physical test for firefighters. If you're going to enter a job, such as firefighting, in which physical exertion is crucial, then you need to be competent enough to do your job. Likewise, a position in city council demands a certain level of competency in order to do a satisfactory job, and she does not meet that level.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. amanda

    The commenters that are adamant she should be able to speak English can't even write in English. I can't stop laughing. My two cents? There is no official language in the United States, and Arizona is a Hate State. I hope they try this case in federal court.

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

      @Amanda.. AGREED! She will win the election as a 'write in candidate', and this law will be challenged in the Supreme Court.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  4. D-Rae

    Im tired of pressing 1 for English!!! If your in this country do what my great grandparents did...LEARN ENGLISH!!!!!!!!!

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

      If what you say is true, your great-grandparents would have been in . . . Mexico, because we kept stealing Mexican land until the present borders were forged. But it is commendable that your great-grandparents felt a need to learn English while in Mexico, pilgrim.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • pierce

      D-Rae, take some time to look at your/you're post. And your punctuation. Your Ingles is terrible!!!!


      February 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  5. TiredODaCrap

    If she is taking courses, what is the issue? Learn the language, speak it fluently, and then get yourself back on the ballot at a later date. Again, what's the problem?

    February 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. dallas123

    First learn to speak English & Run. If she doesn't run for office, there is no loss. Business will continue.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  7. eb79

    After being asked which high school she graduated from three times, she couldn't answer in English? I was leaning towards the possibility of some unfairness until I read that part.

    I think in this city, it's best to have everyone on that council be bi-lingual. But english is almost a must for any job. You have to be able to communicate with your coworkers or fellow city councilmen/women or whatever.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. r-hope

    Because of how emotive immigration issues have become, there are people who will not look at this case objectively. Hence posts here to the effect that "If you are in America you must speak English". That is not correct. You can be American and speak whatever language you want to – it is not against the Law.
    However, in Arizona if you are holding public office you have to (must be) proficient in English. Now, I do not know how she fared in the test, but just watching that video clip is enough to tell me that she is not proficient. The people she will be representing might be Spanish speakers, but English is the official working language required for that position. It is not becasue she is Spanish or of Mexico descent – the same law should apply if she spoke German or French.
    I do not think the judgement is unfair or political. It is the law and it should be upheld.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Nole77

    This is another simple example of individuals not wanting to be held accountable. There is a law in place that uses common sense so the people's business can be accomplished competently. If this woman – who is intelligent – wants to run for city council, meet the requirements of the office and run. However, don't expect your fellow citizens to make exceptions to those reasonable requirements. This kinda of thinking where we worry about self-esteem and feelings has gone a bit too far. And then there are those that say it's racist – simply amazing.

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

    I think she should be allowed to run but that she should have to learn English proficiently while in office at her expense and until she does so, she should have to provide her own interpreter.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. dallas123

    Without speaking English, how did she even got the citizenship. I thought, unless you are 70+ years, one should pass & know english to get citizenship.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      She, like you, was born here, and got her citizenship the same way.

      People born here have no citizenship requirements.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Steve urkle


    February 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. tamars

    she should have been allowed on the ballot and let the people decide. but arizona is a hatefilled place now. it's very sad.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ShaneB

    Unless there is a local law that I'm unaware of, I don't think its a requirement to know English anywhere in the U.S. The U.S. doesn't have an official language.

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

      This is America. We conduct our government matters in English.

      If she can't be bothered to become proficient in the language of this country, she can stay at home watching Galavision. Or better, she can get the hell out.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pam

      Sorry, but you are wrong. English is our official language.

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

      Arizona has English as an official language. She isn't running for Federal office, so the ruling in AZ is correct.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • FrozenChosen

      Did you read the article? There is, in fact, a local law which you are apparently unaware of, despite the fact that it is mentioned in the article.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • dallas123

      May be if you are not running for any kind of Govt-office. If you are running for any Govt-office one should know English (atleast it's the in the AZ law). Otherwise if I need to communicate with a govt-employee who doesn't know English the am I suppose to have a translator....

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

      Actually there is a requirement for those in US Governing positions, President, VP,Congress,Senate,State government positions that requires one to be able to converse in and read English clearly enough for others to understand you.

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

      It's right in the article:

      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.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  15. David

    Chalk one up for the good guys.

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