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. Rodeo_Joe

    WASP JIM CROW LAWS. It's 2012, for pity's sake.
    Arizona now has a English standard to be on a ballot but doesn't tell you what that standard is.
    Bye Bye Freedom of Speech.
    Kaip Gaila ! Labai Ludna.

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

      Derka Derka to you too.

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

      you're hilarious. Do you really think that "freedom of speech" refers to the freedom to speak different languages? I mean, I am all for being a polyglot, but you are totally misunderstanding our first amendment rights.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      Did you get kicked in the head, Joe?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  2. DC

    As a California resident, I can't say the ability to speak English (or lack thereof) deterred people from voting for Ahhhhhnold! If people want to vote in someone that can't speak English proficiently, then they have to live with the consequences of that, but by all means, let the people decide.

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

      The people of Arizona already decided: they decided that one of the requirements to hold office in Arizona is the ability to speak the English language well enough to be able to properly represent the interests of the citizens of Arizona.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Newsjunkie

    This is absolutely the right decision. If you cannot speak english in America, you should not be on City council. It really shouldn't be a tough decision. If i went to mexico and attempted to do the same they would say no. Learn the language or get over it. this is america people, where's the backbone.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Michael McCarthy

    English is de facto, not dejure. It was never even contemplated because it wasn't deemed neccessary. All the power-brokers spoke, read and wrote English. The United States hasn't been majority English descent in well over a century. Yet the enduring legacy those Anglo-Saxon's gave all of us was the English Language. Recent immigrants and their children will eventually learn English.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tutu Glen

      Exactly

      February 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. nsmithline

    No wonder Mexicans and Hispanics do so poorly in school. They look up to a dumb blonde who doesn't speak English, the easiest language to learn in the world.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tutu Glen

      Where did you get your info that English was the easiest language to learn? I am not being sarcastic. I never heard that

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

    If you want to change things go back to your own country and make changes there.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tutu Glen

      Uhh – she was born here. This is her country

      February 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Rodeo_Joe

    This is America, not England. The English speak English. Americans should have Freedom of Speech, ... should.

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

      And the people of AZ excersized that freedom and passed a bill that requires seekers of public office to speak english.

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

      you clearly do not understand the meaning of "freedom of speech". It has nothing to do with what a language one speaks. Oh, lord.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  8. R. Hochleitner

    The question of whether she has sufficient understanding of english to be able to read the laws raises a very good point. I agree with the decision, although with some sadness. Maybe the judge should have tested her ability to read and uderstand english. Not a clear cut issue at all.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • rearden215

      No.
      The judge should have bailed this crap case to the round file earlier rather than later.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Florida

    Watching that video, I couldn't understand a word she was saying. She needs to not only be able to understand and read English, she needs to be able to be understood when speaking it. She could never give a speech or speak to her fellow citizens with the way her dialect is now.

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

    I would like to know how she graduated.

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

      Post of the day. Great observation.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mike

    She is an American citizen, she is a resident of that city and it should be up to the voters of her city to decide in an election whether she should serve as a council member or not. It should not be up to the courts to decide whether she should be a candidate. Arizona is becoming a backwards, stifling state.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Brian

    I am so glad the decision was made to remove her from contention. Learn to speak and understand English. How difficult a concept is that? If she truly cared about the community she wants to represent, then do them set an example for everyone there to learn English...considering this is America and great oppurtunities present themselves to this who assimulate.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. rearden215

    No tickee.

    No washee.

    Go back to your shack.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Patiat

    I have nothing against non-native English speakers holding elected office, but I've heard interviews with her and her English really is pretty weak. She talks a lot about how it's good enough for the city council where she lives, but the reality is that politicians have to deal with businesspeople, other politicians and officials from all over, not just their town, and they can't do it unless their English is good enough.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Kalowg

    Que?

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