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. Yot Day

    Yes, the right decision.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Eric

    The amazing part is that she graduated from a US high school – and STILL can't speak English!

    February 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • woodrow

      I know! They would have flunked me or you!

      February 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nikki

      Eric, that's exactly what I thought. But then again, there are a lot of American students graduating from high school who cannot read proficiently!

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

    When I read the headline, I knew as soon as I read the article it would state this happened in Arizona... BAM! NO surprise whatsoever.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Harald

    Well, the official language in the US is English. Having a town like San Luis where apparently a significant percentage of the population is not proficient in English rather points us to a different problem all together. Any country I'm aware of requires that a candidate for public office at least speaks the official language of this country. Besides, living in the US and not speaking English also shows a lack of interest in the country and culture you are living in, which itself should already be a disqualifier for public office.

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

      Harald, the fact that you are unaware that the US has NO OFFICAL LANGUAGE to me shows that you are at least as disinterested in the country you live in as the person you are criticizing. Way to go ignorant American.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • saopaco

      The US does not have an official language, friend.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  5. meme

    I agree. The main language is english. Its bad enough the spanish groups fight us having an official language in the US, now they want us to let them bend political posts as well. I think we should love everyone, but there needs to be limits on how far we will bend without expecting others to bend also. If I goto france I have to learn french to get by, I don't expect them to bend to me. Gimme a break.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Concerned Citizen

    (1) This is shockingly like the Jim Crowe literacy tests used to prevent african americans from voting...

    (2) Isn't it the job of the electorate to choose their representatives? If they think it's a problem, which it could be, then they should vote for a different candidate...

    February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • DABAHK

      You hit it on the head. This is racism.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • saopaco

      It is par for the course- many americans fear change and the unknown. People who are different than they are are part of that perceived change.

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

      This is nothing like the 'Jim Crowe' literacy tests. She was unable to answer a simple, basic question – "Where did you go to school?". A child in kindergarten can answer that question. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but she was not able to either understand or answer the question of where she went to school DESPITE the fact she did her last three years of school in the US and somehow graduated. But she still cannot speak the language. How on earth did she graduate?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Froggy

    No one should be allowed to hold public office in the United States or any state of the United States without full proficiency in English.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Derek

      Well, that would have disqualified George W. Bush from ever seeking public office.

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

    that is some bullshiggity. america has no fixed language racist m f ers

    February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Froggy

      It has been English since the country was founded and 38 states hold official English laws.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. woodrow

    Yes I wonder see how when the frogs jump angry during sessions of importune councils. Does she sound like that? That's good enough for Texas. LOL. j/k Texas.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. mokumanu

    If you are an American citizen, English should be your first language.

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

    The primary language in the USA is ENGLISH!! you cant speak it, you dont deserve a job like that. I heard her speak and it is by far not good enough..hell, you cant understand half she says.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Topspot58

      The primary language is English because the English speaking non-natives came in and kicked the indigenous inhabitants butts and replaced the country's native language. It is projected by 2050 minorities will be the new majority in the U.S.. Amusing.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. VoiceFrmLeft

    What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who only speaks one language? American. I'm an American who speaks 4 languages, none of them based on my ethnicity, and I'm saddened by the continued dumbing down of our society over arguments like this.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • EvelynR

      Kind of sad too VoiceFrmLeft. Knowing more than one language is very cool and gives you a much wider choice of film and literature to enjoy.

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

      Nobody says one cannot learn more than one language. But business cannot be conducted in whatever language people feel like using. There must be consistency in order for people to meet and exchange ideas. What if every 'Chinatown' wanted representation without an English speaking representative? What if every Jewish enclave insisted on Hebrew? Or Russian? It stands to reason that this woman is freely able to represent the people in her community, as soon as she CHOOSES to learn the language in which business is conducted. At this point, she is the only one holding herself back from office. And why should taxpayers pay for interpreters if any language is allowed? Or is Spanish the only language we are racist against – if the next town over were Muslims whose representative did not speak English fluently, should we let them run, also? I can see the uproar now.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  13. EvelynR

    No te apures Alejandrina. Estudia mas el Inglés y despues inténtalo de nuevo. Te ayudaría aprender Inglés si pudiera, pero estoy muy lejo.

    Translation: Not to worry Alejandrina. Study English some more and then try again. I'd help you learn English if I could, but I'm too far away. 🙂

    February 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Topspot58

    87 % of the residents don't speak English in their homes. Would they understand an English speaking candidate ? We regularly elect people to school boards who know nothing about education, but we are going to drag someone to court because they speak the language of the majority in their town ?

    February 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • JJ

      Why do you assume they speak spanish? Lots of Norwegians in that city who don't speak English.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Topspot58

      JJ Okay what language does the majority speak ? They are in Arizona. The state that had the controversy about stopping Hispanic looking people and checking their I.D. . Site me some facts.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike Sun

      English is one of the easiest languages to learn. I came to this country at 16 with no English knowledge and learned going to five different schools in four states as my parents found their footing in this country. I had to be put back two grades because of my language problems but I learned quickly because none of my schools had English Second Language programs to cripple me. For a public servant to NOT know English is a total disgrace. That she had the audacity to sue is unforgivable. This is exactly like that movie Idocracy. Cases like this one are evidence that this country is going down an unfortunately downward spiral.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Topspot58

      San Luis is on the border of Mexico. On the other side of the border it is called San Luis, Sonora, Mexico populated by a bunch of Norwegians.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Martina

      Those people don't have to understand English but she has to understand and speak the language most government officials speak.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tristan M

      America's official language is English, so if someone decides to legally imigrate to the US expecting them to speak English is little to ask. Expecting that we should change to accomadate them on their language is nothing but an insult.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ileana

    Spanish was my first language; English my second, and the one I have command of. I would never be so presumptuous to run for office in a Spanish-speaking country knowing that I did not master the language. Lesson from this story: We, the citizenry, should be electing the best and brightest as our elected officials; we are placing critically important decisions in their hands. I want the guy/gal from the top of the class!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Linda

      Well said IIeana, well said.

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

      You are an embarrasment to the rest of us mexicans.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Posing As

      Mexican, more than likely it was an Anglo posing as a Hispanic person to be able to berate Latinos and try to get away with it! That does happen you know!

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