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. non-native speaker....

    she needs to learn the dam language – this county can't accept "good enough"....

    February 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Burnsy

    Mallory;
    You apparently do not know what is a "Melting Pot". A Melting Pot are people of various ethnic backgrounds and
    origins whom realize and respect this but come together as one. In America this means we become Americans, respect its laws and "speak English". You might be thinking of "multi-Culturalism" which means we have to put up with people whom can't speak English whether we, as Americans, like it or not
    *** Burnsy ***.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Democrats are Good

    She also cleans my house as well as selling tacos from a truck.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Too Funny

    Good thing that she is a mexican, an American child would not be able to graduate H.S. without speaking adequate English. If this does not say it all about latinos in the US, incredible.

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

    Go back where you came from!

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

      Joby, your wish is granted. She was born in Arizona, moved to Mexico for some time, and then returned to Arizona. So she did in fact go back where she came from. You should be careful what you ask for next time.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • irish mike

      she wuz born state-side....

      February 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Terry

      Read the article. She was born in America. She is AMERICAN. I think it speaks to the education system in our country and their obvious failings rather than a latino problem.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Edward

    I want to see the language of the law that the Court used to disqualify her. Until then, I won't know if the problem is the law or its interpretation. Justice is not about right and wrong: it is about legal and illegal.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  7. David C

    Yes, the right call was made!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. DonkeyShow

    Running for office, huh? I guess she got tired of laying on her back in her previous line of work.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Too Funny

    I saw her outside of Home Depot so clearly she is qualified.

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

    The American fear of non-English languages gets more ridiculous with each passing day. The fact that it has now boiled over to judges deciding which citizens will be allowed to run for elective office is something all Americans should fear.

    In a misguided effort to keep Arizona from becoming a Spanish-speaking banana republic, the state's Supreme Court has turned it into an English-speaking banana republic.

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

      You clearly do not understand the story. The US should be afraid of ignorant people.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Martina

      Would you want a Russian person, who only speaks Russian, run for a public office?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  11. spoo

    so Bush should have never been president based on this rulling........Arizona is such a retrograte conservative hole

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

      And he should not have been a president. A president of the country has a great responsibility and should be held to very high standards. Now, we have to live with the consequences of an incompetent person running the country.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Martina

    Everyone who comes to this country has to learn English to go to college or to obtain a decent job. Why do hispanics have to be an exception? because they are just lazy? How about we have Indian people represent other Indian people, Russian – other Russians, etc. Pretty soon this country will fall apart. There are more than enough of people in the government offices and education system, who cannot speak English. Do we need to add more? Moreover, this woman really does a disservice to her supporters by showing that they are unwilling to learn the language of the country they live in. And how she can represent their interests efficiently if she doesn't speak the language the rest of the country speaks.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mexican

    mexicans are hopeless. Can't speak adequate English yet has graduated High School! I am so glad that we have Affirmative Action and she can now go to college.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Martina

      I think Mexicans are wonderful people, and I support them in their immigration issues etc. But this country doesn't need unqualified people in the government and education system. Besides, by not learning English, Mexicans limit their own opportunities.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mexican

      While I have nothing against individual mexicans they are swamping this country. Their HS droput rate is nearly 40%, their SAT scores if they do graduate is well below that of Caucasians and Asians, their teen pregnancy rates over twice that of Asians and Caucasians, etc.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  14. lou50

    gee, sounds like the courts are violating the Federal disability act. But then they wont let me be a brain surgeon as I hate the sight of blood and never studied the subject. Sounds like we both have a case.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • ajbuff

      I suspect that the duties of the office require her to be able to read, write, and discuss in fluent English. That sounds reasonable. Surely there are engaged and articulate members of that community who are bilingual to a functional level?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jim Crow

    government interference by those that want limited government

    February 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kyle

      Government didn't interfere with anything. The mayor filed the lawsuit as a citizen, just as any other citizen could. This wasn't "big brother" subverting the system. This was the system in action.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim Crow

      A citizen using the government to intrude on an American citizen's right to hold office

      February 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
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