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. John Gets

    She graduated from a High School in Arizona. Weren't there any English classes there. Obviously, they thought she was good enough to graduate.

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

      You clearly haven't been to Arizona. I believe their schools have actually popularized such phrases as "How come everywon wears socks anymore? Their should of been something new by now."

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

      we are talking about AZ here. they speak southern not English

      February 8, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  2. eb79

    No big deal, buy some Rosetta Stone cd's and try again in 2 years. Don't pull the race card. The Mayor, who asked for this test is Hispanic also.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  3. dagger

    if you only speak a little Spanish, then go to Mexico or Honduras and run for office there and see if you win....I THINK NOT!!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Gee

    Most of these comments are hateful, and highlights just how racist America still is. I find it shameful that people have the nerve to call this country "great" when we have so many bottom feeders, and bigots that still hold fast to the belief that white is right. Your day will come. However, I do believe that the high courts made the right decision. If you are representing a city/town/state/country, you bettter be able to speak the language OF THAT NATION somewhat fluently. I don't see this as being bias, but as being mere logic.

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

      Where does it end you foolish liberal lefty? You want to learn Polish, Itialian, german, Greek..... and on and on. I just don't get it with the latinos wanting to be treated special..... learn english..... get it engllliiishhhhh.... lmao at you dummy.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
  5. esmith1001

    Go back to Mexico and run for office there. Remember, you would be representing about 13% who do speak English. You have to be able to speak and understand them too. Not a problem in Mexico.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shes From This Country

      You seem to forget one thing, esmith, this woman is Not Mexican! She was born right here in the U.S.! Therefore, she does not have to go to another country! She is as much an American citizen as you or I. Incredible shades of racism in your statement! Besides, if this had been some poor naturalized British woman who did not have a good command of the English language as some don't despite being English, this would not have presented a problem whatsoever to get on the ballot! Go figure!

      February 8, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Maria

    (ColininFlorida) Bush went to Harvard because his dad was rich...he is a psycho egomaniac,not class not intelligence at all ,just because you go Harvard that not means you are smart! he is not smart ,not everyone that goes to College is smart specially Harvard,his dad was the reason,so in your face Bush besides being a phsycho is not SMART......yeah he was nominated twice because they didn't have someone else on the party! anyone rcih can go to Harvard or Yale ,everyone smart goes to John Hopkins Univeristy...that school is for genius ,not rich people!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jeff S

    She has to be wrong about being a 5 on a 10-scale in English proficiency. Call it a difference of opinion, but I consider people who interchange there/their/they're, and who say/type "should of" to be at a 5/10.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sandra

      Then with the speech impediment G.W. Bush had (his mouth) he should never have held a public office.

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

    Yes, the right decision was made-it's not a matter of whom Ms. Cabrera will be helping locally, mayors sometimes need to communicate on a national level, where a good grasp of English is necessary. A decision needs to be made on a national level of whether or not English will be the 'language of the land' and if so, move forward.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Big George in Big D

    Thank you for your forthright and truthful post! I wish more people, especially mexicans, would heed this. Their latino organizaions are keeping them in the dark by defending them AGAINST having to learn English. Smart people, like your parents, migrated here WANTING TO MAKE IT AND BLEND IN, not keep their garish colored buildings and cars-in-the yard homes.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  10. See Sharp

    How does one graduate high school in the US when one is not proficient in English?; and, if one ranks their English skills at level 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, how does one expect to be able to follow the proceedings at a city council meeting? I completely support the decision of the courts here and hope that one day English will be the official language across the US. If we turn into another Balkans, where we have enclaves of people speaking different langauges and the we face the natural conflicts that will arise as a result, will we not have lost more than we have gained from the insanity of this policitally correct idea of diversity? BTW, I take exception to the article's suggestion that somehow not permitting this woman to run is contradictory to the idea that America is a melting pot. Indeed, it is Miss Cabrera who is going against the historic idea of the melting pot. If she truly supports this concept, as the article suggest, then she should have blended in long ago by mastering the language of her homeland.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
  11. DarthInCO

    Amazing when you consider a) the district she wants to represent was settled by Hispanics nearly 300 years before Caucasians arrived and b) 98.7% of the residents' primary language is Spanish, not English.

    Racism is alive and well in Arizona.

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

      Why? You want to come to vermont and learn French? How about to Chcago and learn Polish, Itialian, german.... where does it stop you foolish liberal lefty?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. DonkeyShow

    Come back to TJ, Alejandrina........your fans (and the donkey) miss you!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. maria

    If she wants to run for office in US she must speak English and if the community is hispanic it will help to know the Spanish language. She is forgetting that she must do interviews, write letters or recommendations and also talk to other public officials that do not speak Spanish. I do not agree that is discrimination. It is common sense to speak English in a country that more than 90% of the people speak and understand English, the official language of US.

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

      I agree with you. Well said.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Acaraho

    Native Americans should have required an Algonquin language qualifier for the European settlers to set foot on Turtle Island.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sheepleherder

      The same could be said for the "Native Americans" who were there BEFORE the Algonquin arrived. Funny how that works, don't you think??

      February 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Sandra

    So, just how good are you at Native American languages? How about you become fluent in those as those are the native languages, or did you conveniently forget that. Funny, how people who type like you do follow Orly Taitz and her English is crappy.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
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