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. Comeoffit

    Anyone who comes to America and doesn't learn English doesn't have to worry about being marginalized; they're doing it to themselves.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cant Come Any Closer

    Considering how Arizona has passed an Immigration law that others have said and continue to say unfairly targets Hispanics and Latinos, and they have a sheriff currently under investigation for similar acts with Hispanics, why is it so difficult to understand that they just don't want Hispanics in government to possibly have enough influence to overturn that egregious law! Can't see how it could come any closer! Pathetic state to live in!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • hmm

      There are Hispanics in office

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

      I'm pretty sure it was for lack of "English skills" and not too "Hispanic" or "not white enough" or any of those other race cards that always get played when "reasonable accommodation" isn't good enough.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • jack


      February 8, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Steven Wright

    I'll tell you how she graduated high school in Yuma. She graduated because the majority of the teachers here are Mexican, as are the school board members. They make it very easy for everyone to graduate, the classes are beyond "dumbed-down". I had to pull my own children out of publi c school here because they are white and therefore targeted and could not get ahead, yet the Mexican students could do no wrong. After dealing with what we went through, I'm not surprised at all that this woman could graduate and still not speak English well. Many Mexicans here don't speak English at all!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Call It Like It Is

      Steven, if you think that your current education level is getting you by in saying that you had to pull your children out of school because they are white, then brother take another look because I've got news for you! Mexicans, Hispanics, and Latinos are white too, FYI! There is no such thing as a Hispanic race! It is purely an ethnicity. You can check with any state or federal office for confirmation on that. So, she is a white lady of Hispanic descent who is having major problems with a state that is very unfriendly to Hispanics and Latinos. Let's just call it like it is!

      February 8, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Marla

    Sorry Pam, but you are wrong! English is not our official language!

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

      This woman cannot communicate with the rest of government, therefore she is incapable of functioning in that job. Simple enough.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • hmm

      Your an idiot

      February 8, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buck

      Am I the only one that finds it humorous when someone posts the comment "your an idiot?"

      February 8, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kyle

      Buck: yes, you're the only pretentious grammar hound who takes pride in pointing out common typographical errors.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • jack


      February 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • marv

      Hmmm, it is you're an idiot. Or, you are an idiot. Don't r ape the English language to call somone an idiot, when in that very same sentence you proclaim to be an idiot. Thanks.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Marla

    Sorry to have to break the news to you Pam, but you are wrong! English is not our official language!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Marla

    So sorry to have to break the news to you Pam, but you are wrong! English is not our official language!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Kyle

    @David Floridensis

    "Did it occur to you that many people in the border region speak Spanish natively and probably have a longer family history of being in that part of the US than you might?"

    Mexico is still there if they find the statutes in America to be too demanding. Is it too bad that the US came in and "stole" their land? Yes. But that's all it is. Too bad. Life isn't fair, and they now find themselves in a situation – a situation that won't be fixed by constantly whining about the past.

    Forgiveness is the path to freedom. Until you can let go of what happened two hundred years ago, you'll continue to be a slave to it.

    "Did it further occur to you that you do not speak the native language of any part of North America, but rather a language that was imported into North America ca. 1607 by land-thieves?"

    Irrelevant. It happened, now we're at where we're at. How the hell do you ever get anything done, obsessing over the past as much as you do?

    "Did it further occur to you that perhaps vulgarity in the public forum is considered at least as undesirable? How would you like it if someone were to demand of you that you speak Dine or Inde or Lakhota or Tsalagi (to you, Navaho, Apache, Sioux, or Cherokee) or get the (expletive deleted) out?"

    If I ever move to Germany, I'll learn German. You'd have to be a fool to stubbornly stick to your ways, when being a better communicator will only help you. I'd wager nearly 90% of problems we have as a society is with miscommunication, and you don't want to improve your ability to communicate with the people around you? Then you'll get exactly what you deserve.

    Ethnic pride is pride, and pride is foolish. Who cares about your history? You can't eat your history.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marla

      Go eat our delicious mexican food Kyle.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Topspot58

    How do those in Qubec survive ?

    February 8, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Dortheyc

    I see alot of posts regarding the fact that she graduated from a US high school, yet still does not speak english. I think that whoever wrote this article did not do enough fact checking. According to the video, she came back to the US when she was 17 and finished school. But according to the article, she finished her last 3 years of school in the US. Unless she was 20 when she graduated HS, both cannot be correct. However she could have gotten by for her last year of school if she could read and write english. And according to her statement and the article, she can. Either way, she does not only have to deal with the spanish speaking people of San Luis, but with other city officials and politicians from other cities who may speak only english. It is hardly right to make the city pay for an interpretor. She chose to return to this country. If I chose to move to another country, I would learn the predominant language of that country. Thye state supreme court made the right decision.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. OhPlease

    Please.... if there are no standards to how a united nation communicates, communication ends. All are welcomed, but know how to communicate with THIS country.

    It is no different than living up to the traffic laws of this country.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. lynn

    What I truly find "unbelievable" is that the lawyer, Mr. Minore, if he's being quoted correctly, and 3 journalists (Cesar Neyoy and James Gilbert, of the Yuma Sun, and the CNN reporter responsible for this article) apparently don't know that it is "[an] English standard"! While I agree with the ruling, I suppose Ms. Cabrera couldn't do much worse than the aforementioned. I can't help but wonder, however, how she managed to earn even a high school diploma if her English is as limited as that described in the article.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Bobby Wightman-Cervantes

    It is a direct threat to our democracy when judges decide we as the voters are too stupid to know who is best to represent us. If the people want someone who does not speak English then that decision should belong to the people. It is the people who are the ones who must live with such a decision. This is just another example of nanny state judicial activists telling how to think and vote.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sheepleherder

      That's pretty much what "society" is all about! If you don't want to be part of society, fine, go out to the desert and create your own Nirvana. In the mean time, live by the rules of the society you live in, where, in this case, the government communicates in English.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. DZA

    Hey...George Dubya had such a good grasp on the English language that he made up words....and he was President!

    Dubya's translation:
    "I can speakify English to the utmost abilitification. She should be able to be votified for."

    February 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sheepleherder

      She should have tried that.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Great Reminder

      Ah, gotta hand it to Dubya! He sure outdid this woman more than three to one when it came to language barriers! And yes, he was prez as well while he did that, so, what's all the hype about this lady merely running for City Council? Thanks for the GREAT comparison reminder!

      February 8, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Josh

    Why does she have to be kicked off the ballot? If she is unqualified to be a leader won't people see that and not vote for her?

    February 8, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      First of all Josh she does not speak nor understand the lanuage so how she be beneficial to local government. She would not know what she is voting for in the first place. So therefore she should be not aloud to run for Puplic Office. But I'm sure the race card will be played here. But don't give a darn. End of Story.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Josh

      @ Kevin – If she's not beneficial to the government then voters will be able to see that for themselves. Incoherence is a problem, but a judge didn't need to resolve that. The people can do it themselves. If the locals want to vote for someone who is incompetent then that's their own business.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      She mexican, the mexicans will vote for her, even if she isn't qualified.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • marv

      Kevin, I wonder if she speaks English better than you write English. Glass house, bro.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      Mike is right about voting for her becuase she is Mexican. Look Josh in order to work in govt or hold public office you have got to understand the language. If you can't then you shouldn't be if Office. Tell me something Josh would you feel the same if she was Muslim that is the is the same position here. Doubt you would feel the same. So based on that assumption No she should not be aloud to run for Office. Learn and understand the language then maybe. Until then no.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. BVN

    I welcome anyone here who flies the Red, White, & Blue at the top of BOTH their flagpole, and their heart.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Huh?

      ...but that would be a non-sequitur.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alfred123

      Who the heck are you? The owner of the country. I personally do not give a hoot what flag you put in your flagpole. That is your business. Cheap patriotism never accomplished anything.

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