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. Clarissa

    What would happen if the candidate was Hearing impaired? She is more of a representative of her community then some of the people running . She still speaks enough English to communicate to English only people. The official language crap was intended to stifle Hispanics not help them. They need a write-in campaign to get her elected. Will she get kick out if she won?

    February 8, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  2. lee

    Corrupt California DEA where stealing drugs from evidence vaults and reselling them to cover extensive credit card debt.
    They also are creating suspects by planting evidence just so that they can steal from them.
    Given the choice of suspension or dealing with their debt most DEA are thinking outside the box.

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

      What on earth are you talking about?

      February 8, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Coty

      not sure if trolling....or just stupid.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kate

      @Coty–let's go with stupid.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
  3. R Garcia -Dallas

    A true American knows English no excuses. So learn it and try again people will respect you more. I know lots of Mexicans who come to the US and try to fit into our ways and customs till they speak. I ask them where are you from they say Dallas. My response is people born and raised in Dallas do not speak like that. They come clean and tell the truth that they are from Monterrey or Nuevo Laredo.

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

    Though i agree she should learn English, you Americans act as if you guys speak English...... You can't even spell colour, or favourite or cheque properly!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jataka

      Color, favorite. Learn to spell.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bjorn O

      People who were born here can not even spell their own names and are a bunch of mediocre people who adore 'Celebrities'. The only thing they read is supermarket garbage such as People, Star etc.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. loai

    You graduate from a school that you cannot remember its name ... the staff of that school should all be fired
    Kofa High school name is easier than 'San Luis, Arizona, City Council' so I wonder if she was asked "What are you running for?" ...would she know the answer ...

    February 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. bfd007

    Should take it one step farther and give drivers license in English only it is sad that the Federal Government has let this country be over run, if it had been doing it's job this would not even be a issue.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Go Figure

    Yes! And don't forget the fact that not only was Dubya President, he was also a College Graduate!! While this woman only has a high school education. So, Go Figure!

    February 8, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
  8. James Skinner

    If her English is not good enough for the city council, George W. Bush's English was certainly not good enough for the White House!
    Now judges get to decide who will hold public office rather than the voters.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • BeckFastPaws

      Of course judges decide. How do you think W got to the White House in the first place?

      February 8, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  9. bibleverse1

    Why is there any restriction on the candidates ability to be only the ballot. Plenty of candidates have been on ballots and won elections without a grasp of many issues without any restriction. I know its not normal but should a candidate be barred if they are in a wheel chair?, if they are not smart?, if they are not rich? She is a citizen and should be allowed to run I think this citizen's rights have been violated. I hope the community allows her to run but dont vote for her.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Omar

    If you want to run for a position in the USA, you need to speak english.
    -A democrat.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. david, USN RET (SS)

    Finaly someone who thinks speaking english in america is important.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  12. sacaha

    “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.

    That is...absolutely hilarious!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Lorenzo

    I can't lie. I agree that the language spoken in America is English and that if one chooses to live in the country they should learn the language at least well enough to communicate such things as directions or explain what is wrong in emergencies. What I don't agree with is the fact that the government- her government- my government- our government took the right of a legal US citizen away when they ruled that she can't have her name on the ballot because her English is not good enough. The same way that we are all sounding off in this discussion board people should have the right to sound off at the ballot. If the people of her city are willing to elect her then no one should have anything to say about it. Right now we don't know what the voters would have decided because that choice was taken away from them. I sincerely hope that she enters as a write in candidate and if she can make the best broken campaign promises then let her get elected. We as a country have time and time again voted for people that speak English beautifully and have screwed us over. Citizenship in a democracy comes with certain rights and one of them is the opportunity to run for public office. If she is the best candidate or can make them think that she is the best candidate then more power to her and she should be able to attain the position or be denied that position at the ballot not a courtroom. I thought in America we had the Freedom of Speech all that this ruling does is send a clear message that our Freedom of Speech comes with fine print that can be used to hurt more people than this woman. I'll say that I don't remember hearing about the slaves that were imported to America being given there freedom as soon as they learned English well enough. I'm not saying that the language a person speaks should be added to the EEO conditions because there are just some jobs that a person can't have if they have a hard time being understood. At a regular 9-5 the person to make that determination is running a company in politics that power should lie with the people. That's all I'm trying to say.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bjorn O

      Lorenzo, you said too much and yet nothiing.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Lynn

    She is not representing Mexico, she's representing Americans and right now the language we speak is still English. She should have a basic knowledge of the English language in order to run for office. Here's the thing, I had someone say to me a few years back, that I should learn Spanish. Which I'm actually fine with. Unfortunately, the immigrants in my area speak Filipino, several dialects too, and Spanish and Chinese! So what makes more sense? Me learning 3 languages or all the immigrants learning one? My family came here from Italy and not once did it occur to the government to print ballots and signs in Italian, give classes to them to learn English, or hand out food stamps. They learned English. The immigrants who came from Europe wanted to be here, wanted to learn English and wanted a better life. I don't know why someone would move to a different country and then make no effort to learn the language. I guarantee that if I moved to Mexico, Italy, France, Spain or Russia, I would have to learn the language in some form.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Spoken like a true racist.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • EB

      No Bill, you race- baiting bigot, spoken like someone with a head on their shoulders. Move to Italy, Russia, or Mexico and see if what was said isn't the truth.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr. Bill

      Excellent. Both sets of my grandparents insisted that English was the language spoken in their "new Country" as a sign of respect. They all chose to live here and to respect the culture rather than make the US "little Germany" or "Little Poland". Too bad our "Political Correctness" allows this.
      I'm with you, Lynn.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arnold Schwarzenegger's English is even worse.....but...

      Nobody complained when Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian native was elected governor of California, his English is terrible. That's call RACISM against Latinos, one was white European, and this lady who was born here is brown. Tthis article certainly is to stir up even more racial animosity against Latinos. Good Job CNN.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Susan62509

      What Lynn said has nothing to do with racism. She made an excellent point with common sense. Bill, you need to visit the Middle East not knowing their language and see how long you last. Can't use the old racist jargon there.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jeremy

    So surprised that this happened in Arizona (wink wink)

    February 8, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
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