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. Gus Silva

    I agree that if you want to run for office you should have an efficient English ability. How can you conduct business with other city, county, state or national leaders if you have to have a tag along interpreter in order to speak with people? Usually the only persons that have interpreters are hearing impaired and foreign diplomats or dignitaries.
    Hopefully she can see the light, which seems to be the case since she has an English coach, as to the necessity to be able to successfully communicate and enunciate her ideas and words so that she can be an effective leader.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jp

    yo no soy Americano......we would ah this ah contry to ah be mas a like mexico....garcia....

    February 8, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spud

      That was really funny!

      February 8, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bjorn O- Arnold Schwarzenegger did not speak English but...

      Arnold Schwarzenegger's English is even worse.....but...

      yet, 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 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Alyon

    I am Spanish and English speaking and I agree with Arizona, this really is a question of is she able to conduct meeting at city hall with her limited grasp of the language. Which brings me to my next question, why does she want to get on ballot in Arizona, now that she is so civic minded why not go back to Mexico and try and do some good.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. csmallfield

    Being an American living abroad (in Germany) I can appreciate the difficulty and controversy of dealing with multiple languages. As it stands, the US does not have an official language, that is not debatable, it's just a fact. I think it might even be reasonable to make English the official language but not at the cost of alienating and excluding legal residents and citizens. The US education system is so backwards in how it deals with languages. So many people act as if learning English and Spanish simultaneously from a young age is going to produce a bunch of people that can't speak properly. Please take a moment to look at the rest of the world, specifically Europe. The last two or three generations are educated in multiple languages, and I have to say in Germany, many people speak 3-4 fluently and eloquently. This isn't a hinderance, it's an advantage! Learning more than one language helps to improve language pattern recognition and makes it easier to communicate with anyone, which I would hope is the point of language education. Learning German starting in my late 20's has been difficult, but the benefits are tremendous, strangely enough, it has improved my Spanish and my ability to understand bits and pieces of many languages. Abroad, American's are known for their poor language skills, and it's entirely because of our nationalistic mono-lingual approach. Do we want to be like France? How about we increase understanding instead of limiting it.

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

      at the core, it's about hate, yo

      February 8, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spud

      Good comment... did you know you suffer from logorrhea?

      February 8, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • MoonSail

      Three languages – tri-lingual. Two languages – bi-lingual. One language? American. Sad, and I am one.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. M1sf1ts

    If I can't understand you, you are not getting my vote.

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

    Dear "Americans" Dont you just hate immigrants? signed Native Americans

    February 8, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spud

      What the!!! You are clever. A loser but clever.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. fovillian

    When will the racism end. This law is clearly a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act as it would preclude service by the hearing impaired. There is nothing unreasonable about using an interpreter.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Agent Frank


      February 8, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spud

      Who let you out? Quiet... we are trying to have an intellectual discussion here.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • gager

      Her disabillity is her willfulness.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rain

      This is not true.
      Speaking another language is not included in the ADA. An individual who is hard-of-hearing will not be able to "learn" how to hear but may be fully qualified for a position, thus they are covered by the Act. However, a person who is capable of learning fluent English must do so otherwise they may not be considered qualified for the position. The ADA does not deem a person disabled because they don't speak English.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr.Dave

      You have a very good point, fovillian. A skilled attorney might be able to argue this point successfully in court. Spud, you're a dud. Grow a brain and hope that it contains some intelligence.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Darkstar7

    This is a two way street. You can get yourself excused from jury duty in most places if your command of the English language isn't very good. Common sense would dictate that if you are going to be in a position where something more than conversational English is being spoken, you probably should be able to understand it. Clearly, if she was unable to answer the simple question about what high school she graduated from, it's fair to say that her ability to understand above and beyond the conversational level is not what it should be.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
  9. socalgal

    Thank G-d the Courts got this right. Her attorney gives attorneys a bad name. If she wants to help her community, she can volunteer.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Agent Frank

      It has nothing to do with serving the community, and everything to do with suckling the state teet.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spud

      Rock n roll... you said it!

      February 8, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  10. bobcat (in a hat) ©

    The really sad part about this woman, is she born raised and educated in this country. Still she is unable to carry on a converstion in english. This is acceptable in what way ?

    February 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Christopher

      Actually, she wasn't raised in the U.S. The video says she was born here and has U.S. citizenship (anchor baby?) but was raised in Mexico by her family because it was "cheaper".

      February 8, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • julibear

      Were you born and raised and educated in this country? Thats pretty sad, as your reading comprehension skills are sadly lacking. Go back and read it again- she spent most of her education in Mexico.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. RomyMon

    There's nothing involved here except common sense, which, sadly is now lost not only in the U.S., but elsewhere in the civilized world. Political correctness has replaced common sense. How simple is the situation here? This is America and English is spoken here, period. Would Americans vote for a presidential candidate who speaks English poorly? That English should be the official and only language in the U.S., is non-debatable. But because of political correctness, attempts in the Congress to make it so have been shamelessly, repeatedly been blocked by the politically correct crowd. And look at this candidate. She was born here so to speak English should have been natural to her, even if she grew up in Mexico. How in the world was she allowed to graduate from an American high school with her very weak command of English? I came to this country as a 23-year old U.S. Navy recruit. I had to pass a battery of tests and also an interview to appraise my proficiency in both written and spoken English. I had to pass the same requirements to be naturalized as an American citizen. I would have gotten nowhere in this nation if I only speak Filipino. No one took away her right to run for office. Her lawyer said that only to make himself look good. All she needs to do is improve her command of English and she can run against Obama.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arnold Schwarzenegger's English is even worse.....but...

      yes , we did elected few of them whose English was worse than poor , George Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger to name a few.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Spud

    Come on Now... Why do so many people ignore the law? You run a red light, the judge rules, you pay the fine. Follow the judges ruling and the law that was made on the matter.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mimi

    And if this woman had been a Dineh (Navajo) speaker? What then?

    February 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bill

    I am a 3rd generation descendant of Italians and know and read a few words of Italian; I speak a fair amount of Spanish too. I would not presume to go to Italy or Spain and attempt to hold a government position where business in conducted in those native languages. Notwithstanding this woman's citizenship, she lacks the basic skills to conduct business in English. We are still an English-speaking nation (despite some areas of the country that think we are not). We need a common language–language is a common bond for nationshood and it also simply a means to efficiently conduct our political and economic lives. If this woman struggled with being able to identify her high school in English, she is clearly not proficient. If somebody were before the city counsel and made a presentation in English, would she understand? If a council member were to open debate on a proposal, would she understand? Some maythe she would be great at representing a Latino community because she speaks their language, but how would she convey anything beyond the simplest of concepts on their behalf to others who speak English? As odd as this court case and ruling seem on first blush, I agree with the court. She should not be on the ballot. Her remedy is not legal, is remedial education in the English language. Then she can run for office. One does not run before one walks.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  15. amvoiceofreason

    Ms. Cabrera has it all wrong. Instead of running for mayor or city council she should work to control enough of the vote to control the city council and mayor.

    If you are a city councilwoman you have one vote. If you can influence people to vote for those candidates you endorse, you can control how the entire city council AND mayor vote.

    Been there done that.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
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