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. humberto

    CNN is blacklisting news and robbing people.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Josh

    To be fair, the grasp and quality of local Tea Party politicians' English isn't anything to write home about, either. And I'm guessing they don't speak a second language, other than maybe CMT/redneckese.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |

      Lately CNN has been publishing many article against Latinos and by doing so, CNN is instigating a CIVIL WAR against Latinos in this country.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • ComSenseWiz

      The requirement to speak English to hold any government office is an absolute no brainer. Duh. The real issue is how does any citizen with an IQ above plant life not speak English. It's a joke. English only in USA for any official business. Get used to it.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  3. taildragon

    We survived eight years of 'W' addressing us in, well, whatever dialect it was that he spoke. I think we can survive this lady.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. juan

    Arnold speak no english he ran for office lol

    February 8, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Josephine M

      George EW Bush did not speak a good English and he was elected two times , he took us to war two times and we all survived, well this lady can not be any worse than him. Lets elect her for once.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • ComSenseWiz

      Arnold did not speak English well? What planet have you been living on? Bush, who I thought was a bad President, got his MBA at Harvard (Yale undergrad) so obviously he spoke English just fine by any possible definition. To say otherwise is beyond delusional.

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

      Wrong – Arnold speaks English very well

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

    So this woman graduated an American High school, yet doesn't understand English well enough to answer what school she graduated from???

    February 8, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mark Yelka

    5 out of 10? But, can't understand a simple question? More like 2 out of 10.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. humberto

    I must say if the CNN People had anywhere near the intelligence they think they have they would know exactly what I said.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  8. D

    This is old news- I read it about 2 weeksago! Try some real "news".

    February 8, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Private

    How do you define what is a latino? A parson that knows Latin? Are the decendent of Rome (Spaniards, French and Italian) Latinos? Or only the sons of Spaniards that were born in the new world? Ohh you are refering at Criollos; a fake grouping to separate and group person on a way to stereotype and assigned fake common values and rights.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Report abuse |
  10. juan

    It's arizona for the love of pete

    February 8, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. state university student

    “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.

    According to this statement, either she is saying the residents of San Luis are all English illiterate, or she is as good as they can get to represent them. Probably better if she granted the interview to Telemundo instead of CNN en Espanol.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
  12. RD

    Personally, I think it doe not matter what you rNative language is, but as an American citizen, running for a public office, where English is the official language, I think you should be able to understand English. Immigrants applying for citizenship have to have pass English proficiency. She can't even do that.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  13. James Skinner

    The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited literacy tests to determine voter eligibility.
    Now we are using them to restrict candidates!?
    This is supposed to be a democracy. Let the people decide!

    February 8, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Report abuse |
  14. RD

    Sorry I am a poor typist, lol.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. amvoiceofreason

    In a town where 98.7% of the people are of Hispanic origin, Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla will probably have a snowball’s chance in Arizona of getting reelected. He may have won the battle but in the end, lost the war.

    Tell your children, work hard, get rich, and when you grow up you could own a president.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
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