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. juan

    Que ella corra y que chiflen a su madre al que no le guste

    February 8, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. david

    Shouldn't this be left up to the voters?

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

      I guess the voters of Arizona have already voted and their vote was that English is the language that the business of the government is conducted in. The lady is not proficient in English so she cannot conduct the business of government. The law is the law and it was voted on in 2006. If you don't like this law then change it for the next election.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fair_minder

      This is nothing but a minimal requirement for publicly voted official: some basic English proficiency. If she can't speak English, find another way to serve. At the same time, learn to speak English while she is still young. This is America, and to learn to speak English is not an usual requirement.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Manuel J.

      Actually, a FEDERAL requirement for AZ being allowed into the Union was language requiring English be used in government business.

      Fast forward to today, my maternal grandmother and many "tios" came to this country from Mexico... LEGALLY. Many of my relatives, as myself, have served our country. We are all bilingual and speak English well.

      I also live in AZ and feel that if you cannot speak the language well, as is the case with this particular person, then how can she perform the simple of function of a city council member? In fact, she needed a translator during the court proceedings where an Hispanic bilingual judge presided. If any one of us were to reside in another country, it is expected AND mandated that you speak the language.

      That said, what's the issue with the judges ruling???

      February 8, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Darthlawsuit

      She just needs to spend the next 2 years learning English then she can run for office next cycle. I agree that our elected officials should speak English otherwise they will understand less about what is going on then they already do.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  3. .

    No hard feelings... don't go away mad, just go away.
    Come back and try again when you learn the language, and your obvious desire to manipulate the system without coloring inside the lines as an American Citizen... without playing by the rules... has subsided and you wish to serve the good of ALL the people instead of specifically your night crawling, border skirting, illiegal brethren.

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

      Most Americans can't speak properly.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
  4. MesaMax

    So how would this woman serve people who speak English only?

    February 8, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • KK Denver

      you mean all 13% of them?

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

    35 and can barely speak english. born here and moved back to mexico just to come back here to sucker a diploma off us taxpayers

    February 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • KK Denver

      She graduated, you're the sucker

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

      she came back for welfare

      February 8, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
  6. 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.

    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.

    What is with this site? My posts showed at the bottom of the page then disappeared a few minutes later. Nothing vulgar or racist about them. I will repost them.

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

    Politics are difficult enough. Legislative bills, amendments, etc....ever try to read through that mumbo jumbo? If people who speak English well have a hard time understanding it, how does a person who doesn't speak it well wade through all that stuff? I agree with the ruling. And btw, how in the world did she spend 3 years in a high school and graduate with such poor English knowledge? Subject are taught in did she pass?

    February 8, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. bribarian

    Another step in the right direction. Deport these clowns.

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

      So you would deport an American? You're an idiot.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Mike K

    Since a City Councillor must deal with residents, professionals who provide service to the city, state agencies, and federal agencies, it is reasonable that the ability to communicate in English be a required skill for the position.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Terry Brookman

    Learn English, there is no second language here. How simple is that? How can you communicate with the people if you will not even learn English. That in itself shows a lack of concern for the people she says she wants to represent. This sounds like another attempt to reinforce the myth that Western United States still belongs to Mexico. If we do not close the border more and more people will be on welfare who have no right to the care and money that is spent on them, just more crime.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Patrick

    Arizona is so backward and biased toward Latinos. This town sits right on the border, so why does she need to be a speaker of English. Big No on this ruling.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jim

    In the absence of a law with a standard test of a command of English, the judge was way off base. I can't believe he won't be overturned on appeal. This is clearly a case for the voters to decide whether her command of English is good enough for her to represent them. Not for a judge to decide.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. M in Oz

    None of the US politicians have proper English like the first politicians, so none of them should be allowed in power either. Obama speaks one of American English versions, so he should be out too.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  14. wow

    Lol... lol... I can't stop laughing....... ok. I am done..

    February 8, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. 2cnts

    “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. " If her English was good enough, this interview would have been done in English...

    February 8, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
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