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. Riptide

    So based on some peoples post, it would be ok for a redneck to run for office in the south even though he could hardly speak proper English, or maybe someone from Harlem as an ebonics speaking mayor? In parts of New York state are there congressmen who speak mostly Italian and just enough English to get by? To expand on it being a regional thing that some fool so eloquenly posted, if you were part of the 13 percent of non Spanish speakers in this womans district would you feel equally and properly represented? Common sense people, those of you defending this woman would be the same people who would never allow for a presedential candidate that speaks Farsi.

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

      That's a pretty big leap. You preclude the notion that if some huckleberry stepped in and sounded like a complete moron, yet in the (quasi) English language, he or she would be granted an office.
      I'd like to think that We The people are smarter than that.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:17 am | Report abuse |
  2. Tyler

    Liberals don't have a problem with our elected representatives not speaking the most common language in the country that they are serving in, just as long as they have a (D) next to their name it's a-okay.

    February 8, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ned

      From the group that voted for George W. Bush.

      February 8, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fred Evil

      Says who? This liberal thinks English should be the official language/
      Not much of a melting pot, if the elements refuse to melt.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • j.shmo

      im a D, and i think she has no business holding a council position. so you can go F yourself.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tyler

    “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.

    Okay, how could anyone possibly defend this woman?

    February 8, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      I think it's easy to miss the real question – why do we have anyone but the people decide who they can vote for?
      I don't think the language issue is the issue at all. . .

      February 8, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • john

      The issue is not language at all. The issue is that the citizens of her county have had their right to representation taken away. Im no historian, but isn't there SOME parallel with the American revolutionary's fight against taxation without representation? If the voters in her county – LEGAL US CITIZENS – choose to have one of their peers represent them, isn't THAT democracy? We don't live in that county, why should we be passing judgement on who the citizens want to elect?

      February 8, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, B.A., J.D., S.P.J.

    The Ninth circuit will have fun with this NAZI decision of the Arizona Supreme Court. If one parent is an American Citizen and you tough the land of the USA once before your 16Th birthday, you are an American Citizen. So If one of your parents was from Mexico, and the other had US Citizenship, it's possible that you might not speak a word of English, and lets say you cannot read in any language. So does that disqualify you from voting? NO, The US Supreme Court is quite clear on this one. If Schwartzenegger had been a Democrat running for office in Arizona, he would have also been disqualified. Members of the Klu Klux Klan and the American NAZI Party who speak like hillbilly pinheads, sarah Palin who is so dense she has to write her speeches on her hand can hold elected office, a mentally retarded person like the Arizone Congresswoman Giffords who just had her brains scrambled by an assassin's bullet and who can barely form a sentence and now has the intellectual capacity of a five year old can hold elective office (She can pronounce words correctly, she just can't form a sentence) can hold public office, but a women of Mexican origin who doesn't manifest pretty enough accent but who intelligent and who speak well enough can't hold public office. I predict that this lady will become the first Hispanic Governor of Arizona within 10 years, and every member of the Court will be recalled within 10 years.

    February 8, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kelly

      You should read the article before you post. She was asked three times in English to name the High School she graduated from and couldn't comprehend the question. She herself admitted that she spoke English poorly and rated herself a 5 on a scale of 1 – 10.. Please be accurate.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
  5. kathyc

    First I am glad one state has some common sense. Secondly even if she could speak english she only has a high school education-if that!

    February 8, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba™

      Well ..... she didn't pass high school English.... that's for sure... lol 😉

      February 8, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Cal

    If this were Puerto Rico and the issue was that somebody's Spanish wasn't good enough would people feel the same way about the decision?

    February 8, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Actually, the Puerto Rico laws state that you may speak either English or Spanish and there was an elected official who's Spanish was really bad and get got elected and was successful. So there you go... read!!!

      February 8, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, B.A., J.D., S.P.J.

    The Arizona Supreme Court missed the point. Perhaps someone can't read, or write, should that disqualify someone from holding public office? No. That's why we have elections, the people decide who is qualified enough to elect. If Arizona had a literacy test, a civics test and a Math test like the SAT, but for candidates, then Sarah Palin might not qualify on the civics or the math portion. Perhaps we should disqualify all people with "unacceptable accents from holding elected office. Has the Arizona court lost their minds?

    February 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Manuel J.

      I'm impressed with all your attachments at the end of your name. Unfortunately, you did NOT do your homework.

      Actually, as a FEDERAL government requirement for allowing AZ into the Union in 1912, English being used in government business was a FEDERAL requirement.

      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 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amy

      Manuel, you missed the satire. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes series and died in 1930. The letters at the end are intended to be humorous.

      February 8, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Watson

      My Dear Artie!

      You seem to be labouring under the assumption that they had minds to begin with... The usual confusion between the possible and the probable, I see...

      Elementary, My Dear!

      February 8, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kelly

      Amy, I think you are giving Mr. Doyle way too much credit.. Sarcasm requires that you have a point, and that others will get the point..

      February 9, 2012 at 12:43 am | Report abuse |
  8. hassan

    We live in the United States of America. Speaking English is the least we can do to respect such a great nation.

    February 8, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Manuel J.

    A FEDERAL requirement for AZ being allowed into the Union was language mandating 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 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, B.A., J.D., S.P.J.

    Congressman Giffords of Arizona had her brains scrambled by an assassin's bullet.She had to have her friend read her resignation speech given months after she was shot. Giffords voted but could not speak. If a person is mute in Arizona, are they forbidden from holding public office? No the ADA would protect a mute, but if you can speak English poorly and with a Spanish accent, then you cannot hold public office. Jim Crow is alive and well in Arizona!

    February 8, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • state university student

      Sir,

      Looks like you didn't read the article clearly. The decision has nothing to do with her accent. The decision has to do with her lack of basic English skill to run a town. If you can't answer the question of "what HS did you graduated from?" in English, then you are not qualify to run for Mayor. You are comparing Gifford, who herself was fluent in English prior to the shooting. Even though she can't no longer function as she used to, her speech are what she wants to deliver in ENGLISH. Each and every word was her own in ENGLISH even though she requested to have them read by someone else. This lady on the other hand can only read and write fluently in SPANISH. Which if she needs to address the town, it will be in SPANISH or we will need to hire a translator to translate her SPANISH to ENGLISH. Will you Sir hire someone to represent you who can't speak your language and can't deliver your message? I think not.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
  11. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, B.A., J.D., S.P.J.

    The have simultaneous translation earphones at the UN Security Council, why not in Arizona? This woman belongs on the City Council! Arizona schools failed this woman, because after 3 years, they were unable to teach her English! Perhaps this woman would have no tolerance for Anglo School administrators who cheat Latino students out of an education. Once while selling bottled water door to door in Bakersfield California while in law school, a young black man who had just turned 18 could not afford the expensive delivered bottled water, but asked if I could read something to him that he received in the mail. It was a little plaque like the kind you get for a sport's achievement or a commendation from the Lions Club. The plack was this young man's High School Diploma. He hadn't attended his graduation because he assumed that he had flunked-out. He was shocked that they sent him his diploma in the mail. Every American that pays local taxes to support local schools should be shocked and outraged too!

    February 8, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kelly

      She lives in a town that is 98% Hispanic.. mmmmm, wonder why those Hispanic leaders would deny their Hispanic children a good education.. Your post makes absolutely noo sense..

      February 9, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
    • state university student

      The school system didn't fail her. She failed herself. There are millions of public school students who made it through and very successful in life who are bilingual or trilingual. There is no reason for a person not willing to learn and improve. They fail themselves.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
  12. rational

    I theenk that hif shee ees able to speak yoost a leetle Eengleesh, she coo bee thee hefe! Jess!

    February 8, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Amy

    The 1910 law made it pretty clear. Besides, how can you participate in city business when you don't understand the language it is being conducted in?

    February 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Name*stjameson

    The ruling was correct. If I moved to Mexico I would learn Spanish. This is an English speaking nation. Just look at the road signs.

    February 8, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. j.shmo

    im sorry, but this woman should not hold any sort of council position until her english dramatically improves. and im a 'lib,' too

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