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. tbone2000

    If the occupants of the US city of San Luis are 98.7 hispanic and don' speak any english after years of occupancy, the city and the occupants don't belong in this country.....

    February 8, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Biff Watson

    She does need to attend meetings, listen, offer up opinions and speak in English. She cannot do that can she? What are we supposed to do? Hire an interpreter? Therefore she is not capable of doing the job. Government meetings in this country at all levels are done in English. And the fact that many like her have a history in this country is not a legit point as many are not legally here in the first place. Just because your kid was born here (illegally and at taxpayer expense) does not give you the right to stay illegally too. Make English the official language and we won't have this problem. To use the logic some responders on here are using we could elect a magic eight ball and have it render decisions. It does not need to know the questions or English either, but if that is what the people want, let them have it. I fear for the future of my once great country!

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

    GOOD FOR THE COURT!! Finally ONE for the USA!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mandi

      She's an American citizen. How would that be one for the USA? She IS LEGALLY A PART of the USA lol.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • JD

      This should be decided by the voters – not the courts. If I want her to represent me I can vote for her. If not than I won't. What are we becoming?

      February 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • evilwhiteman

      JD ... Voters do not directly decide matters of law which is what this is about. She didn't meet the federally imposed requirements for public office in Arizona and therefore she isn't eligible to hold public office. You live in a Republic, your will as a citizen is expressed through your elected representatives not via plebiscites. And as a practical matter how well can she represent her district if she isn't fluent in English as her duties require that she be able to read and understand the laws, regulations and policies and procedures of the city, county and state in which she resides and that she be able to communicate with those within and outside her district who speak English.

      February 8, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. A.C.

    Hablo bueno inglés. He ido a la escuela por tres años. No importa que pueda tener que ir a las funciones en la Capital del Estado. Nunca saldré de San Luis, además de la gente me amo. También amo comer en La Casas Guiterrez en Yuma. Apenas mire mi vídeo.

    February 8, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • StompingFeet

      This is America.... Speak English or get OUT !!!!!!!!!

      February 8, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Christopher Mohr

    Sir Arthur,

    The reason they work at the UN is because they have a highly paid staff performing those translations. The local city council can't afford it. Look at it another way: the reason we can't do traffic signs in multiple languages is because then we'd have to both pay for every language in which residents converse (and could reasonably be expected to converse) and then deal with the safety issues arising from that. There is no way to equitably accomplish that, and therefore one language has to be chosen. The same thing applies to public office. There is no problem with people who are fluent in more than one language, as long as one of those languages is the same language as the rest of Council (and all bodies with which it must interact such as state and federal government) is fluent in.

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

    Good. Bueno. It's fantastic if U.S. citizens speak two or more languages! Just make sure one of them is English!! We'll never solve any of the country's problems if live in the Tower of Babel.

    February 8, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Tamm

    How did she graduate? What kind of school is it?

    February 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plain_Jane

      You've hit the nail on the head.

      I wrote the Yuma mayor and city council and the school board when this story first broke. The poor girl attended a "bilingual" school. My experience with "bilingual" schools in Los Angeles is that they are pretty much Spanish-speaking schools that deny students the opportunity to learn enough English to, well, run for City Council, or go to college, or interact meaningfully with the English-speaking world. Shame!

      February 8, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Manen Ah Aeydah

      A public one....which says it all.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba™

      Doesn't say much for the high school she "graduated" from. Don't you have to pass English to get a diploma anymore?

      February 8, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
  8. kb

    this mayor guy does he speaky english?

    February 8, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Lagos

    Voting laws are pretty clear. If you don't like them, change them. Don't complain about laws already on the books being enforced.

    February 8, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Richard

    George W. Bush couldn't speak English proficiently, yet served two terms in the White House! Let the voters decide.

    February 8, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      You're an idiot. Did he need an interpreter?

      February 8, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bee

      You got that right, Richard! This lady apparently knew enough English to graduate from high school! She is working on improving her English. Maybe she should sit out this election but run again when her English is better. We need more people like her willing to serve their communities.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reading in Texas


      No he (Georgie Porgie) didn't need an interpreter, we did to figure out what he was saying!

      February 8, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba™

      Nu- kea- lor ..... lol he couldn't learn to say NUCLEAR for 8 yrs he was President ....... did make him seem ignorant. Certainly stubborn, for not even trying.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mandi

      Hahahaaa! This is the greatest post! What a great point.

      February 8, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Feros512

      Bee, she couldn't even answer in English which American high school she graduated from....and she was given three tries. I agree, let her improve her English skills and run later if she can prove her commitment to following the law is as strong as her desire for public service.
      And Richard, you'd be hard pressed to find any politician that can speak anything other than "Skewed" English!

      February 8, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
  11. s

    Finally, hopefully we're getting our balls back in America!

    February 8, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. amber

    way to go if she cannot communicate her high school in english i think maybe she does not need to be holding public office. spending is at all time high so we want to elect a person who would then need to elect another person to communicate with them. Disater waiting to happen

    February 8, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bee

      And did you forget everything you ever learned (?) about punctuation, Amber? Your writing is next to illiterate!

      February 8, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Feros512

      Her writing may not be up to your professional standards, Bee, yet we are able to understand her meaning and concern. Lighten up. You made quite a jump to "near illiterate" while defending an American citizen and U.S. high school graduate who in court can only reply with her name and place of birth in English. A sad indictment of the Arizona education system??

      February 8, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
  13. bob

    David Floridensis
    Is a troll ignore that idiot.

    February 8, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  14. pogojo

    How did she pass american high school without knowing English!!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. shelby


    February 8, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • shelby

      WELP IDC

      February 8, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
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