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. Samir Attalah

    America is the land of opportunities. #samirattalah

    February 9, 2012 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
  2. Mimay Celfnay

    Why would anyone expect anything else from the MOST bigoted state in the union. How could anyone expect the State Supreme Court to be any less prejudiced than Governor Brewer, the state legislature and Mad as a Hatter Sheriff Arpaio (Arpaio – is that a pure American name?) Brewer comes from England for someone who brewed ale, Hmmmm another pure American?

    February 9, 2012 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeffrocious

      If you want to hold office in America, speak English. I understand that the majority of the residents are hispanic, but that is not the issue. She needs to be able to speak, as a professional, to people inside and outside of the government. I'm sorry, but you must be able to communicate to people at ALL levels of the government in the official language spoken. When Hispanics reach the population majority in the United States, then they can vote and have the official language changed.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:46 am | Report abuse |
    • JT

      This has nothing to do with bigotry. I grant you that AZ doesn't have a stellar record in that area, but that is not the issue. The issue is that the woman cannot communicate with the rest of the government. It is a practical matter. If you simply cannot communicate with your coworkers or understand the language your job is conducted in, then you cannot perform that job. How is that not obvious to you?

      February 9, 2012 at 1:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Pat Blue

      What I can't understand is how she managed to graduate from high school in Yuma when she couldn't even speak English.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Val

      She rated her english a 5 out of 10. She graduated high school, not college, not grad school, but high school. If she finished her doctorate in Mexico for Economics I might have been ok with a 5 out of 10. But since, all she has is her High School diploma I agree that she should perfect her english and then run when she can speak confidently to her colleagues in both english and spanish

      February 9, 2012 at 1:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Thomas Bradley

      The United States does not have a recognized national language this is just a continuance of Arizona and its government's fear of Hispanics. They are afraid of them having and rights or power whatsoever .

      February 9, 2012 at 2:22 am | Report abuse |
    • LXZ

      Clearly, this woman lacks basic english language skills. She would have great difficulty in keeping up with the political "jargon" in a political seat. What a joke! Sorry Mimay, you have no argument!

      February 9, 2012 at 2:40 am | Report abuse |
  3. Relictus

    Many Hispanics and recent Hispanic immigrants have an excellent command of English. It is insulting that this woman has not expended the effort to learn the language. This is not a Hispanic issue – it's a respect issue. She lacks it.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
    • jim


      February 9, 2012 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Thomas Bradley

      Respect ? Respect what? English is not our national language the United States we do not have an official national language so I think you have a lack of respect for anyone you don't understand . People fear what they don't understand and clearly the government in Arizona fears Hispanics .

      February 9, 2012 at 2:20 am | Report abuse |
  4. Beefburger

    In the event of any national emergency all of those in a leadership role should be able to effectively communicate with emergency responders. In this case, I would say the job there demands a mayor with effective comprehension of both English AND Spanish.

    What would happen in her little community if there was an incursion along the AZ border with the drug cartels? Which seems a likely scenario. What if she could not communicate with a federal or military authority? Unless the Reconquistadors actually manage to reclaim the territory you need leadership that speaks English.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:43 am | Report abuse |
  5. karlheiz

    " it's unclear what factored into the justices' decision"....uhh that she can't speak English??....
    Her lawyer said there should be more opportunities to ensure everyone has the resources to learn English. Daaaaa

    February 9, 2012 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
  6. Dave Fisher

    I have lived and worked in 5 countries and although I have always been a US citizen, I can promise that if I did apply for citizenship in those countries, it would have required me to learn the language. They had no issue of giving me a work permit and pay taxes, but no way in hell would I have become a citizen without learning their language. I do think that this case is rather interesting as she is a US citizen, but, damn, I think we all should respect the fact that we are a melting pot, but honestly, English is the language spoken by the majority in the country and should be used in such a position when running for ANY office. No disrespect meant for that woman running for office.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
  7. Ron

    English is out National Language. Learn it if you want to live here! All 4 of my grandparents came to the US from Poland after the First World War. They came here to be Americans and quickly became fluent in English. So did many of my other relatives. This was at as time when there were no “English as a Second Language” classes. They learned to speak, read and write from relatives who came earlier than they did. They felt it was their responsibility to learn the language.

    A common language unites a country. Many bilingual countries like Belgium (Flemish and Walloons), and of course Canada have serious divisions. Let’s see, was it 3 or 4 times since 1970 that the French Provinces forced Canada to have a referendum on secession from the English Provinces. It’s hard to remember how many because somehow Parti Quebecois always seems to structure the vote as “Heads we win, Tails we get to do it over again.”

    Personally, I feel insulted when people from other countries come here to live, expect the privileges that the US offers, and refuse to learn English. I’ve traveled extensively in Europe and I always make efforts to speak either the local language (even Schweitze Dutch and Bayrisch) or a European language that most of the population understands.

    Let’s keep the USA English!

    February 9, 2012 at 1:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Cathy

      FYI, the US does not have a "National Language" or an official language, English or otherwise.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:35 am | Report abuse |
    • rbr

      @cathy.actually English is accepted internationally.....but in this country it is the common binding language of the people..My family speaks Tagalog (Philippine language) but everyone is proficient in the language. No excuses.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
    • jim

      English should be made the OFFICIAL language of America period

      February 9, 2012 at 2:09 am | Report abuse |
    • aebe

      "Keep the USA English !" Yup.No dogs or Irish allowed. 🙂

      February 9, 2012 at 2:22 am | Report abuse |
  8. aebe

    The woman is an American citizen.If the people of that country can understand her,and want her to serve them,there should be no problem.Arizona has a law requiring english to be used,that is good.But,to be denied a right,based on the opinion of some yahoo,that's bad.It smacks a wee bit too much of the various requirements used to prevent selected portions of the population from voting,in the past.

    Validate your 2nd Amendment Rights.Carry.
    Even though you should not threaten yahoos,
    doing so might give them second ( Yup ) thoughts. 🙂 .

    February 9, 2012 at 1:16 am | Report abuse |
  9. aebe

    The woman is an American citizen.If the people of that country can understand her,and want her to serve them,there should be no problem.Arizona has a law requiring english to be used,that is good.But,to be denied a right,based on the opinion of some yahoo,that's bad.It smacks a wee bit too much of the various requirements used to prevent selected portions of the population from voting,in the past.

    Validate your 2nd Amendment Rights.Carry.
    Even though you should not threaten yahoos,
    just carrying might give them second ( Yup ) thoughts. 🙂 .

    February 9, 2012 at 1:17 am | Report abuse |
  10. Rick1948

    Her name should have been on the ballot. If her English wasn't good enough to get elected, the voters would have decided that.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:46 am | Report abuse |
  11. Daniel

    I agree that anyone holding a public office should be fluent in English. The official language in Arizona is English, therefore, anyone running for office whether on a local, state or national level should campaign and advertize in English and stop making lame attempts at targetng , or pandering to the Hispanic voters with ads in Spanish. Their attempts at Spanish are pathetic, laughable at best. They really don't want us or our language but they sure want our votes.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  12. OrangeW3dge

    sounds like a personal problem with that Judge. I could understand her, and it looks like she could understand him, and, she is continuing to study the English language, which the Judge probably is not. The question, then, is how good does she have to be at English before she can run? I mean what if a guy with a third grade education and thirty years experience before the bar (bar room, that is) comes before the Judge, will he be allowed on a ballot because he can speak English better ???

    February 9, 2012 at 2:02 am | Report abuse |
    • state university student

      Did you miss the part where she can't answer the question of "where did you graduated from HS?" Do we no longer have minimum requirements anymore? Do you think you will be able to get a job without English skills? Without showing motivation that you can do the job? She is lack of all the above. She wants to help the people in the county, but what is it exactly that she is helping them with? Granted she was born in Arizona, but the cost of living then couldn't have been that much for her parents to bring her to Mexico. Whatever her motive is, she needs to get her language skill improve first then run again.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
  13. jim

    her interview was conducted in Spanish-Nuf said

    February 9, 2012 at 2:07 am | Report abuse |
  14. Tom

    Wow !!! will I need spanish to vote now ?

    February 9, 2012 at 2:08 am | Report abuse |
  15. Tdsii

    If I move to another country, lets say... Mexico.... and I run for an office, how stupid would I look if I can't speak the native language fluently?

    February 9, 2012 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
    • jim

      cant argue w/that!!

      February 9, 2012 at 2:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Dzz

      Hey, She got most of votes. People in that city like her.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:27 am | Report abuse |
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