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. Dzz

    I was told that English is not official language. Is the court decision legal? I doubt it. Why the city's people do not have right to choose whomever as their leader?

    February 9, 2012 at 2:25 am | Report abuse |
  2. SVI

    I'm a black guy from the Midwest and I speak Spanish better than she speaks English. Running a town is a lot harder than learning a language that has many of the same words as your own.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:30 am | Report abuse |
  3. Rich

    She couldn't even tell the Judge which high school she had graduated from. That shows she has a very low understanding of the English language. I wonder how she graduated the american high school without being able to speak and understand english that well.

    As far as holding a public office, the person needs to have a very strong grasp of English. In this person's case, if she were elected her speeches and interviews would be held in Spanish not English, meaning Americans who dont know Spanish would have to translator her comments or have her comments translated for them..This is unacceptable. Also her staff would have to speak spanish not english, which could prevent english only speaking americans from holding a position in the local government.

    If she were allowed to hold the public office and require everyone to speak Spanish to her, would this set a precedent for allowing poeple who speak another language besides spanish or english into office? Imagine allowing a German American that can only speak German into office..Would this scenario of a German speaking official be aceptable by the latinos in the district that wants this lady elected? I highly doubt it.

    Every publically elected official should be required to speak English fluently. I am glad Arizona has a state law protecting it from this type of canidate. I understand that this lady is an american, but she needs to learn our language if she expects to be publically elected representative of our government.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Dzz

      hey, Spanish is one of our languages.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:43 am | Report abuse |
    • KB

      G.W Bush was NOT able to put together a proper sentence in english!! took us into two DEVASTATING wars, destroyed our economy, YET no one objected!!!!!! im not hispanic nor do i care about them, but to be objective i believe this type of judgement was irresponsible and provocative against our values and norms.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Vinny

      I am not a fan of George W Bush. However, he does speak English. His may not be perfect but it is his Texan English.
      Come to Texas and you will be surprised how people speak differently. (Imagine a hybrid between George W Bush and Rick Perry.)

      February 9, 2012 at 3:22 am | Report abuse |
  4. Martina

    This is such a complete nonsense. There are so many immigrants in this country, and the vast majority of them learn English in order to be able to work and study here. I'd understand if she were an old woman. It's often hard for old people to learn new language. But she is the US citizen! She really should be ashamed of herself. There is no other country in the world, where she could even survive without speaking the official language.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Dzz

      That's why it's called America. We are unique

      February 9, 2012 at 2:45 am | Report abuse |
    • Dzz

      there is nothing she should be shamed of

      February 9, 2012 at 2:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Martina

      Yes, the US is unique. It is the only developed country with like 20% literacy rate. She should be ashamed of herself. And those Americans, who think they can get by with doing as little as possible, should be ashamed of themselves as well.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      There are actually thousands of Americans living in countries with "official' languages who do not speak it with any proficiency. Most of them do fine, either learning enough to handle daily chores or by using translators. Language ability has some, but very little bearing on the ability to flourish .

      February 9, 2012 at 4:25 am | Report abuse |
  5. SPENT

    Well, now isn't this the pits.
    Living in the U.S.A. and actually requiring someone to be literate in English and holding a political office. Well, maybe no a bad take...look what we have running our states and countries that are literate. I just cannot imagine such a thing.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:37 am | Report abuse |
  6. Martina

    The last thing this country needs is more incompetent and undereducated people in the public offices.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Daniel

      I agree. No more George W.s

      February 9, 2012 at 2:43 am | Report abuse |
    • SPENT

      Obama, well the lights are not completely on and working on a 25 watt bulb. She may not be to bad, when one looks at what is the "top" person at the White House.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Martina

      SPENT: The person in the White House in a Harvard graduate. What's your credentials? I guess not very impressive or you would post stupid comments like that.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:59 am | Report abuse |
  7. Chris

    By not allowing her to run for office her right to free speech has been violated. I'd think twice about voting for her based on her English skills, but I wouldn't think twice about allowing her on the ballot because its her right as an American citizen to seek office...any office – even President if she wants too.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:41 am | Report abuse |
    • SixDegrees

      Rubbish. She's free to voice whatever opinions she likes (even though most of America won't understand her); it's her competency to perform the job she was seeking that's at issue.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:54 am | Report abuse |
  8. Chris

    Also lets face it, that Mayor pulled a really political move on her. Feels very slimy, don't like that guy one bit.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:44 am | Report abuse |
  9. Dave Henshaw

    Unless or until English is made the official language of the United States, no restrictions should be placed on anyone. Has anyone visited northern New York state? Signs are posted in English AND French. I don't hear any complaints about that. While it is best that everyone learns English, I cannot see that being a requirement without a law.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Katie

      Actually, Arizona is one of the states that has English as an offical language.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:24 am | Report abuse |
  10. cacalips

    This must mean only the British can have a seat in the court, as they speak the most proper of English. In the end, the British did win the war, and a little bit of Germany. Hooray!

    February 9, 2012 at 3:08 am | Report abuse |
  11. Vinny

    I am a minority and English is not my mother tongue.
    However, I agree with the judge. She is running for a position to serve all citizens, not just some selected groups.
    What if someone who can't speak Spanish needs her help?
    Please don't tell me to learn Spanish. I have already learned English and I am too old to learn another one.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:17 am | Report abuse |
  12. Atanu Banerjee

    The decision is correct. Thanks.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:18 am | Report abuse |
  13. mike

    I have read the article and would like to shed some light on the subject. We live in a society that considers its self a nation of immigrants. We have had a national language since our inception. This woman was born in America and choose to live in Mexico. When she moved to mexico did she use English? No she spoke their national language since the conquistadors took the land from the natives. Now this woman lives here in the U.S. . Why does she insist on using the Mexican language. Do all the politicians in every American state need to speak the languages of the whole world? This woman can go to the local community college and learn english. If I moved to another country I would learn their language so I could communicate to others. This woman wants to run for political office and she will need all the skills and education she can get her hands because we as a society do not need ignorant leaders.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:42 am | Report abuse |
  14. Navin Johnson

    I must have missed something. When did they declare English the official language and everyone had to speak it?

    February 9, 2012 at 3:47 am | Report abuse |
  15. Ed

    I'm a Mexican-American and my father arrived illegally in the U.S. in the 1940's, and eventually received his U.S. citizenship. I was born here in the U.S. and am proud to be an American. I do speak spanish fluently.

    As my father has repeatedly told me growing up, "As an American, you must learn English as that is the language of America". My parents also stressed the importance of knowing multiple languages.

    As my father did, as myself, I find the ignorance of Mexican-Americans and native Mexicans living in the U.S. illegally to be disrespectful. The moment you made your life in the US, you left your loyalty to Mexico behind and made America your country. What other country would give this much leeway to its citizens and non-citizens?

    If my father were able to speak English fluently (and my mother) after arriving from Mexico, so should this lady. There can be lots of misunderstandings in politics if she is unable to understand what is being said to her, and I would certainly be upset as hell if my taxpayer money would go to pay for a translator because she's unable (or unwilling) to learn english.

    So she better continue practicing her English. I love my Mexican heritage, but I love my country even more. She should respect that.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      Very well said and I agree with you 100%. How far would

      February 9, 2012 at 4:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      Very well said and I agree with you 100%. How far would would I get in Mexico only speaking english and what little spanish I do know would get me into a lot of fights and even killed there.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:27 am | Report abuse |
    • MexAm201

      Excellent view. I wish more Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants would take the same viewpoint.

      February 9, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
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