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. gggg

    I agree with the court this time. If I moved to France I'd be expected to learn french. If I moved to Spain, I'd be expected to learn Spanish. And that would just be for everyday living. If someone can not be bothered to learn the language of the country they live in well enough to conduct the everyday business of living in that language, then that country should be allowed to exclude them from holding office. They have to be able to communicate FLUENTLY in the language of the country. Now, to everyone else, what is the other name of atomic energy. If you said nucular (no such word) you too should be excluded from politics (Bush should have been excluded based on this). If you said nuclear, congratulations on your candidacy. For those having difficulty with the word. First say NEW. Now say CLEAR. Now put them together NEW CLEAR. Now say it fast NUCLEAR. If you can't do this, you may be very intelligent, but you sound like an idiot.

    February 9, 2012 at 8:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      If you moved to France, you would not be expected to learn French... Similarly in Spain. I hate to tell you but those two countries blend at their borders just like the US/Mexico. I can only assume you live in the middle of the US as evidenced by your ignorance.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
    • oete

      Never mind the English issue. How many residents there are illegal?

      February 9, 2012 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
  2. Raul

    You know, I am Hispanic myself but if you are going to be in some type of position with any kind power or importance... especially political importance you need to have excellent proficiency in the English language.

    February 9, 2012 at 8:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      why would you? english is not our official language. if she wasn't qualified enough, shouldn't that be up to the voters to decide? what kind of democracy are we running? what kind of democracy did i fight for?

      February 9, 2012 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
    • whimsicalpig

      bruce, your seem to be oblivious to the need for a cultural cohesion that strengthens and enervates a society.

      europe has, itself, after many years of trying, concluded that multiculturalism is a bust and a non-funtioning construct of the university intelligentia.

      give it a rest and realize that by accident, english was and should remain the language of this nation just as spanish is the language of mexico.

      if you want to spend your life speaking spanish, maybe a choice of a nation that speaks spanish would be more to your liking,

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

      to whimsicalpig...Totally agree! Even though English is not the official language of the U.S. (we don't have one), Spanish should not be regarded as the official language any more than German, or French, or Italian or......Who gets to pay for her interpreter? The taxpayers? I am sure if she were elected that would the next item on the court's agenda!

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

      To Bruce: She is excluding herself by not knowing the language. THAT is her only barrier. It makes no sense to have a leader that cannot convey her message to citizens effectively. There is nothing anti-PC here nor prejudice taking place. IF she is intelligent then she will adequately learn the language and try again. Quit making issues where there is none.

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

      @Bruce The voters did decide, when they elected the officials who passed the state law requiring her to be proficient in English. If she wants any chance at all then she needs to take the validity of the law to the US supreme court.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
  3. James

    It is about time. We have an official language; ENGLISH. She should have stayed in school in the US. For some reason we cannot wrap our collective heads around certain words in this country like illegal. "Illegal immigrant" it is right there. Why do we as nation make special exceptions for Mexican immigrants, but not for any other country? I support AZ in the decisions it has made to rid itself of the parasites in their state. Do it like my family...legally. If you are illegal you should be deported, and if found in our country again, you should be treated as a national threat.

    February 9, 2012 at 8:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Billl

      Um, if you can read English- she is a US citizen. She was born here- in Yuma, AZ. So we can dispense with the immigrant bashing and racism, thank you very much.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:12 am | Report abuse |
    • huh?

      Bill, this is not racist. Please stop your bleeding heart non-sense.

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

      I agree that English should be the proficient language. As a student, I was taught English as the primary language at school. I took many years of it in fact. If she was in the US schools, and decided to go back to Mexico for a short time, and then returned, you would expect that this teaching would have occurred. Now she has been in this country for (didnt catch her age) many years, and yet she did not take it upon herself to re-learn the language of the country in which she lived! and now she is hiring a private tutor to teach her what she didnt want to learn in the beginning??? I for one believe that AZ is doing what they feel MUST be done to reinforce this fact.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
    • whimsicalpig

      bill

      this is even worse, if she was born here why would she be proficient in spanish and not english

      do you understand how bad this is. it is a direct indictment against any sort of accommodation of spanish in any of our functions. why wasn't she proficient in english if she graduated from a us high school, just what are they teaching in that school – that should be the question here–

      February 9, 2012 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  4. Perry

    OK, so her English isn't the best (neither was George W. Bush's) ... however, it's not for the court to decide. If the people of the county want to elect somebody with limited English skills, that's their decision. Let the election decide.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  5. Carol A. Strickland

    I admire the woman's determination to serve her community, but that determination should also be aimed at learning English much more fluently in the near future. She should take one of those immersion computer courses and/or take as many English classes as she can. English is essential in such a job, but her Spanish is as well. I hope to hear that she's listed on her local ballot in a future election!

    February 9, 2012 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  6. Henry

    Lady, if you don't speak the language, how are you going to serve (anything or anyone)? Glad that a least a judge still has some common sense.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
  7. Bruce

    Goos for the judge, stop hispandering.

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

    If you live in the U.S. and want to hold any public office in this country, then you should be fluent in the language of the country where you want to hold public office. I'm quite certain that if I moved to a European country (other than the U.K.) and wanted to run for public office I would have to be fluent in the language of that country.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
    • James70094

      Actually, no. Many counries allow you to run for office as long as you speak a common language, like English. Now, getting elected is a different matter.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Phillyjer

    Most of the posts focus on the ability to speak English. The greater concern should be her ability to read, comprehend and write in English. Most business within the US write their contracts in English. I would assume the local government also uses English as the primary language for contracts and other legal docments.
    For her to carry out her fiduciary duties, she would have to be able to understand and communicate effectively.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
  10. Josephine

    Bjorn O- Arnold Schwarzenegger did not speak English but...

    Arnold Schwarzenegger's English is even worse.....but...
    When Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian native was elected governor of California, his English is terrible., still is and nobody questioned that.That's call RACISM against Latinos, one was white European, and this lady who was born here is brown. Tthis article certainly is to stir up even more racial animosity against Latinos. Good Job CNN.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Dr. Prof. Potato, MD, PhD, DDS

      Arnold Schwarzenegger's ENGLISH was poor. He anread, write, and recall the name of his school.

      We are talking about a woman who cannot speak or understand English.

      No racism. Just you race baiting.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
    • jnpa

      Hey Josephine...You are sooooo WRONG! Play the race card much?

      February 9, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
    • whimsicalpig

      arnold din't need an interpreter and he wasn't even the product of our school systems, she was and she still chose to be more proficient inspanish than in the language of her country.

      that doesn't sound like the type of person I would want representing me, she doesn't even feel compelled to become an american, she chooses, instead to be a Hispanic-american. quite a difference in state of mind to me and I think her reference point would be not in my best interest.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Common Sense

      Schwarzenegger's comprehension was pretty good but does have a heavy accent.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
  11. joxer

    OMG!! SHE DOESNT KNOW THE AMERICAN SCHOOL'S NAME WHERE SHE GRADUATED FROM!! can she read road signs? how many accidents are caused by latinos unable to read a road sign. just wondering.

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

      how many accidents are caused by grongos unable to obey a road sign. just wondering.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
    • James70094

      She does know the name of the school, she has difficulty saying it in English.

      Road signs are designed to be understood without language. That's why they are the shape and color they are. If you travel to another country, you will realize this. I have driven in countries where I don'y speak the language with no problem.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Dr. Prof. Potato, MD, PhD, DDS

    She needed an interpreter for the hearing.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
  13. Dr. Prof. Potato, MD, PhD, DDS

    THIS IS AMERICA! WE SPEAK AMERICAN!

    Hahahahaha!

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

      That would be US English

      February 9, 2012 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  14. more racial animosity against Latinos

    The issue is not the language; the main problem is attacking Latinos, stereotyping Latinos to the max. In the past we elected many Politicians whose English is worse than a 5th grader. The ones, who speak relatively good English, turn out to be bad politicians. Everything is relative.

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

      OMG!! SHE DOESNT KNOW THE AMERICAN SCHOOL'S NAME WHERE SHE GRADUATED FROM!! can she read road signs? how many accidents are caused by latinos unable to read a road sign. just wondering

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

      Joxer, much fewer accidents than hate crimes that are caused by bigotted remarks, such as the one you made.

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

      people are not ganging up on latinos, if you think they are, then you should educate them. the problem is you have to be able to speak to EVERYONE not just the "latinos" or your race or just to your native tongue. so stop playing the race card and except the fact proper and fluent english makes sense when you are dealing with the public, if you are as smart as you think you are then you should understand. black people or most black people i know stop playing the race card that does not mean that ya'll get to pick it up and use it. latinos where not slaves and brought here, if they dont like our laws go back to where you are from, more than likely they are here illegally so they dont count and they pointless and worthless

      February 9, 2012 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
    • joxer

      How are my remarks bigoted SHE DOES NOT KNOW WHERE SHE GRADUATED FROM!! Who does not know where they went to high school? amnesia victims and they should not hold positions in usa gov. and I would like to see a poll or something about percentages of all non english persons ratio of accidents because they don'y understand to yield or stop.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
    • chefdugan

      They ought to deport her. She is the poster child for why Mexicans ought to stay home or be sent home. The very fact that she can't s speak English (on top of being rather stupid) makes a good point for putting up a fifty foot high fence and shooting anyone that gets over it. They are currupting our culture and it needs to be stopped.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
    • James70094

      The Racial bias against Latinos by Latinos should end.

      Juan Carlos Escamilla only used this as an excuse to keep her off the ballot. Juan Carlos Escamilla is the person leading the charge against this woman on an issue that the people should be able to decide on. That's what voting is, people deciding who is best qualified to represent them.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
    • James70094

      @chefdugan, she was boen in Yuma. That's here in the U.S.A. Maybe you should be deported for failing to comprehend what you read.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
    • joxer

      @james SHE DOES NOT KNOW WHERE SHE GRADUATED FROM. do you think that is picking on latino's how many of your latino friend's do not know where they graduated from. also she was born here and does not know english why? does she hate America or is just stupid I'm going with the latter. for the reasons in my first sentence..

      February 9, 2012 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • James70094

      @joxer, She does know where she graduated form. She has trouble commincating it in English. There is a big difference between the two. If you had reading comprehension skills of a 5th grader you would know that.

      My point was that it is a Latino who started this attack against her, while the post I originally replied to suggested it was otherwise.

      I will go further to state that I know several people who have difficulty with certain words and verbalizing them. These are not immigrants, they are people with speech impediments.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Comonsns

    Songlian....how come you want every post deleted that you dont agree with??

    February 9, 2012 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56