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. joxer

    I do not hire or use spanish speaking services. I have in the past but when there is a misunderstanding and you thought you agreed on a price or contract they try to say that's not the case total misunderstanding no recourse or hard to get no speake engla. What a hassle. I'll stick to English speakking business from now on.

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

      You know there's an App for that, right?

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

      Thanks I'll check it out

      February 9, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
  2. tired of it all

    I agree with the court. With a lack of proficiency in the English language, she will be faced with extreme difficulties when dealing with reading/ understanding / interpretation / or comprehensive discussion of rules, regulations, and laws. English is the defacto language of the US and therefore one should be proficient with the language if one is to serve in public office.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
  3. Will Logan

    The ruling is legally incorrect. The 1910 Enabling Act refers specifically to "state officer and members of the state legislature", it is not applicable to local officials. In San Louis, where amost everybody speaks both Spanish and English, she would be able to perform her function as a member of city council without any difficulty. Put her on the ballot. If the citizens of San Luis want her to represent them, that is their right.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
  4. wishuwhrme

    i agree with the judge, you need to be able to speak and write english well to be in an elected office. this is americia, we speak ENGLISH, if she or others wants spanish speaking people in office take your butt back to where you come from, its like where i live the hispanics and somalis dont speak or understand english until it will benefit them. if she wants to be in office she needs to be able to speak with the people, not everyone in her community speaks spanish, so it makes sense to be fluent in english. hopefully by the next election she will have fixed her problem.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
    • SHRIKE

      "take her butt back to where she came from"

      You must've missed the part where she was born in Yuma, Arizona.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
  5. SGT J

    I am completely ok with this. The sad part is she cannot even say the name of the School she graduated from! That school should immediately become an "F" rated school and lose all funding! Ok maybe not all funding, but how the heck did they graduate a student without them being able to master basic English skills. I'm appalled.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
    • state university student

      I'm sure she got a D in ESL which is "good enough" to graduate. So when she said her English is "good enough" for the community, she is basically saying these people are not better than her. Therefore, she will represent them and will help the kids of the community to learn English as good as her.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Juan Torres

    El juez se cree la gran gagada. Es racista culero joto y estupido.

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


      February 9, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
  7. Tiger Yorktown

    Let the voters decide. If they think she cannot do her job because of her lack of proficiency in a particular language, then let them vote for someone else. I am shocked that this is a requirement for public office. You can be President and not speak a single word of English (and be a convicted felon) but the office she is running for has higher requirements than that? If this happened in another country we would be claiming foul!

    February 9, 2012 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  8. Greg

    Were there any requirements for The Founding Fathers to serve, other than being rich and white? I do believe there should be some sort of standards for not only holding public office, but also citizenship... but if someone on the council doesn't understand a legal term or procedure, I would hope that the council has the ability to ask a lawyer or judge to translate from the legal jargon to layman's terms where an informed decision could be made, and in that respect, what is the difference? That said, I hope that a majority of 98.7% residents will add her name to the ballot if that is their choice... if a judge then ignores the will of the people and her right to serve as a duly elected citizen, THAT would be judicial activism. Of course with it being hispanics keeping other hispanics from serving, this could just be a case of small town politics.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
  9. maxtait

    I am a liberal Democrat. Proud of it. I agree. All immigrants need to learn to speak English. On my soccer team I 5 or 6 illegal hispanics. (adult league). The most successful one is the one who's English is the best. (He also agrees that immigrants need to speak English.) My best friend is an immigrant from Poland. He came here speaking no English about 14 years ago speaking no English. He agrees you need to learn to speak English. I have another good friend who came here from Belgium. He agrees you need to learn to speak English. A common language unifies cultures. Look at Belgium. Three languages they were without a government for 3 years. Look at Canada. Qebec is constantly talking about seceding. When I am with my friends I hear some Spanish, Polish, Hmong but they all agree how important it is that everybody learns English.

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

      oops writing too fast without proofreading forgive the mistakes. Belgium was without a government for 14 months.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
  10. joxer

    While I'm on the subject how did she even graduate from an American school without learning english? If she can remember where she graduated from that school should be shut down.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  11. Dirk

    Who said her understanding of English was poor? It said she is unable to say the name of her High School not that she doesn't understand what was said. I agree it could be a burden, but if someone decides to vote for her and she wins that is the choice voters made. To me this is no different than saying you can't be on the ballot because you have the wrong skin color or your eyes are slanted the wrong way or you listen to the wrong music, etc. Where does it end? It's pathetic.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:03 am | Report abuse |
  12. Suzanne

    I would just like to understand the thinking of those who constantly talk about how we "stole" the land from the Indians. Obviously, that was horrific. However, at that point in history that is how land was claimed. It also happened all over Europe and actually still happens in parts of the Middle East. You can learn from history, but you cannot go back 200+ years and use the actions of those people to argue against issues today. That is completely ridiculous. What happened to the Native Americans cannot be forgotten, but that is not a valid argument for allowing illegal immigration today. I do not want to see anyone suffer like the family in this article. However, it is a steep and slippery slope when you start justifying the breaking of some laws. Sadly, this path was started for her when her parents chose to enter the country illegally. Reforms in the system may be necessary, but the system itself is not at fault.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:10 am | Report abuse |
  13. Jason

    My ancestors are from Denmark. My grandparents taught themselves English and arrived here after waiting many years for a LEGAL entry. They understood the importance of unity and a common language. Not a common COLOR or NATIONALITY but a common LANGUAGE. Is it too much to ask that your neighbor-or even a CITY OFFICIAL be competent enough to report a crime, read a street sign or even speak for themselves when they need help? Or god forbid if YOU need help? I don't think it should be a matter of pride or culture anyways, being as SPANISH is just as European as English and is surely NOT the mexicans language.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
  14. JC

    First and foremost, language grants access. The burden is not on the English-speaking residents of the town to learn Spanish, but rather on the Hispanic residents to learn English. Why should it be that way? Well, there were a couple of wars that sorted that out. The winners spoke English. That said, a city council position is not a state office, and frankly, I don't see that the court in question had any jurisdiction to hear the case; it should have been thrown out on those grounds alone. If the state I live in tried to muscle into a city council contest, there would be shots exchanged. The issue of Hispanic versus Hispanic is common in the west, where many civil service jobs are held by descendants of immigrants, or by the few of Spanish or Mexican families that predate the formation of states, and have managed to hold out through the process by learning to speak English. These established Hispanics can be quite conservative, and generally do not see eye to eye. I don't see a US appeals court upholding this sort of ruling, especially not from Arizona. It's probably accurate to say that by the time this issue irons itself out, the woman in question will have a much better grasp of English than she does currently.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Cyn

      First, it was appealed at the state level by Ms. Cabrera, AFTER it was heard at a lower court. Secondly, City Council is not a state seat, but it is a government seat, so they have to abide by State and Federal statutes as well when it comes to election law.

      in 1910, Congress passed the Enabling Act: "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 in all, I agree, if you want to run for a government office, you should speak the language of the country...official or unofficial, English is our language. It would be hard for Ms. Cabrera to serve as a council woman if she is unable to speak English. I know this as, I spent 4 years on a city council.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  15. rapierpoint

    Well, while "candidate doesn't necessarily need to have full English proficiency to run for office" is maybe true, if elected, the candidate does have to have proficiency so it could invalidate the election. As far as letting the voters decide, the voters elect their officials, and their officials make the laws, so if the electorate has a problem with it, vote in people so it can be changed.

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