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. s

    if it were only a matter of having to communicate with voters, english proficiency would still be a problem. while most of the voters may be of hispanic origin, that does not mean they speak spanish fluently. i am of italian and german origin, i don't speak german fluently. of the 87% that speak a language other than english at home, some will speak spanish, some will not. how would she communicate with those who do not? being elected by a majority of voters in san luis is well and good, but she would have to then serve ALL of the voters while in office. an interesting thing to find out would be how many of the 87% don't speak spanish at home. presumably, like any other city in the country, there are ppl from countries other than mexico that have immigrated to the U.S. and ended up in san luis. what language, other than english OR spanish, do some of that 87% speak? consider the function of a city council. these officials are not insulated from the rest of the state or country. at times it will be necessary to be able to communicate with officials or businessmen from other cities/states, who may or may not be fluent in spanish. while a council member may be considered to be primarily responsible to his/her own district, the council en masse is responsible for the city as a whole; the city as a whole does not consist of ONLY spanish speaking ppl. another interesting question: of those who say that they speak both spanish and english, how fluent are they in either language? "Most of the people there, by all accounts, speak both English and Spanish." yes, but HOW WELL do they speak either? i can say that my italian is "good enough", i am not "going to help at" the parliament; i could also go to italy with my "good enough" italian and insult the crap out of the native population with every other word out of my mouth. i don't disagree that there needs to be some standard in place; if arizona says that english is their official language, and it's necessary to be fluent in english to hold public office, there needs to be a way to determine a person's proficiency, reading, writing and speaking english. if there is some standard this woman is going to be held to, it needs to be applied to all other elected officials, so they better get to work coming up with exactly what those standards are and be sure that they apply them retroactively.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
    • LEARN IT

      ROSETTA STONE : ENGLISH VERSION

      February 9, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
  2. Tanker

    I can not imagine serving in a government where you do not fully understand the language law, policy, and regulations are written in.

    This decision was a no-brainer.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
  3. me

    BUSH didn't KNOW a LICK of English and he became President!! BIGOTS.. Arizona should just POOF disappear and I bet the nation's economy will flourish!

    February 9, 2012 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
    • LOL@idiotabove

      Knowing English and using English are two different things.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mike McKenna

    Presumably the rule applies to Blind and deaf people as well.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  5. rtbrno65

    They must know that she would have won.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  6. mike tucker

    If she can't speak English how can she expect to participate in complicated government business discussions that are held in English? Right decision. If Hispanics are so concerned about not being able to speak the language then they should organize within themselves and teach themselves. It is wrong of them to expect legal Americans to pay for them to learn the language when most are here illegally. This particular person, as a legal American, made the choice not to learn the language and now she expects to be babied for it. Grow up Hispanics. Take responsiblity for yoursleves. Just like legal Americans have had to do for centuries, suck it up, get over and figure out how YOU can make YOUR life better. And if you don't like it here or it don't work for you here go somewhere else.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
  7. joxer

    Did she have to fill out an application of employment? Was it in spanish just wondering. mabey it shows where she graduated from. she can study it and retake the test

    February 9, 2012 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
  8. JOSE0311USMC

    I KNOW WHAT SHE WAS THINKING, HER PART OF THE TOWN WHERE SHE LIVE IS ALL MEXICANS , SO SHE PROBABLY FIGURE THAT SPANISH IS GOOD ENOUGH. LOL..

    February 9, 2012 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
  9. JOSE0311USMC

    WHAT WOULD CHINA DO IF THEY HAD MILLIONS OF ILLEGALS CROSSING THEIR BORDERS , LIKE AMERICA ?

    February 9, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
    • joxer

      Shoot'em just kidding kind of. they would be arrested interogated and either deported or shot

      February 9, 2012 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
    • joxer

      FYI Most Asian country's people take english language classes in preperation of coming her either to visit or move here. Why are latino's so disrespectfull when they are giving everything handed to them they do not want to learn the language of the country who is supporting them.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
    • vintage274

      In China, unlike the U.S., there are a number of native languages. There is no "Chinese" language, although Mandarin is the accepted language for official use. Most Chinese speak Mandarin in addition to their native tongue. You're talking apples and oranges, my friend.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Dakota2000

      I am glad to know we still have moral authority over China.. you know... the place where they run over their own people with tanks.

      Thanks for point that out.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
    • chena

      What would ANY REASONABLE country do if they thousands/millions of illegals crossing their border....secure the border with their MILITARY.....

      February 9, 2012 at 11:49 am | Report abuse |
  10. Dan G.

    How do people get to become citizens let alone a local government official when an interpreter is needed just to figure out what’s going on if someone is speaking English.

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

      She was born here. which is even more stunning that she does not know english. Is she stupid or just giving the USA the finger. either way she should not hold any public position

      February 9, 2012 at 11:00 am | Report abuse |
    • jj

      English immersion in the schools would solve the problem.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Lee

      Joxer – she was born here, but moved to Mexico as a child and did not return until 2nd year of HS. Still, she should be able to communicate quite fluidly in English.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
  11. J.A.T.

    II commend her interest in wanting to hold a public office and serve her community, but I think the judge made the right call. English isn't the official language of the United States, but it is the official language of Arizona. The law is the law, and we should respect it. If she continues to improve her proficiency in English, then she will have no issues running for City Council the next time around.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  12. RayFerguson

    It is not surprising that this is an inflammed debate, however, this is actually not an issue of language proficiency, it is a matter legality. Are there valid laws in the state of Arizona which state that language proficiency is an aspect of candidate qualification. If in fact, there is no such law, then what happened was called judicial activism. When a sitting judge decides to "make" law from the bench. If no such law in existences in Arizona, then this is a case to be validedly raised to the U.S. Supreme Court. A state may not enact a law that restricts rights/ or is in direct conflict with federal law. A Supreme Court challenge would be a very dangerous place for the state of Arizona. The current sitting bench has a history of making decisions that apply to the letter of the law. I have no value judgement to offer about "right or wrong" of national language choice.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
    • vintage274

      Did you read the whole article? "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."

      February 9, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
  13. Dan G.

    This is a perfect example of what is wrong with our immigration laws. They allow people to become citizens without speaking the language or assimilating into the population. If she wants to live in a Spanish speaking country she has plenty of places to go.

    February 9, 2012 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Dakota2000

      Idiot: she is a US citizen by birth. Oh, your mama call, your white hood is ready to be picked up at the dry cleaners.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
    • lolapalooza

      She is indeed an American Citizen who was raised in MExico! I was also born in the united States but lived all over the world! I am fluent in 4 languages and my parents made sure I was proficient in English!

      February 9, 2012 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
  14. marc

    She couldn't even give the interview to CNN in English I'm glad they didn't put her on the ballot. This is America not Mexico if she wants to be in a position here that's as important as being on the City Council then she needs to learn to speak English. If I was in Mexico and wanted the same position but my Spanish wasn't good they would do the same thing to me.

    February 9, 2012 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
  15. pitung

    I do not understand why many Latinos are not willing to improve their English. Maybe it is our own (Americas) fault for not passing the ballot of having English as the national and only language spoken in the country. If this bill pass, everybody who wants to live here must know to to speak English and there will be no more laguage problems.

    February 9, 2012 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • masterrace

      Ah yes let's play the "English" is the end all be all of languages. It is only a form of communication people. You people talk like "God" meant everyone to speak only "English" or else you go to hell. You are such idiots. In Europe most people speak several languages so they must be idiots, since English is not there first language!!!

      February 9, 2012 at 11:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Bigger Picture

      However, in Europe they have "official government language"; meaning all legal actions have to be in that language (in Germany its German, in France its french etc). That is the difference between Europe and America; here, you can get forms from court or the DMV in whatever language. While that is not a bad thing the problem is that America has no common denominator, i.e. language, which leads to wasteful insanity such as the story above. Basically, here, everyone just does what they want to do regardless of the consequences to society. In Europe people learn different languages for the purposes of achieving specific goals, mostly for business or education, but in the end, they tow the line and speak the country's official language. Hell, even most illegals over there got that message. Maybe because the people over there aren't cuddled like little children.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
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