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. Dakota2000

    The John Nelson, the Judge in this case, should have been wearing a white hood instead of judicial robes.

    Has it occurred to anyone that this is identical to "literacy tests" in times past that kept blacks from voting in the South?
    To actually discus if this woman "speaks english good[sic] enough" to hold office is to buy into the Racist Arizona Legislator's reinstatement of "jim crow" against mexican americans.

    Most Arizona legislator's do not have a high school diploma.
    The Governor herself cannot form a grammatically correct sentence. But she is White so it is All right.

    Arizona may be the most racist state in the union.

    February 9, 2012 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      Sad, but you must always remember this is a white dominated country built by the Europeans not Hispanics......Your just visiting and reaping the rewards of a European (including Spain that looks down on Hispanics) built community. Consider yourself lucky for your cultural evironment of white European.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Dakota2000

      Well, I am certainly not hispanic, sorry to burst your bubble. But I do know racism when I smell it.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Ed Sr of Dallas Tx

    Either speak our native language or GO HOME. You don't want to speak American because you don't really want to be an American. GO HOME and be what you rally want to be. You cannot change us here....we want you to change here!

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

      Ah Ed, playing the master race card again. Anyone who cannot speak "english" is stupid so send them home. If only that was the position our fore fathers took then perhaps America would not be what it is today.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
  3. rjtx

    More garbage from the fascist State of Arizona. For the town she is running in, her English skills are not that important and this is ridiculous. I'm Anglo and do not speak Spanish and I can understand here just fine. I used to live in AZ, sure glad I don't now, what a hateful and intolerant place it has become.

    February 9, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      Anglos are niave' also........

      February 9, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
    • AKS74NU

      And we are glad to have you gone! Intolerance is a strong word however somewhat appropriate. We are intolerant of people who come to our country and abuse it or leach off of it, yes, you are correct. We are also intolerant of people who do not have the personal ambition to learn the most common language on the planet, the PRIMARY language of their own birth country, and the language required to be spoken and understood fluently by Govt officials per state law. Label this intolerance if you would like, however I call it being American and standing up for what is right and being cognizant of what my tax dollars are used on.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  4. Dakota2000

    Where is the SPINELESS ACLU? Probably off defending some nonsensical unimportant issue.

    Where is the Souther Poverty Law Center?

    Morris we done did need you now!

    February 9, 2012 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  5. crappy name

    If she was raised in the united states and does not speak english then she doesn't want to be an american anyways. When this woman went to school? schools did not have a spanish program for non-english speaking people. So I think that I.C.E. should make sure that her I.D. is not stolen or from a dead person. there is no way that she went to school and does not know basic english. Good job for the court to rule like this. little bit by little bit we WILL take this country back.

    February 9, 2012 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
    • jj

      English immersion in the schools would do it.

      February 9, 2012 at 11:49 am | Report abuse |
  6. jj

    Good decision. Someone elected to office in the U.S. needs to speak fluent English. They can also speak as many other languages as they want as long as they can speak English.

    February 9, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  7. Paul

    Yes, of course the court is 100% correct.....She should go back to Mexico and run for office; they really need her !

    February 9, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  8. Dakota2000

    In 200 years when the US has failed and the Chinese say that "english is the language of the Ghetto" our decedents will have a different perspective.

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

      What an interesting comment!!! ........................ wait what?

      February 9, 2012 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Thelemech

      If the US maintains it's military might then she will have more than 200 years to keep China in it's place. Besides I think you should be more concerned about your old enemy Russia in the future, especially with men like Putin in power

      February 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alexander


      February 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dakota2000

      You must be joking? Republican/Democrats Gays/Hetros Anglo/Hispanics White/Black Conservatives/Progressives

      Those are not the enemies. We are embroiled in stupid internal conflict while our "enemies" are laughing all the way to the bank. There is no hope. 學好中國現在

      February 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ellie Lightt

      Bravo – finally- English – learn it – we speak ENGLISH IN THE US NOT SPANGLEESH....... we had the same problem in the Army it dang near got us killed ( we were under fire in Iraq )when our Squad Leader got excited he started speaking fast Puerto Rican – all hell broke loose no one in the squad could understand him it caused 2 guys to get wounded pretty bad, they were medivaced luckly they survived to make it back home – after that the squad leader got a desk job in the rear – funny thing was he had taken several manditory "English as a second language" classes due to his poor english – he should of never been let into the Army much less been put in charge of a squad

      February 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      200 years ago the US was a primarily english speaking country. We still are. We may come in different nationalities and colors but we need a common communication tool. English was and remains the dominant language. Be you African, Chinese, Swedish, Russian, French, German etc–everyone seems to know and tries to communicate in English EXCEPT hispanics. Rome was an empire that fell basically due to failure in communication–their biggest mistake? Allowing many lands they conquered to retain and utilize separate languages so that in the end, they neither understood or trusted one another. 200 years from now–it is hopeful we finally learn the unification OR division of language and find one we ALL can use proficiently.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Russell

    First and for most in any argument "the law is the law" is completely useless and invalid as laws are only laws until they are changed. And history throughout has proven that laws are not necessarily on the correct side of justice, civil right nor proper morality. Secondly, she does not have a disrespect for the English Language, in fact, it could be argued she has more respect for our country than majority of the Americans who choose to ignore realities of what is going on in our country on a day to day basis and never try to do something about it- Not to mention that she has a private tutor so she is taking learning English serious. Thirdly, it should be up to the voters- not the courts- to ever determine if someone is capable or not of representing them. Lastly, you all need to recognize that this woman graduated from an American High School in Arizona. The biggest outrage should come from the question of how someone of any sort could graduate high school with that low of English ability. The answer to the previous question is because our schools systems, especially for the poor and the minorities are geared as babysitting services and pushing cattle through the door as opposed to education. This is a poor decision by the ever-more-clear racist state of Arizona and unless this article is severely incomplete, it looks as though because she struggled pronouncing her High School 3 consecutive times this is how the decision was made. That cannot be fair analysis.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. JV

    How can anyone argue against this ruling? I cannot understand your weak reasoning, because it does not come from common sense. It comes from having an inferiority complex, and if you wear that shoe, that is your personal problem. America is America and we speak english. Any other language is for your personal use at home or a handy tool to use if you travel. I personally speak a good conversational Russian and Spanish. My children are half Mexican and my wife is Russian.
    The evasion by illegal Mexican citizens and their undeterred mass breeding is what has injected Spanish as almost a second language. Not to mention the crap holes the southern border states/cities have become. May I add everything single one of those border cities are the absolute pits of the US. For what the illegal Mexican population has done to the most southern part of America, they should feel inferior. Because it shows they are closer to a human animal than the civilized person. Why sugars coat it? You can’t fix the problem if you keep ignoring it.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • DividedWeStand

      I have to agree with you. My family speaks English, German, and Spanish...but this is the United States. How can you have a country work efficiently with multiple "first" languages? If people can't communicate effectively you can't be productive, end of story. We're all free to speak other languages and I encourage everyone to do so.
      But Mexican citizens did infact flood the southern states, mass produce, and now are demanding all sorts of rights and handouts because they feel that they are at a disadvantage. Here's an idea...stop turning every town you touch into the barrio, learn english, and hop aboard the train that the rest of us have been working on instead of working against the country to prove some sort of point.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • JV

      The inferiority complex I was taking about. People only call other people names when they are trying to make themselves feel better about who or what they are.. Do you feel better? Good, it goes along with the inferior complex you obviously have. Again.. Your personal problem. I said nothing, but what is blatantly obvious, and it does not matter what angle you are looking from.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Milo

      By your logic Native Americans would not have the right to conduct meetings and ceremonies in their own language that has been spoken here much longer than english.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bigger Picture

      @masterrace; why do you insist on making a race war out of this? That is not what JV said; granted he used some pretty strong words but he did not imply any of your accusations. Frankly, based on experiences that I have had over the last several years I think that there is some truth to his statement.
      To give you an example: only yesterday I received a call from a lady asking whether or not we "accepted resumees for bilingual receptionists", her exact words. My response: "no thank you, we already have bilingual staff". To this she says "you don't sound like you speak spanish" and I could not help myself to tell her "you didn't say anything about spanish, you said bilingual, which I am". I could have been mean to that young lady and continued to tell her that in fact I am trilingual (english, german, italian); I could have told her that if she does not comprehend the word "bilingual" meaning "command of two languages" instead of "spanish/english" and if she cannot get that difference she's not smart enough to work in an office. However, I wished her a nice day and hung up.
      What I am trying to tell you is that there is an arrogance about this whole topic that is beginning to grade on the nerves of people. If such instances would only be once every few years I'd forget about it; but it happens on a weekly basis. I think for you to accuse others of enticing "race wars" just because they express their frustration is passive agressive and not helping resolve this problem.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sue

      Masterrace, he implies no such thing. We MUST have a common language to maintain our integrity as a country. But I also think it's great if people can speak more than one.

      All she has to do is continue working on her English skills then run when she is more competent. Some people in the district she wants to serve may actually not speak Spanish. Plus she must be able to communicate well with other elected officials in order to effectively serve her community. How can she convey their needs back to city council if her English is not proficient.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Bigger Picture–if this kind of daily occurrence grates on your nerves then imagine the kind of anger and irritation blacks and other minorities have when whites say, do or judge an entire race on the acts of a few and put up with it for LIFE. Take your few days and multiply it by YEARS and you will know what kind of things grate on THEIR nerves.

      On this issue–we all need to speak the same language and that is easily English given that is the dominant language spoken. But when speaking of "racist remarks" what is a nerve grater to you and not a racist issue, over years of that kind of treatment and doled out to only a few groups–such treatment really does seem racist and it goes from grating to just scraping RAW on the nerves. Just sayin'

      February 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Want to live here...

    Speak English.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jack

    omg, she's terrible, all she needs to do is get a coach and work hard to improve her english, then come back later and try again, what's so hard about that? I think every single elected official in the United States should speak english, not a "li bit".

    February 9, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Peter Kramer

    She is clearly not qualified for public office anywhere in the USA! If she is a citizen, especially if naturalized, I expect that she learned to say the Pledge of Alliegance with its implied patriotic commitment to this country. It is one "nation under God". She has to show her commitment to being a citizen including the ability to use our langauage so that she herself can understand our culture and heritage that she is a part of. Then she can be regarded as qualified.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      You apparently didn't read the whole story. She was born in Arizona, so is citizen born. She moved, one assumes with her family, when quite young to Mexico. She returned to Arizona to finish high school.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Harley

    The reason everyone needs to be on the same page in terms of language when in a political office is to maintain open communication. Using multiple languages creates barriers between people and can be used to mask true intentions. That is not to say se has something to hide, just that is part of the point. As most residents speak Spanish, I'd say that Spanish would be an acceptable language to conduct that city's business in EXCEPT in cases where there is an interaction between that city and other levels of government as English is still the norm fo those governing bodies.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Listen up you Ignoramuses!

    People of German decent have always made up the biggest portion of the population of the US since the 1790 census.
    Followed by Africans.

    Read the census results and now how profoundly ignorant y'all are.

    By all rights, German should be the national language, followed by French (in honor of the west Africans).

    Y'all been hoodwinked, bamboozled, the wool has been pull over your eyes. A small minority of people have forced you to speak their language.

    Your mother tongue has been ripped from you mouth. Now you use the Master's tongue to spout bigotry and hatred toward non-english speakers.

    "massa be right proud of y'all.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • HR

      I'm pretty sure the first people to come over to the United States were from England, that's why we speak ENGLISH!

      I'm not German, I'm Irish, Scottish and English. Quit generalizing...

      The fact of the matter is that this woman wasn't able to communicate in English something as simple as where she went to high school. Even though the majority of the people in her town may speak Spanish, government officials need to be able to communicate in English. Otherwise our Congress and Senate will end up looking like the UN with interpreters everywhere. I think she should improve her English and try again.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wastrel

      Heh. I'm of German descent, and my grandparents studied English and practiced it around the house, and became citizens. That is the way it should be. The idea that French is the native language of West Africa is likewise absurd.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Punkass

      So by the same token, Mexicans shouldnt be speaking Spanish. I mean, they were forced to give up their native tongue and religon by the Spanish so why do they ahve so much pride in speaking it? Also your assertion that the majority of the population in America is German is asinine. You sir are the ignorant one. Even if that is true, they all learned to speak English so your point is pathetic as well as asinine.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Milo

      HR said "I'm pretty sure the first people to come over to the United States were from England, that's why we speak ENGLISH!" Only if you think Native Americans are not people and Columbus was not from Spain.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Actually YOU have some misinformation. The colonization of Africa by France took place well after the majority of Africans had already been shipped here. The language to be spoken was either Dutch , English or German and it appears none at the problems of resolving which one to speak until we got to the Hispanics.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • queenbee

      Milo–Cristobal Columbus was from Genoa Italy. He went to Spain and sailed under that flag after he was denied financing in Italy. Thank you for playing.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • CosmicC

      For a period of time in the 19th century German was more common than English in the US.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • CosmicC

      Let's not forget that the Vikings preceeded Columbus by 500 years. If it weren't for a series of really cold winters we could be speaking Scandanavian right now.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
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