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. mike o'farrell

    The importance of reading and speaking spoken English would be critical for a government official who is involved in negotiating services and contracts for the city.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
  2. mike collins

    sounds like she "graduated" from a real top notch high school.

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

      Obviously she went to a High school (as many are becoming) who accomodated her in her own language instead of requiring her to become proficient in English.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dianne Aquilino

    At the turn of the 20th century waves and waves of immigrants landed at our shores. Do you think those who became citizens and ran for office dared to say their English was "good enough" to serve the Yiddish and Italian speaking people in their districts? No. If a person wants to represent her district properly she has to be read, write and speak well enough to understand ordinances and participate in council sessions.
    I am not denigrating this young woman's admirable desire to enter public service, but were I able to speak Lakota or Greek I would still need to be proficient in English. It is a basic qualification, but not the only one.There are plenty of English speaking fools I wouldn't dream of voting for. (Have you listened to the debates??)

    February 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
  4. 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 12:31 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Wastrel

    Hello! This is the US! All our laws are in English! If you want to go into politics, you will be involved with laws! You need to know English! Hello!

    February 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Veronica

    Let this be a lesson to the arrogant immigrants...legal & illegal..who come here and refuse to assimilate and learn the English language...please go home. If you really want to become part of the citizenry you will speak our common language and the schools that dumb down classes to accomodate you are not doing you any favors.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Punkass

    Most countries have one language that is officially recognized. You cant run a country where ppl have a hard time communicating because there are several dialects. The standard is English and that is it, learn it. Keep your heritage, teach your children the language of your home country but be respectful and learn English. Its sad we are even having this counversation. Imagine if you lived in Mexico and couldnt speak Spanish...how far do you think you would get? How many ppl would be understanding? How disrespected would Mexicans feel if you lived there for several years, never learned Spanish and tried to make other ppl speak to you in English?

    February 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. jack

    Everyone makes a valid point, I sure the hell wouldnt vote for her. But the decision should be left to the voters. If as a voter you think her English is bad, then dont vote for her. This is what a DEMOCRACY was founded on, where an individual makes the decision.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris R

      I agree entirely. The decision should be left up to the voters.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • dm3006

      Why is it that rules are only for Republicans and not Democrats! ....Officially, english has always been our national language and has been reiterated many times throughout our history! ...again, way to go AZ.!

      February 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • blucorsair

      So your saying that the illegals need a legitimate candidate too? ..get over it Democrats!

      February 9, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Coinneach Fitzpatrick

      dm3006, you're either lying or wrong. The US has no official language, not even English (which we don't speak anyway – it's a bizarre parody of English).

      February 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      dm3006: "Officially" the US has no national language, and never has been. Maybe you should do your research before making statements.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • ACe

      @ blucorsair..what part of this article did u not understand or read?

      She's "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."

      It's true in what they say conservatives are truly ignorant..

      February 9, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • NotYou

      Jack, apparently you also have a literacy problem as the woman is NOT an "illegal". She is a natural-born U.S. citizen who was raised for part of her childhood in Mexico.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • concjo

      Well, when you can't speak the "native" language, you alienate some of the people she represents that can't speak spanish. To me, this would not be an issue if we declared English as the national language and required everyone to speak it. PERIOD. There's no reason why we should have books in our schools in English/Spanish/Chinese/Sanscrit or whatever bs language. Most people speak English, learn and live here. Leave if you don't.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brendan

      Officially, there is NO national language.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • dm3006

      Coinneach Fitzpatrick; German, almost became our national language in the U.S. during our first congress, but the tie was broken by the vice president and english prevailed. Even though english was never thought to be needed as an official language for the U.S. at least 28 states including AZ. have adopted it as their official language! Six more states have legislation to adopt english as their official language which would be more than enough for a mandate. ...and yes we do speak a dialect of english here in the states! Please, get current or at least read in the article! ...again it's the law!

      February 9, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  9. SlayFalseGod

    So someone born in the US isnt allowed to run for office because they dont speak English ????
    Let the voters decide.

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

      Would you hire someone for your company as a Press Secretary or Sales Manager that is a mute?

      February 9, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bryan

    I have no problem with her running for office, but, if the laws of the city and state are only in English I think she could run into problems. Not to mention city council meetings. Saying all that, the population there is 98% Mexican heritage, for them not to be properly represented by someone that speaks their native tongue is a bit naive.

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

      I'm sure Juan Carlos escamilla can speak both. I can speak both you can be Hispanic and speak proficient English and Spanish. No one is saying they can't have a Spanish speaker, hey are saying it is probably a good idea for the elected official to also be able to communicate in English. George bush could speak both Spanish and English, how hard ca it be?

      February 9, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Kaci

    You can't blame the high school, because it's not the school's fault that it's so overcrowded and underfunded, especially in the poorer regions of the state.

    She needs to take it upon herself (like I try to teach my own students to do) to take responsibility for her own education. Go take an English class and come back next year!

    February 9, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mrs Marvel

    English is the language of the world.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • NotYou

      Actually, Chinese is.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. John

    Good. Common Sense for once! Language, Culture and boarders define a country. If you don't follow any of the three, it sucks to be you. If you want to run for office, learn english. It's as simple as that

    February 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • sinco

      Boarders? I think you mean borders. I guess you won't be running for office.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMT

      Here, Here! Anyone else supproting bad English for public offices are supporting illiteracy, regardless of "family history" and other such nonsense.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • TMC

      @JMT, as someone who opposes "bad English" and "illiteracy," why don't you know the expression is "hear, hear," not "here, here"?

      February 9, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. marta1464

    in a country where many different dialects in English are spoken, and isn't even proper English...if the voters have confidence in her and have no doubt that she can represent them, let them choose. it's plain speak, every day English, understood by the common person and that's what is most important.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  15. dmood

    Agree completly, estoy de acuerdo, It is pure laziness and absolute lack of ambition that she hasn't learned the language. What is she going to support, taking from the hard working people and giving to the lazy people like herself. We need it stated in Federal law that English is the official language if this country. All of the forms etc printed in Spanish that we do here, they don't do that in other places, only the entry forms is all.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
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