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. Patrick

    Arizona strikes another blow for ignorance . . . .

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

    How did she graduate high school and she can't pronounce the name of the school in English? Don't you have to be able to pass ENGLISH classes to graduate in an AZ high school? Plus she ranks herself a 5 on scale of 1 to 10 for English proficiency? If there are specific laws that indicate an understanding of English then I see where she potentially could not meet the requirements. How can you effectively do your job if you do not understand what is expected of you and how to communicate without that understanding?

    February 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Su Lynn

    Oh that's right! the poor picked on minorities! This is AMERICA – we speak English. If you don't want to speak ENGLISH – go anywhere they speak the language you want to speak. Live there and run for office. All this crap about a "melting pot"! Not as long as we keep the flood gates open! The government should finish the damn fence, and have guts enough to pass a law making English the national language. I live in a mixed neighborhood (you name it we probably have it). A laundromat openned a couple of years ago – they did not speak english and were out of business in six months.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  4. sunny

    I don't understand the automatic name calling and blame assigning. Democrats want non-English speaking to hold office and Republicans don't? That is BS. I am a long time Democrat and absolutely want the our language to prevail in all cases. As do most of my Democratic friends. I am tired of this bi-lingual approach and see it as divisive in a way that will continue to cause problems. Let the voters decide? What if it's a felon? Let the voters decide?

    February 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. TexDoc

    You can't blame the school. She's too old. If she had been speaking English only, watching English language TV and English movies, reading English books, she'd obviously be fluent enough to hold office.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Rachel

    For people who say she is lazy for not learning English, why haven't you learned Spanish? Or Chinese, for that matter? A country is not defined by a language. It just happened that the United States is a country of immigrants and an amplified version of a certain segment of the British population. Look at any Asian or African country. They speak hundreds of languages in one country. Spain settled the United States before the English. I would say it is horrible that all the laws are in English in a community that, for the most part, speaks Spanish. Everything should be available, first and foremost, in Spanish. After all, this is a country of the people, for the people.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Realist

      One thing you must understand is that America is arguably better in most ways than any Asian or African countries. As the world's only superpower, we must understand what makes us mighty. One of the most important aspects of our country that has, unfortunately, been slipping in recent decades is our national pride and unity. Lincoln said that a house divided cannot stand, and oh, how prophetic those words now seem. Understand, Rachel, that we are not right because we are mighty, we are mighty because we are right. American as the sole and accepted language of the United States of AMERICA (read, not mexico) would go be of great assistance in helping to reunify our great country.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Realist

    It's not a matter of whether or not the voters think she will do a good job. If she is unable to speak proper English, (or, more accurately, American) then she will not be able to properly execute her office in relation to other elected officials in other cities, counties, etc. Congrats to AZ for once agian proving that it is willing to do the hard right, rather than the easy wrong, which would be to cave to what is rapidly becoming one of our nation's most prolific and insidious problems; the gradual takeover of the U.S. by hispanic immigrants, legal or otherwise. American should be our official language, none other. If people don't like it, they don't have to live here.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • NotYou

      Realist, she was BORN here, so she didn't just come here and take over. Her language issue comes from being raised back in Mexico. If you know anything about the way people learn languages, you would know that it becomes harder to learn an additional one after a certain age because of the way the brain develops.

      English (British or American), along with Russian and Chinese, is considered the hardest to learn because we have a language that is not rooted in ONE specific group, but in several. Each of those groups have their own grammar/syntax rules and they don't play nice with each other to those who are not familiar with them.

      BTW, they don't need to immigrate. The largest segment of those with Hispanic/Latino roots can trace their ancestors in this country to long before the English-speakers showed up. If I thought the way you did about immigrants, I would be saying that you need to learn the Cherokee language or don't live here because I still consider YOU an illegal immigrant.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Upton

    To think this decision should be left up to voters is foolish... if she cannot speak English, she cannot be elected. How can you be a helpful participant in ANY government aspect if you can't speak the language. Unless you want her to have an interpretor 24/7... just another waste of tax dollars

    February 9, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • dm3006

      Agreed, english is the official language for AZ.!

      February 9, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Zack Wiggers

      It wasn't because she could not speak English at all it was because she couldn't speak it well enough. whoever Rich is..

      February 9, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. irunner

    Arizona! What can you say about Arizona? My father lives in Tucson. If not for that, I'd never go there.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  10. bhibsen

    I have to agree with the court on this one. I think if one holds public office one should be proficient at the language generally used by that office. I know this is going to become a Latino vs. non-Latino issue in AZ b/c everything becomes that, but I think it would be just as wrong for me to say, go to France, become a citizen and run for office without speaking the French language fluently.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • sunny

      Well said. It is arrogant to ask a country and its people to bend their law and culture to suit you. Go ahead and work to help "your people" – maybe by increasing EASL classes. Here in California I often hear children speaking English to their parents who respond in Spanish. So you know the English is being understood. Help your child – don't make your child help you.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Chuck

    This is absolutely the correct judicial decision. We should require all goverment business be conducted in English.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Tanya

    "But her story is more than a local election dispute, with possibly widespread implications in a country that prides itself as a melting pot."

    Yes, it is a melting pot story. But the story is how the melting pot no longer works. Past waves of immigrants sought to become part of America not to balkanize our country. The melting pot used to work because it created Americans with a shared culture. Currently, we create small groups of victims who claim they should enjoy all rights and their past culture, but deny they bear any of the responsibilities of becoming and functioning as ing an American.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Griffiths

      Right on!!!

      February 9, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ACe

    Did anyone ever complain about George "WMD" Bush's english?

    The Internets..
    The Google..
    They misunderestimated me..

    And the list goes on..

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

      Yep, that is totally the same. All debate over this matter is over.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. David M

    The fact that it is a border town and over 87% speak a language other than English is irrelevant. The town is in America where English is the official language. I can't go to Germany are run for office just because I want to, or that a high percentage of the people in a particular town speak English. My German language is too limited to function in a government position. I can easily order food and drink, but that's just a bit different than be a government official.

    In this case, the judge was correct. How long will it be before the ACLU takes up this case???

    February 9, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jayden from Houston, TX

    The court has made the right decision. She would have to represent all the people, not just those who spoke Spanish, yet she could not answer such a simple question. I came here when I was 18; barely spoke any Eng, but I've got myself educated and continuously improved my Eng over the years, and I'm not even running for office, simply because I have to if I want to live in America. If you go to my country, you'll see, there is no such thing as press 1 for the native language, and press 2 for something else. Some people are just too spoiled here.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
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