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. Barb

    it is amazing how people are not afraid to show their ignorance under the cloak of anonimity.Wow.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anna

      Barb, you are so right. Unfortunate, isn't it?

      February 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. arke

    When she appealed her ruling, did someone have to translate it to her?

    February 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. rtg

    I'm sorry, but for someone to come to this country to live, they should at least learn English, not to mention running for office. If I moved to Mexico or any other country, I'd learn the language first.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • What

      Read the article, this person was born in the US. She is an American. And good thing people did not think this way when the country was formed, we would all be sitting around debating the points of what language to speak rather than taking care of america.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. nik

    I love how CNN reports on someone who has a terrible grasp on English, yet they start sentences with conjunctions and have a ton of grammatical mistakes in their own freaking column. I swear, CNN is the biggest blunder next to Faux News.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Hannah

    I am all for diversity and embracing cultures, but there is NO reason she should not be capable of learning english. You were able to rise up and run for City Council but you are not able to learn english?

    February 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  6. RanXerox

    its very amazing she graduated from high school without speaking any english...........how is this possible? who would she not even learn english in high school.........me thinks they did what they do where i live. no one is held back no matter the grades they puffed up...all ghetto people even if they hardly attend school graduate...it just called "pass them no matter what"

    February 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      Not only did I have to read, write and speak English to graduate – I also had to pass a foreign language class to graduate from High School AND College. I chose Spanish which I am fluent in today.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba™

      She passed English in High School? ???? ;-(

      February 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jeff

    Common sense is finally ruling out. English is the thread that binds us together as a country and if you cannot speak it, you should not be allowed to hold any sort of office. So call me what you will but please do so in English.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Watson

      >> English is the thread that binds us together as a country <<

      Yea! Freedom for Puerto Rico!!!

      February 9, 2012 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
  8. Bubba™

    She should run for office in Encinada, Mex

    February 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  9. RanXerox

    the school system the just routinely passed her from grade to grade like they do with all low income children who dont want to learn...is to blame...........she actually went to high school to all the classes with english speaking teachers and graduated with out ever being able to speak english.......wa wa wa what?

    February 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bob

    If she can't speak english how can she possibly work with other politicians who do not speak spanish ?

    February 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Watson

      Perhaps most of the local politicians speak Spanish, as well?

      February 9, 2012 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
  11. emintey

    If the people of this town want to elect this woman that is their business, we live in a democracy and people vote for who they want to vote for dont they? It doesnt matter what someone in Montana for example may think of this womans langauge capabilities, and no...the founding fathers are rolling over in the graves because citizens may not be able to vote for the candidate of their choice.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      If we really lived in a democracy the gay marriage vote in Calif would stand.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • RanXerox

      the founding father were slave owners, and didnt think women should have the right to vote...only learned people who were white and owned land....no the founding fathers are not spinning in their graves

      February 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • MeeTo

      Yeah, Bob, and we'd still have slavery in the South. Dolt!

      February 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Prestilinguist

    Without seeing transcripts, the described method sounds ad hoc, and so would appear to be vulnerable to a variety of challenges once it reaches a competent Federal Court.

    Assuming for argument AZ chose to avoid future challenges by implementing a standardized English proficiency exam for all candidates for public office. That would make it less arbitrary and prone to abuse, but then you'd necessarily have the possibility of rejecting a candidate for whom English was their first language, because he or she never actually mastered the fundamentals of grammar and spelling.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Bubba™

    What about IQ? Is there a minimum number you need to have or can a moron actually be elected?

    February 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • RanXerox

      should be. i have always believed only intelligent people should make decisions for the stupid

      February 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • emintey

      Leaves you out then RanXerox.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dustin

    I'm sorry... but if you can't speak proper English, then you shouldn't run for any political office. They need to stop making it seem like shes a victim, shes not. How hard is it to pass a proficiency test? Now if a regular person had trouble passing it, then yes there would be a problem. But maybe it isn't a question of do you need to speak English? It's a complicated issue.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  15. SecondGen

    If the Arizona law reads: "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," then presumably deaf and/or blind folks are also ineligible to run for office? Does that really make any sense at all? Obviously the City Council's business has to be conducted in English. If she needs an interpreter, get her one, but vote based on her leadership capabilities.

    February 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • RanXerox

      deaf and blind people can undertand english and read english........your stawman failed

      February 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
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