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. David M

    I'm sure the ACLU is preparing a brief already that her "rights" have been violated.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  2. No comprende

    Bad precedent...

    No one on the city council, in law enforcement or any level of government should be required to be fluent (read, write, speak) in the primary language of your country. If a police officer shoots you, because he thought you said “I have a Gun” when you actually said, “I have a Son!” (while reaching in your pocket to show him a picture) then that’s just unfortunate.

    Note to the uninitiated: This is sarcasm.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. US Citizen

    at least the clown judge confirmed there is no intent for the elected to represent the people.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Brett

    It all depends on what Arizona law says. If Arizona law says a candidate must be proficient in the English language then it is the right decision as far as the courts are concerned. If state law does not address that, then the court's justices are becoming activists and she should be allowed to run. In the end, the power should rest with the voters.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Lomlom

    The OFFICIAL language in America is ENGLISH...

    Case closed.

    If you cannot speak it fluently, then you should not hold any office in America. Personally, I feel if you cannot SPEAK and WRITE it, then you should not dare run for office. Ohh I am African too so I am not picking on anyone, race, group or whatever.

    If you respect this country America, then learn to speak it fluently. It is the official language. Simple and Plain! And if you do not like this country America, you can leave either by air, water, road or grave. Noone is forcing anyone to be here.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Speak English

    If you can't speak english you need to learn. We shouldn't have to bend over backwards anymore for people that refuse to speak our language fluently, you can always go back to where ever you came if you don't like it. AND no this is not a degrading or racial comment so lets not start petioning saying it violates your civil rights.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Norduf

    I can see where you don't need to speak English to get elected in a spanish speaking area, but I can't imagine how she can represent her voters if she can't communicate her ideas to an English speaking government.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Rich

    Common sense, which few seem to either possess or use, would tell you in a local election the people should have complete freedom to choose who they want . Agree that English must be our official language and do understand intent of Arizona anti-Latin atmosphere. Where as here local community is almost exclusively Spanish speaking removing a candidate for bad English terrible policy. Let electorate choose who theywant

    February 9, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • bob

      really think the root of the problem is that Yuma area schools are handing out diplomas to people who are unable to communicate in the required language of citizenship

      February 9, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sarah

      But Newt says Spanish is the language of the ghetto and English is the language of prosperity.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Unit34AHunter

      San Luis, AZ, has a substantially English-speaking population, is located in an English-speaking state, which is in turn in an English-speaking nation. A person who is not proficient in English does not have a right to run for elected office.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Duke5343

      IN 1774 or 77 the vote was put UP on the 13 conlonies for National Language GUESS what German lost by 2 votes

      When i worked in Mexico with a green card i had to learn Spanish SIMPLE US is English speaking- learn to be Bi Lingual- the pay is higher & good to speak BOTH lingos – SHE Should of taken English classes – Arnold did when he came to USA

      February 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • gujupmp88

      i believe that all government officials in the USA should speak English fluently. No matter where he/she lives and how many people in that city speak english or any other language. Why I say this is because while she might not have to go to the White House to talk, she still has to be able to communicate with her fellow government officials. Can she do the job that is needed if she cannot coordinate with other officials, like the mayor or governer. would she need a translator to get her point across? that is not getting the job done.

      people can want her in office, but she might not be able her job because of her limitation.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Sure ... why should elected officials charged with enforcing, modifying, communicating, creating, or abiding by laws written in English be required to have a reasonable grasp of English?

      February 9, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • seemslegit12

      @Duke5343 Needs MORE capitalization to make the POINT you're trying to PROVE. Otherwise I can't UNDERSTAND your vocal TONE! *excessive arm gestures*

      February 9, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • SilentBoy741

      You have the right to elect anyone you want, as long as they qualify. Under the current legislation, you must be fluent in English. Cabrera herself rates her "English proficiency as a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10". A score of 50% on a proficency test is a failing grade in anyone's book. By her own admission, she has disqualified herself.

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

    I wish we would measure elected officials level of intelligence rather than their ability to speak English. While I understand this law in AZ, I see the need to define it better than its currently listed. At the same time, why not take it one step further and require all elected officials to take an IQ test, and anyone scoring less than 110 would be weeded out. Forbidding any “normal” or less than normal level of intelligence person from serving. I’d rather have an educated little-English speaking official, than a fluent English speaking idiot.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • joxer

      I.Q. test are you serious she would fail. she does not know where she graduated. she was born in the usa and does not speak english. sounds too stupid to be in public office

      February 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • justsayn

      I like your the IQ test idea except that we have a lot of people with high IQ's that are in or have been in jail (including some former CEOs of large corporations). Unfortunately it's not that simple. I do wonder how many of our current elected officials pass that test and then think of how many of them that we really trust.......

      February 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
  10. relians

    what happens if she wins via write in?

    February 9, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ben

      Depends on what language is used to write her name in.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mike G.

    Attempts to make English the official language of the United States repeatedly have failed as we are truly a melting pot of various cultures (with varying languages too). I would think this ruling should be appealed to the federal Supreme Court to hopefully be overturned and let this candidate run on principle that there shouldn't be cultural discrimination. After that, if anyone wants to try to make English the country's official language, then it would require a Consituational amendment to do so.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Unit34AHunter

      The melting pot only works properly if people are proficient at English and identify foremost as Americans rather than persons of a particular ethnicity. We should not willingly court the fate of that which was once Yugloslavia.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      Mike, one GREAT thing about living in the USA is if you don't like the rules here you are always welcome to leave. Why don't
      you head south of Arizona to that paradise called Mexico and you can learn to live by their rules. I do believe it would be
      quite an awakening for you and many other dumbocrats that feel the same way.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Bermille

    All it would take is for the voters there to write her name in and then it will be moot.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • SilentBoy741

      But who wants to be named "Moot"?

      February 9, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Manuela Kay

    Sheers to America The Beautiful

    February 9, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Manuela Kay

      no, wait..I really meant to type "Cheers". Welcome to the Ultimate ESL class.

      February 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. hecep

    Does this mean that trailer park "Clems" and "Billy Joe Bobs" shouldn't be allowed to vote?

    February 9, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      voting is not the issue here....holding office is ....didn't you understand the article's in English

      February 9, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • hecep

      Jim – You're not too insightful, are you? Obviously, you're not intelligent enough to see my point; it's not that obscure, Clem.

      February 9, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
  15. michael popowich

    What has happened to the usa. Getting the courts to do your dirty work is something from the dark ages. What happened to demcoracy, let the voters, the people decide.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • jim

      so now upholding local law is court dirty work???

      February 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • michael popowich

      Even trying to communicate in english, you still don't get it!!

      February 9, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • michael popowich

      American history revolving around the sixties should be required reading for those people who put all there hopes in local law. There are three languages at play folks. One is english, from the land of britian, second is spanish, from the land of spain and third is the american dollar from the usa.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
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