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

    Of course if she had $$ for a good lawyer... this would be a non issue.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  2. NMEast

    how can she have graduated from an American high school, be an American citizen and not be able to speak the language? Even a naturalized citizen must meet the requirement of being able to speak English. How many of the 98.7% of residents of San Luis are LEGAL American citizens who can vote?

    February 9, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mrs. M

    If she isn't capable of speaking and understanding spoken English well enough to answer a question about where she went to high school, she certainly wouldn't be able to understand English well enough to grasp the issues that come up before any city council. The lawyer who took her case should be disbarred for gross incompetence.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  4. willford

    no habla english, no publico office. SE!

    February 9, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Squeezebox

    The lady should consider whether she would hire a secretary with English as poor as hers? Would she hire a municpal clerk? My point is that if she can't speak English to the standard needed to do customer service jobs, she shouldn't run for office.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mark in the Midwest

    I may be fooling myself, but I thought we lived in a DEMOCRACY where citizens decide who will represent and govern them. Leave it to the voters to choose and not the courts. If you don't live in Yuma, you've got no business telling the citizens who should or shouldn't be on their City Council.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Darrell

    I must agree with the opinion that she would propably have great difficulty performing the tasks that the job would require; but doesn't anyone consider that fact that by litagating her off the ballot, we are allowing government agency, aka- the court in this case, to decide what is best for us. I think, mistake or not, the voters should decide whether or not she can do the job, not the court.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eddiejay

      Darrell – The courts made the ultimate decision; however, the LAW was very clear, and the court was willing to give her some slack, but she could not even tell the court the name of her HIGH SCHOOL!!! Arizona is not Mexico...it is a State with an official language of English. And the woman has PROVEN she cannot speak English well enough...not even close. Even the quotes in the article attributed to her are her interviews are translated from interviews she had in Spanish – because no English speaking reporter could get a full sentence out of her.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Rutgersmo

    I think should run...back to wherever they speak her language.

    PS Is she a legal?

    February 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • PandoraDoggl

      Don't be ugly. The article explicitly identifies her as a US citizen. If she weren't, then no one would have had to rule on whether she could speak English fluently enough; no one can run for office if they aren't a citizen.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Samantha

      Hmm, it seems YOUR English isn't in the best shape either;

      p.s. are you legal?

      February 9, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arnold Schwarzenegger's English is terrible...

      He was governor of California and nobody asked him to go back to Austria, too bad because he ruined California , well, lets give this lady a chance , she can not be worse than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or this is a race issue, I am afraid it is a race issue and not a language issue.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Will-i-am

      I think the ability of this person to grow and reach adulthood and still be incapable of speaking english proficiently is a symptom of "localized culture" in which people desire to be different from the US within the US. This also happens in other racially prominent communities, with the difference being that people within those communities do not attempt to elect people who are ignorant of the national language. I think it is important to have the ability to think and speak in English if you are to be a politician in America because you need to know what you are talking about without any gray area or ability to be deceived or disgraced.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. DW

    How did you graduate from High School in Arizona
    without speaking English?

    February 9, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • TXBearCub

      The same way (if that is true) how people graduate without being able to read – American Education system isnt much better than many 3rd world countries

      February 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Russian lady

      Why are you so surprised, many people in this country can hardly speak nor white English..

      February 9, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Sheila

    Easy way to tell – let her sit through a long, complicated speech in her own city on some bizarre piece of legislation regarding real estate, and then debate it in English, at full speed. If she can do it, she can run.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. kiki

    America baby we speak english here! Mexico they speak spanish go there and talk politics all you want in spanish.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Olaf Big

    Local elected leaders should speak English fluently, otherwise we are headed for apartheid in border regions.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ken

    This seems to be the wrong decision. She can improve her English language skills rather quickly. This would enable her to communicate with both the English and Spanish speaking citizens. Myopic?-probably. Racist?-probably. Xenophobic?-probably. Arizona has become a very bizarre state. As fundamentalist as an Arab country.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Terps76

      Ken, on the job training is not possible in a position like this. How did she get her degree, if she can't speak the language in the first place?

      February 9, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jon

      requiring someone to be sufficient in a skill to perform the functions of their job is not racist

      February 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim McTeigue

      So, if 87% of the households there DON'T speak English as their primary language, and 98.7% of the population is of Hispanic origin, how, exactly, is English a "necessary job skill?"

      February 9, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. scriss

    Speak English, or move back to Mexico.

    February 9, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  15. KipE

    So, what about a deaf person who can only sign and needs an interpreter? Could they be blocked from running too? I appreciate the practical concerns here, but this screams of xenophobia to me.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • PandoraDoggl

      According to the same decision, a deaf person must demonstrate a proficiency in English language lip reading and in English language speech in order to be listed on the ballot in Arizona.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • nazman

      KipE- Not the same thing..and you know this man

      February 9, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jazzy

      If you understand AMERICAN sign language, you are free to run for office.

      February 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim McTeigue

      This is different, you are right. The vast majority of the people in her city speak Spanish. I'd be willing to bet that it is an incredibly tiny minority in her community who can understand ASL. What if we were discussing a mute person? Would that person be afforded a translator, or would they be prohibited from running because they lacked the capacity to speak English in a way readily understandable by the general public?

      February 9, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
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