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. None

    Didn't CNN already display an article about this one or two weeks ago? Why are they recycling news...

    February 9, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jake

    More Chinese know how to speak English than Americans know how to speak Chinese. More Brits know how to speak a different language outside of English than Americans do. In fact, just about every wealthy industrialized country have people who are essentially bi-lingual. The only countries that insist on homogenous language and aren't bi-lingual are third world countries...and the US. See, conservatvies want us to be relgious in their religion (Christianity), lower our wages where there is a greater disparity between rich and the poor, get rid of unions, they want us to love guns, make homosexuality and abortions illegal, they want us to have a free-market system where there are no regulations in what and how you sell or buy things...just like the third world countries.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tito

    I am Hispanic but I believe that if you do not speak English proficiently you should not be in public office. I can appreciate her background having lived in both Mexico and the United States but that doesn't really make a difference. People need to learn English.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Texas Coyote

    If anyone asks yet again, why the OCCUPIERS (OCCUPY is a worldwide permanent protest movement for justice and more equity for the working class) all over the United States and world are protesting. Listen up!“You control our world. You've poisoned the air we breathe, contaminated the water we drink, and copyrighted the food we eat. We fight in your wars, die for your causes, and sacrifice our freedoms to protect you. You've liquidated our savings, destroyed our middle class, and used our tax dollars to bailout your unending greed. We are slaves to your corporations, zombies to your airwaves, servants... to your decadence. You've stolen our elections, assassinated our leaders, and abolished our basic human rights as human beings. You own our property, shipped away our jobs, and shredded our unions. You've profited off of disaster, destabilized our currencies, and raised our cost of living, while lowering our wages. You've monopolized our freedom, stripped away our education and have almost extinguished our flame. Now you are trying to cripple/sabotage the internet with SOPA/PIPA type legislation, to end our ability to communicate effectively!! We are hit...we are bleeding... but we ain't got time to bleed. We will bring the giants to their knees and you will witness our revolution! WAKE UP AMERICA! SUPPORT OCCUPY!

    February 9, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • g

      while i'm not against occupy they are accomplishing absolutely nothing. hopefully in the future those who wish to protest will learn from the oocupy failure that you need to have a goal

      February 9, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • michaeldw

      All the occupiers in Sacramento look homeless.
      They carry around backpacks with sleeping bags attached, look as if they just trekked across the Sierras, and smell like they haven't showered since Occupy Wall street began. I couldn't even finish my cheese burger.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jake

    Another case of cosnervatives making up rules on the fly to insure the folks who will oppose them don't get a chance to. She's right...there was never any such requirement to actually speak English without an interpreter yet alone to be able to speak English as far as qualifications to be on the ballot. Whether or not there should've been is not the question. She was singled out. Was there any requirements for any previous candidates to do so? So why was she asked to prove she could "command the English language"? Remember when conservatives demanded Obama's long-form birth certificate? It initially started because Obama's father was found to be born in another country. So conservatives wanted to make sure Obama was not actually born where his father was (Kenya). Yet, notice they didn't give a hoot that McCain was born in Panama...nor have they asked for Romney's long form birth certificate even though his father was born in Mexico. Why not? Same reason they didn't ask any Republican candidates to prove they can speak English because it wasn't in any rules, but all the sudden it's in some unwritten rule you have to when an opposition candidate is on the ballot. Conservatives aren't racist though right? They're just worried about the security of this country and only a conservative can insure the security of this country, right? Why that would be bigotry.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. John J. Puccio

    This has to be an "only in Arizona" story. Where else would you find racism so openly flaunted by politicians and courts. Maybe every senator and rep in Washington should be required to take a grammar test; that would weed out half the dross.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Abnguy

      I did not read racism into this. It is a very clear law that english is the official language. Anyone in the US can learn english, in fact it is a required subject in all high schools.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • JT

      "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."

      Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla. Not a race issue. This would be obvious to you if you could understand English.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ungirus

    The people can still decide. The ballot allows write-in candidates.
    Let the best candidate win.

    February 9, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Abnguy

      That will not work. She does not meet the requirements for office and would not be allowed to take office. If everyone wrote in Arnold in the presidential election he would not be able to be sworn in either for the same reason.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Abnguy

    It appears that most arguments dismiss the fact that current law states English is the official language. If she cannot conduct business in english she is not qualified. Even though I took 2 years of french and know several words en Francais it does not mean I am qualified to teach french in college.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
  9. DUG

    Great. Now there will be a law suit just like the man in a wheel chair who sued a gym because he couldnt get onto a treadmill. I myself am Hispanic, which of course the census only gave us the choice of black, white or indian. I sincerely do feel bad that people have handicaps but, some of those with handicaps should know when people have went out of thier way to help them. Just like the Circle K in Phoenix that was sued because there was no wheelchair ramp, then after thousands of dollars, city permits and inspections the second person in wheelchair that untilized the ramp hit his head on the "built to code" grab rail then he sued circle k. My point is when does it stop. No exceptions should be made for this woman. Positions of City office should be left to those who can read and understand laws. I am sure that the president I voted for will get involved on this because he will need every single hispanic vote this time to get re elected. Another person on welfare (and she is it public record for ACCCHS in AZ) thinks they deserve the right to be in public office and she drives a 2010 lexus SUV which she purchased while in the ACCCHS welfare program. You tell me whats wrong with this.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laura Nason

      I don't know how much of your comment is fantasy, mistake or just trouble making and/or you just don't like that "uppity woman" but you are either completely confused about the census or deliberately lying about filling one out. I would assume someone else filled it out FOR you. The choices on the census are ?#9, White, Black/African Am./ or Negro, American Indian or Alaska Native-print name of enrolled or principal tribe,Asian, Indian, Japanese, Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, Guamanian or Chamorro, Filipino, Vietnamese, Samoan, Other Asian-pring race, for example Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian, and so on, AND Other Pacific Islander-print race, for example Fijian, Tongan and so on AND, finally Some other race-Print race.
      Now ordinarily I wouldn't waste my time responding to such ignorance but we spent all of 2009 and most of 2010 listening to people like you and the tea baggin idiots like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann among others whining, lying and spreading FEAR about the census even as they, and maybe you as well, call themselves Good Patriotic Americans who "love" the Constitution, except when you don't. The census is MANDATED in that Constitution to take place every 10 years! The questions are not mandated and the scope of them is left to the legislators.
      Every year Americans, patriotic ones anyway, pay their taxes on April 15 and then that money is pooled to pay ALL the costs of running this country. How much goes back to YOUR state depends on the confirmed POPULATION of YOUR state and if you or your friends or whole factions of YOUR states population refuse to fill out your census form YOUR whole state gets less than necessary to run YOUR state.
      NOW, just for the record, the United States has control of these 14 territories, American Samoa, Baker Island, Guam, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Islands, Navassa Island, Northern Mariana Islands, Palmyra Atoll, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and, Wake Island, who's people have all the same rights, and Constitutional protections as the citizens of the 50 States and NOT ALL OF THEM SPEAK ENGLISH EITHER.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • SK

      Which census form did you fill out? Hispanic was a choice presented for race or ethnicity.

      February 10, 2012 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
    • s

      Completely agree with you. Is the welfare bit really true? The people who would want her in office are the ones who are in positions similar to hers, unfortunately. Hopefully thats not more than 20 or so % of the population, IF she does make the ballot in later years.

      February 10, 2012 at 1:44 am | Report abuse |
  10. jama8canpops

    This is another of the courts entering into area that they have no business in.The voters are the one to decide whether or not they want this candidate to represent them.This kind of decision is castrating the democratic process.The bozos on the Supreme Court are not much better.They are solely responsible for these super PACs and as such undermines democracy.It pits the rich against the not so rich and that is not how democracy works.Voters should have a level playing field.This is one way elections can be bought.But then who says the US is a democracy?It's a Republic.There is no there democracy in the world where the person who gets the most votes can still end up losing because of the electoral college which should have been abolished a long time ago.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • JT

      Somehow you're overlooking the very simple fact that this woman cannot function in government because she does not comprehend the language the government's business is conducted in.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • umm no

      Yeah! How dare the courts not allow someone to run for political office who can't even tell you what high school they went to in the language that government conducts business. How dare those oppressive tyrants in black robes actually expect people to be able to function in political office.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • gstlab3




      February 9, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • tdgoddess

      Read about why the Electoral College was created. It gives every state in the union a voice, not just the most populated. As far as the language issue goes...would she be able to seek office in Mexico if she couldn't speak Spanish???

      February 10, 2012 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  11. PndFoolish

    Okay, she can communicate with her constituents but how is she going to represent their interests at the meetings when the other council members and/or members of the public present don't understand what she's saying? Oh, yeah, that's right. They should be forced to learn Spanish to accommodate her or, at the very least, bear the cost of a translator for her.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  12. yahmez the mad

    "In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state." If you want to run for public office in Arizona, become proficient in English or repeal that law. I do not think this is judicial activism.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • manomundo

      No law can thwart the democratic will of the people. If a law were passed allowing only blonds to be elected, would that mean brunettes could lawfully be prevented from obtaining office?

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

      So, if she can't speak English well enough to pass a simple English test and she can't recall what high school she went to, how will she be able to communicate with the other council members and remember details when members of the public appear before her to petition their government.

      February 10, 2012 at 2:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Resistible

      Mano - America is not a democracy, ergo we have no democratic will. In fact, the process which she's been removed from is the very proof that we are a republic. That aside, how is she supposed to communicate effectively with leaders from other areas in case of emergency?

      This should be common sense, not politics.

      February 10, 2012 at 2:18 am | Report abuse |
  13. Steve H

    Two words...Ha, ha!

    February 9, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Audrey Nickel

    The bottom line is, it doesn't matter if 100% of this woman's potential constituents speak Spanish and nothing but Spanish. Council meetings are conducted in ENGLISH. She can NOT be considered a reasonable representative for her potential constituents unless A) She understands English well enough to not just follow the gist of the meetings, but to understand completely what's going on so that she can accurately convey it to her constituents and B) She speaks English well enough to be able to truly convey her constituents' needs and wants to the council. Anything less than that level of fluency would not constitute acceptable representation. That's WHY there's a law regarding English fluency, and that's WHY her name isn't on the ballot...if she doesn't understand or speak English well enough to answer a question regarding where she went to high school, there's no way she understands or speaks it well enough to be a representative.

    February 9, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Paola

    It is inconceivable that an american high school graduate does not have enough language skills, let alone run for office. Go back to school and get a GED, and then come back with at least that much education, and attempt to represent a group of people.

    February 9, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob B

      The public educational system no longer requires any "skills", only "hours" spent in class to graduate. No wonder she can't communicate in English. She should have never been given a high-school diploma in the first place, until she was profecient in English. Then this would have never been an issue.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
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