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. Irene

    no english....no representative! i think this is the USA????

    February 9, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. brown

    If she said Oi Papi, the judge might have given her more consideration

    February 9, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Stuart

    Government may function better if they can't communicate with each other

    February 9, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Laura Nason

    This is what you can all expect from the idiots in AZ who believe Jesus spoke English. She may not speak English well enough to be understood by the rabble without a translator but I'd be willing to bet her IQ is several hundred points higher than any of theirs.

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

      Sad you stated her IQ may be several hundred points above. If her IQ was 200 she would not be on welfare, she would already be working for the US government. When was the last time you truly spoke with even a college undergrad? jeje

      February 9, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • DJ

      Besides, no one has ever had an IQ of 400 (not even close)... please go back to community college.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jim

    This ruling could disqualify thousands of politicians across the South.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • s

      Well, good.

      February 10, 2012 at 1:47 am | Report abuse |
  6. /sigh

    LOL she obviously does not understand english very well, you have to understand 100% every form you sign and everything that is said to you in order to be in any office, even the mayor can speak both spanish and english proficiently.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • /sigh

      This story does not seem to be as much about her speaking english as her understanding of it, there is a huge difference. I know alot of people who have issues with english because of thick accents but can understand what is being said to them, she does not.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Starcloud

    The courts’ ruling was correct, because it abided by the state's law regarding English proficiency when running for office. The reasoning behind the law could be that the people running for office would invest time to become proficient in English if English is not their first language. Which in Alejandrina Cabrera case this is true. If the person running for office spent the time to become proficient in English, this would show that that person understands and respects the language of this country. I think it is great that Alejandrina Cabrera is taking the time to get tutoring to improve her English. I hope that she can run again in the in future. On a side note, for those who were wondering what the standard should be for English proficiency. Think about this. If you were to take a class from her for collage or school would you say you could understand her clearly and comprehend what she is saying? Would you want a teacher that you can clearly understand and spoke English pretty quickly? I took Spanish and teacher was from Porte Rico and had been learning English for two years. I could clearly understand and comprehend her. She still had a Spanish accent, but that did not interfere with my ability to understand her.

    February 9, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      So would a deaf/mute person be barred from running?

      February 10, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • colin monty

      You spelled college and puerto wrong, hope you don't plan to run for office

      February 10, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • toxictown

      Being deaf mute is a medical disability and covered by the ADA. Language is just a skill which you can learn..or not.

      February 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      If said deaf/mute person could not communicate sufficiently to meet the standards which the law in question requires, then I would say yes. Not because I agree or disagree, but because that is how I interpret that law.

      February 10, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ----

    If the people want to vote for her, so be it. The law is simply to vague for anyone to take into account a proficiency level. If the law stated that public officials must have "xyz" reading level then, yes, they could find her not fit to run. Whatever happened to the salad bowl?

    February 9, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • A

      they can't vote for her if her name isn't on the ballot.....

      February 10, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • ----

      Obviously... But they should be able to. The government does not have the right to say who the people may elect when they meet all qualifications.

      February 10, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
  9. s

    I can't believe this article would even spark any kind of sensible debate. We want America to appear united yet apparently a lot of citizens in the south can't even comprehend the most widely spoken language in our country? Wow.

    February 10, 2012 at 1:51 am | Report abuse |
    • d

      I comprehend y'all quite well actually.

      February 10, 2012 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
  10. Resistible

    Last time I checked, our political system is already bureaucratic and unwieldy. Adding translators to the mix will only slow it further. Her supporters are so busy arguing that she should be ALLOWED to run that they're not focusing on the point that she probably wouldn't be very good for the office in the first place. How will she communicate with the 12% or so of her potential constituents that don't speak Spanish? Do they need to bring their own translator with them to speak to her? How would she communicate with other local leaders on various issues? Or in case of an emergency? There's a difference between CAN and SHOULD. If you have half a brain, you know she SHOULD NOT, but wish her well in learning English so next ballot she CAN.

    I'm socially liberal, but fiscally conservative, so I'm fairly open-minded about a lot of things, but I fail to see how any person who doesn't speak English can be a public official in ANY capacity.

    February 10, 2012 at 2:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Jo

      I agree with Resistible When she can learn the English language and interpret it correctly then I feel she can run for office. However, she must speak clearly as well. Half the time I still can't understand anyone with a thick accent. Even good ol Arnold took lessons to improve his english.

      February 10, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • ----

      She does speak english... just not the same way most of us do. My father is an immigrant, and he speaks spanish and english, but only english at home. Sure, we may have to repeat something twice for him to get it, but he is fluent to run for office (though I know he never would)

      February 10, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. deafmute

    What if she were deaf? Wouldn't she be allowed to have a person speak for her and use sing language so that she could understand the responses from those speaking to her? How is that different than not fully speaking the English language? Why can't she get an interpreter?

    February 10, 2012 at 8:04 am | Report abuse |
    • deafmute

      That should read "sign language". My apologies.

      February 10, 2012 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Francisco

      Deaf or blind people are protected under ADA because they have a disability. Inability to do business in English is not a disability because is a characteristic that can be changed. She can study English and bring her proficiency up to a level that will allow her to function in office. How she graduated from a US high school without English proficiency is the amazing part of the story.

      February 10, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
  12. Tom

    The official language of government should be English. If one can't speak English, then one should not hold public office. Yes, they may be able to speak in the local district, but what happens when they have to perform their official duties away from the that area? No one is saying that she can't speak whatever language she wants at home or other places. However, when she is performing her official duties, she should be able to communicate in English without difficulty.

    February 10, 2012 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
  13. alfredian

    Well this is America and while we do not have an offical language our de facto is English, meaning standerdized tests and state is to be in ENGLISH. I do however feel like she would be a great influence for her community.

    P.S. I'm Spanish too so don't accuse me of being racist.

    February 10, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. NORMAJEAN123

    @FRANCISCO Hurray you can spell and I'll bet you have NEVER made a mistake! Get over yourself!

    February 10, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. technophile50

    But they let GW Bush on the ballot didn't they?

    February 11, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
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