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. Peanut Farm

    Oh boo hoo. I'd like to be a lawyer but I can't because I know I'd fail the the bar exam (maybe cuz I didn't go to law school).
    Rules are rules and I'm tired of people thinking they are above them by filing bogus lawsuits to get around them.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Peter

    I know CNN 's editors will occasionally slack, but it does look like neither her interpretor "I’m not fluid [fluent] in English," nor her attorney "has a [an] English" have a firm grasp on the language either. But then again, neither do half of the people posting here, for or against, and it isn't all just a lack of spell check.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • longtooth

      Intrepreter.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  3. toyota

    If she can't speak English, my next question would be: Is she an illegal? One nation ... one language ENGLISH.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      It's clear from the story that she is an American citizen and, thus, not an illegal immigrant. Reading English can be so tough.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jake

      Of course she is illegal...isn't that the way it works, anyone who can't speak our language has got to be an illegal and most likely they are a terrorist to boot...give me a break! Jeeze by those standards because my redneck southern dialect is sometimes hard to understand it must mean I am an illegal...I better worry about getting deported...oh my that's right I was born in the USA...so what to do?!?!? Where will they send all us English speaking southern rednecks when they round us up because we are most definitely illegals?!?!?!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Marvz

    What part of the US is this again? How come the High School doesn't require the students to speak English?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Relictus

      Exactly.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Watson

      By the way, have you ever been to Miami, FL? In parts like Hialeah, for example?

      February 9, 2012 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
  5. riverhorus

    I wonder what the reaction might be to an American ex-pat becoming a Mexican citizen and running for public office in some Mexican town without being able to speak or understand Spanish adequately. But then it is very difficult if not impossible to emigrate to Mexico and become a citizen. Unlike the US with its open door policy, the Mexican government has implemented extremely stringent regulations and requirements to discourage resident aliens from becoming citizens.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • mexicomama

      First, read the story, then do some research. First of all, she's not a Mexican expat who became an American citizen, so your theory isn't relevant. She's a U.S. born citizen. Second, it's not that difficult to become a Mexican citizen. You just have to live in Mexico for at least five years, then pass a test. Do some research before you start criticizing.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Common Sense

      She didn't become a US citizen later in life – she was born in AZ but primarily educated in Mexico

      February 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  6. WeirdYes?

    The whole country is similar to pass 'em at all costs. I think the idea is if you keep failing them, they'll drop out
    and become criminals (any ethnic group). I don't have a solution.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. John Q Public

    I am sure that I wouldn't be able to run for office in Tijuana not speaking Spanish.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • WeirdYes?

      It can happen if you're a puppet for a cartel.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Non-citizens are forbiden to hold any office in Mexico.
      You also can't own land or houses.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • mexicomama

      Did any of you read the story? Everyone keeps saying, "I bet I couldn't be a state official in Mexico" or something similar. She is not a Mexican citizen who is running for office in Arizona. She is a U.S. citizen! Having a problem with her not speaking fluent english is a good arguing point, but quit trying to reverse it to say Americans can't hold office in Mexico. It's manzanas and naranjas, people!

      February 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • spectre

      mexicomama, do they have anchor babies in Mexico?

      February 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. D Springer

    English is the language of this country. I already are concerned that we accommodate so many other languages on our ballots etc. We go far beyond any other country in bending over backwards to allow people to function here without having to learn the language. I heard this woman speak in a tv interview, and she can barely put together a sentence in english. What amazes me is that she managed to graduate from an Amercian high school. That doesn't say much for our educational system preparing people to function in this society. A clear standard of english proficiency needs to be established and adhered to nationwide.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Common Sense

      Correct. That doesn't say much for our educational system and its ability to prepare people to function in this society

      February 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. I can see Russian tanker from my house

    If speaking proper English is a requirement, how did Bush become president?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul R.

      Because he was running against idiot tools like Al Gore and Mr. Heinz.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • FFFF

      The same way Carter did or LBJ...

      February 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • ReallY!!?

      The same reason Obama got elected.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • ReallY!!?

      Bush went to Yale then Harvard
      Obama went to Columbia then Harvard.
      Both have instances of mangling the English language. However, the media covers more for Obama and highlight very often Bush's flubs.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • GeeWizz

      Man you got that one right.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. t3chsupport

    Sorry, but this is still an English speaking country for the most part. Sure, she'd be alright at home in her area, but maybe she does not realize the fact that she's still going to have to work with other parts of the government, and she will have to be able to communicate clearly with them.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bruce

    Speak english or get the hell out! Of course she'd be voted in, the area she is running in was stated as being 98.7% hispanic. No problem with ANYONE of a different color or culture, but this is America, basic english skills should be a minimum for public office.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Paul R.

    How does a lawmaker write or enforce laws she/he can't even read? Video of the hearing is on u tube. Search using her name. Also, funny how there is no mention that the interviews conducted with her, where she uses words like "fluid" and "private tutor" were in SPANISH.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • P.J.

      Lost in translation? She should have said "fluent" not fluid.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. millee

    If the law is what is written in the story, does it not prohibit someone who is deaf or blind and requires an interpreter from running for office?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Relictus

      The deaf or blind in America still have English as their primary language – just the mode of communication changes. The inability to communicate clearly in English is a crippling to a person whose primary job duty is clear communication and leadership. America is mostly a nation of immigrants, representing almost every nation on earth. They all learned English. Well, everyone except her.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Richard

    Anyone that wants to be an elected should ba able to speak enough English to answer a question "Where did you go to school?". If they can't answer such a question how will they interact with other elected officials who only speak English ????

    If I go to a Spainish speaking country, I am expected to be able to speak their language to conduct G'ovt bussiness. Why should it be any different here ???

    February 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jon

    Esto de verdad me hace enojar. ¿Si esta señora es ciudadana estadounidense, porque no se le deja ser candidata? Si la idea es representar a la gente de la comunidad o del pueblo, no hay nadie mejor que ella para representar a los ciudadanos americanos hispano-hablantes. ¿No puede tener intérprete para hacer su trabajo hasta que aprenda el idioma? No manches.

    I’m about as American as it gets…born and raised in U.S.A. Proud to be an American, living the American dream as a new attorney, conservative to the core, would bleed to put the red back in the flag. But…I’m also dang proud to be bilingual. This is downright ridiculous. Yes…people coming to the U.S. should try to learn English…I learned Spanish when I lived abroad. BUT…this lady was born here…this is different. Like it or not…there is a large U.S. Citizen population that speaks Spanish. English should be the official language, but should not be a barrier to our true form of democracy. She represents an important population of U.S. citizens who deserve to be represented in local government.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • FFFF

      Its actually quite easy...learn English for Public office. Such Nonsense apologist mentalitly. FYI this is primarly a mexican/Central AMerican problem. Not a Cuban, South AMerican or Puerto Rican...

      February 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Relictus

      Why single out the Hispanics as somehow specially exempt from learning the language? My hometown at one time had a huge Portuguese population. They learned English. My ancestors were Irish. They learned English. We have immigrants from every corner of the globe. They learn English. And the Hispanics? Well, they are just too special. Too, too special to bother to learn the language. It is insulting.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
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