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. spectre

    Yeah, go get your English tutoring for a couple of years and then when you can conduct an English language interview w/ CNN maybe, just maybe you'll competent enough to run for public office in the US. This is America, our national language is English, if you can't run with the rest pack, stay on the porch, in Mexico preferably. Or better yet, why don't you run for office in Mexico, you certainly have the language skills for that!!

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

    its pretty simple: how can you support a country anywhere, that you don't have the respect enough for to actually learn the language spoken by its natives and used in the political system you wish to enter. Sorry, but you cannot understand law, if you cannot read the letters or understand their meaning.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Paola

    If no criteria are spelled out to determine what English proficiency means, nobody can be hold accountable to meeting them and nobody can be empowered to make a decision on whether a person meet such criteria. So I do not understand how the court can make its verdict. I am not a layer, but is seems to me that the right of this person have been violated.

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

      Idiot. She went to high school in the U.S. she should be able to speak English .. that's the mimimum standard. She doesn't have to be a PhD.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba™

      It doesn't say much for the high school she went to, unfortunately.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      With you having a name like Paola, and her having a name like Alejandrina, I'm not surprised you feel her rights have been violated. I think my rights would be violated by having someone who can't even understand a conversation with me being my representative in government. What say you about that?

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

      Bubba, Paola,

      We are a nation of laws – our laws establish a set of objective criteria. As I see it, the rule of an objective set of laws is a much higher value than your own personal "need" that this woman speak English. So, I ask you, do you place a higher value on your "need" that she speak English or the rule of a set of laws by which all of us, you included, are to be judged? Do you want some judge to put you in jail, or deprive you of some important right, without first identifying some objective rule of law by which you are being judged? Again, tell me which if these values is the greater for our society?

      February 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Bubba™

    Speak English or work at taco bell

    February 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • peppi15

      ok jethro, very usefull comment, you are useless.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      You wan' drink wit dat taco?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  5. LogicalThinker

    This issue goes all the way back to the Enabling Act of 1910. This issue should be appealed in the federal court path to determine the outcome of the 1910 law. We should note that to become a citizen, an applicant must be able to understand English and the oath of citizenship in English.

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

      Except for the fact that she became a citizen prioir to speaking at all.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ricky P.

    Lucky for G. W. that proper english is not a requirement in Texas politics.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Back to English 101 with you

      What, pray tell, is the subject of your grammatically incorrect sentence?

      FAIL

      February 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Lucas

    Love it

    February 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  8. whatup123

    why is this news? this should be commonplace in america.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Trapped like a rat by her own inadequacy

    “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. ... and why was this telling interview not conducted in English?

    Guilty as charged. Case closed!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. smartaz

    Can we hold customer service reps to the same standard please?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  11. geek in the pink

    And all of you feel like hot sh***t because you as natives speak proper English (doubt it). You are all missing the point here that is her willingness to run for office and represent her community. Let the people of her town decide whether she is good or not for office. Why is it that you just feel good about yourselves because you found something that you do better than somebody else? If you don’t want her to run for office because of her English proficiency, then run for office yourselves. And last but no least, you guys love the well spoken politicians who know how memorize political discourses to bait us and keep us sank into the mess that we are. Applause to all of you Shakespearean.

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

      You cannot end a sentence with a preposition.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Andy Smith

    As I asked before (a few weeks ago when I first saw this story), if I can't speak or hear, but I'm an upstanding citizen of my city and country, should I be able to run for political office? From the comments, it appears to me that people are concerned about being able to communicate with her or her ability to communicate with others due to her less than "appropriate" mastery of the English language, and if someone can't speak or hear, those same issues exist. I don't think too many people would prevent a person that isn't able to speak or hear from running for political office, so why her?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. WachetAuf

    This is a very troubling case. As the article states, it is unclear what the basis of the judge's ruling is. Yes, there seems to be a lw which applies to state officers, but as far as I can see, this is not a state office involved. Our nation has flourished because we are a "nation of laws" which means that no man can be judged on the basis of anything but the law. Our laws have "objective" standards to guide judges. Yet, sometimes a judge, and the people, make a decision which seems very arbitrary. This may be one of those cases and it is my hope that this woman has the money needed to fight the establishment in Arizona. I had once believed that I would like to live n Arizona. But, over the years I have determined that principle is everything and it should not be compromised for the fanciful and intransigent "needs" of either myself or anyone else with fragile egos.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • msg44

      It is that philosophy that creates a LAW for every little thing. Sometimes common sense should rule. If you can't trust your judges with common sense, get rid of them. Our courts are bogged down with rediculous laws that often condradict each other...hense years and years in legal battles.

      Yes to Common Sense! Yes to enforcing the national/state language!

      February 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Keith

    She is an American Citizen by birth, not an illegal alien or legal immigrant. This is a civil rights issue concerning an American citizen. The standard applied has no metric, no clear means of determining fitness for office, and as far as fitness for office goes, God knows Harvard and Yale have turned out some real winners who speak English perfectly and have run the nation into the toilet.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ron

    You no speakul engrish you no run for office.

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