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. Tom

    I totally agree with the ruling of the court. In Canada for instance, to serve in any government position, you have to be completely bilingual. Imagine the problems that could ensue if she did not understand something in English well enough to translate it in an intelligent manner back to Spanish or something in Spanish back to English. Let her do what she has to in order to improve her English speaking skills, then once completely bilingual, apply again. English is the official language of the USA not Spanglish or anything in between!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gold Finger

      She can always buy and Iphone 4 S and use Siri. There are plenty of electronic solutions. If not, she can always hire a translator.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      Or she could make the effort to actually LEARN English.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Duane

      Gold Finger- Why should the taxpayers foot the bill to pay for a translator?

      February 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • fastball

      "In Canada for instance, to serve in any government position, you have to be completely bilingual."......I call BS on that. I'm Canadian – and there are PLENTY of government officials (local, provincial AND federal) who speak little or no French.

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

      The United States has no official language, you ignorant racist.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gold Finger

      Who said she would have the town pay for it. Odds are she already has an Iphone. Secondly, the town speaks 80% spanish. It should be the english only speakers having to get translators if we are talking about fare.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ladislav Nemec Big Bear California

      I was not born in this country, became a naturalized citizen in 1978. My native tongue is rahter obscure – Czech. I would NEVER consider to run for any office here because of my accent that would make it difficult to communicate with some Americans born here.

      I understand the Arizona ruling. Unfortunately, lot of what is now United States in Southwest was first colonized by the Spanish and we cannot prevent effectively influx of Hispanics to this area. We can onlyu slow down the inevitable – turning this part of the USA into a bilingual area. in many cases it already is – most phone calls can be made now in English or Spanish both to private companies or to many governmental agencies.

      It is not desirable to be a bilingual nation but it is, most likely, it just a matter of time till it happens.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ir8American

      The US does not have an official language. English is the de facto language.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Gold Finger, are you her attorney?

      February 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      ARIZONA has an offical language.
      It is English.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gold Finger

      No, I read the article and watched the video. This entire thing is a fraud generated by the mayor because she tried to get him tossed out twice. They don't have a standardized test. They made it up at the last moment. It's an absurde abuse of election law.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      @dsavio and IR8american It's amazing how many Americans don't know that their country does have an official language.....God help us all!

      February 8, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  2. amazed

    We must support the left's obsession with allowing Hispanics to break any law, go to the head of any line and get full access to any public monies. No one else, just them. I think some day people will look back and be amazed at this total left wing obsession with all things Hispanic. The notion that one can hold a public office without speaking or understanding the language of the land is patently absurd. It is not "racist", "xenophobic", "hateful" or any of the other mean labels leftists like to sling about – it is just plainly absurd.

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

      The obserd thing to this law is that it limits an American citizen from running for office. The fact that you base your argument purely on race is what makes you a racist.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • From Andromeda

      But what rule/law is being violated by her not being fluent in English? I've never seen anything in any election code that stated fluent English was a requirement.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • dally

      she's an american citizen!! that's the real problem. people hear what they want to in this country, not what matters. get a clue! and NO! i am not spanish, can't speak a word of it!!

      February 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gold Finger

      Its a 2006 election code law. Read the article. The reference a 1910 law that allows it in Arizone. The whole thing is obserd and is a violation of current Federal guidlines on elections.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • From Andromeda

      Yeah, I was think about Federal when I posted that. IANAL, so I'm curious - could this theoretically be appealed to the a Federal court?

      February 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • geek in the pink

      You are hysterically funny! The the left's obsession with allowing Hispanics to break any law? I see that you are fluent in English and yet you have no idea what the issue is all about. How is she breaking the law? She is a born US citizen? What's illegal about that? Dont politicize this issue by blaming the left, or right.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Casaer

    So if i am dumb by birth and US born – I am not eligible to run a public office? This is discriminatory! People who are voting should decide if they accept a person to be elected or not as long as they are legal citizens of that place.

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

      There are a lot of dumb people in office but they all speak English.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      It's not discriminatory in any way. Our laws are written in English. Our traffic signs are written in English. This citizen has to be able to read, understand, and comprehend the legislation that she votes on. If she doesn't understand it, then the community as a whole suffers. She's not qualified. End of story. The fact that she has brown skin is secondary and irrelevant.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  4. c'mon America

    If this town is completely isolated from the rest of Arizona and the U.S.A. , any language spoken there is probably fine .
    Big if .

    February 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Joe

    so her highest education is high school, she doesn't speak English fluently, and she's trying to become someone who will run a city. Take that resume to any company trying to hire a board member. you're going to be laughed out. The starndard for public office in US is too low. it's not just for ANYBODY.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Casaer

      But who gets to decide if she could be mayor or not? Let people of that town decide it. Not courts.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      If she was in Mexico I wouldn't care. She lives in America so I do. Learn English or leave.....

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

      There's a law (as reported in the news) that says in order to run for an office you need to be proficient in English. The people don't get the right to vote for someone unless that someone qualifies to run for office in the first place.

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

      First, its a small town. Her resume is fine. Secondly, you don't have to have an education to run a succesful company. None of your arguement applies to her not being able to run a town. What you should be gadging is this young ladies determination to get a job done. This trial is proving she has plenty of that.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Diana, Erie pa

    I am so sick of People thinking they have a right to this and a right to that, this is America and English has been the oficial language for how long? if you wnat to come to this country and be a part of it learn to speak english, how can you think of being in a position of power with out knowing how to speak the language I dont care how many people speak spanish in the city or state you are in The United States of America, and you should follow the rules and stop spending the peoples money on something you are not going to win. And by the way I speak both languages spanish and english but I also know that being in this country I need to follow the rules.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • dsavio

      English has never been the official language of the US. There is no official language.

      Read a book, idiot.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • dumbo

      maybe if you knew anything about voting for the right candidate your municipality wouldn't be bankrupt

      February 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Ben35

    Strip her citizenship and send her back to Mexico. Most likely her mother came to Arizona just to give birth to her so that she could be a US citizen.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gustavo

      At least she's trying to help the country and not like plenty of other "Americans" that all they do is complain and complain and never really help the situation. If all people in this country had the will to help their community as much as this woman we would all be better off. Stop complaining and blaming others for what this country has done to itself.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  8. BigRed32

    The last time I checked this is the United States of America. Alejandrina Cabrera is a disgrace!! A US citizen who can't speak english?? Really. Speaking the same language is one of the common threads that binds us, or at least it should be.
    We need to make english the offical and ONLY language of our country before it too late.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gold Finger

      Community is what binds people together. Not language. A common history. Not language. You make english an official language, you will eliminate over 80% of the population from running for office. And if you ever actually studied history you would know this is how they prevented people from voting before the civil rights act. Any one that voted against the establishment was eliminated as a voter for any reason that was "un-American".

      February 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. brett

    Clearly a violation of the 14th Amendment...and probably the 1st as well...

    February 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. V

    olive – what makes you say something as stupid as that?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. horf

    This doesn't seem like a good reason to boot someone from a ballot.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Rudy

    She can't speak english, so she can't convey her thoughts to the rest of the city council. So now the city will have to hire a full time translator so she can conduct city business.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gold Finger

      It didn't say she didn't know English. It just said she didn't speak it well. Odds are she could recruit a friend to help her for free.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      The official language of AZ is English.
      If she wants to help form policy, she needs to understand what she is helping to form.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gold Finger

      Watch the video. She speaks broken english well enough to carry on an interview. As for 87% of the town speaking spanish, I really don't think there is a communication issue.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. fastball

    "In Canada for instance, to serve in any government position, you have to be completely bilingual."......I call BS on that. I'm Canadian – and there are PLENTY of government officials (local, provincial AND federal) who speak little or no French.
    But to get back on point....yes, the woman should hold some kind of competency in the English language if you want to hold public office in an English-speaking country. A year or so in a ESL course will fix that right up.
    PS...and it's "fluent", not "fluid".

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

    NO WAY should someone not fluent and proficient in English should hold any office. It's like having an English speaking American running for mayor of a Mexican town. It wouldn't work. If she isn't proficient, how will she understand and use the policies written in ENGLISH. The judge made the right choice. If she couldn't name the name of the high school she graduated from, a simple question, how will she answer questions that will arise from her english speaking voters?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  15. JUSTME69

    ITS ABOUT TIME!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
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