When English Is Not Enough: Cabrera v. Escamilla


Shifting global demographics continue to produce political discourses on immigration. In the United States, history continues to repeat itself through the forged rhetorical relationship between individuals who speak English and individuals who are considered “American.” As the debate over immigration reform intensifies, so do efforts to regulate/restrict all languages deemed “foreign.” In Arizona, both officeholders and seekers who do not read, write, speak and understand English “sufficiently well” risk having their candidacy revoked. This was the case with former city-council candidate in the southern Arizona border city of San Luis, Alejandrina Cabrera. This essay argues that the political history of Arizona, as it pertains to matters of an English-only society, has historically operated within the restricted parameters of a paranoid style whereby the Cabrera case illustrates its modern metamorphosis.


racial and ethnic demographics continue to shift in the United States, so do mounting so-called concerns over how best to preserve American traditions, values, and laws. Intensified by political efforts to “take our country back” (a phrase most commonly heard in reference to the divided state of American politics), the passage of controversial state-level immigration enforcement laws, lack of congressional coordination over immigration reform, along with a weakening economy, all amount to a perfect storm. The current political atmosphere surrounding language and cultural assimilation, (Edwards 2009) is akin to earlier American political campaigns concerned about the “German threat” (Brown 2011). Concerns over American authenticity, especially amidst times of war and shifting national demographics continue to give way to questionable articulations of American national identity (Huntington 2004; Tancredo 2006). Forever preoccupied with articulating what it means to be American, lawmakers attempt to justify “common tongue” (Brown, 2010) interpretations of who is and who is not American.

It is unclear whether an intensified quest to define and articulate American commonality has benefitted or been harmed by official language legislation. Our efforts to “unify” the nation have resulted in the passage of official language laws in twenty-nine states, with Oklahoma being the most recent in 2010. With the supposed socio-political and economic implications of a growing Latino demographic looming, which include speculations over the lost of “core” American values (Buchanan, 2002), our pace toward achieving national unity continues to suffer from a seemingly systemic dissociation between “us” and “them,” “ours” and “theirs” (Santa Ana, 2002). Because the historical and rhetorical legacy of political campaigns aimed at promoting national unity have adjusted to shifting demographic trends, the legal battle that Alejandrina Cabrera faced came as no surprise. Cabrera is a former city council candidate in the southern Arizona border city of San Luis, who, upon being labeled “not sufficiently fluent” in English by the Arizona Superior Court in Yuma County, resulted in the removal of her name from the ballot. While the 1910 passage of the state’s Enabling Act requires both office holders and seekers to “read, write, speak and understand English sufficiently well,” (Act June 20, 1910, c. 310, 36 U.S. Stat. 557, 568-579) it does not specify or quantify proficiency, nor does it articulate ways to measure fluency. This policy leaves many unanswered questions and further directs suspicion to a state legislature engulfed in a political crisis over both its enactment of immigration laws and its banning of ethnic studies classes in public schools. Given these and other troublesome developments, this essay will pursue this peculiar pairing of shifting demographics and questionable political actions.

Despite recent news coverage and protest over recent policy enactments by the state of Arizona, I argue that the state of Arizona’s racial politics have a legal history and legacy of disenfranchisement preceding Arizona’s statehood. Specifically, I contend that the state of Arizona has historically operated within the restricted parameters of a paranoid style. The Alejandrina Cabrera case illustrates the most recent manifestation of this paranoid style.

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