In attempting to run for a seat on her local town council, Alejandrina Cabrera recently found herself in the middle of what looked to be a battle over qualifications for local office. But it was really the latest chapter in a century-long battle over what it means to be American in Arizona. Even as the Grand Canyon State commemorates its Centennial today–it was 100 years ago this Valentine’s Day that Arizona became the 48th state, filling out the continental United States–many of the old fights rage on.
Cabrera was seeking a seat on the city council of San Luis, Arizona, a border community in the state’s southwestern corner. Cabrera’s primary language is Spanish, which serves her well with most residents. Spanish didn’t hold her back from starting two recall petitions to remove the mayor, Juan Carlos Escamilla, or from filing the necessary nominating petitions to run for office. But it may keep her name off the ballot,
Last month, in response to a legal filing from Mayor Escamilla, a judge ordered a linguistic evaluation of Cabrera. Professor William G. Eggington of Brigham Young University in Utah was hired by the city to perform the exam. The three-part test evaluated Cabrera’s ability to speak, read, and comprehend English. Eggington reported back that Cabrera “does not yet have sufficient English language proficiency to function adequately” as a member of the city council. Based on that report and his own observations, the judge ruled that Cabrera was ineligible to run for office. In response to an appeal from her lawyers, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the judge’s ruling last week without comment.
The case raises profound and uncomfortable issues. Is English language proficiency a reasonable requirement for members of a city council in a heavily Latino community? Those on both sides of the San Luis dispute concede that Spanish is the standard language of daily life in the area. Spanish speakers often appear before the city council, aided by interpreters. So why not allow Cabrera to bring her own interpreter to translate the English portions of the proceedings?
The answer to that question can be traced back to the state’s origins. When delegates met in 1910 to draft Arizona’s constitution, many lawmakers in Washington worried that Arizona was not sufficiently “American.” In particular, they were distressed over Arizona’s large number of Mormons, Native Americans, and people of Mexican ancestry.
The “enabling act” laying out the conditions for Arizona statehood required that its new state constitution ensure the state’s “Americanization.” Regarding Mormonism, the new constitution prohibited polygamy. It contained prohibitions against selling alcohol on the state’s extensive Indian reservations or taxing that land. And it contained the following sentence: “The ability to read, write, speak, and understand English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without the aid of an interpreter, shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature.”
So what Cabrera ran up against was a constitutional provision and a century-old state statute extending it to other officeholders in the state. Arizona’s constitution is neither the first nor the last example of lawmaking that has limited the political participation of citizens on grounds other than age. But it’s in dubious company. The language-proficiency provision brings to mind the Jim Crow laws in effect throughout the American southeast when Arizona became a state. In 1910, African Americans, although legally citizens of the United States, were effectively barred from voting through a series of byzantine legal codes.
Literacy tests for voters were a central tool of the Jim Crow legal regime. Theoretically implemented to defend the integrity of the ballot by eliminating uninformed or coerced voting, in practice these laws allowed white officials to disqualify black voters who failed to meet arbitrary standards of literacy. In 1912, Arizona passed its own literacy law requiring voters to demonstrate that they could read the Constitution and write their name.
The era of Jim Crow was supposed to have ended in 1965 with the landmark Voting Rights Act. In fact, Arizona is one of the nine states subject to special oversight in the legislation. Along with Alaska, it is one of only two states outside the old Confederacy to require extra federal scrutiny of its voting laws and legislative boundaries, as a precaution to protect the rights of minority voters. But while the 1965 law barred disqualifying voters on discriminatory grounds, it did not overturn Arizona’s disqualifying of officeholders on discriminatory grounds.
Cabrera’s case bears a troubling resemblance to the Jim Crow literacy tests in three ways. First, the law being used to exclude her was written in the same period and with the same motivations–to limit political participation to “true” Americans. Second, the law has been arbitrarily rather than uniformly applied. Cabrera was subjected to the language test only after a hostile local official, the sitting mayor, raised a concern. Finally, according to Professor Eggington, the exam had no clear minimum standard. It was simply the professor’s opinion that Cabrera’s English was not sufficient. Sounds like the definition of arbitrary.
Societal demands for English as an official language often clash with the imperative to allow immigrant communities full exercise of their rights. And there are legitimate debates to be had about where to draw the lines on such matters. But if the law is applied inconsistently and without a clear standard, it’s rooted less in legitimate debates than in Jim Crow-style impulses. Arizona’s language-proficiency requirement relies upon and reinforces a sense of what makes someone “American” that is more closely tied to ethnicity than to citizenship and equality before the law.
Arizona’s constitutional past may seem long ago and far away to those residing in the state today, particularly to the droves of immigrants who came to the state in recent decades, both from Mexico and the rest of the Unites States. But it’s a shame more people aren’t aware of how Arizona’s founding laws, enacted in order to ensure the state’s “Americanness,” continue to haunt the state as it seeks to move into the 21st century.
Jason LaBau is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW). He is currently at work on a book about the history of Republican politics in Arizona.
*Photo courtesy of midwinter.