PHOENIX -- The case of a woman barred from running for city council in an Arizona border town because she isn't fluent in English has raised questions about the 123-year-old law used to kick her off the ballot.
While records don't show the exact intent of the law, state historian Marshall Trimble said that white settlers who came to Arizona in droves starting in 1890 with the expansion of railroads "were trying to eradicate Spanish."
The Arizona Supreme Court last week upheld a county judge's ruling that removed Alejandrina Cabrera from a March ballot for city council in San Luis, a small town just across the Mexican border in southwestern Arizona.
Cabrera insisted that her English is good enough for the community's mostly Spanish-speaking constituents. Her attorney said the effort to stop her is politically motivated because she tried twice to recall the mayor.
If left unchallenged, he said, the law "will become a political tool ... a litmus or intelligence test" that could be "used and abused to the detriment of voters."
In seeking her removal, San Luis Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla and other city officials cited a 1913 Arizona law that says anyone "who is unable to speak, write and read the English language is not eligible" to hold any kind of public office in the state.
The law actually began as a territorial act in 1889, more than two decades before Arizona became a state on Feb. 14, 1912.
Before railroads, Spanish was the preferred language in Arizona.
The currency was the Mexican peso, and marriages between white men and Hispanic women were common and accepted, Trimble said.
"Everyone was treated much more equally out here before it was easy to get here and people started bringing their prejudices with them," he said. "It was white arrogance."
Although 23 states, including Arizona, have laws that declare English to be their official language, Arizona is the only one that requires office-holders to speak the language, said Jon Griffin, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington, D.C.
When contacted, Cabrera declined to speak in English without her lawyer present.
In written questions posed to her in Spanish, she wrote back in English. Although she misspelled several words, her sentiments were clear -- she accused the mayor, the Yuma County judge and the Arizona Supreme Court of racism.
The mayor said the council's decision to remove Cabrera from the ballot had nothing to do with race. He and the rest of the city council are all Hispanic and speak Spanish and English.
Although a Spanish translator is available at all San Luis council meetings for members of the public who don't speak English, all the meetings and associated materials for council members are in English, Escamilla said.
Council members also have to meet with state and federal officials, and English is essential to those meetings, the mayor said.