I encourage all Bay Area folks to go see “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?” at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco. Irma and I got to know each other in the 90’s when we were both running social justice organizations and participating in a long set of dialogues about race. At the time, she was an attorney and the head of the women’s rights group Equal Rights Advocates.
After retiring from organizational life, Irma let her creativity soar. She wrote and started performing a one-woman show based on her experiences having her name butchered, and the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to Anglicize the way she said her own name. I saw the show soon after a Dear Abby column told an inquirer that giving children “complicated” ethnic names constituted bad parenting. Our names are the arguably the most important aspect of our identities. We have to hear it dozens of times a day. Getting someone’s name wrong can erase the part of them that makes you most uncomfortable. I’m talking, of course, about repeated mispronunciation after repeated corrections, not the first-time or occasional flub.
The show is a sweet glimpse into the life of a Texas Chicana from early childhood through WWII, the turbulent 60’s, and into the accomplished life of a social change leader. I loved the passages about her own elder relatives and their name struggles, and the story about the first (and I believe only) time she mispronounced her own name. An anecdote about receiving an important award, only to find that her introduction video used the wrong name throughout evoked that feeling of opening a present to find an unfunny gag gift inside. I also learned some history, like the story of Felix Longoria, whose home-town funeral home, attached to a segregated cemetery, refused to let his family hold a wake for him.
Irma is hosting talk-backs at most of her shows. I was honored to do the talk back on opening night. We discussed my own actual first name (watch the video to find out what it is), Race Forward’s Drop the I-word campaign to get the Associated Press to take “illegal immigrant” out of their Style Guide and positive stereotypes. You can see the talk back here.
The show will run through December 8. It may well be extended so it’s worth checking back with the Marsh if you can’t make it before then. You’ll probably find a wonderful talk back guest too, like a constitutional law professor, restorative justice activist, or civil rights leader.
Many congratulations to Irma Herrera, who is proving that life has many acts and inspiring me to keep writing.