Irma Herrera remembers her transition from a parochial middle school to a public high school. Her parochial school was a much greater reflection of her segregated upbringing, a young, Mexican girl growing up in Alice, Texas, long known as the birthplace of Tejano music.
During an eighth grade visit, Herrera and her fellow brown friends introduced themselves to a class at their new school. Each of the friends stood up and pronounced their name the way their parents wanted, the Spanish accent rolling firmly and confidently off the tongue.
And then it was Herrera’s turn.
Herrera balked at the proper pronunciation, choosing to present the anglicized version of her name instead. “Irma,” she said, the Ir sounding like her or fur. But in a Spanish pronunciation, the Ir sounds more like “hear” or “ear,” with a gentle soft roll of the R. And the pronunciation of her last name Herrera, with no rolling double r on the tongue and a hard H shocked her friends.
Immediately, one of those friends called her a tonta, or dummy, for anglicizing her name.
It’s something Herrera never forgot, and a question she asked herself, which led to the title of her show. What was so important to this young girl where she would compromise her beliefs and family history in order to gain white acceptance?
“It was a realization that these people don’t care about me and they’re never going to be my friends, so why do I care if they understood my name or not,” said Herrera. “That is the genesis of my play. The name of the play and the realization that I needed to be true to who I was. If people accepted me, that was not going to be determined by whether I said my name in an anglicized way or not.”
The subject of names and the agency of them is a fascinating topic to Herrera, who, like many not named John Smith, have had a lifetime of mispronunciations to deal with. This topic is broached extensively in her one-woman show “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?,” which starts its six-week return engagement at the Marsh in San Francisco on Saturday, Dec. 22nd.
Herrera has a fascinating backstory, one that didn’t see her performing on a theatre stage throughout her career. The 67-year-old performer embarked on a Sunday performance class at the Marsh three years ago with resident artist David Ford, after spending the bulk of her career as a civil rights lawyer and journalist. That initial class led to another, and soon Herrera was falling in love with the art form, encouraged by Ford to keep developing the piece.
After an initial run at Ross Valley Players in Marin County, Herrera took her show to Marsh Rising a year ago, the one-night tryout for works in development. The success of those runs was followed with even more successful runs at both the San Francisco and Fresno Fringe festivals and her full Marsh debut this past October. The San Francisco run even nabbed her the 2017 best of festival award.
With the lengthy process came an opportunity to further shape the acting of the piece, which is an entirely different animal altogether. To that end, Herrera was thrilled to work with director Rebecca Fisher, who is also a performer and helped guide her towards acting teachers who could continue to hone her new craft.
While the play certainly focuses on names, that is merely the jumping off point. The name and its pronunciation are metaphors for so much more, and that has led to some very poignant moments for Herrera on stage.
“The biggest challenge has been finding how much emotion I feel in a couple of scenes where I’m thinking, Oh my god, I’m going to lose it and not be able to continue,” said Herrera. “It’s the hardest part for me as a performer, finding out how to let my emotions be there but still be in control.”
Herrera’s piece has certainly touched a nerve, as reflected by the countless conversations she’s had with those who share with her their own stories of names, with just about everyone having a story as it pertains to one of the great name-butchers in American culture – Starbucks. And while there are plenty of moments of levity in the show and in her conversations, some of these chats take on a special type of urgency. Herrera reflected on one of those chats, a conversation that took place with a man named Juan after a show in San Antonio.
“He told me that when he started kindergarten, on the first day of school, the teacher told him that from now on his name was John,” said Herrera. “He said he felt kind of special, and when he told his mother, she looked sad. ‘Mijo, you’re named after your father who died before you were born – your name is Juan.’
“He was conflicted as a little kid, wanting to please his mom but also wanting to please his teacher.”
These stories have continued to strengthen her resolve, allowing Herrera, who’s lived in the Bay Area since 1980, to use her newly minted platform to connect. She’s not interested in lecturing anyone, so she doesn’t. For her, the topic of names opens the door for a larger and more varied conversation – she tells her story and lets you make up your own mind.
“The anglicized pronunciation of Irma is not my name. I’m not sure why I did it. People choose how they want to say my name, but you can’t make me say my name wrong for your convenience. I won’t do it.
“Why would I mispronounce my own name?”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
The Marsh presents “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?”
Written and performed by Irma Herrera
Directed by Rebecca Fisher
Developed with David Ford
Saturdays at 5 pm through Jan. 26th
Running time: 60 minutes, no intermission
The Marsh Studio Theater
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Tickets range from $20 – $100
For tickets, call (415) 282-3055 or visit https://themarsh.org/