His name was Otilio. To her, he was Tio Otilio.
Irma Herrera’s aunts and uncles came from a generation where names like Dominga, Socorro and Epifania were commonplace. Those were names rooted in sacred and secular traditions, names rich with heart and history.
But Herrera noticed something odd about Tio Otilio’s name one day, which she always thought she knew, except for that one time when his work shirt had someone else’s name on it.
T-O-M. Tom. So much easier for his co-workers to pronounce.
This might have been Herrera’s first lesson in what it means to have a dual existence as a Mexican-American. And despite some of her own personal slip ups regarding the pronunciation of her own name, Herrera’s resolve is one that forces those who interact with her to be better, to respect her, and it’s wholly refreshing.
Herrera’s intensely personal piece “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name” is a slick and whip-smart history lesson where her name is merely the jumping off point to examine her own life journey. Her path took her from Alice, Texas, a town as small as it sounds, to major cities across the country and ultimately, a law degree which she has used for more than 30 years as a civil rights attorney.
Her one-woman show, which finished lengthy runs at the Marsh in both San Francisco and Berkeley covers lots of ground in its 65 consecutive minutes. It’s a piece that moves through space freely and smoothly.
The play kicks off with a vital lesson, one that sets the tone for the duration of the show. Her name is not pronounced as Irma, the Ir sounding like her. It’s actually EARma, and that premise is pretty straightforward, with Herrera taking no more than a minute to teach this. See, it’s not hard at all. Unless you’re a self-entitled jerk who can’t be inconvenienced by someone teaching you something critical about themselves in order to pay proper respect to said person’s wishes.
In that case, the self-entitled jerk may struggle a bit.
The way Herrera pronounces her name is quite metaphoric, and makes a much larger point. If it’s so easy to pronounce a name the way someone wants it to be pronounced, why is that inconvenient for so many? What seems to baffle Herrera is this belief that, because she is pronouncing her name with its Spanish translation and not the anglicized version, her loyalties to being American aren’t as strong as her loyalties to being Mexican.
This premise is what really gives the play its shape, form and power. Her own story and the characters she plays, with her portrayals mostly hitting their intended targets, examines deeply other aspects of growing up Mexican-American. She points to people, both famous and not, who fought their own battles with society.
For me, this is where the play becomes quite personal. There are references to revered Mexican-American heroes like her fellow Texan Felix Longoria, who was denied the opportunity for burial in his hometown after being killed in the Philippines during World War II. The idea that a brown soldier can lie in rest at a white cemetery was a bit preposterous, even considering that Longoria was killed in service to his country. As it was, it took roughly four years for Longoria’s family to receive his remains, finally acquiring them in 1949.
But good thing Arlington National Cemetery has no such restrictions, with Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson making sure that Longoria was honored in the most decorated military cemetery in the nation. It’s a story I grew up with as the child of a strong familial military tradition – uncles, grandparents and my Vietnam veteran father who all served.
There are other moments that Herrera references, moments that shape her worldview and her activism. The killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. hits hard, a Black activist in the 1960s who dared to have a dream. Then there’s the story of the name of fellow MALDEF lawyer and Yale/Harvard law alum Joaquin Avila, who spent considerable time as a Bay Area resident, keeping an office in Fremont for many years. And there’s references to the American GI Forum, a group that galvanized greatly after the Longoria affair, an organization my paternal grandfather was heavily involved with (menudo and boxing at the fairgrounds today, kids!).
So many wonderful touchstones dot the piece throughout, helping to shape each moment of her upbringing. Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and the delicious sounds of the opening trumpets in Little Joe y la Familia’s “Las Nubes,” a song that seemed to wake me up every Sunday morning, rooted in our family’s paternal El Paso roots, greatly captured the soundtrack of her life.
Which brings the play back to its premise. The power of the narrative is rooted in the ill-fated attempts for Herrera to conform, shaped firmly by a disastrous introduction to her very white incoming ninth grade class. Seemingly, at that moment, this was the last time Herrera compromised her culture and her identity.
There is a clear immigrant narrative at play here, a narrative that isn’t really very immigrant at all considering Texas used to be Mexico. For many, there was certainly no border crossing. As the saying goes, “We didn’t cross the border – the border crossed us.”
Herrera’s uncompromising pronunciation of EARma reflects beautifully what it means to be American. The United States is a country of immigrants, and no matter how badly some are dying to maintain a white default, that is not the premise and promise of America. Herrera has spent a life of service teaching this to others, all the while advocating for her worth as a person and an educated Latina. Each person’s name is more than just a simple identity – it’s an entire being, a way to honor the person in your family who might have carried the name before you.
The final moments and final lines of the play are sneaky, yet wonderfully effective. Is there something about being Mexican that makes certain people not want to make the effort? And what would it take for that to change? It’s a critical question, one that Herrera ponders.
But there is a question she no longer ponders – Why would I mispronounce my own name? A remarkable life of education, service to others and now a whole new career in theatre has taught her the answer to that question.
Irma Herrera will never have anyone mispronounce her own name.
Listen with your ear, then say ear, and respect that.
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