Interview: Irma Herrera of WHY WOULD I MISPRONOUNCE MY OWN NAME? at The Marsh Berkeley Uses Humor to Explore Issues of Othering and Belonging

Herrera's funny and thought-provoking solo show runs on Fridays from September 23 to October 21

By: Sep. 21, 2022
Interview: Irma Herrera of WHY WOULD I MISPRONOUNCE MY OWN NAME? at The Marsh Berkeley Uses Humor to Explore Issues of Othering and Belonging
Writer & performer Irma Herrera in Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? ​​at The Marsh Berkeley

What's in a name? In answer to that question famously posed by Shakespeare's Juliet, Irma Herrera's response is "a minefield of misplaced notions." And Herrera knows whereof she speaks. When giving her name its correct Spanish pronunciation, she knows what it feels like to have people correct you on the pronunciation of your own name or assume you are a "foreigner" when in fact your family has been in the U.S. for many generations. As writer-performer Herrera notes, "How can a simple introduction turn into a potential battle to be heard and seen?" As a civil rights lawyer and social justice activista for more than 30 years, she has delved into these issues and brings them to her newly updated show Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? running at The Marsh Berkeley September 23-October 21. Herrera will also host talkbacks following each performance with social justice leaders tackling a range of topics such as reproductive rights, reparations, and right-wing politics.

Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? was originally presented as part of The Marsh's "Rising Series," earning a Best of 2017 San Francisco Fringe Award and continues to evolve with new material related to current social justice issues. It was last seen at both The Marsh San Francisco and The Marsh Berkeley in 2019, where it was extended multiple times, playing to packed houses and garnering glowing reviews.

I spoke with Herrera by phone last week to learn more about this new iteration of her show. We talked about how the show originally came to be, how she went from practicing law to becoming a writer-performer, how she keeps the show current and an interesting new work she's excited about creating immediately after the run of Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? In conversation, Herrera is effortlessly chatty and warm, with a keen sense of humor even when talking about things in the world that enrage her. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This run of Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? at The Marsh Berkeley is actually a return engagement. Have you made many changes to the show since you last performed it there in 2019?

My show is always changing because it's very much about the state of the world, actually the United States principally. The last time I had a run at The Marsh was before the mass killings at the Walmart in El Paso, before George Floyd, before COVID, before the rise in Asian hate crimes so I have a lot of new material incorporated. But the vast majority of the play remains the same because it is autobiographical in nature, and those stories aren't going to change.

My play is very much about racism and the other isms - homophobia, ageism, prejudice against people with disabilities, Islamophobia. I want people to connect all the dots, that when we put people into boxes and then look for the worst kind of stereotypes we have about this group, it's not good. It diminishes all of us. Maybe it's not your group that's on the firing line, but think about what you do. Because we all have prejudices, it's in the nature of humanity. And I just want people to think about, "Well, what do I have opinions about that are negative, and where do they come from? Do I really feel that way? Do I have experiences that counteract that?" Right now, people are very open to thinking about their own role in how we make a better world that's less racist, less homophobic, [etc.] Clearly not everybody - we have a lot pushback as well with the anti-CRT movement, the "Don't Say Gay" bills, the banning of books, the censorship, all those things are part of the tectonic shifts that as a society we're grappling with.

My play at heart is about othering and belonging. I speak about the dangers of othering people and dehumanizing people, which was so prevalent during the Trump administration, but even right now for example with the sending of these migrants to Martha's Vineyard. How cruel and heartless is that? That you can take people and make pawns of them, and just ship them over to a place where they're clearly not going to be able to find jobs, it's the end of the season.

How have you incorporated those recent events without appearing to sensationalize them?

Yeah, I don't want to sensationalize. I mean, the topic itself is painful to deal with, but I don't have any images that are upsetting in the sense of any violence. I have images of all these altars that people put together after these horrible shootings. And it isn't just Latinos. We have shootings that have been racially motivated that have attacked Black people, a Jewish synagogue, mosques, and then of course there was the school shooting in Uvalde which wasn't racially motivated but speaks to the proliferation and accessibility of weapons and the amount of damage that they do to all our communities.

I simply raise these as issues that need to be considered, about what kind of society do we want to be living in and what do we as individuals do? What is our obligation to our neighbors, whether they look like us or not? It's not my job to tell people what to think. I want just people to think about some of the issues raised in my play.

You call the piece a "work of creative nonfiction." What does that mean to you?

What that means it that all the things that happened are true, but they may not have happened in exactly the way they're packaged together. For example, I tell a series of vignettes in which people share their name stories. All those stories were shared with me by those individuals, so the stories are true, but it's fictionalized in the way in which I have woven them into a scene.

The show was originally developed with David Ford, The Marsh's sort of guru of solo performance. How did you originally connect with him?

I met David Ford because I took one of his classes at The Marsh. I took it because of my friend Diane Barnes, who is also a solo performer and who I've known for (gosh!) 40 years, when she was a young doctor and I was a young lawyer in San Francisco. She and I took a writing class at UC Extension. I looked around the room and there was one brown face in addition to mine and it was Diane so I introduced myself and we became friends. We were both very much in the early stages of our professional lives and worked for 3-plus decades, she as a doctor and me as a lawyer, and then we got back to writing. I had been working on a novel, and it just wasn't happening, wasn't going anywhere. In a conversation with Diane, she said, "Why don't you take this class with me at The Marsh? The guy who teaches it, David Ford, is really good at getting out your story." So I signed up for this Sunday class at The Marsh that Diane was in. I also met a bunch of really wonderful people who are part of the solo scene, and I discovered that I love the art of oral storytelling.

How did you make the leap from writer to performer?

It all started with that class at The Marsh. Even though it was a storytelling class, I took it not because I had any ambitions of being a performer, but because I wanted to work with someone who would help me develop the material and ideas that seemed to have a hard time coming out. But I just fell in love with telling stories. Interestingly enough, I love solo plays, so I used to go to The Marsh as a patron. Even though I saw people performing their stories onstage, I never saw myself as someone who was gonna do that. But when I look back on it, I think "Duh! That was kind of obvious." [laughs] And then when I got the opportunity to give it a test drive, I really liked it.

The way that David's class was structured is people work on material and then you come and you've got your 15 minutes to present it. Quite often I had material about something that outraged me, and David on occasion said, "Well, that's a rant, not theatre. But I think you can turn it into theatre." There was certainly a theme about my material, and some of it was the lack of understanding about the Latino community, the sense that we were outsiders and don't belong, that we were all new Americans, which is not true, and that we don't learn English.

I'm often yelling at the radio and the television when they mispronounce Spanish surnames, or in other languages too, because people always bend over backwards to say French names correctly. A newscaster on NPR or some other major network wouldn't be allowed to mispronounce François Mitterrand or some other French leader; they bother learning their names. But I would hear the mispronunciation of Latino names, and the one that sticks most with me is former Secretary of Energy, Federico Peña. I would hear him repeatedly called "Frederico Piña." Well, Piña is "pineapple" and that's not his name.

Why is this so difficult for people to want to say the names of Latino folks correctly? In part, it's because lack of respect or an expectation that we have to change our names to accommodate, to make it easy on other people. Why is that? Björn Borg didn't have to change his name, you know? People learned how to say Björn Borg, with those two little dots on top, and a "j" after a "B." What's that about? People just think "Oh, okay, it's a different kind of name. I can learn how to say it." But all too often, Latinos when we have ethnic names, people are like "Oh, that's too hard. Can I call you something else?" Now, my name Irma, granted it can be pronounced "Ur-muh." Some people say it that way and it's totally cool when that's their name, but that's not my name.

My play was originally called, "Tell Me Your Name," and one day I was meeting with Bruce Pachtman, who runs Solo Sundays and has been very supportive of me. He asked, "Are you wedded to the name of your play?" And I said, "Well, I like it... I mean, I picked it. Why do you ask?" He said, "It doesn't tell me anything about your play. Is it like you're just a friendly person that introduces yourself to everybody? I think you should look at your script and if somewhere in there there's some line or word that has some heat to it, some charge, that would maybe be a better name for your play." And then as I was leaving our meeting, I said, "Here's the deal, Bruce. I have no control over whether people want to say, or can say, my name correctly, but why would I mispronounce my own name?" And he said, "That's a good title!" [laughs]

Interview: Irma Herrera of WHY WOULD I MISPRONOUNCE MY OWN NAME? at The Marsh Berkeley Uses Humor to Explore Issues of Othering and Belonging
Writer & performer Irma Herrera in Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? ​​at The Marsh Berkeley

What is your favorite thing about performing the piece?

My favorite thing is hearing from people who leave the theater and then weeks later see something and it hearkens back to something they learned at my play. For example, I have a friend who visited the Whitney Plantation, a museum outside of New Orleans devoted to the history of slavery. She said there was a wonderful docent who took them to this wall where they had the names of the people who were enslaved there. And the docent said, "Of course, these are not their real names. These are their anglified and francofied names, not the names the people knew each other by." It reminds me that many people have had the experience of someone else telling them what their name should be, and that was true of enslaved people. From Roots we have the horrible scene where Kunta Kinte is whipped to within an inch of his life because he wanted to be called Kunta Kinte and they kept telling him, "No, your name is Toby."

So I love that people think of my play when they see things. A friend just sent me a children's book written by a South Asian writer about a little kid who goes to school and comes back and tells her mother she wants to change her name because nobody wants to say her name correctly. That's just so touching that people leave the theater with a different appreciation for the importance of respecting someone's name, whether it's a kindergarten student just entering school, someone who was enslaved, or an immigrant who was told they had to change their name to fit in, which a lot of families did. In the waves of migration that happened in the 1800s, 1900s, a lot of people felt pressure to change their names in order to fit in.

But we live in different times, and today people generally don't change their names to fit in. Some people choose to give their children names that are more traditional "American" names, anglified names, and others don't. I love the conversations that I have with people around names and the choices people make in naming their children, or how they feel about their own name. I remember after I performed at The Marsh one day, a guy came up to me and said, "I've gotta tell you, you and I probably don't agree on anything politically." And I said, "OK..." And he said, "However, you gave me a lot to think about. Thank you so much." And I thought, "Thanks." ... and then I wanted to run after him and say, "Who brought you? Did you walk into the wrong theater?" [laughs]

Are you currently working on any other performance pieces?

I took this class with Dan Hoyle a couple of months back. I'm a huge fan of his and I go see his plays multiple times whenever he's doing anything. In his class, I had this idea that I wanted to work on short vignettes about names because I love that theme, but then something else was showing up and it was stories about being what I call a class migrant, someone who grew up in a relatively low-income family and now, thanks to the virtue of a good education and jobs that gave me many opportunities, I live under different socioeconomic circumstances. Like finding yourself in a conversation with people who grew up so much wealthier than you who talk about how their families went to Martha's Vineyard every summer, and you know that was just not part of my world.

And seeing the privileges my own son has that I never had. Hearing my son say, "Oh, why do we have to go to Europe? I don't want to go. I was there last summer." And it's like "Jeez! Should I just slap you right now?" [laughs] Because I was only able go to Europe after I was 30 and I paid for it myself, right? On the other hand, he doesn't know any different. This is an opportunity his parents gave him because we love to travel. And now as the young adult that he is, he's very appreciative of having had these chances to do things that most people don't get to do.

So I'm working on a play that has a Working Title "Class Migrant" and I'm just at the very beginning stages. I'm very thrilled to say that I got selected for a two-week residency at a writers' retreat called Mesa Refuge at Pt. Reyes. I'm gonna go spend two weeks at the beginning of December developing this new material. Although I'm a little intimidated by the topic because I like funny. I think humor is so important in reaching people and disarming them and making them feel comfortable and not defensive about what you're going to say. And I'm thinking what's funny about being poor, you know? Dan Hoyle said, "Just write it. Don't think about any of that. Just write these little stories that you have and you'll figure it out."

I haven't had a chance to work on it at all because I've been revising and getting Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? ready to put back onstage. I'd forgotten how much work it is! Everything from choosing the images, cause my play is kind of a multimedia experience, I have three video clips of things that I talk about, I have some music. Making all these selections is time-consuming and takes a lot of thought and collaboration with my director Rebecca Fisher and the tech we're working with, Blake Radiant, so it's been very hard to focus on anything but this. But I'm very excited that come December I get to start thinking about something else I want to write.

(photos by Chuck Revell)


Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? runs September 23 to October 21, 2022 with performances at 7:30pm Fridays at The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley. Each show will be followed with a post-performance talkback. For information or to order tickets, visit

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