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Arts & Culture

Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?

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Norma Martinez

A person’s name can be a point of contention, especially when it’s pronounced incorrectly.  If your name is long, perhaps you shorten it.  Or if you are Hispanic, perhaps you don’t mind an Anglicized version…take “peh-REZ” instead of “PEH-rez.”

TPR’s Norma Martinez spoke to writer, performer, and social activist Irma Herrera, whose one-woman show “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name” encourages people to embrace the names with which they were blessed. 

Norma:  So pronounce your name for us the way, of course, the way you say your name.

Irma:  Irma Herrera.  Often people look startled when I say ‘Irma Herrera,’ and their response is ‘I didn’t catch that.’  And I understand, so I say ‘I’ll repeat it for you.  My name is Irma Herrera.’  ‘How do you spell it?’  I say ‘better if I pronounce it and you repeat after me because it may not sound like it looks to you.’  Because when people say I-R-M-A they say ‘erma,’ and if they see H-E-R-R-E-R-A they say ‘H-errera.’ And in Spanish the H is silent.  But of course many people do pronounce the H.  For example you hear people refer to their name as ‘H-ernandez.’  So part of it is simply people don’t know.  But a common response I get back from people when I say ‘just try, it’s Irma Herrera,’ ‘Oh, I’m not good with languages, I can’t roll my r’s.’  It’s like, really you can, just give a try.  And they do.  And when they do they find they can closely approximate it.

I’m curious, you grew up in this little town, Alice, Texas, which you describe as being very segregated.  Were you ever embarrassed by your name?

Oh, come see my play and I tell a particular story about mispronouncing my own name and how that felt.  You know until I started public schools - I went to a segregated parochial school - until I went to a public school and had Anglo teachers, it was never an issue, because we were taught by Filipino and Spanish nuns. 

And growing up in Tejas, when the teachers called me “erma,” I don’t think that I corrected them.  And this is so true of so many people that as they became older, as they became more politically aware about the differences and discrimination, that some folks reclaimed their name and said, ‘well, wait a minute, I’m not Grace, I’m Graciela.’  But it’s not just an issue for Latinos or people with Spanish names.  If your name is Alexander, and that’s what you want to be called, and someone calls you Alex, you tell them ‘no, it’s Alexander.’  And generally we afford those people that respect.

And I have a beef with National Public Radio and with almost all radio stations, and that is the great attention they pay to saying French names.  No one would dream of calling ‘Jack Cheerack,’ the former French president.  They say ‘Jacques Chirac.’  But you have Spanish names, and they often get mispronounced.  And I have one incident in particular that always sticks out in my mind.  And that is Federico Peña, who is former Secretary of Transportation and then Energy.  So the newscasters would often call him Frederico Piña. Well, piña’s a pineapple, and that’s not his last name, it’s Peña, and I would yell at the radio and say ‘where are the editors?’  Why aren’t people saying to the on air newscasters, ‘you need to learn those pronunciations as well?’

So there’s this thing I have about Spanish being viewed as a low-status language as compared to others, in particular French.  But there’s no excuse for it. 

So do you have a book planned with your experiences?

I do, I do.  I’ve been collecting stories, and I plan to call my book ‘Tell Me Your Name,’ which was the original name of my play.  I don’t know when the book will see the light of day, but one of the tremendous pleasures and rewards of this project is the stories that people share with me. 

I sent a little radio clip from a prospective program at my local affiliate station to a woman that I know who is of Hungarian ancestry, she was actually born in Hungary.  And it was about a woman’s Polish name being mispronounced.   And she said, ‘my parents gave us distinctive Hungarian first names in case we were displaced during the war they would know what country to return us to.’

So there’s so much that goes into a person’s name that we don’t know about.   And therefore, it really is about respecting an individual  to take the time to learn what their name is and how to say it.