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That Is a FOREIGN Name and I’m Not Talking to You

Sergio Romo at SF Giants World Series Victory Parade

Those were the words of an employee at the Alabama House of Representatives before she hung up the phone on me.

I've had plenty of interesting interactions around my name and its correct Spanish pronunciation, but a phone slam for having a “foreign” name. That was, different.

But first, the backstory. This was 2011 and Alabama had passed HB 56, a mean-spirited law intended to make the lives of undocumented immigrants so MISERABLE they would “self-deport.”

That law, which targeted Latinos, prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing any government services, and made it unlawful for anyone (businesses or individuals) to enter into contracts with undocumented persons.

Count the Number of Contracts You Currently Have

The right to enter into contracts is something we take for granted. As groups of people have gained equal rights, we have acquired the right to contract. For centuries, this right was denied to slaves and women. In Nazi Germany, all state contracts with Jewish-owned businesses were cancelled. We still deny minors the right to contract, and with good reason. Take a moment and make note of every contractual obligation you have.

Renting an apartment to an undocumented person was now against the law in Alabama. Were landlords required to evict folks who had been their tenants for years? And how were they to determine who was undocumented and who was residing lawfully?

It was now against the law for a car dealership to sell an undocumented person a truck or car. A Spanish language newspaper reported laying off several employees when advertising sales dropped. Car dealers stopped advertising for fear of prosecution for breaking the law.

It became against the law to provide cell phone service to undocumented folks, since that requires a contract with any service provider, such as T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint.

Some utility companies left notices at the homes of customers with names like Garcia and Rodriguez, saying that their electricity or water would be shut off unless they could prove they were lawfully present. Never mind that millions of people with Spanish surnames have been citizens of the United States for decades and centuries.

Government Services

We receive all sorts of government services each and every day. In order to renew a car registration or driver’s license, DMV now had to determine that a person was lawfully present in the United States. Everyone had to go down to their local DMV with a birth certificate, passport, or green card before accessing any services from DMV. The lines around DMV offices went on for blocks.

White and black folks (as well as US citizens of Latino, Asian and every other background) were greatly inconvenienced and angered at having to prove they were born here or had proper immigration status in order to renew their driver’s license, pay car registration fees, obtain a marriage or business license.

Attorneys for counties and municipalities grappled with the notion that this law now required them to ask for proof of lawful residence before allowing the use of public swimming pools, as these are government services. Given Alabama's ugly segregationist history, it became a very uncomfortable reality that complying with the law would require this.

Schools inquired about the immigration status of parents and children, and frightened parents kept their kids at home.

Police parked themselves near Latino neighborhoods and pulled folks over demanding to see proof of lawful residence. Life did become miserable and there was an exodus of Latinos -- tens of thousands left Alabama, including many US citizens, resulting in millions of dollars in crop losses. Alabama’s agricultural industry was up in arms, because few other workers in that state were willing to do these jobs.

Lawsuits challenging this law were filed as soon as HB 56 went into effect and within days the courts issued injunctions; finding that this overreaching law violated the United States Constitution.

This is what was going on in Alabama back in 2011 when I called the office of a state legislator I wanted to interview.

The Telephone Conversation

Alabama Public Employee: Alabama House of Representatives, may I help you?

Me: Hello, I thought I had dialed the number for Representative Merika Coleman.

Alabama Public Employee: No one picked up at her office, so your call rolled over to the main number. May I take a message?

Me: Yes, thank you. I'm an editor at New America Media in San Francisco; I’d like to leave my name and telephone number. My name is Irma Herrera (using the correct Spanish pronunciation), and I’ll spell it for you, Irma is I-R-M-A . . .

Alabama Public Employee: That is a FOREIGN name and I am not talking to you. SLAM!!

I must have sounded "illegal."

Perhaps she thought that as a government employee any conversation with me would violate HB 56.

I was in San Francisco, 2500 miles from Montgomery, Alabama, and the state's anti-immigrant sentiment was affecting me.

This and other stories in my one-woman show, Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? Folks in South Texas can see my play on Friday, July 21 at 8 pm, at The Guadalupe Theatre in San Antonio. Tickets here:

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