Class Is in Session
In his one-man play Latin History for Morons, John Leguizamo offers a lesson in just how integral Latinos have been to the fabric of America
From his memorable role as “Benny Blanco from the Bronx” in Carlito’s Way to his award-nominated turn in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar to his voiceover work in the Ice Age series, John Leguizamo has been a fixture on film screens for three decades. But the 52-year-old Colombian-born, New York–raised actor’s most original work has been onstage, where he has written and performed groundbreaking shows such as Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama, and Ghetto Klown, in the process establishing himself as an authentic representative and champion of Latinos in America.
This month, he returns to the New York stage with a new one-man show, Latin History for Morons. Inspired by a homework assignment in which Leguizamo’s son was tasked with finding a Latin historical figure to study, the show, which starts performances February 24 at The Public Theater (the venue that launched Hamilton), takes audiences on a journey through the history of Latinos in the Americas, detailing contributions that are often left out of history books.
Leguizamo met with Hemispheres at Morandi, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, where he exhibited no Hollywood pretension: The reservation was in his own name, we sat at a regular table during a busy lunch rush, and he greeted me with a smile as if he were one of my favorite cousins—albeit an Emmy- and Obie-award winning cousin.
You’ve had a long career as a Latino voice in Hollywood. What was it like when you started?
I know, I’ve been around for a while [laughs]. When I started doing my work, it was like, there’s a space that’s not being filled up. Where are our stories? Where are our fables, our myths, our history? It’s not being put anywhere, by anybody. It was so weird. We’re such a huge percentage of the population, and yet we don’t exist.
And telling those stories is one of your goals with your new show, Latin History for Morons. Are you excited about that?
Very much so, especially after this election. My work was always important to me and for Latin people, but it didn’t seem as important as it does now with this whole turn of events, where so much hostility has been dug up and so much anti-Latin sentiment from a very small—but still very destructive—group. You know, Latin girls are getting spit on in colleges and told “you gotta leave my country.”
Where did you get the idea for the show?
The piece was based on my son being bullied in school because he is Latin. It was in a top-1-percenter school, an elitist environment, and I’m like, wait a minute, this is happening here, in a blue state? So I started doing a lot of research to empower my son. I’ve always been studying Latin history, but mostly the Incas, Mayans, Simón Bolívar, those old-time facts, but then I started studying American history to give my son fuel. And I was like, wait a minute, we’ve contributed—as somebody says, “bigly” [laughs]—to this country. I was shocked by our contributions.
What were some of the most fascinating things you learned?
We have participated in every single war this country has ever had, the largest numbers, and you never see it. About 10,000 of us served in the Revolutionary War; Cuban women sold their jewelry to help feed the troops; we had a general named Gálvez. Then, in the Civil War, 20,000 of us fought, and you just never see that in any Civil War movie. Where are we? That’s a huge number of people to participate and not be counted.
Even today, Puerto Ricans have fought in so many wars but aren’t allowed to vote for president.
In World War II, the number of Puerto Ricans that fought was astronomical. And still, how do you save the island? They allowed Detroit to declare bankruptcy, but you’re not going to allow Puerto Rico to do that? You’re going to make them default? You’re going to crush them?
What do you cover in the show?
I play all the characters, and then I tell my son about various historic moments, like the Aztec conquest, the Incan conquest, then I go through the Trail of Tears because I feel like Latin people were 20 to 40 percent Native American. We’re all mestizo; we have a little bit of everybody. Then I go through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, then I go quickly through World War I and World War II, because we had big contributions there, too.
What do you hope to accomplish with the show?
I’m hoping that at some point I get to do it in Texas, because that’s where they make textbooks for the whole country. I’m hoping that Latin History for Morons will open up the conversation to changing American textbooks to include our contributions.
You’ve already done the show in a few California theaters. Is there anywhere else you’re hoping to put it on?
My goal is to do it in jails. I did Rikers Island with Ghetto Klown twice. Then with this one, The Public Theater has a program that they go to prisons and high schools with their touring company, so we’re going to do that with them.
This is the sixth show you’ve written. How did you start writing your own shows, especially as a Latin voice in a time when there weren’t many?
I came up in a time that was really creative in New York, the ’80s. There were all these spaces downtown where any artist could go up and do 15 minutes. You could do political stuff, you could do dance, you could do performance art. Somehow, I found myself in these spaces, and people were really digging my work, so I knew that people were interested in the Latin voice—and I am talking about mostly white people in these spaces. I knew Latin people would be interested, but I didn’t realize that white people would also be really fascinated by it. So that gave me the confidence, and I started building a reputation and getting longer times in all these performance spaces. Pretty soon I had this show, Mambo Mouth, with seven characters. I did it in a small theater called American Place Theater, and then all of a sudden I won an Obie Award, Pacino is in the house, Madonna, Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller, and I was like, “Whoa, people really are interested in an authentic Latin voice. They want to hear that. It’s time.”
What were some of the early challenges you faced?
Well, at first no one really believed I could fill a house. I was in the hallway of the American Theater, not even in the main room, with 70 fold-up seats that they would pick up before. Then, all of a sudden, reviews came out, and then came Olympia Dukakis, Al Pacino, and they were making them sit on these fold-up chairs, and they realized it was too embarrassing. So they finally moved me to the main theater, which was 300 seats, and then they were selling out so well they moved me to a 500-seat theater. It was like that—they didn’t realize that Latin people would pay money. And other people too.
When you were growing up and starting in comedy, who did you look up to?
There were a lot of people: Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Freddie Prinze, of course. Then I was also a theater nerd and a ghetto nerd, so all of a sudden I was also studying the one-man show, people like Eric Bogosian, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Spalding Gray, David Cale. They all really inspired me, because they were telling these stories that were very different. Then, all of a sudden, I found a way to take a hybrid of everybody’s stuff and make it my own thing.
One role of yours that stands out for me is Martin, the motor-mouthed line cook in the movie Chef. There was no tragic story—it was a movie that normalized Latinos.
Oh, that was a blast! Jon Favreau is the king of the independent film—he basically made indie films the most important thing in the ’90s—so I was honored when he asked me to do it. He gave me the script, but he said, “I want you to improvise.” He just gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. I did a lot of research for it—I went to all these restaurants, and you realize that the restaurant industry is run by Latin people. Without us, it wouldn’t run.
In terms of normalizing the Latino experience, what other shows or movies do you feel are doing a good job? Or is it still a struggle?
I think we still struggle with that. We have a lot of representation out in television, very little in movies, unfortunately. It’s still very negative in the movie space. In TV, you have America Ferrera in Superstore, you have Jane the Virgin breaking down walls, you have Jimmy Smits in The Get Down. I want real stories, and they are happening on cable TV and in streaming. Streaming has Netflix, Hulu, Amazon—which has Gael García Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle. I mean, we’re doing amazing things in theater—look at Lin-Manuel Miranda and this colorblind casting of our founding fathers.
How did you feel when you first saw Hamilton?
It’s so exciting to see black people and Latin people playing the forefathers and being the biggest hit Broadway’s ever had, because people always argue to your face that, “No, you can’t play that role. Latin people, black people, no, you can’t play that.” What do you have to say now?
That divide even exists within the Latin community. I read that your grandfather once told you that only ‘White Latinos’ can make it on Telemundo.
Unfortunately. I still see a lot of super-light-skinned Latin people making it. It’s like, we are much more diverse—why are you falling for that Euro-fascist beauty aesthetic? You know that’s not who we are. It’s very frustrating that they think that’s what Latin people want to see. It’s not. We want to see ourselves.
Some comics describe comedy as a tool for change. Do you believe that?
Absolutely, because you can smuggle information in subversively. You can totally do that in comedy, where in drama it’s harder, because people get turned off.
When you started out, what did you want to change?
When I first started, I was a social activist but not as political. Now I’m much more political, realizing that we have the chance to have a Latin president in 2020. That’s something to strive for. But by doing Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama, I was just being socially active in putting our voices and our problems and our concerns out there, but in comedy form.
You’ve also branched out by starting your own marketing firm.
I have two of them. One is called Epic Nerds, and we produce commercials. The other is NGL [New Generation Latino] Media, where we are creating a space for Latinos through seminars. I feel like I see so many creative Latin people out there—talented, skillful producers, directors, writers, comics—and we have to find a way to give these people a space where they can be seen.
Bronx-born writer Navani Otero has introduced herself as “Benny Blanco from the Bronx” more times than she can count.