What happens when you’re a Latino teenager assigned to write about one of your heroes, and you decide to choose someone from your own heritage? Not much, according to actor and comedian John Leguizamo, because history books and public school curricula don’t do enough to highlight Latino contributions to U.S. history.
His son’s experiences inspired Leguizamo to research and write “Latin History for Morons,” which runs through February. Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Leguizamo (@JohnLeguizamo) about the show, its lessons and how it’s resonating with audiences.
The broadway hit is a 95-minute, no-holds-barred roller coaster ride through 3,000 years of Latino history.
“As I’m helping my son I’m realizing that, I’m the one that’s getting woke, I’m the one that’s getting educated,” Leguizamo says. “Because I grew up here, and as a Latin man, I learned nothing about Latin contributions.”
On how those who watch the show are connecting with it
“I do a book signing right after, and people share all their thoughts about how the play touched them. I got this 70-year-old Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx who said she felt like a second-class citizen her whole life until the night of the show. She made me cry. I was weeping at my book signing. I was like, I’m pathetic. We have a lot of kids come in, like young kids — 12-, 13-year-olds — and my director went to a school in the Bronx yesterday and he talked to these kids. The kids felt so inspired and so proud of being Latin from the show. Like, the first time in their lives in a way, feeling so proud — because you don’t learn any of this in your history textbooks. I never learned about it.”
On bullying that his son faced
“Well, there was a lot of Mexican references to him. You know, ‘You’re a beaner’ — that kind of typical, old-school, movie racism. But, you know, my son is half Colombian, half Puerto Rican … and half Jewish. [laughs] Yeah, three halves. There’s a lot of young man in there.”
On helping his son research some heroes for class
“I gave him the wrong information. I thought I knew things and he goes and does the first part of the project and, you know, he gets humiliated. … I told him that the tribe that I came from was the Chibcha and they made for the Incas. And I thought it was all true, but I made a mistake: Chibcha was the language they spoke. The tribe was the Muisca.
“So I started doing more research to be authentic with him and to give him real, real facts. I didn’t want to trip him up again. … All the Latin people who grew up in their countries, they learn at least about heroes and the freedom fighters. But I had no knowledge, I had nothing. And then when I’m reading all of this information about our empires, that the Incas had binary code that predated computers, that they pioneered socialism successfully before Karl Marx, that they were the largest empire in the world — three times bigger than the Ming dynasty, three times bigger than czarist Russia. It’s so empowering, and then you feel, ‘Wow. Why was I cheated out of that?’ You feel a little bit betrayed.”
On Latino contributions to the history of the U.S.
“I found out that we participated in the making of America — bigly. We were the only ethnic group that has fought in every single war besides the Native Americans. 10,000 unknown Latino patriots fought [in the Revolutionary War] and some of them were Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican-American, some Venezuelans. General Bernardo Gálvez sent $70,000 worth of weapons to George Washington, and Cuban women in Virginia sold their jewelry to feed the patriots. So we also financed the war so we, too, are the sons and daughters of the American Revolution, which is mind-boggling and which was one of those facts that I found out that revolutionized my mind.”
On finding humor in these sorts of histories
“There’s a lot of mixed feelings. I mean, like, all of life is always complex like that. There’s a lot of sadness to see the destruction of all these great empires — the Aztecs, the Incas — and basically the most successful destruction of a people’s culture, religion and language in history. The biggest theft in history — 500,00 tons of gold was stolen from the Incas. You know, you have to forgive and you have to move on and you can’t do it if you hold bitterness.”
On the importance of the show
“I do have a blast on stage. I really enjoy myself now. You know, Denzel Washington came down, he said this was the most important show he’d see on stage in a long time. It’s striking other people, too. I think it’s a unifying show. It’s not a divisive show.”