John Leguizamo long ago proved his chameleonlike ability to embody characters from his childhood, his New York neighborhood and his family in one-man shows like Mambo Mouth, Freak and Ghetto Klown.
In his latest, Latin History for Morons, he widens his scope to include all of Latin-American history, pre-Columbian to present day, packing 90 minutes with 3,000 years and the voices of nearly 50 characters, from stoic Aztec emperor Montezuma to a very Italian American-sounding Christopher Columbus to Leguizamo’s own therapist, who sounds a lot like Bravo’s Tim Gunn.
In a way the show is typical Leguizamo, now 55. It’s filled with frenetic humor and movement, as the tweed-blazered, wild-haired star marks up a chalkboard, coming off ageless and energized. It starts as a personal story: His son has been bullied and needs to write a report for school on a hero.
Leguizamo suggests his son pick a Latin hero, and the father sets out on a quest to help the boy find a suitable one, researching and rediscovering a vast Hispanic history that provides more than a few options. It is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking. We talked to Leguizamo by phone recently.
Did you ever consider calling it Latinx History for Morons?
Well, the term Latinx hadn’t come out yet, but I love Latinx because it makes it sound like being Latin is a superpower. I love that. I want Latin people to walk out feeling like it’s a superpower. I try to hit on where we came from, which was one of the biggest empires, the most successful empires of all time, and (the Aztecs and Inca) were completely destroyed, language, culture and religion. And yet here we are, still thriving, adding $2.3 trillion to the U.S. economy, which if we were our own country would make us the eighth largest country, and we saved the housing market with 63 percent of total sales, and we’re number one in small business creation, 87 percent in America. So I mean, coming from where we came from, having it all taken away and all the exploitation and oppression in the past 500 years, we’re still a huge contributor to the world.
Were you aware of these statistics before you started putting this show together?
I’ve been doing research forever, just for my own personal sanity, and then to help my son, and now for all Latin people, even adults. A lot of grown men come to the show and say they cry, they feel outrage. In a way, you feel the five stages of grief about our history. But I’ve been doing research for a long time. By the way, we’re 25 percent of the U.S. film box office, even though we’re less than 20 percent (of the population).
You filmed The Infiltrator with Bryan Cranston in Tampa. What did you think of the city?
The food was incredible. So many great Colombian and Cuban restaurants, which I love. So that was a lot of fun to go with the whole cast to these big Cuban restaurants and everyone partake. You know, that movie had a big cast that was very close. And the health food. I like healthy food as well.
I seem to remember a video of you out dancing at Ol’ Dirty Sundays, which is a hip-hop night at a club in Ybor City.
Oh yeah! The director and I, Brad Furman, we’re both old school hip-hop heads, so any club that’s doing that with hip-hop, we were definitely going to be there. Just for a little bit though, I don’t stay too late. I was loving it though. I had just done Latin History for Morons at a comedy club there, too.
So you’ve already been to Tampa with this show?
Well, in a different incarnation of it, not the Broadway version, which is very acerbic and edgier and aggressive.
You hold up a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the show, as well as other books. Why’d you choose to show your references?
Because I want people to go out and get them. Because they’re incredibly important. Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Charles Mann’s 1491 and 1493. What we’re teaching our kids in the history textbooks is basically a fairy tale because it doesn’t have all the facts. It’s history lite, l-i-t-e. It’s not all-inclusive of black contributions, it doesn’t have Latin people’s contributions or Native American or Asian American contributions. America was not built by white people. Only part of it was.
You’ve been doing interviews about this show since it premiered on Broadway in 2017, and I don’t know how much of your own coverage you read ...
Not much! I need to stay with my own vision and if I start reading that it derails me.
Did you ever read what people wrote about you?
Oh of course, yeah, early on, because I had all these amazing reviews and awards, so you start believing it, and then you think you have to be perfect, and then you can’t create anymore.
Is there anything that hasn’t been said about the show that you wish was being said?
I’ll tell you what I feel from talking to the audience afterwards, because I talk to mostly all of the audiences. They feel like it’s transformative. I feel like my show is a call to action more than anything else, and I want everybody to walk out like a warrior of information going out there spreading the word. I’ve seen that it has that effect. I’ve heard from teachers that are trying to change their curriculum, and some were already doing it before I was doing the show. You know, teaching Latin history was forbidden in Arizona and in Texas. Some places teachers are only allowed to talk about Latin history for one day a year, even though 39 percent of the population of Texas is Latin.
In the show you talk about going to therapy and realizing you’d been “whitewashed” into a sense of inferiority. Is that still part of your psyche?
Imagine if you grew up the way I did and in your textbooks and literature and everything you’re taught in school you never see yourself. You can’t identify with anyone that’s shown to you because you’re brown and they’re white. Then you go play with your friends and they call you a “spic” when you beat them. You’re seeing what Hollywood puts out, where we were either invisible or being demonized. And then, to finally, in my 50s, find out all this information about the incredible things we’ve done. We’re the second oldest ethnic group in America after Native Americans, and we’ve fought in every single war America has had starting with the American Revolution. Ten thousand Latino patriots fought in that war, and we financed that war with $500,000 raised by Cubans. So we are the sons and daughters of the American Revolution, but it’s never talked about. World War I, 120,000 of us fought, like Marcel Serna, who, while being shot at and injured, captured 24 Germans, saved his platoon and got a purple heart, or Nick Lucero, who blew up two of the biggest gun nests in Germany ... I mean, it’s crazy how our contributions are overlooked or stolen, because a lot of the stuff we did in World War I and II was taken and changed to white characters and put into movies.
People might be surprised that John Leguizamo, who has a Tony award and has been on Broadway and in 100 movies, would still be working out those feelings.
I’m a success, okay, so what is that? Proof that I made it, out of 68 million people in this country? How many of us are successful when we’re less than 3 percent of the faces in Hollywood behind the camera and in front of the camera, and we’re 50 percent of the population in Los Angeles. That’s cultural apartheid. In New York City we’re the predominant culture, equal in size to the white population, and less than 1 percent of the faces of the stories and the staff at the New York Times, New York Post, New York magazine or any other rag with the city’s name on it.
It’s only in the past five or so years the media has really addressed Hollywood’s diversity problem. Where do you think we’re at in 2019?
I wrote some articles about this for Billboard magazine, and someone else wrote about it in Variety this year. When I spoke about it, we were at 3 percent (of speaking roles in films going to Hispanic actors), and now we’re at 4.1. I mean, it’s still pathetic, but there’s a little bit of an uptick, and Hollywood is starting to see the big disconnect between the reality of what’s going on in the country and what they’re perpetuating. But it won’t be equal until we have Latin executives in the studios.
Do you have any dream projects or roles? A story you want the rights to?
There were some I found during my research where I’d go, “Oh my god," but I don’t want to say it and someone to steal it. ... Well, it’s Tampa, maybe they won’t see it. Gil Bosques, during World War II, this Mexican diplomat, saved 40,000 Jews in France. He rented out two castles and hid 40,000 Jews, 39,000 more than Oscar Schindler, and then got them asylum in Mexico.
So how does the Gil Bosques movie get made?
I’ll pitch it to Hollywood, but it will still be impossible, because for the past 30 years I’ve been pitching them stories and they’ve constantly always got some kind of deflating point about why things can’t be made. But, you keep going.
There was a recent TV Guide article about how groundbreaking your 1995 sketch comedy series House of Buggin’ was, even though it was only on for a season. How do you feel about it now?
One of the problems was that Nielsen ratings, especially at that time, didn’t have any Latin or black people, definitely no Latin people, and even now they’re way behind. But anyway, back then there were none, and so the ratings weren’t as high as they hoped. Fox loved the show, and they loved me and the white cast member, but they wanted me to do a cleanse and get rid of all the other the actors I had put together and recast it. And I said no, so they fired me and then they kept the show and the writers that I had picked and the producers and some of the cast members and they called it Mad TV. I’m too loyal. If I had been more Machiavellian, I probably would have said, “Yeah, why not?” But I’m loyal.
As someone who tries to be funny, do you have a philosophy on what it’s okay to joke about in the age of social media anger and political correctness?
I think this sort of higher bar of decency and respect is a great thing. I think those days of Don Rickles insulting everybody was fun at that time — I think he was trying to point out the way people were talking behind the camera, how racist it was — but I think holding ourselves to a higher degree of respect and decency is a great thing. I love having to find different ways of being funny. Funny doesn’t have to be at the expense of someone else. It just doesn’t. Of course, yeah, it was easier to make fun of anyone and anything back then and now you have to really think about it. And why not? You would do it for your own family members. You’d do it for anyone that was a guest in your house, even if they were different than you.
We’re approaching the end of the decade. What is going to define it looking back?
We’ve made a lot of strides in terms of respect and equality for women. Equality for Latin and black people — I don’t use the term people of color, because I’ve found it being used to dis-include Latin people even more because, for instance, they’ll say “Look, we have 10 percent people of color working here,” but I’ll ask how many of those are Latin and I’ll find out it’s zero — but yeah, a little more inclusiveness. I think we’re all so much more political than ever before. Youth has become a lot more responsible, taking the lead in matters like climate change and gun control, which I find so beautiful and inspirational. And then, you know, we’re seeing possibly the destruction of our constitution. What’s going on with this president and his administration, and those who remain silent who allow him to destroy the checks and balances that were built in by our founding fathers. And you can print that just the way I said it. I don’t need anyone who doesn’t want to be there to be in my house.
IF YOU GO
$35. 7 p.m. Nov. 17. Morsani Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.