John Leguizamo’s ‘Latin History for Morons’ is an Urgent Call to Re-Learn Our Collective Past

John Leguizamo in 'Latin History For Morons.' Photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of The Public Theater

The playbill for John Leguizamo’s latest, Latin History for Morons, includes a dedication that doubles as its inspiration. “To all the immigrants who made this country,” it reads, “and its original people whose spirit still run our lives unbeknownst to us.” Leguizamo’s newest solo show is an urgent call to re-learn our history, while embracing the messiness of the term “Latin.” The Ghetto Klown star, who was born in Colombia and raised in New York City, has long been a vocal critic of the erasure of Latino contributions to the making of the United States. “Without a past to glorify and uplift you, how do you propel yourself into an unknown, tenuous future?,” he recently asked in an October 2016 Op-Ed penned for the New York Times.

Talking to Remezcla, Leguizamo explained that his show is a way to fight back the anti-immigrant rhetoric we’re seeing on the news. By unearthing the history of the many Latino military heroes who have served in the United States army, and placing these contributions alongside breakthroughs that we owe to the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Taínos, Leguizamo also hoped to remind audiences of the connection Latinos today have with those native tribes that once populated the Americas. With plenty of wigs and props, Leguizamo zips through thousands of years of Latino history to fill in the gaps of what he sees today in American textbooks. By the end of the show, he hopes his audiences will leave emboldened by his raucously funny and politically urgent lecture.

John Leguizamo in ‘Latin History for Morons.’ Photo credit: Joan Marcus
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“I’m being empowered by our history. There’s no way I could feel like a second-class citizen ever again. Knowing now that we have fought in every single war this country’s ever had and that we’re the most decorated minority and ethnic group in each war—you can’t take that away from me ever again.” Those type of statistics and historical factoids are littered throughout Latin History for Morons.

Leguizamo’s stand-up-cum-memoir is an exercise in why visibility matters.

Of course, when you have Leguizamo as your teacher, you know that despite the blackboard and his tweed jacket you’re in for a looser type of lecture. More surprising is the personal history that first sparked Leguizamo’s idea for this show. After learning his son had to create a school presentation on the subject of heroes, Leguizamo took it upon himself to find a slew of Latino military heroes that his son and his schoolmates could look up to – including the schoolmate bullying his son. In the process, Leguizamo had to contend with the fact that Latino history was harder to find in your average textbook – why were Latino military icons so much harder to unearth? Why didn’t he ever learn about them in school, he wondered.

After workshopping Latin History for Morons at La Jolla Playhouse and premiering it at Berkeley Rep, Leguizamo has now brought the show to the Public Theater. “My pieces are always growing. Until the very last day when they pull me off the stage. Everything is evolving constantly. It’s a living piece of art.” He’s still intent, for example, on finding a way to include Eduardo Galeano’s book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent into the show.

So far, Latino audiences are responding, quite literally, to his work, jumping in and hollering when he references specific countries or when he plays snippets of cumbia or salsa—“Their body, they can’t control it. They make a noise, they go wepa!” he tells us.

In a way, the show seems designed to capture the imagination of those sitting in the back of the classroom. The kids who, like Leguizamo himself, always felt disengaged from lessons that never included them. “I always write to please myself,” he admits. But the second audience he always has in mind are “always the young Latin people in the United States who grew up like me, disenfranchised with all the negative messaging you get constantly. Those are the people I really want to connect with, and give a little shake and say, ‘You can do it, man. I know you can!’”

The very concept of America has been built on the backs of many minorities, Latinos included.

At a time when conversations about Latino media representation feel both tired and necessary, Leguizamo’s stand-up-cum-memoir is an exercise in why visibility matters. This is why his ill-fated choice to look into military heroes—which his son has no interest in and which his daughter points out is quite male-centric—felt so important to Leguizamo. It was as tangible an example he could find of tying Latinos to the very fabric of US history. That’s what makes the show’s message so depressingly timely. One wishes POTUS 45 (as Leguizamo refers to him) would drop by the Public to get schooled in all things Latino. He’d no doubt learn plenty about Moctezuma and Loreta Janeta Velázquez (a Cuban-born woman who cross-dressed to fight in the Civil War!) but he’d also see that the very concept of America has been built on the backs of many minorities, Latinos included. Those Latinos who died in battle or who came back and were decorated are the ultimate definition of a patriot, Leguizamo says.

“And Americans who are Trump supporters can’t deny us that. You can say whatever you want, but we were fighting to make your country so that you could be in it. We fought for your democracy.” It’s as simple yet crucial a lesson as Leguizamo is looking to impart. One just hopes America is taking notes and stops flunking out.

Latin History for Morons plays until April 23, 2017 at the Public Theater, and we have a special discount offer for Remezcla readers. Enter “HIST30” in the “I have a promo code” box on the Public Theater’s Latin History page and choose your date. Or call the box office at 212.967.7555 with code “HIST30.” These are $30, no fee tickets (more than half off). Share with friends and if you see John after the show, say hola from Remezcla!