Colombian-American thespian John Leguizamo is one of the most prolific Latino actors in the current cinema landscape with 138 credits to his name stretching back to 1984. For many, like myself, Leguizamo was the first actor to truly contextualize the Latino experience and make it relatable to Latinx audiences and white audiences, best exemplified in his early one-man shows Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama and Freak.
Staunch in his refusal to play stereotypical roles like drug dealers throughout his career, Leguizamo made the transition into a seriously respected actor, working with heavy hitters like Baz Lurhmann, George Romero and Matthew Vaughn. But Leguizamo has held firm to his belief that the racial stereotyping hasn’t been eradicated from modern cinema, most recently writing a 1000-word essay for the New York Times about his career entitled “Too Bad You’re Latin” looking at the myopic views producers still take regarding non-white actors. He also penned a blistering critique for Billboard about the recent MTV Video Music awards, citing the lack of a nomination for the biggest song on the charts right now, Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” as another “slap in the face to Latin artists.”
The actor’s adamant refusal to back down on the subject of proper Latino representation in the media is necessary in these times. Here we share seven times Leguizamo DGAF about decorum and started speaking harsh truths.
Discussing the Lack of Latino Role Models for School-Age Children
In 2016, Leguizamo created the one-man show Latin History for Morons, soon to make its Broadway debut in October. Incited by the need to find a Latino hero for his son’s school project, Leguizamo goes on a madcap journey through history to find one. The sad fact is the actor was inspired by some troubling research. “I read this article that 45% of Latin kids drop out of high school,” a fact the actor blames on young Latinos never “seeing yourself” represented properly in media. “How do you project yourself into the future…if you don’t learn about anyone that looks like you or is you?” he said.
House of Buggin's "Illegal Alien Makeovers"
Lost in the shuffle of the late ’80s, early-’90s sketch comedy boom was Leguizamo’s “House of Buggin,” a series as funny in execution as it was satirical in its thoughts on racial stereotyping. This particular scenario has Leguizamo as a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-esque, and very blonde, spokesman named Blaine Alexander hyping Illegal Alien Makeovers, a center meant to “de-ethnify” any person of color to avoid random searches or arrest. It’s a clip that’s funny but as painfully relevant in 2017 as it was in 1994.
When He Refused to Play a Drug Dealer
During the 2015 Sundance press tour for Experimenter, Leguizamo grabbed the mic to answer the “diversity question” regarding #OscarsSoWhite. He laid out the fact that non-white films often compete with each other and marginalized kids today often don’t feel “part of the fabric” of this country. For Leguizamo, personally, he refused to be defined by his race for roles saying, “I didn’t want to be a drug dealer and a murderer for the rest of my life. That’s not me and that’s not my people.” For an added bonus, watch Winona Ryder’s blank stare when the diversity question is asked.
When He Talked About Minorities Changing for the Audience
In a 2016 interview for Big Think, Leguizamo discussed the unfortunate tendency for people of different ethnicities or socioeconomic groups to act similar to the people they’re around. “When you’re in a group that’s predominately white you try to use their lingo…and the way they speak. I’m talking to you with the whiter side of myself more,” he says. But what happens when white culture doesn’t reciprocate? For Leguizamo this creates a dominating and influencing society, in and outside of media. “Hollywood is so… #OscarsSoWhite, which is a symptom of the disease. Which is: Hollywood is not making movies or being conscious about including Latin and black people in their movies when we’re almost 50 percent of the population. It’s a very unbalanced representation of reality an causes great harm. The work that needs to be done isn’t so much understanding other cultures, it’s just giving them the jobs! That’s really it.”
When He Refused to Change His Name
There’s a moment in Leguizamo’s one-man show Freak where a litany of incorrect pronunciations of his last name are thrown out, including the hilarious “Leg of Lamb-0.” If he deserves praise him for anything it’s refusing to compromise and go the Hollywood route of Anglicizing his last name to something “less Latino.” He elaborated on his unwillingness to change his last name in a 2011 NPR interview. “I stuck with my name. I flipped them the bird and I said, ‘I’m going to write my Latin stories that ya’ll don’t tell, that I can’t see anywhere.” And he did it all with a last name that’s considered an error on spellcheck!
When He Said the Era of White People Saying "They Don't Know Better" Is Over
Leguizamo’s career longevity is amazing, particularly because he has no problem slapping white culture in the face for their ignorance. His recent Billboard editorial brutally lays out the history of non-white culture’s blind compliance to white dominance as a means of “eas[ing] our alienation. It wasn’t fair, but it was status quo.” The hope was that as Latinos worked their way up the ladder white people would have to dispense validation and recognize their accomplishments. Plaintively, Leguizamo declares, “We were wrong…I was wrong.”
He calls for an increased awareness, especially in light of the continued government struggles to disenfranchise and remove Latinos from this country, that is now the only means of getting true representation. “They ‘don’t know better’ doesn’t work in the age of the Internet,” he says and makes a call to arms for Latinos to stand up: “We have now reached our threshold, in 2017, where we must not just symbolically make a stand. No… we must actualize our movement and create change. We cannot leave it up to those who don’t know better… we must empower, thrusting knowledge and humanity onto the ignorance of the world. We need equality. And the time is now.”
When He Gave a Harsh History Lesson on Latino Exploitation
Latin History for Morons goes deeper into this but Leguizamo’s brilliant long-form essay “Sorry Your Latin” see him reject the narrative that Latinos just showed up in this country one day, citing them as “America’s first original sin” who mistreated the indigenous peoples of this country well before anyone else did. It’s ironic but since that time the first “discoverers” of America have suffered similar mistreatment. “We are victims of neglect, discrimination and ignorance…amid an entrenched disrespect for Latin culture,” he says. He coyly throws some shade President Trump’s way, “congratulating” him on galvanizing Latinos into a force for change who “need to make our voices heard.”