Listen up, class! John Leguizamo will be teaching Latin History for Morons at Studio 54, starting October 19. The high-octane Latino comedian and playwright’s latest theater piece is action-packed entertainment, complete with dance breaks and filled with historical information you need to know.
In his new solo show, Leguizamo aims to restore a chunk of buried American history that you won’t find in school textbooks. And if you are wondering who those dummies in his class are—that’s us. “It is everybody in America, but it was myself as well,” Leguizamo explains. “I was so ignorant of my own history because it is not taught in schools. It was a huge hole in my education and it shouldn’t have been, because without us Latinos, America wouldn’t be the country that it is.”
Latin History, which Leguizamo spent the past four years researching, writing, and shaping, was partly triggered when his son became the target of bullying and racial harassment at a New York City private school. “Things were getting kind of rough out there,” he says. “And then, all of a sudden, we were in this dark episode where Latin people are being maligned and we’ve become the whipping post for the president. They even tried to pass the ‘show me your papers’ law in Texas, basically profiling Latin people.
“I started to try to understand where all that came from,” Leguizamo continues. “Looking at my own childhood as well, I saw that it was the lack of Latin history in the history textbooks that allows people to say that we haven’t contributed; that generates all this violence and animosity. Doing the research — man, it was eye-opening. I mean, we were here at the founding of America; we have fought in every single way, contributed and shed blood in every single war this country has ever had in the making of America. I totally believe that if our Latin contribution [was acknowledged] in every textbook that every kid in America reads, the president wouldn’t be saying what he has said. I really doubt that people will feel so uppity to be against us.”
Under Leguizamo’s schooling, we learn that 10,000 Latinos fought as patriots in the American Revolutionary War, and Cuban women in Virginia sold their jewelry to feed the patriots. Most of us will hear for the first time about Loreta Velasquez, the cross-dressing Cuban woman from New Orleans who joined the military and fought in three Civil War battles disguised as a man. Leguizamo’s corrective history lesson takes us through a dizzying span of 3,000 years, going back to the indigenous empires of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas.
“I had an intuition that we came from something larger,” says Leguizamo, who was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and moved to New York City at age 4. “I visited Colombia and Puerto Rico when I was growing up and I knew we had people who were lawyers, doctors, and politicians. I had an inkling about the Aztecs and the Incas because parts of Colombia were part of the Inca Empire, and most of the gold that the Spanish took came from the Incas and Native American Colombian tribes. I always knew that we came from some great empires but I just didn’t know the details because it wasn’t taught to me in school.”
You could say Leguizamo’s 25-year-plus theater career sprang from an impulse similar to what led him to write Latin History for Morons. He burst upon the New York theater scene in 1991 with his solo work Mambo Mouth, which he was “compelled to write” because he couldn’t find people like him represented in anything other than negative stereotypes in radio, movies, or television. He told the press at the time, “I looked around and I said, ‘Where are my people?’”
That was a heady time for the then-27-year-old writer-performer. Mambo Mouth was mounted on a platform with a makeshift curtain in the lobby of an Off-Broadway theatre; the audience was seated in 70 folding chairs and everything had to be cleared away before a different show began every night on the main stage. That didn’t deter the steady stream of celebrities who’d heard the buzz about the new incendiary comedian on the scene. “It was incredible to have Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, John F. Kennedy Jr., Raul Julia, Al Pacino, and Olympia Dukakis come to my show,” Leguizamo recalls. “There were some pretty wild people who were at the theatre — Norman Lear was there — and they dwarfed the event of my play.” He received an Obie Award for his breakthrough performance that year.
In the following years, even after he found success in the movies and television, Leguizamo has kept returning to the stage with solo works that mined his autobiography and family stories. “Before Louis CK, before Larry David, there was me!” he declares. You can get an inkling of the provocative fun of his satirical stage work just from the titles: the Drama Desk award–winning Ghetto Klown, Freak (for which he received Tony nominations for writing as well as performing), Sexaholix … A Love Story, and Spic-O-Rama.
Leguizamo’s particular style is a hybrid of stand-up and traditional playwriting. “There are other characters on stage, who I play; I do scenes with them and there is a narrative moving forward,” he explains. “I like to take people there with mime, dance, and music — it is very physical.” Leguizamo adds that as preparation for Latin History, he started boxing as well as working out and dancing every day. “It’s amazing what the audience will allow you to do,” he continues. “They will go with you anywhere as long as you stick to the rules that you set up at the beginning. That’s the beauty of theater. And that’s what makes me keep coming back. Anything is possible on stage. It seems to be the most democratic and egalitarian place in America for entertainment. Where else would Hamilton have happened? It couldn’t have happened in Hollywood, or on cable or the networks.”
Drawing from his personal life, however, does have consequences. “The whole family gets angry when you take out all their personal stuff and play it out there,” he reports. “Obviously it is my perspective of things and, you know, they have their own parental amnesia and they see things from a different point of view. But their point of view was not right and never will be right!”
With his sixth one-man play, could the tables be turned on the now-53-year-old father of two? “Exactly!” he laughs. “Now my fathering is being put under the microscope, and obviously, any father will tell you that no matter how good your intentions are, you are gonna fail at some point. And definitely in Latin History for Morons we see my good intentions go wrong as I try to help my son with the bullying and build-up his self-esteem. My kids are teenagers, so I’m no longer the cool guy. I’ve become the dad who can’t do anything right. I’m just an ignoramus.”
Latin History began its life at Berkeley Repertory in California in the summer of 2016, but Leguizamo’s son got to see the play only when it opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater earlier this March. “I was so nervous, I tripped on a lot of stuff,” the father reports. “It was a tough night because both my son and my daughter were there that night. I didn’t want my daughter to feel like she was excluded and I didn’t want my son to feel like I was exploiting him. I explained that to both of them — that difficult place I was putting them in, making a caricature version of themselves and putting that in the public eye. After the show we had a meal together; my son said he thought it was very funny. He had forgotten about some of the things that I brought up, and it was kind of painful for him to have to relive it. I guess he had forgotten because that is how our psyches take care of difficult things — a little bit of amnesia happens.”
In preparation for this Broadway engagement, Leguizamo has been tweaking the show, introducing an Incan dance and working toward giving the evening “more bite.” He explains that the most important lesson he has learned over the decades is to trust himself. “I’ve learned to consolidate my storytelling and be more of myself. To not just be an entertainer but allow my anger, my edgier sides — and allow people to be even more uncomfortable. I never wanted my shows to be just Pollyanna shows,” he adds. “Latin comedy is a full emotional experience.”