A comedian, an actor, a playwright, and much more, John Leguizamo has had a storied career. Beginning with his first off-Broadway comedy specials in the 1990’s, Mambo Mouth” and “Spic-o-Rama”, to Broadway successes “Ghetto Klown”, and “Freak”, and of course his long list of film and television credits, Leguizamo has long been a beacon of ingenuity in the comedy scene.
A mixture of biography and absurdity, his stand-up specials introduced many to the style of the “one man show”. With his unwavering comedic timing, slapstick physicality, and endearing approach to self-analysis, Leguizamo’s approach is unique to comedy, especially as he is Latinx and brings that background to the forefront of American comedy.
Back with a new stage production, “Latin History for Morons”, which premiered in New York City in late 2018, (with a Netflix special to go alongside it), Leguizamo tackles his ancestry, delving into just how much effort it took him and his son to find some Latin heroes for a school project. But of course, there is much more to it than that.
Touring with the show now, Leguizamo recently gave us some insight into what exactly this show is all about, and how it led him to on a research adventure what has become, as he puts it, an almost lost history of Latin history. With “Latin History for Morons”, he has a lesson for us all.
To start off John, as a playwright, what would you say was different or challenging in creating this historical approach with the autobiography as opposed to your past ones?
You know I’m sort of the pioneer of doing one man’s shows about your own life. Nobody was doing that before and adding dark elements, so I was always able to add a lot of drama and trauma to comedy because American comedy was a little light and glib.
So, in this one the challenge was, how do you blend this history and you know I went around the country, to like 30 cities testing it out and I realized people could not take all the history. So, it was a matter of you know, they like the balance. They like a present-day, personal analogy to the history and that was the perfect ingredient. There was like history, something personal, history something personal. They didn’t want to hear just history by itself.
So essentially, what was the genesis for “Latin History for Morons”? In your show it begins with the personal experience that your family, specifically your son, had which began this search for identity and history. Was this idea something that you feel was brewing in you years beforehand?
Well the whole idea I’ve been researching and doing so much history research for myself because I needed it. And then when my son was being bullied at school I wanted to give him facts and Latin heroes and Latin contributions because I wanted him to feel like being Latin was a superpower, which is what I want everybody to walk out feeling – flowing out of that theater.
So how much research went into this and how long did that take to do?
Ten years man. I had to research all empires. Mayan, Incan, Aztec, and then the conquests. What that did to us and how we lost those wars and then post-conquest, and exploitation that continued in Latin America, in America. [Then] our contributions to the world, our contributions to the making of the United States, because we’re the second oldest ethnic group in America after Native Americans, so we’ve been here forever building America fighting for America. Shedding blood for America even in the American Revolutionary War, War of 1812, French Indian American war – we fought in that. And Civil War, World War I, World War II, Desert Storm, the war in Afghan. You know we fought in every war.
We’re the most decorated minority in each and every single war too. These are huge contributions to the making of America that are missing in our textbooks, that are missing on the History Channel, on the Discovery Channel, and Hollywood movies.
So, there’s a “required reading” syllabus that has a lot of reading material that goes along with the show on its official website. So, have you basically looked through all those books yourself? You read all that?
Oh yeah, that’s why it took me a goddamn year to read it. I had to read it you know I had to underline it and then I have to make it interesting and sexy, otherwise people don’t want that information.
Is there any of those books that you could recommend as a good starting point for Latin American history for people?
“Open Veins of Latin America” is the best book, it should be every Latin person’s Bible. Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano [is] the shortest of all the books. It’s only three hundred and fifty pages but it is incredibly dense.
This man Eduardo does such incredible research and condensed it so beautifully that it gets our empires, it gets the conquest, it gets the post – I mean it gets everything it’s incredible. That’s my favorite of them all. It’s a hard read though, because it’s so painful.
A lot of the information in the show was new even to me being Latinx, it’s wild.
I know! The thing is that we don’t we don’t even notice incredible information. I mean the people that should know it is us, but America needs to know it to respect us.
With that in mind what would you say are the main ideas in there besides that of inheritance, the idea of identity and contributions to society?
I mean the power of our empires is diminished in so many books. But finding out and studying and knowing that the was the largest empire of the time, three times bigger than the Ming dynasty, bigger than Czarist Russia.
They were doing brain surgery before anybody and using anesthesia. I mean it was a genius culture, it was just brilliant. And yeah, you know a lot of our information is erased, especially our contributions to the making of America. That is really not right, not fair. It’s a terrible wrong.
How do you find that middle ground where you want that entertainment in it being comedic, but you also want to get as much of the facts in there as possible without it feeling like a sermon or a dry education lesson?
I mean it was never going to be dry! It was always going to be history, and I was going to put a comic spin to it but it’s just that people couldn’t take [that] because our contributions are massive. That’s the thing.
I mean what we’ve done is so huge, I thought this was gonna be a short show, but it wasn’t. It was like, “Wait a minute, we have done so much and have so much wealth and contributions, that it’s impossible to do it in two hours.” I need like a week! I need to do a week-long mini-series to get all this information in there.
Yeah, I’m sure there’s still a bunch you can do with Latin history.
There’s still a lot more to do. I mean Jovita Idár was an activist in the late 1800’s, a journalist [that] ran a newspaper and saved children and Mexican people from being lynched.
Speaking of heroes of the past, for my last question, I’m going to go ahead and say that though your show is about the history you found, this is also very much a story of yourself looking for heroes. After all this time working on “Latin History for Morons”, is there someone that you could say is a hero to you?
Oh my God, there’s so many of them that I love. I think Marcelino Serna in World War I is pretty dope. I mean this cat, this young Mexican American was shot, wounded, being shot at and saved this platoon and captured 24 Germans. [He] was given the Purple Heart and the very prestigious Croix de Guerre (A French Medal of Heroism).
See John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons” on tour now. Locally it will be performed at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA on Friday, October 25, 2019 at 8:00pm. More info on the show and tickets available at LatinHistoryOnTour.com.