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John Leguizamo Makes ‘Latino History’

Posted on Jul 5, 2016

By Emily Wilson

Rich Fury / Invision / AP

After wrapping his 2011 solo show “Ghetto Klown,” comedian, actor and writer John Leguizamo thought he was done with the punishing routine of writing and performing material alone onstage. But now he’s been drawn in again—this time for having incorrectly answered a question his son had asked him about Native Americans. Leguizamo started doing research so his son wouldn’t catch him out again, and what he found out led to his new solo show, “Latino History for Morons,” opening Wednesday at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Leguizamo says Latinos are mostly invisible in the American history curriculum, and because they don’t see themselves represented in the past, Latino youths are unable to project themselves into the future. “Latino History for Morons” is his attempt to educate audiences about some of their history—about the Aztecs and Mayans, for example, and about how Latinos have played key roles in building this country.

Leguizamo’s career, like his stage act, has been multifaceted. He has acted in dozens of movies, including “Carlito’s Way,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Love in the Time of Cholera,” and he has used his voice to animate Sid the Ground Sloth in the “Ice Age” film franchise. On television, he’s appeared in shows ranging from “ER” to “Bloodline” to “Dora the Explorer,” and he created the variety show “House of Buggin’ ” in the ’90s. Along with “Ghetto Klown,” which he staged on Broadway in 2011 after premiering the production at Berkeley Rep, his solo stage shows include “Mambo Mouth,” “Freak” and “Spic-O-Rama.”

Leguizamo said he started writing his own material because he wasn’t getting offered roles in Hollywood. He recently talked to Truthdig in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on a variety of subjects, including: the things he can do onstage setting that he can’t do on TV; the 19th-century French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings against the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans; and the fun he’s had acting out Aztec battles all by himself.

What did you find in your research that made you want to do this show?

I found out that 32 percent of Latin kids drop out of high school, and I started to ask myself a lot of questions. I realized a lot of it has to do with the textbooks and what we’re learning in school. When I was growing up, there was not one Latin hero in history, literature or in philosophy. I started doing research, and I was like, wait a minute—I found out that Latin people have participated in every single war this country has ever had from the American Revolution. We get no credit, and I think it’s a bit of a purposeful dis-inclusion.

You don’t think it’s people not being aware?

You look at over 20,000 Latin people who fought in the Civil War, four generals in the Revolutionary War and Cuban women in the Revolutionary War in the South selling all their jewelry and household belongings to feed the troops. The only thing I can think of is you can’t empower Latin people because then we’re going to feel entitled, and we’re going to demand what we deserve.

What did you do for research?

I tried to keep Barnes and Noble liquid (laughs.) I bought tons of books on Mayans, Incans, Aztecs, the Conquest and on all the wars. I Googled, then I bought more books from Googling, and I talked to professors.

I had been reading about the Incan, Mayan and Aztec way before, but I had to refresh my memory. There’s incredible research done on Aztecs and Incans—the Mayans not so much because they vanished before people could study them. The first ethnographer was Friar [Bernardino de] Sahagún, who annotated all the rituals and even the sexual behavior of the Aztecs. Every little detail.

How did you decide what to put in the show?

I started touring with it, and pretty quickly I realized where people [were] spacing on me or twitching in their seats, so I learned like that. People didn’t want all history either; they wanted my take on it. They wanted my personal stories that matched historic events. They really dug the Aztec stuff, and I tried to re-enact the battles because I thought that would be a lot of fun to do by myself, sort of a tribute to Jonathan Winters. I enjoyed that, so they were enjoying it. Then I was doing sort of my version of Aztec dancing and Incan dancing. 

I also read some interesting people like [Alexis] de Tocqueville, this French philosopher, who spoke really eloquently against the genocide of Native Americans, and what the British and Americans were doing to Native people. It was beautifully written, and I couldn’t really do it as densely as he wrote it, so I simplified it and put it through my silly filter, you know.

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