How do you explain genocide, rape, Spaniards’ gold fever and chronicle the enslavement of millions of indigenous people from Argentina to Alaska to a people disconnected from their history?
John Leguizamo’s ‘Latin History for Morons’ is one way.
Leguizamo successfully walks the tightrope of comedy, hilarity and tragedy by delivering a series of comic impressions in a one-man show called “Latin History for Morons.” (Just for the record, Leguizamo considers himself a moron, not his audience.)
The production, which tells the story of the Spanish Conquest from the Incas to modern times ran recently to sell-out crowds at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.
The creation of Leguizamo’s production stems from when his teenage son asked him what contributions Latinos made to the United States. Since he felt stumped, Leguizamo, a successful stage and screen actor who is Colombian and Puerto Rican, began doing research.
Leguizamo proves what fellow comedians Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and Samantha Bee have discovered. You can’t reach most Americans by forcing dull history books and dry lectures down their throats. They want to be entertained. The stage, like his psyche, is crowded with colorful characters.
One minute he dons the helmet of a Spanish conquistador who satirizes the character’s sexual relations with Indian women. A few moments later he is spoofing Spain’s King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, Christopher Columbus, conquistador Hernan Cortes and Aztec Emperor Montezuma.
Next he satirizes Andrew Jackson, the notorious Indian killer, followed by the brutish father of a student who is bullying his son at school. Then he mimics his uptight psychotherapist.
The set is a high school classroom strewn with stacks of books, including Howard Zinn’s classic, A People’s History of the United States. There is a blackboard, too, where Leguizamo scribbles notes to illustrate Latino history.
Much of his material is drawn from his life experiences. When was four years old, his parents moved from Bogota, Colombia to New York City, settling in Queens and Jackson Heights. They divorced when he was 12.
“There were lots of [street] fights there. I had to defend myself. It helped me become funny, so I wouldn’t get hit,” he told the director of El Tiempo newspaper in Cartagena, Colombia.
Leguizamo started writing comedy skits in high school and studied acting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Long Island University and at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. He made his television debut with a small role in Miami Vice. That led to appearances in more than 75 films and television shows.
In the early 1990s, Leguizamo took to the stage, playing several characters in Mambo Mouth (1991) and Spic-o-Rama (1993), in which he poked fun at Latino stereotypes.
The stereotyping and erasure of Latinos from history and major roles in movies and television are constant themes for Leguizamo. He is proud of his Amerindian ancestry and featured it in his one-man theater show, Ghetto Klown (2010).
“You never learn about Latino heroes in high school,” Leguizamo told Carlos Amezcua of San Diego’s KUSI-TV.
“You start doing research, and it’s crazy. Cubans and Mexicans fought in the Revolutionary War. Ten thousand Latinos fought in the Civil War on both sides. Five hundred thousand fought in World War II. You never hear about that.”
When Amezcua commented that he considered himself 100 per cent American, “like mom and apple pie, with a little fragrance of Latino,” Leguizamo responded: “I’m just the opposite. I am very Latin. American is just little flavoring for me.”
As for Latino acting roles, Leguizamo told an interviewer on PBS’s American Playhouse: “Every audition I would go to would be either for a drug dealer, a murderer, or a janitor. If there was a good Latin role, it would go to Al Pacino or Robert de Niro. We Latins have great stories to tell, but where is that on TV or in the movies?”
Most theater-goers attributed the performance’s success to the laughs. “Leguizamo is just really a funny guy. That’s enough for me,” said Molly Hart, a college freshman, on her way out of the theater.