Lessons of representation in ‘Latin History for Morons’: An interview with John Leguizamo

Illustration of John Leguizamo
Olivia Staser/Staff

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John Leguizamo would prefer it if we didn’t use the term “people of color.” In an interview with The Daily Californian, the veteran actor and producer reveals the history behind his nationally touring show, “Latin History for Morons,” as well as his personal philosophies on representation in art and media.

A staunch advocate for Latinx representation in Hollywood and elsewhere, Leguizamo strives to alter public perception of his culture and community so as to encourage grassroots activism. He calls the term “people of color” one which was allegedly “used by corporations” to satisfy a diversity quota that still prioritizes the white majority. “When they say ‘people of color,’ who are they talking about? They say ‘we have lots of people of color’ and I ask how many of those are Latinx, and then it gets quiet. ‘People of color’ is being used against us,” Leguizamo said.

Much of his show, which is framed around the theme of an irreverent classroom, centers on showing the unique historical contributions of Latinx communities in America’s nation-building. Leguizamo passionately lists instances of Latinx officers fighting in WWII and of Cuban women in Virginia selling their jewelry in order to fund war efforts against the British. It is a series of narratives that resist more nebulous categorizations such as “people of color” and grounds representation solely as a question of Latinx representation in Hollywood and in history.

An actor with almost 40 years of experience in the field, playing every role from Shakespearean villains to video game action stars, Leguizamo is vocal regarding the contributions Latinx individuals have made toward the entertainment industry. He ran through a list of statistics with the long familiarity of someone used to having to defend what he knows. “In (the media), 1% of the stories are based on Latin people. But we have 2.3 trillion powers in buying power. We’re the eighth-largest economy in the world. … I want people to count how many Latin people they see in movies,” he said, expressing the dearth of roles and stories being told. 

As such, Leguizamo articulated that there is certainly a demand for stories featuring Latinx individuals but the Hollywood machine does not allow them to see the light of day. One tried-and-true trick of receiving support for projects that have extended cultural significance, Leguizamo has found, is through humor. 

“I want to laugh about it all, because humanity is ridiculous … I want you to walk out feeling like (being) Latin is a superpower and … to disseminate that information. I I whip my crowds into a frenzy,” he said. 

For those who have been relegated, often forcefully and violently, to the peripheries of canonical national histories, rage and humor often see each other in mirrored inverse. They’re ways of coping with one another. When the laughter dies down, rage emerges. And when rage rears its head, there is often little to do but laugh.

Leguizamo seeks to capture this contradictory conflux of energy as much as he wishes to harness it for societal change. He recounted a letter he received from a fan in New York who, after seeing the show, had written to the school board requesting that Latinx history become incorporated within the state’s curriculum. Even as he creates art for enjoyment’s sake, Leguizamo is hyper-aware of its political potential by necessity. “Latin History for Morons,” in particular, was born out of a conversation with his son, who had been bullied at school for being Latinx. Leguizamo dubs the present political atmosphere in the United States to be “a cultural apartheid.” Even as he encourages his son to not resort to violence toward those who belittle him, he seeks to provide him with another defensive skill — Latin history he can “weaponize.” 

Ultimately, what Leguizamo strives for is change — long term, actionable, educated change. “I want people to write, to call, to picket, to petition,” he said. “We’re not asking for more than our share. We deserve 20% of that wealth … 25% of that box office.” 

For young Latinx artists looking to break into the industry, Leguizamo had this advice: “Create your own material.” Although studios may be unwilling to fund projects that diverge from the mainstream, they too can recognize the value, and investment potential, of a viral video. He believes that the “millions and millions of hits” garnered on Latinx-produced art will be a force strong enough to sway Hollywood conventions and perhaps change them for good.

At the end of the interview, Leguizamo enacted his message by plugging his Instagram. A caption for a recent post, sharing a YouTube video from singer Princess Nokia, reads: “Latinx women are on the forefront of Latinx take over! … You can’t ‘undo’ us no more!” The post has since garnered 24,000 views. The uphill battle for representation, as is always, begins with recognition. Leguizamo emphasized the necessity for this recognition, for Latinx people to receive a piece of the land of opportunity that they had helped to build, of the American dream that remains merely a dream for certain communities of individuals. 

“Latin History for Morons” will be performed at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Oct. 25. Tickets are $25 with the code “STUDENT” at all points of purchase.

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected].