John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons, his new solo show onstage at the Ahmanson September 5 – October 20, 2019, has a simple premise: Leguizamo’s young son has been bullied at his upscale private school. According to the bully, there are no Latinx heroes in the history books. Leguizamo sets out to rectify this problem by excavating the lost and neglected history of the indigenous Americas.
What is that history and why has it been written out of the books? Latin History for Morons is many things, but it’s essentially a revisionist historical project. The show’s pan-Latinx historical overview covers the contributions of the ancient Aztec, Mayan, and Inca civilizations, and the genocide of these cultures by conquest and colonialism. The show’s basic theme: knowledge is power.
Born in Colombia, Leguizamo is one of the most visible Latinx artists in theatre, and he has consistently critiqued Latinx stereotypes throughout his career, even while being accused of perpetuating them along the way. With titles like Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama, Freak, Sexaholix, and Ghetto Klown, his work is intentionally provocative. Today, these titles could easily be mistaken as anti-immigrant tweets. Yet Leguizamo’s brilliant combination of politics and entertainment speaks truth to power without dividing audiences into competing constituencies. In his view, we are all morons.
This is not the first time Leguizamo has placed himself within a historical context. In his first Broadway show, Freak, he told the story of sneaking into A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, and hearing Diana Morales sing “Nothing,” which tells her story of being taunted by her high school theatre teacher and classmates for being different—for being a Puerto Rican woman. Eventually, she succeeds despite the cultural biases against her. Morales became a role model for Leguizamo, and seeing her story onstage transformed him. Latin History for Morons picks up on this theme, and asks: Who are our Latinx role models? What Latinx figures can guide us into self-love and self-affirmation?
Rather than focusing on the success of one particular national tradition, he posits that all Latinx people share a common bond.
Leguizamo’s exhaustive research tells a story of pan-Latinx achievement and resilience. Rather than focusing on the success of one particular national tradition, he posits that all Latinx people share a common bond. In this sense, the history of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, Ecuadorians, Colombians—all cultures from the Spanish-speaking Americas—needs to be recovered, studied, and celebrated.
Pan-Latinx is a term to describe the mobilization of Latin people from different national origins and cultural backgrounds into a collective group. Sometimes it’s used as a marketing device, stripping away historical and cultural differences; at other times it’s used as a way to bring together a set of disenfranchised groups for more collective political power. Leguizamo is more drawn to the latter (although sometimes accused of the former).
I see his efforts to bring distinct Latinx communities together as a good thing. All Latinx people, regardless of national origin, will benefit. The only time Leguizamo differentiates between nationalities is through dance. He busts into salsa, cumbia, and meringue, among other Latinx dance forms, to honor the cultures in the audience who are most associated with each move. The fact that he himself can dance these different styles so spectacularly models the pan-Latinx affinities Latin History of Morons celebrates. While Leguizamo plays into the stereotype of the rhythmic Latinx he does so with virtuosity and wit. These moments always bring the house down.
Leguizamo’s charisma wins over audiences suspicious of his ability to stand in for all Latinx people, or his appropriation of ancestral stories and iconic images that are not his own. He asks us to find solidarity and community across national differences so that we can obliterate the damaging whitewashing of history and generate Latinx cultural pride. While Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton casts people of color to tell the traditional story of America’s “Founding Fathers” and the period of the American Revolution, Latin History for Morons insists that Latinos themselves be “in the room where it happens,” that our stories merit telling, too.
I’ve been following Leguizamo’s career since his earliest days in the downtown performances spaces of New York’s East Village. I’ve seen everything he’s done several times if not more. As a fellow Colombian, I am drawn to his inclusionary open-armed embrace of all Latinos. Latin History for Morons serves as a powerful rebuttal to the current hateful rhetoric against Latinx immigrants and refugees, and a respite from the violent hate crimes for which we have been targeted. Leguizamo celebrates the diversity of Latinx people from our ancestors to our children, and returns our stories to the front and center stage where they belong.
David Román is a Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Southern California.