Studying Latino History with John Leguizamo

John Leguizamo in rehearsal for Latin History for Morons. Photographed at New 42nd Street Studios.

When actor, writer, and comedian John Leguizamo started doing research on the history of Latinos in the United States — inspired by wanting to be able to answer questions his then eighth grade son might ask — one surprising thing he learned about was the number of Latino soldiers.

“We were involved in every war this country ever had — that really bugged me out,” he said. “And the numbers — 20,000 in the Civil War, and then 4,000 in World War I, but 500,000 in World War II, 170,000 in Vietnam. And in no World War II movie do you see a Latin person.”

Leguizamo, who was born in Colombia and grew up in Queens, also learned that 32 percent of Latinos drop out of school. He thinks a lot of that has to do with the textbooks.

“When I was growing up, there was not one Latin hero in history, literature in philosophy,” he said. “We get no credit, and I think it’s a bit of a purposeful dis-inclusion.”

[jump] All of this led to Leguizamo’s latest solo show, Latin History for Morons, premiering at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Leguizamo says he was already pretty familiar with the history of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas — which he talks about in his show – but he did learn a lot, from reading people like Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, the first ethnographer, who studied the Aztecs’ culture and history. Leguizamo also enjoyed Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, where the French philosopher argued against the genocide of Native Americans.

Putting the information he found into a solo show was challenging. Leguizamo said when he was touring, he paid attention to what seemed to engage people- and what didn’t. Leguizamo does things like acting out- by himself – some of the Aztec and Inca battles and doing his own version of war dances. He says the other artists at the Berkeley Rep supported and inspired him and working with artistic director Tony Taccone helped enormously. 

“Tony has a great dramaturgical sense, a great sense of story, and a great sense of humor,” he said. “He understands visual humor. We had a lot of debate, and he helped me save the piece. He would say, ‘This is nonsense,’ or ‘Go a little deeper here,’ or ‘This bores me to tears.’”

Leguizamo’s career has definitely been his own, spanning movies such as Lincoln Lawyer, Moulin Rouge, Love in the Time of Cholera and currently the voice of Sid in Ice Age and its sequels. He's been in TV shows like ER,  Bloodline and Dora the Explorer, and he created the variety show House of Buggin' in the 90s. His solo shows include Mambo Mouth, Freak, and most recently Ghetto Klown, which went to Broadway in 2011 after premiering at Berkeley Rep. Leguizamo said he started writing his own stuff because he wasn’t getting offered roles in Hollywood. In theater he was able to do things he couldn’t have done on TV.

“Theater is one of more powerful forms of change,” he said. “When I came on the scene, comedy on TV was very light and very cute. I came out doing stuff about child abuse, death, nervous breakdowns. The theater let you do it — I didn’t have to go through a committee.”

With this show, Leguizao says he’s having a great time.

“Ghetto Klown was really the first time I started being myself, and in this one, I’m even more comfortable being myself,” he said. “I’m having a blast and I’m really happy I was able to arrive at this place.”

Latin History for Morons, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, July 1- Aug. 14, $30-$60, 510-647-2949

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