John Leguizamo arrives on stage to thunderous applause, which he quickly shuts down with the mantra of his latest one-man show, Latin History for Morons:
‘Settle down, we’ve got a lot of work to do here tonight. I’ve got to undo your whole education and the entire way you think and it’s not going to be easy because that s—t’s in there deep.’
As the title suggests, the conceit of the performance is basic: Latin history for people who don’t know a lot about Latin history. Of course, it’s seldom that simple. For one, as Leguizamo himself notes, most people don’t know a thing about Latin history beyond racist assumptions, even Latinx people themselves, in part because the education system has been so disgracefully lacking for many decades. Even the history books skip over most of it. So, Leguizamo is going to step up to the task.
For anyone who is most familiar with John Leguizamo through his film and television performances - which varies from Romeo + Juliet to Summer of Sam to Waco to, yes, Super Mario Bros. - then the chances are you aren’t as well acquainted with his impeccable as a storyteller. His books have served as some of the most hilariously scathing dissections of Hollywood, while his award-winning one-man Broadway shows have defined him as one of the most gifted bards of his generation. His fast-talking, swear-infested eloquence allows him to embody various personas and ideas, all while melding history with experience. He’s the kind of storyteller who can effortlessly jump from joke to joke then suddenly have you on the verge of tears before you even realize he’s gotten emotional. Leguizamo manages to be the funniest guy at the party but also the one with the hardest hitting truths his (assumed majority white) guests may not want to deal with.
Latin History for Morons, now on Netflix, is a natural extension of his many years of work. The show, which was nominated for the Best Play Tony Award this year (it lost to some dude called Harry Potter, I don’t know), follows Leguizamo’s quest to inspire his son by reconnecting to his Latinx roots. After finding out his son is being bullied at school for being Mexican (he’s not Mexican), Leguizamo goes on a pseudo-academic expedition to find the truth of Latin history that is strong enough to combat not only white ignorance but generations of ingrained racism. How do you fight such deep-seated disenfranchisement when it’s the societal default and even the history books tell you that you’re wrong?
Leguizamo is so at ease on the stage, you can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t do this every day. He jumps from joke to joke, switching up accents and throwing in dances, then recounting incredibly tender moments in Latinx history with a deftness that still feels entirely spontaneous. It’s like listening to your friend in a bar feverishly recount something that happened to them that day, but with better secondary reading. He has just over 90 minutes to get thousands of years of history into your brains as well as a reminder of how colonialism stripped Latinx culture of its right to a place in that narrative.
Not every joke lands. Some of the accents are a tad too much of a caricature to overlook and there are moments of odd gay stereotypes that probably sounded better in Leguizamo’s head. Yet the overall effect isn’t dimmed. If a joke doesn’t work then it’s fine because he’s got five more lined up and ready to go, like old-school Mel Brooks.
The jokes aren’t the best part of Latin History for Morons anyway. Whether or not you buy the set-up of the show being inspired by his own son - and those moments in the show feel stilted in a way the rest of it doesn’t - the true heart of the performance comes from Leguizamo being forced to come to terms with his own understanding of his identity. This isn’t something that has only affected him either. As he notes, it’s a centuries long epidemic. History is written by the victors and they’re not exactly wild about admitting the little details like their culpability in genocide, rape, theft, and cultural annihilation. The Taíno people of the Caribbean, wiped out by the arrival of Christopher Columbus, are not an exception to the rule in Leguizamo’s history lesson. Indeed, they are the rule.
The elephant in the room does not go ignored, of course. Trump’s shadow cannot help but loom heavily over Latin History for Morons since his policies and obscenely popular rhetoric are rooted in anti-Latinx sentiment and their continued dehumanization. Leguizamo becomes increasingly frantic in his search for a positive and uplifting historical role model that his son can call his hero, but how can that be done not only when history is so bleak but the present hasn’t gotten much better? Leguizamo keenly understands that laughter can provide the best educational platform for the lofty subjects he covers, but the emotional whiplash created from his jumps from jokes to political pain are also a reminder of who is made most comfortable by self-deprecation.
Fundamentally, Latin History for Morons is a show about American identity. Latinx history is American history but it has been so thoroughly excluded from the narrative that it is always considered the ‘other’. The Latinx soldiers who thought in the Civil War appear in no documentary or worthy prestige movie made of the era. The ground-breaking Incan civilization, centuries ahead of their European colonizers, are forever written off as the ‘savages’. The agonizing violence of the past has retained its roots to today and still Latinx Americans have to fight for that basic recognition. As Leguizamo says himself in the show, when he rallies against Trump’s constant anti-immigration bigotry: ‘How dare he, when we’re so American it hurts.’
Latin History for Morons is now available to watch on Netflix, and Leguizamo has kindly provided a reading syllabus for any interested viewers!