Take a seat at John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons, and you’ll learn about the obscure yet pivotal details of what it means to be Latino in America. In his one-man show, he decodes the turbulent past and messages of triumph of Latin ancestry that often get lost in the history books of mainstream academia, which erroneously teach an Anglo-infused faux reality.
On Wednesday night (Nov. 15) Leguizamo presided at New York City’s Studio 54 on the show’s opening night. His platform was made into a classroom, littered with books, and with a chalkboard at the center. The backdrop served as the perfect setting for the Colombian actor’s meticulous lesson plan on decolonization; in it, he takes the audience on a trip as he tries to find a Latino hero for his son’s — referred to as Buddy — history project.
As he attempts to help his son — who is being bullied at a posh private school with racial slurs such as “beaner” and “spic” — he revisits his own past, growing up in Queens, New York. At the beginning of his monologue, he recounts being in middle school at I.S. 145 in Jackson Heights, where he remembers his racist, cringe-worthy history teacher denying him the right to know his people’s truth. With an immeasurable amount of comedy, wit and stage presence, he perfectly presents these twisted anecdotes, and morphs them into invaluable lessons. His prowess lies in authentic storytelling.
“Within 30 seconds, that audience knows they are in the presence of somebody who is telling their truth, and they also know they are in the presence of somebody who knows their craft really well,” the show’s director Tony Taccone tells Billboard.
Amid the realness of it all — like when Leguizamo explains what happened to the Incan Empire, the Mayans and Aztecs, there are moments of vulnerability sprinkled into his narrative. In one scene, Leguizamo visits a therapist and discusses the intricacies of having PTSD, simply for being a Latino with “Latin ghetto rage.” He blames his diagnosis on society, for making him feel inferior to the majority simply because of his ethnic makeup. His rage is presented seamlessly on stage, and he commands viewers to pay attention. He is hilariously blunt.
“I’m looking for Latin heroes and Latin contributions, and I’m looking from cover to cover and there’s nothing about us, nada culo, dick,” he says while flipping through the pages of his son’s textbook. “Not one chapter, not a mention, not a single goddamned name — like we were absent all these centuries.”
Latin History for Morons couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. It feels like the perfect complement to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. And it provides a security blanket for people of color in knowing their place and value in a world that’s constantly telling them they don’t matter. He cleverly interpolates relevant pop culture references, like the infamous stories of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacy; even the Kardashians come up in dialogue.
Rightfully so, there is talk about President Donald Trump’s crooked politics and his freakish political resemblance to Columbus. Additionally, he brings up the traumatic SB-4 law in Texas, which orders immigrants suspected of being undocumented to show their papers to law enforcement.
Throughout the show, there is improvised interaction with the audience. He quizzes a man sitting in the front row about his teachings, and uses the props around him to support his cause. When he flips through Howard Zinn’s acclaimed A People’s History of the United States, the crowd erupts in praise. There are also brief interludes of him dancing tango, mambo, salsa and merengue. Dominican artist Mala Fe’s “La Vaca,” gets him moving all around stage.
In the end, Leguizamo fails at finding that Latin hero for his son, but leaves his son with an important lesson: “Because of a situation I had, I started to look inside myself, and in some ways, I have lots of hero in me — because I am Frida Kahlo and I am Cesar Chavez. I am Menudo and I am Sonia Soto Mayor. And I am definitely not Ted Cruz,” Leguizamo says, imitating his son Buddy. “But the biggest thing that I learned this past year while I was failing out of school was one thing my fellow classmates said to me: ‘You’re the king of nothing.’ But if the Mayans invented the concept of zero, then nothing is not nothing. If they can make something out of nothing, then my hero is me.”