I grew up without seeing people who looked like me on screen,
on stage, or in textbooks. Latinx people have been kept outta the
conversation for centuries, and it’s about time y’all hear what we gotta say!
No matter who you are, this is your chance to come out
and finally get your degree from a ghetto scholar.
— John Leguizamo
Dallas — John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons premiered on Broadway in 2017 and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play in 2018. Directed both in NYC and on tour by Tony Taccone (Artistic Director of Berkeley Rep), the one-man show traces the marginalization of Latinos in U.S. history and the vital roles they actually played—from a satirical recap of Aztec and Incan history, to stories of Latin patriots in both the Revolutionary and Civil War and beyond. Well-researched to the max, Latin History’s program comes with a useful “Syllabus,” a list of the bibliographic references from which Leguizamo pulled facts to help create his show.
If you know little of the brutal historical conquests in the Americas, and if you know little of the heroic Hispanic participation in every war fought by what is now the United States, this show jams several hundred years of history into two entertaining, fast-moving, and very funny hours, which came to the AT&T Performing Arts Center on Friday night. As for those who are parents or educators, having access to a recording of the show would provide many hours of provocative conversations with mature teens. A live recording of Latin History premiered on Netflix November 2018.
We all grew up reading history textbooks authorized by our school districts, right? One topic that is not discussed by teachers and students alike is: Whose perspective we are being taught? The so-called objective historical events in most history books actually come from the vantage point of the winners: the Spanish, Portuguese conquistadores, the British and other European settlers, in other words, those in whose interest it was –and to some it still is—to have us believe that genocide of indigenous peoples of the Americas was the imperial powers’ destiny. Genocide, incarceration, repatriations, deportations, the prohibition of speaking one’s native (non-English) languages: Leguizamo aims to fill in those historical erasures and draws a historical landscape whereby both the presence and vital contributions by people of color are reaffirmed.
Leguizamo begins by asking the audience a direct question: “How many of us people of color see ourselves in school books, or depicted with respect in Hollywood films and in television?”
The Dallas audience, a vocal and embracing one, shouts back the obvious: “We don’t.”
“To mainstream America,” he says, “we are invisible and not valued.”
Soliciting audience participation throughout the performance, Leguizamo engages in us in a conversation and prompts our own reflections on what we have been taught. He has been lambasting Latino cultural stereotypes through fierce comedic caricature since the early days of his career.
Leguizamo’s more-or-less autobiographical works for the stage, written and performed by him, have drawn descriptors like “outrageous” and “in-your-face.” It is no different here. He calls forth both his Latin-American roots (he was born in Bogotá, Colombia) and his upbringing in Jackson Heights, Queens (at the time a rough NYC outer-borough neighborhood with a predominantly Puerto Rican population). And the acerbic humor of Leguizamo’s gritty, street-wise stage persona spares no one—not even himself.
The premise of the play is fairly straightforward yet gives rise to a complex structure that moves between the present and various pasts. His middle-school son comes home with a task: to select and write about a hero. Leguizamo insists that together they find a Latino hero. (Yes, a male hero, something the older daughter calls him on later in the show.) Dad remedies this by including obscure female figures on the short list, including Cuban-born Loreta Velázquez, who masqueraded as a male Confederate soldier during the American Civil War in order to follow her soldier husband.
The son also comes home from his fancy private New York school (paying full tuition, mind you, and not on scholarship!) upset about being bullied and called names. (“… a beaner, which is a pejorative name for Mexicans, not Puerto Ricans," Leguizamo clarifies. They’re called “sp**,” he adds, a term with which he self-identifies.) At once, Leguizamo’s fatherly instincts kick in as well as his ghetto rage, that part of a person that continues to seethe with anger from past and present cultural macro-aggressions. The trope works magnificently, as it allows Leguizamo to perform as both a teacher and parent, as his son and daughter, his Jewish wife, his therapist, and (as a bonus) various historical figures. He names and offers special thanks to members of his family in the program. His son eventually finds a hero, and the choice is both surprising and welcome.
While Leguizamo’s portrayals of historical figures are funny and accurate, there was one segment that made me cringe. The depiction of the last Aztec Emperor Moctezuma as a gay queen ready to be effed by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés left me a bit cold. It felt like a cheap shot. Yes, he followed it up with the excuse “I have a cousin who is gay, so that gives me permission.” (I hate to say it, but that disclosure was stereotypical in a some-of-my-best-friends-are... way.) But that did not erase a cartoonish touching upon the sensitive Mexican historical topic of la chingada. Although in male historical narratives the woman penetrated by Cortés in the Conquest is the Aztec princess and translator Malitzin (a.k.a. “La Malinche”), transferring the sexual stigma to the male Aztec emperor did nothing to dispel this particular stereotype.
On the other hand, a cultural generalization that as a dancer I found hilarious was his rendition of how our Latinidad comes out, involuntarily at times, when we hear our music (salsa, cumbia, merengue, tango, etc.). No way of passing as other than Latin when the rhythm gets ya, to echo Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine’s famous 1987 song.
A simple stage design includes the use of a large, two-sided blackboard and colored chalks, here and there books from which he quotes, and an extra pair of pants stowed away in one of the drawers. Leguizamo uses white chalk in various ways, including as a way to color his hair as Andrew Jackson. A large overhead live feed onscreen allows the audience to view his facial expressions in detail, although one audience member friend commented on the shakiness of the camera. Frankly, it did not bother me. The sound design filled in at important emotional moments—for example, when his son shuts the door on him several times. Latin and hip hop music precede and close the performance, setting an urban beat for both his speech and the pace of the show. His use of “y’all” (not in common use in his home territory of New York City) did come across as an effort to personalize his approach to this particular audience.
Leguizamo, now older yet nevertheless energetic and yes, sexy, became a household name for those of us into Latino performance in the early 1990s. His off-Broadway credits include Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama; on Broadway, he is best known for Latin History for Morons, Freak, Ghetto Klown, and Sexaholix…A Love Story. He’s twice been nominated for the Tony, and has won multiple Drama Desk, Obie, and Outer Critics awards. He also has various film and television credits, plus a number of books in print. He came onto my radar in the early 1990s while I was a graduate student in Southern California, but this was my first time to see him perform live. He did not disappoint.
The Winspear Opera House was full of fans who gave up their appreciation for Leguizamo´s performance (his only Dallas date) with an immediate and thundering standing ovation. Available for a book-signing after the show, the line of folks snaked around the lobby several times. I would venture to say that there was a mix of people of color and white folks at this show. And, as far as I could see, nobody walked out—though that happened at one of the controversial New York performances, I was told by a first-hand spectator. Dallas, you rose to the occasion with an open mind and heart, and had some raucous good laughs!
For the remainder of Leguizamo’s 2019 tour schedule, visit www.latinhistorybroadway.com.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press)