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John Leguizamo wants to eradicate ‘cultural apartheid’ with positive Latinx stories

Actor and director John Leguizamo at the La Jolla Playhouse in September 2019.
Actor and director John Leguizamo in September 2019.
(Alexandra Mendoza / UT en Español)

Not many movies have been in the works for 23 years.

When Miami movie producer Carla Berkowitz read about a high school chess team in a 1997 issue of the Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine, she knew she had to snap up the rights to the story.

For more than two decades, Berkowitz kept in touch with five team members — Oelmy “Ito” Paniagua, Gil Luna, Rodelay Medina, Sedrick Roundtree and Marcel Martinez. Then actor and director John Leguizamo stepped in.

“I related to this story of these kids who were in a tough neighborhood and didn’t really fit in,” Leguizamo recently told USA Today. “They didn’t really want to go be gangsters, they didn’t want to play football. They were street intellectuals, bookworms and nerds. And this teacher created this safe space for them.”

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The movie, “Critical Thinking,” premiered online on Sept. 4. It tells the true story of five Latinx and Black teenagers — played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Jeffrey Batista, Angel Bismark Curiel, William Hochman and Corwin Tuggles — from an underserved Miami neighborhood. Cuban-American teacher Mario Martinez (played by Leguizamo) coaches them to the National Chess Championship. Leguizamo also directed the film.

“Positive Latin stories, feel-good movies,” he told USA Today. “They’ve seen Disney or they’ve seen ‘After School Special.’ They’re tricky, but they’re much appreciated. We need these stories. We gotta have stories of success, of excellence, told by Latin people, about Latin people, for Latin people.”

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Two years ago, Leguizamo’s one-man show “Latin History for Morons” made it to Netflix and was staged at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre last year. Inspired by his quest to find Latinx heroes for his son, the comedy addressed the “cultural apartheid” of the lack of Latinx visibility in entertainment and media.

“Critical Thinking” has a similar goal in mind.

“We’re the largest ethnic group in America,” Leguizamo said to USA Today. “We’re 25% of the U.S. box office, we’re 30% of the public school population, and our kids don’t see themselves. It’s incredible: It’s like we’re living in a cultural apartheid, like we don’t exist. We’re here, we contribute money, taxes, and yet we’re virtually invisible.”

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The New York Times reported Wednesday that, of the 25 people who run the top TV networks and Hollywood studios, just three are Black or Hispanic. “Critical Thinking,” however, featured a predominantly Black and Hispanic cast: Leguizamo was born in Colombia, Lendeborg in the Dominican Republic; Batista is Cuban, Bismark Curiel is Dominican and Tuggles is Black.

“We share the same story because, like me, he’s Cuban. He came to the U.S. at 17, and I came to the U.S. when I was turning 18,” Batista told the Miami New Times of Marcel Martinez, the man who inspired his character. “For me, doing this movie basically means what for him was to become the national champion in chess. It’s the ultimate dream to be in a movie like this.”


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