The mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico — Carmen Yulin Cruz — embraced John Leguizamo in tears after seeing his one-man show “Latin History for Morons.”
The scene with the mayor played out during the end of PBS’ “Great Performances: John Leguizamo’s Road to Broadway.” In it, we follow the actor’s process as he creates his sixth one-man show, the aforementioned “Latin History,” which launched Nov. 5 on Netflix. The behind-the-scenes special airs Nov. 16 and will be available for streaming the next day at pbs.org/gperf .
Maybe because she has been through tragedy so publicly, many of the truths told by Leguizamo about genocide in South America and Mexico along with hefty historical contributions by Latino people to the United States were overwhelming for Cruz to hear.
The special features interviews with Rita Moreno, Mark Ruffalo, Ethan Hawke, Ruben Blades, director Tony Taccone and numerous people who have been affected by this play and Leguizmo’s work in general.
We caught up with Leguizamo to ask about his process for creating a show, what he learned in researching Latino history and the political ramifications his play may have had on the recent “blue wave” results in the midterm elections.
Had you ever thought of going into teaching? If there was a PG version of “Latin History for Morons,” I think people could use it in public schools.
I have a huge respect for teachers. Some have been mentors in my life and helped me pick my path in life. So when I was doing it, I was just thinking how can I pay the respect back to all the people who mentored me and guided me. The ones that were so funny and vital and informative and raunchy. It was always more fun when they had elements of sexual reality to it. So that’s what I was thinking.
In the behind-the-scenes special, your process is mainly what’s on display. Has this just become trial and error in terms of you developing the best way to put on your show?
Yeah. I mean I definitely do write a lot of it down, but it’s still going to be a matter of trial and error in terms of how an audience receives it, how I deliver it, because it’s not like a written piece that is going to be read. It’s a piece that’s going to be heard and seen, so that’s what I have to adjust for — that it’s one man, one person, telling this story, and I want to create these worlds. So it’s that fine tuning of that — how do I make this world more available to the audience?
In researching, what was the most shocking part of your discovered history?
It was really mind opening for me. I felt so many emotions when I started to discover all this information because it was just unfathomable to me that it wasn’t in my history textbooks, that it wasn’t available to me my formative years. That it wasn’t in school, that it wasn’t in literature, that it wasn’t on the History Channel or anywhere I turned. And that I grew up with a sort of deficit in my self-esteem because of it. Then to find out that, wait a minute, we Latin people are the second-oldest ethnic group in America? And, wait a minute, we Latin people have fought in every single war America has had?
Because he’s such an integral part of your story in general, how does your son feel about the show? And did he learn anything specifically from it?
I did it because I wanted my son to deal with the bullying in a different way than I was raised or taught to. My dad, when I was bullied, said, “Don’t come back home unless you kick his ass or I’m gonna kick your ass.” So that was kind of the way I had to deal with it. And I just wanted my son to be better than me and to be more involved in being his own man. So I wanted to give facts information.
And, you know, I made mistakes. So I became very meticulous about it so as not to make that mistake again. And, I think he started to love history. He saw it on Broadway. And I heard he laughed a lot.
There are probably some facts that you found that you might not have been able to get into the show. Is there anything that stands out that you may have wanted to address?
Yeah, I mean, I got a little bit out of it. But the racism that Latin people had to deal with in this country. The Jim Crow laws were also against Latin people. They were all over the Southwest and the West. Whites only, no Spanish or dogs kind of stuff. Then, there was the amount of lynching ... 600 Latin people were lynched between 1830 and 1930, which are huge and horrendous numbers that you never hear about.
The first woman lynched in America was this young Latin, teenage women during the gold rush. This man that came into her house and tried to rape her, she shot him, but because she showed no remorse, they hung her. So it was a lot of these incredible, incredible heroes that were victims of land grabs and power grabs and racism that I wanted to include, but it just wasn’t enough time.
What do you think is the best way for people to be able to use this material to educate?
I’ve been doing the show for four years across the country, and I think my show has had a powerful influence on Latinx people, on white people, on black people because they tell me. Hundreds have said the show has inspired them, I’ve given them a sense of pride, given them a sense of they have to take action. And I had a lot of politicians, especially in New York … and educators come to my show and say they were going to change their syllabus. They’re going to change the school curriculums with all that information that I had, and so I feel like the influence of my show is just going to continue.
How did the Netflix part of it all come about?
They came to see the show, they fell in love with it, and we started talking. I thought they were going to take care of it and give me the show that I wanted to have. Netflix just reaches my audience because it’s where everybody is getting their content now.
Same for the behind-the-scenes special ... what made you decide to film how you were developing it?
I love the behind-the-scenes stuff. So they can see what the recipe is, what the formula is. I want people to be able to do what I’m doing. I want people to just figure it out by watching me, and hopefully I can be an inspiration for anybody who wants to write a show, or write their own movie, or create their own stories. I mean, I want to be the catalyst, so I want to show how difficult it is and how what I do is hard work.
Who did you come out of this thinking ‘Wow that person is a great American hero that maybe we don’t know about or celebrate enough’?
I love Sylvia Mendez. She’s incredible. In the 1940s in California she fought segregation cause Latin people weren’t allowed to go to regular schools or to any school, so she went to the Supreme Court to fight against segregation, and she paved the way for Brown vs. Board of Ed in the 1940s. She was half Puerto Rican, half Mexican. She was finally given an honor by Obama during his administration.
What about today’s political climate and how it deals with your show?
I hope that my show had an influence on this “blue wave” — on this tsunami [of Democratic victories]. I feel like I did. I had some influence. The amount of Latin candidates that that ran this year and especially with Latinx women who ran for office ... It was so impressive, so inspiring to me — and the numbers are huge. The number of women in office, especially now because Latin people because used to be less than 1%, I’m sure that just went up.
I just felt so inspired by that, and I’m just glad that Latin people are no longer going to accept taking a back seat, stepping back. We want a seat at the table, and we’re just not going to be denied anymore.
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