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John Leguizamo: When it comes to Latinos, there's a wall 'in American culture'

Leguizamo says that “there’s millions" of Latinos like Lin-Manuel Miranda and him. "It’s just we don’t get the access.”
Actor John Leguizamo on \"True Colors.\"
Actor John Leguizamo on "True Colors."Telemundo / Peacock

The actor, comedian and playwright John Leguizamo expressed his frustration at the lack of Latino representation in the entertainment industry and the failure of the education system to cover the contributions that Latinos have made throughout American history.

The Tony-award winning actor spoke in a documentary interview, part of Peacock’s True Colors, which tells the stories of Latino trailblazers and thought leaders. Peacock is a new streaming service from NBC Universal, the parent company of NBCNews.com.

Sitting in an office, desk piled up with papers and Latin American history books filling the bookshelf behind him, Leguizamo shared how he had difficulty in understanding why his Latino-based movies weren’t getting greenlighted by networks.

Actor John Leguizamo on "True Colors."Telemundo / Peacock

“They didn’t want to do Latin stories. I didn’t know that. I thought it was a fair playing field. I didn’t realize it was so stacked against me,” he said. “The racism is so much more deeply woven into the corporate world.”

In researching for “Latin History for Morons,” a one-man Broadway crash course on the history of Latinos in the U.S., Leguizamo said he was baffled by his own lack of knowledge of the contributions Latinos have made to the United States.

“It was such a betrayal of my education. I felt so betrayed that I had to feel so less than for so long and unnecessarily so,” he said. “The wall isn’t on the border. The wall is in American culture.“

He went on to list iconic activists like Jovita Idar (1885-1946), who pushed for women's suffrage and the civil rights of Mexican Americans. Latinos have fought in every single war the country has ever had, Leguizamo said.

Leguizamo brings up the story of Marcelino Serna, who fought in World War I as a private in the U.S. Army. A Mexican immigrant and noncitizen, Serna has been called the most decorated WWI soldier from Texas but has not been awarded the Medal of Honor, a decision Latino advocates, legislators and historians argue is because of racism.

Scholars have pointed out we may not know many of the Hispanic soldiers who served in wars like World War I, given the "white" status accorded to soldiers of Mexican descent.

Lots of Latino 'genius kids'

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a Vanity Fair piece in 2017 on how Leguizamo was an inspiration for him. To that, the playwright responded saying Miranda is an inspiration to him. After the enormous success of “Hamilton” on Broadway with a majority Latino and Black cast, Leguizamo was able to see there was an interest in the stories they were creating.

Leguizamo’s movie “Critical Thinking,” which premiered Sept. 4, is based on the true story of five high school students in 1998 who shocked the country by becoming the first inner-city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship.

For him, the film shows how “there’s a lot of these super gifted, talented genius kids in our communities that are not getting the love, the nurturing that they deserve.”

Leguizamo said the solution for schools is providing more funding, stressing the difficulty of making it without a quality education. The pandemic has given the country time to reflect, he says, and the Black Lives Matter movement has shown how we still exclude and mistreat people.

In the entertainment industry, when it comes to the pipeline of talent, Leguizamo said that “there’s millions of Lins and there are a million of me. ... It’s just we don’t get the access.”

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