Actor, comedian, writer, social activist and and overall buena gente (good guy) John Leguizamo has a bone to pick with the teaching of American history in our classrooms.
In his new solo piece, "Latin History for Morons," not only does he pick that bone, he unearths the ways in which Latinos have given everything they are to make the United States what it is today.
Considering the current political climate, Leguizamo’s lessons couldn’t be more timely or necessary.
We spoke with John about his play, Latino history and the way he successfully engages with detractors.
What was your most eye opening moment in Latino history?
There were two stories. One of them was Loreta Velazquez, a Cuban woman that fought in the Civil War. She fought in the battles of Shiloh, Bull Run and more as a man ‘cause they wouldn’t let women fight. I thought that was so powerful. It shows Latin people’s tenacity, vivacity and cleverness.
Then I learned that 10,000 Latin people participated in the American Revolution. And when I saw that I was like, ‘Wait a minute. We were here fighting, being awarded, honored and you never see that anywhere.’ Ten thousand people in the American Revolution-that was a lot of people back then.
You can’t take this country from me or try and make me feel like a second class citizen when my people have shed blood for this country in every single war this country has ever fought.
How can Latinos be so loud and so invisible in this country?
It’s crazy. But you know we’ve always been the designated enemy. We discovered the country, so they had to invalidate us so that they would feel like they were the originals. They took away so much land and took away so many people’s rights. And they had to do that by disqualifying Latin people and vilifying them so you could take away their land.
In the 1930’s, during the Repatriation Act, they hunted Latin people using their Spanish surnames in the Southwest who had been citizens for generations and took away their homes and their land and removed them.
Five hundred thousand people. I mean, how did that happen? It’s a huge number of people whose rights were taken away, they were American citizens. We were always the "go to" enemy, it was easy for them, you know, but hopefully not for much longer.
How do you think learning this history will make a difference for Latinos?
A lot of Latin people come to the show and they tell me, “Oh my god I’m going to look up every one of those books, I’m going to go to the library, I’m Googling.” And it’s amazing because it’s what happened to me.
One piece of information was so inspiring that I was like, ‘Let’s see what else we got.’ And then one book leads to another and pretty much you've created a pastiche of Latin history and your pride just swells.
You take on injustices on Twitter and Instagram. The comments can get pretty intense, but you always manage to keep it positive without backing down. What’s your secret?
There’s a lot of people out there who are trollers. They violate the norms of communication and they're just offensive but those people you just ignore, you don’t want to fall to their level of lowest common denominator. But you talk to people who sound like they’re reasonable.
I try not to get suckered into the name calling and all that BS that people fall into when they have the anonymity of being online and feel like they can say whatever they want. You still have to respect people.
I think that's the bottom line, you have to respect people.
Latin History for Morons is playing at the Public Theater in New York City and has been extended through April 28.