After a run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the La Jolla Playhouse, and then the Public Theater, Latin History for Morons starring John Leguizamo finally came to Broadway last fall and I thought I wasn’t going to get to see it because of finances but then that changed for me and I got a ticket this winter along with Peter, mollyT, Mrs. Devereaux, and her friend. And we got in just under the wire since the show closes on February 25th.
Back in Studio 54‘s disco heyday, I refused to go because I would not stand on line to find out if a bouncer/doorman thought I was good enough to enter the club. So, it was a little funny when I got to the theater a little after 2:30pm (for a 3pm matinee) and the doors weren’t yet open and I found myself on line to get into Studio 54.
We had the cheap seats on the audience right side of the upper rear mezzanine but still had a good view. The theater was full. And I have never before seen so many Latinx in a Broadway theater. When you enter there’s music coming over the sound system – modern and old Latino music and hip-hop. The back wall of the stage is the actual back brick wall of the theater – covered with flyers. The door where Leguizamo makes his entrance is the back door in the wall of the theater. On the stage are piles of books, a blackboard, a small filing cabinet, a wastebasket, and a rolling office chair.
There’s an announcement and Leguizamo enters carrying a filebox (which we soon find out is filled with props) and he’s wearing a sports jacket, vest, shirt, tie, and jeans with sneakers. Although it’s not a costume, his clothes become different costumes throughout the play. A buttoned jacket with a rolled-up collar (showing the yellow under the collar) and he becomes Christopher Columbus. Pull his long-tailed shirt out of his pants, take off his jacket, and add a wig and he’s Loreta Janeta Veláquez, a Cuban woman, who posed as a man so she could join her Texan husband and fight in the Confederacy alongside him. Her husband didn’t know what she planned and didn’t recognize her – even when she was promoted and became head of his regiment.
The story begins with Leguizamo telling us about problems his son is having at middle school. He’s being bullied by a white boy, who claims his family fought in the Civil War, and that Leguizamo’s son is an outsider – a beaner. Leguizamo tries to talk with the father and tells him that his son didn’t even get the insult correct since Leguizamo’s son is a Jewish-Lebanese-Italian-Colombian-Puerto Rican (using all the insults you can string together for those ethnicities). Leguizamo’s son has to do a report on a hero and Leguizamo wants it to be a Latino hero but when questioned by his son, he can’t come up with one. Holla to the NYC public school system because he was taught all about the great civilizations throughout history but Latinos were not part of that world history.
So Leguizamo decides to do his research so he can help his son with his project. He reads about the Mayans who lived in Mexico and Central America from 1000 BC to Now (when he draws the timeline across the board he writes Pit Bull under Now. He draws an outline of the US, Mexico, Central America, and the top of South America (because it’s too big and never fits). Then come the islands – Cuba (big applause), the Dominican Republic (big applause), Haiti, and Puerto Rico (big applause and a ¡Wepa! from Leguizamo). He names the tribes throughout those regions – there were 75 million Natives. After the invasion by the Spanish and the great extermination there were 3.65 million left – that’s 95% of a population vanished off the face of the earth. The Taíno (Caribbean) were gentle people and actually fought with wooden swords, so they were the first to disappear.
Leguizamo talked about how European art is called “fine” art but the art of the Native Americans was called “folk” art and all the Spanish saw was gold, so they melted down the art to make coins. He read from Howard Zinn, who listed what the great civilizations of the Americas brought the world and then listed what the Europeans gave us, which was disease after disease. When he talked about Columbus, he wrote “sifilis” on the board and when we laughed, he said if we know how to spell it, then we probably have had it. He asked if the audience knew how syphilis originated and he was ready for the answer because when someone yelled out, “Having sex with animals,” Leguizamo did a spit take. And he said it was specifically sheep.
Germs are how the Spanish conquered the Americas. Books, even those written by progressive authors, say that the Indians were conquered because they were inferior but what happened was the Spanish would invade, pull back, and when they’d come back a year later, so many people had died that they could easily take over. Cortes did that to the Aztecs and he taught that technique to Pizarro, who used it against the Incas. Cortes also taught Pizarro to set one tribe against the other, so Pizarro set the Chankas against the Incas. When Leguizamo wrote Chankas on the blackboard, he said it was not to be confused with chanclas, and as soon as he said that I knew where he was going and I started laughing harder than I had all afternoon. He explained to the non-Latinx in the audience that every Latin American kid grew up in fear of the chanclas, which are slippers (he called them flip-flops) and are the Latina mother weapon of choice. If you’re Latinx, at some point your mother chased you around the house with a chancla in her hand threatening to beat you with it. Facebook is full of memes about that.
I laughed almost every minute from the start of the show until the end. Leguizamo said a lot of things in Spanish, which he translated (except for the curses, which were evident). In-between the history lesson were recreations of talks with his son, who was still being bullied. The lighting made you see an open door when Leguizamo was standing in his son’s doorway even though there wasn’t a door. When Leguizamo isn’t getting through to his son, his teenage daughter steps in and says to her brother, “Think of the bullies like sandpaper. Yes, they’re coarse and they will scratch and hurt you. But in the end, the sandpaper becomes useless and you will be polished.” Leguizamo is amazed that these words of wisdom came from a girl who walks around constantly looking at her phone and wearing headphones.
Another funny moment is when Leguizamo claps the erasers above his head so that his hair is white and he can play Andrew Jackson. (Later he says he knows he looks more like Frederick Douglass than Andrew Jackson.) He tells us about the [all together now] Trail of Tears and before that the terrible rules that had been laid down for Native Americans, which they followed. And how much of our Constitution had been stolen from the Iroquois and here was our government laying down brutal rules.
There was a lot of music and a lot of dancing. Leguizamo claims to be too old to move around like that anymore but he danced up a storm – like all good Latinx do every time we hear that beat.
Latinos have fought in every US war – including the American Revolution. Thousands and thousands of us in every war. Cuban women living in Virginia gave up their jewelry in order to fund the Revolution and there was a Latino general who also gave money. So, we are also Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution.
And there was talk about Ghetto Anger – where you are so angry about your situation and after holding it in for so long it becomes self-loathing. And Leguizamo talked about situations he was in where he had to hold back his anger because when a brown person becomes angry, they don’t know what will happen to them – police or ICE or worse?
The play ended on a very happy and uplifting note. I hope it has been or will be filmed or tours so that everyone gets a chance to see it. Leguizamo goes through the books so quickly (many being thrown in the wastebasket) that I was hoping there would be a list in the Playbill and, luckily, there’s a syllabus.
The play was written by Leguizamo and directed by Tony Taccone. Scenic design was by Rachel Hauck, lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols, costume design by Luke McDonough, and original music and sound design by Bray Poor.
By Carene Lydia Lopez