Actor, comedian, writer and producer John Leguizamo said he makes sure the motive of all the screenplays, books and shows he has produced, and plans to produce, is anchored on this one motto: “Not one more lost generation.”
This sentiment was the theme of his talk as a guest speaker for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s latest Distinguished Speakers Series event, which was held virtually on Thursday and moderated by UTRGV Professor Greg Selber.
Leguizamo, a Colombia-born artist who grew up in Queens, has had a versatile career with works spanning one-man shows such as “Spice-O-Rama” and “Mambo Mouth,” and starring opposite Al Pacino in “Carlito’s Way,” with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in “Moulin Rouge!” and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as voicing Sid the sloth in the “Ice Age” films.
Thursday evening, Leguizamo told local college students stories about how he turned the frustration he had about being treated differently in school and early in his acting career for being Latinx — the gender-neutral term for Latino that Leguizamo prefers — or into motivation to succeed.
“I grew up in an era where I did not see myself in comic books as a superhero, I did not see myself as the lead of a TV show,” the 56-year-old actor, playwright and producer said. “I did not see myself as a hero, in the literature, in the textbooks — and some of that made me want to rebel and made me not want to succeed, made me not want to be part of the system because I did not want to be clowned by a system that rejected me.”
But instead, Leguizamo decided to craft his own work.
In 1991, he wrote “Mamba Mouth,” a one-man stage performance in which he enacts a variety of Latinx personas, which was turned into a Broadway production and picked up by HBO.
Then in 2006, Leguizamo wrote “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends,” a book that centers on his life growing up as a Latinx boy in a big city.
One of his most recent works is “Latin History for Morons,” a one-man Broadway show that traces the last 3,000-year history of Latin people.
Leguizamo said he decided to write the production because his son was being bullied at school at the time for the color of his skin, and believes textbooks teaching students more about Latin history would discourage such behavior.
“I wanted him to weaponize this information and give him data as ammunition — that would be his defense, his shield,” Leguizamo said of his son.
He added that researching for the play “made me feel so many different things: so powerful, and yet so angry that this was kept from me, and so sad about our history because there’s so much pain.”
A part of the play teaches about how it were the Latin empires that were once the most powerful in the world, including the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayans.
In the virtual event, Leguizamo told the story of Mexican diplomat Gilberto Bosques Saldívar, who saved 40,000 Jews in France during World War ll from Nazi persecution.
“I mean, that’s an incredible hero, what a great man,” he said. “So where’s the story? Where’s the movie? Where’s that book?
He later continued: “When I found that information, I made it my mission to change American textbooks, American curriculum, because otherwise we are learning fairy tales in these textbooks that are inaccurate.”
Leguizamo also boycotted the Emmy Awards this month for not having any Latin talent in major categories.
“The Emmys just angered me to no extent,” Leguizamo said. “But the Emmys’ not the problem, it’s the pipeline. Why aren’t they putting us in shows? Why aren’t they telling our stories?
“In LA, we are 50% of the population in Hollywood, and less than 3% of the faces are in front of the camera, we are less than 2% of the crew, less than 1% of the executives, less than 1% of the stories being told by Hollywood streamers and networks. That’s like living in a cultural apartheid, a psychosocial erasure.”
He also mentioned that though Latinx children make up around 30% of the nation’s student population in public schools, theirs is the least represented group among others in children picture books.
So, Leguizamo said he has been working on publishing children’s books and comic books with Latinx superheroes.
Ultimately, he encouraged students to pave their own paths, and use their education as a tool.
“There are always these people who are going to try to demean us, but if we have our information, if we have our knowledge… you build yourself an armor that protects yourself.”