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John Leguizamo Has Always Been a Latino Hero

In honor of his current Broadway show, ‘Latin History for Morons,’ a fond look back at the impact of the comedic actor’s 1998 one-man play, ‘Freak’

John Leguizamo Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By the end of the ’90s, John Leguizamo had earned real parts in several big movies—Super Mario Bros. and Carlito’s Way in 1993, To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar in 1995, Executive Decision and Romeo + Juliet in 1996, among others—and so, of course, he was a star. But it wasn’t until his 1998 special, John Leguizamo: Freak, a semi-autobiographical one-man show directed by Spike Lee that appeared on HBO, that he became something larger.

In Freak (which is not on Netflix, but available to stream on Amazon), Leguizamo walks us forward through the beginning part of his life, starting (literally) from the time he was a sperm and ending with him getting cast in his first leading role for a stage show. As a production, it is so smart and so funny and so heartfelt. (The best trick: He spends almost the entirety of the show building up to a final interaction between him and his father, and when he finally gets there and his father says what he has to say it’s like someone drops a bulldozer onto your chest. I’ve seen Freak, beginning to end, at least 25 times, and that ending part gets no less emotional.) More than those things, though, what stands tallest now as the most important part of the show nearly 20 years later is how proud of being Latino he is. It becomes one of the show’s central themes, as it turns out.

There’s a part, for example, where he talks about how he used to hustle his way into Broadway shows with his Uncle Sanny. And as he’s telling the story of sneaking into the theater, he climbs a ladder to one of those balcony seats on the side of the stage that overlooks everything. He grabs the playbill from his own show, covers half of his face, and talks about how nervous he was to get caught, and how ironic it was that he was nervous because he’d rather be out in the streets with his friends. But, he says, during one of his trips, someone on stage caught his eye. He was at the musical A Chorus Line, and the person he saw was the woman playing the character Diana Morales.

“And all of the sudden, I heard the name ‘Morales,’” he says, and when he says it he begins to emerge slowly from hiding, and I don’t think I need to point out the symbolism there. “And there was this Latin person there. And she ain’t have a gun in her hand or a hypodermic needle,” and he keeps sitting up taller and taller. “And she wasn’t a hooker or a maid ... so it was kind of hard to tell if she was Latin. And everybody was looking at her … the way y’all are looking at me now.”

And as Leguizamo tells the story, you watch the childhood version of him grow full of confidence and gratification. He’s so good in those moments—those moments when, after otherwise saying a million different things in a thousand different voices with a hundred different kinds of jokes wrapped around them, he goes silent and he just stares forward for a few seconds and you can see all his inner workings working. It might be his best skill, really: packing so much emotion into silence. He’s incredible at it.

So that’s all happening, and he says, “And I was just … I was just listening and respecting her.” Then the beginning of “Nothing” from A Chorus Line begins playing (“Every day / for a week / we would try to heaaaaaar the wind rush / heaaaaaar the wind rush ...”). And when the song starts, he begins bobbing his head, and then by the second line he joins in by inserting ad-libs, and then finally, unable to contain all of the joyous energy his body has created, he stands up and shouts, “You try, my Latin sister! You set us free, mama! You go— oh shit!” The spotlight shoots down onto him, the song stops, and then he talks about how he got grabbed up by one of the theater’s ushers, but that it didn’t matter because he’d already received the message from the universe. “Uncle Sanny!” he shouts, pretending to be dragged away. “Uncle Sanny! Uncle Sanny! She was singing to me, man! She was singing TO ME!”

As the show goes on, there are more times where he talks about being Latino, both directly (he tells a story about a casting director telling him to be more pathetic to really tap into his Latino heritage) and indirectly. (The best indirect thing: There are instances where he says a sentence or two in Spanish without providing subtitles or explaining to non-Spanish speakers what he’s saying. He’s stayed doing that through each of his shows the past two decades. In Ghetto Klown, his show that came out prior to the one he has out right now, he addresses it. He says a line in Spanish, then asks an audience member if she knows what he said, and when she says no he tells her the next time she calls her bank to select the no. 2 prompt so she can learn Spanish.) But it’s that A Chorus Line story that does the best job of explaining how supremely excellent and fulfilling it is to see someone you can identify with doing a thing that you suddenly respect and see requires talent.

There is likely no way for me to write this without it sounding dorky, so: When I was in high school, I took three theater classes. The first was during the second semester of my junior year, and then the second and third were during my senior year. I didn’t take the classes because I had aspirations of being a star of any sort, be it movie or TV or stage. In fact, it was quite the opposite of that. I had zero to little interest in theater at all. I just took the classes because I needed an elective and I heard theater was easy. So I signed up for that first class and the people in it were nice and the teacher let us sit on couches rather than desks and that’s really all it took to convince me to sign up again. I was in two plays during that time, but only as bit parts. I had a total of exactly one line in both of them. I will never forget it for my entire life. It was: “She said she were sick, your honor!” (My two oldest sons, both 10 and in the fifth grade, are in school plays this year. They both also have exactly one line. I’m glad to see that the Serrano lineage of being underwhelming theater performers lives on.)

At any rate, I say that to say two things:

Firstly, that Freak special came out the same year I took that first theater class. And, despite not really being all that into acting or any of its subsidiary parts, I was instantly drawn to Leguizamo. I thought he was funny and cool and talented. And watching him tell the story of seeing Diana Morales on stage for the first time, I knew exactly what he was talking about because I was watching him on stage for the first time. He was my version of that. He’s been so many people’s version of that. And that ties into the second thing …

In his new show, Latin History for Morons, which opened last month and will run through February, he sorts through basically all of history trying to find a proper Latin hero. The inspiration for the show, he’s said in various interviews, is because his son had gotten bullied at school for being Latino, and he wanted to be able to talk to him about all of the incredible things that Latinos have done in history, except but he didn’t know much about them because they’ve been scrubbed from history books. And, look, I know that what I’m about to write is at least a little bit silly, but: I can’t help but think of how neat it is that he made this entire show about trying to find a Latin hero when he is, in no uncertain terms, if not in smaller terms than what he’s searching for, exactly that.

He is a hero.

Or (I guess) maybe just one of my heroes.

He has been for some time now.

He has been loudly Latino and proudly Latino since before that was even a thing that I knew was important to me.

He sang to me. He’s singing to me.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.