By Sarah Mosqueda,
Early in John Leguizamo’s career, there was something he always seemed to notice.
“I was always the only Latino in the room,” said the actor, producer, writer, director and activist. “In my acting classes, in college, in movies and TV shows.”
The disconnect was particularly prominent when it came to acting auditions.
“I noticed it especially with my white friends who were actors and contemporaries of mine. I noticed they were going on five to seven auditions a day and I was going to one every five months,” Leguizamo said in phone interview with Hispanic Network Magazine.
“I mean, we went to the same schools, we studied at the same acting classes, I got better grades than they did and they had much better opportunities than I did. I started to realize it wasn’t an even playing field.”
Casting breakdowns, he recalled, often called specifically for a “white doctor” or “Latino drug dealer.”
“It was very Jim Crow in a weird way,” said Leguizamo.
Since noting the disproportionate representation within the entertainment industry and beyond, Leguizamo has made it his mission to hold the door for the Latinos coming in after him while blazing a path in front him. He has appeared in more than 120 films and produced more than 20 films and documentaries. Few Latino actors have done as much as he has for his community, and through advocacy and action, Leguizamo is working to make sure he isn’t the only Latino in the room for long.
“When I direct my movies or when I am producing, I definitely cast as many Latin people as I can, in front of the camera and behind the camera,” he said.
A One-Man Latino Show
Leguizamo was born on July 22, 1960 in Bogotá, Colombia, to Luz Marina Peláez and Alberto Rudolfo Leguizamo. He immigrated with his family to Queens, New York as a child and eventually attended New York University.
He broke into Hollywood with roles that were designed with Latinos in mind, like Benny Blanco in 1993’s Carlito’s Way; as Johnny in Hangin’ with the Homeboys in 1991; and as drag queen Chi-Chi Rodriguez in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar in 1995.
“I was trained by Laritza Dumont and other Puerto Rican drag queens to do To Wong Foo,” said Leguizamo. “They gave me tips and tutored me and helped me be incredible on camera because they were incredible.”
He also took on film roles that weren’t intended to be played by Latinos, like co-starring as Italian plumber Luigi in 1993’s Super Mario Bros., which is largely considered his breakout role. Other film roles included Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge! (2001), Empire (2002), Chef (2014), John Wick (2014) and The Menu (2022). Leguizamo also voiced Sid the Sloth in the Ice Age franchise and Bruno in Disney’s Encanto. On the small screen, Leguizamo has appeared on Miami Vice, ER, Bloodline, When They See Us, The Mandalorian and more.
As he established a name for himself in the entertainment industry, Leguizamo made it his mission to prove Latinos were capable of playing more than drug dealers.
“With my one-man shows, I was able to show that first of all, we could write great content,” he said. “That it was financially viable and successful and award-winning.”
Leguizamo wrote and starred in his first one-man show, Freak, in 1998. The semi-autobiographical Broadway show was adapted into a film directed by Spike Lee. He followed with a second one-man show, Sexaholix, in 2002. In 2018, he was awarded a Special Tony Award for his third, Latin History for Morons, in which Leguizamo squeezes the nearly 3,000 years of Latin history into an entertaining and inspiring 90-minute cram session.
“It galvanized me in a way, because I really delved into it and I became this Rain Man of Latin history facts, because I really enjoy it,” said Leguizamo. “It changed the way I see myself and the way I see my people.”
The Desire to Educate
Leguizamo references bits of Latinx influence on America in every day conversation. For example, that Latin people built the railroads and introduced cowboy culture to the region. He also enjoys casually dropping facts about the Latin population, like they are 6% of leads across all media, up from the 1% they were five years ago—all of it knowledge that can’t be found in the average textbook.
“Johns Hopkins University did a study and [found that] 87% of key Latin contributions to the history of America are missing in textbooks, and if they are included, they are less than five sentences,” said Leguizamo. “So there is a lot of work to be done.”
America wouldn’t be what it is today without Latin people, he says, and using his theater platform to educate the general public about Latinx history and the often-overlooked contributions that Latino people have made to this country has become a lifelong passion—much like his continued passion for theater.
“The theater is my first love and my last love,” Leguizamo said. “You can’t edit a performance; you can’t just coast on personality or your looks. You have to deliver something on stage or else people will walk out. I love that because it is like the Olympics of acting.”
This year, Leguizamo combined his passion for the stage and Latinx history by co-writing a new musical, Kiss My Aztec!, a story set in the 16th century that explores the beginning of Hispanic and Latin culture.
“It is a hilarious piece and the music is amazing.” he said, “It is a mixtape of Latin music.”
Kiss My Aztec! ran at the Hartford Stage in June and Leguizamo hopes to take the show to Broadway in January of 2024.
The desire to educate is one that has carried through Leguizamo’s career, manifesting in a multitude of ways. He is a supporter of Voto Latino, a dual 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization co-founded by Rosario Dawson and dedicated to encouraging more young Latinos to register to vote and participate in U.S. politics.
“We are the largest voting block in America after white people and no one is coming for us,” Leguizamo said.
He has been vocal about the New York Times’ lack of diversity in the newsroom and in 2016, he wrote an op-ed for the paper, calling Donald Trump on his racist rhetoric.
In March, Leguizamo served as a guest host on the Daily Show, where he had the chance to present the news through a Latino lens.
“It was like driving a Maserati because it is such a well-oiled machine,” Leguizamo said of the experience. “The producers were very welcoming to my ideas and suggestions and catering to my taste and interests so we made it Latin-focused, with a Latino point of view.”
In April of this year, he took on what he calls his most challenging role yet: Television host. On Leguizamo Does America, a six-part series on MSNBC and streaming on Peacock, Leguizamo explores the history, culture, food and other contributions of Latin people shaping America.
“I was trained to be an actor and that’s what my whole life was, and here I was being an interviewer, which is a different field of expertise,” said Leguizamo. “That was the most challenging…you are improvising and you are being spontaneous and you don’t have lines.”
Being naturally curious and drawing on years of experience being interviewed himself helped Leguizamo draw out members of Latino communities from East L.A. and San Juan to Chicago and Puerto Rico.
“The show is celebrating Latin excellence and Latin joy,” he said.
An Undisputed Authority
When he’s not educating audiences on Latinx history and culture in a one-man show, Leguizamo is doing it through his portrayal of Latinx heroes in his storytelling.
In 2020, he made his directoral debut with Critical Thinking, a biographical drama set in the 90s about an inner-city teacher and his students who compete at the U.S. National Chess Championship.
“Critical Thinking was my most satisfying role, because here was this true story about these five Latino kids in Miami’s worst neighborhood, who became United States chess champions five years in a row because of this incredible teacher, Mr. Martinez, a Cuban American who believed in these kids,” Leguizamo said.
This fall, Leguizamo will work with the WNET Group, Latino Public Broadcasting and NGL Collective to present American Historia with John Leguizamo, a three-part documentary series on PBS in which Leguizamo travels to learn and share lesser-known stories of Latino history. The show will follow Leguizamo on the road through Mexico and the U.S. while he sheds light on the buried Latinx history he has become an undisputed authority on.
“It is a hallmark of our mission to present trusted, thorough and thought-provoking content that champions understanding through education,” said Lesley Norman, executive producer for the WNET Group. “We are honored to spotlight the stories of Latino game changers and pillars of culture that are often left out of American history textbooks.”
It’s a jam-packed year and Leguizamo acknowledges that it can be easy to fall prey to particular stereotypes. The Latinx population is notoriously hard working, for example, and balance is something Leguizamo strives for.
“We have to find time to smell the roses and celebrate ourselves and nurture ourselves and sooth ourselves,” he says. “That’s the trick. It is a trick for all Americans, but especially for Latinos because we have to work three times as hard to get half as far.”
But those same Latino qualities might be what helps Leguizamo make sure there are other Latinos in the room besides himself. “Our strength is our resilience,” he said.