“Latin History for Morons”: Finding the (s)heroes our schools failed to mention

A kid at school is bullying Mr. Leguizamo’s 13- year old son. The bully claims ethnic superiority since his family tree traces back to Civil War heroes and famous leaders.

Mr. Leguizamo’s son comes home depressed and locks himself in his room.

When Mr. Leguizamo learns why his son is suffering he confronts the bully’s father who turns out to be just as bigoted. That does it. Mr. Leguiamo takes matters in his own hands.

How to empower his son in the face of racist classmates? He begins by searching through history for stories of “Latin” s/heroes and instills ethnic pride in his son, and in himself, along the way.

Through serious reflection and a lot of humor, Mr. Leguizamo teaches the audience some fundamental truths — that Latinos are related to all the indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, that they are a people of ethnic mixture, that they are a people who have been conquered, who have fought back and have been leaders throughout the United States’ history. He stops at particular groups and uses humor, music and dance to highlight the moments when civilizations fell: Aztecs, Mayans, Tainos.

Then he skips time and jumps to the New World, the near-genocide of American Indians, and then speeds forward to Latinos’ participation in wars we don’t often associate them with — the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the World Wars.

Mr. Leguizamo teaching in his play “Latin History for Morons”

Throughout, Mr. Leguizamo reflects on his own education and the sad reality that Latin heroes have been missing in his life since grade school.

He fights his own confusion in regular therapy sessions and tries to empower his son to be a proud Latino, something Mr. Leguizamo’s NYC public school education didn’t do for him. Instead, the master narrative of white European intellectual and physical superiority was woven into his education decades ago.

And it still is.

Mr. Leguizamo’s thesis seems to be that if he doesn’t teach his son about “Latin” excellence than nobody will.

I attended the play with my husband, who is Puerto Rican. I am a mixed-race woman of Japanese and European heritage. As a multi-racial couple with two sons and a daughter on the way, we appreciated how Mr. Leguizamo’s play discussed the importance of building strong ethnic identities in our kids. This is crucial.

My husband grew up in a family that taught him the value of his heritage from an early age. His parents were deeply involved with the Puerto Rican Independence movement and infused their son with pride in his heritage. In that respect, he did not identify with Mr. Leguizamo’s angst.

“Latin History for Morons” bites off a large chunk. The idea of “Latin History” is so vast that the prospect of presenting a “101” course in 90 minutes defies belief.

Transforming into various historical figures in”Latin History for Morons”

My husband and I approached the play with curiosity. What parameters would Mr. Leguizamo set for “Latin History?” Why did he use the term “Latin” rather than Latino, Latinx, or Hispanic? How did his particular experiences growing up shape his story?

For my husband and me, anticipating the identity conversations we’ll have with our own kids, this play was a good reminder about the journey parents of color face in educating our children in a world where history has a hierarchy.

“Latin History for Morons” continues at The Berkeley Repertory Theater through August. The play will run at the Public Theater in New York City from March 17 — April 23, and there are discussions underway about turning it into a film.

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