John Leguizamo has devoted his career to making sure more Latin representation makes it onscreen
Three decades into his career, John Leguizamo is still fighting for more.
The actor has experienced career highs both in film and theater, proving that Latinos show up when their stories are being told. Yet, as Leguizamo describes, it’s still an uphill battle to get Hollywood on board when it comes to representation.
“I mean, we’re less than 1% of the stories told by Hollywood and streaming media and networks when we’re almost 20% of the population, 25% of the U.S. box office,” Leguizamo, 56, tells PEOPLE in the latest issue, on stands Friday. “I just feel like it’s such a damage to kids not to see themselves reflected back in positive ways.”
When the movie Critical Thinking came to him, the actor decided to make it his directorial debut. The drama tells the real-life story of a group of intercity Miami kids, mostly Black and Latino, who make it all the way to a national chess tournament and win. It’s the kind of story Leguizamo thinks underprivileged kids, especially those of color, need to see more of.
“That’s the proof I needed,” he says of the movie’s “incredible” story. “Ghetto kids who are so bright and underserved, just give them a little nourishment, a little pat on the back, and they can excel to extremes. It’s what I’ve always believed and always known. I feel like I had to do this. It was a calling, like I was summoned.”
Growing up in the Queens, New York City neighborhood of Jackson Heights, where his family immigrated in 1968 from Colombia when he was 4 years old, Leguizamo both was and grew up around the types of kids who would have benefitted from seeing movies like Critical Thinking .
He remembers racial tensions growing as more and more people of color moved into the neighborhood, with the “white flight” of people leaving hitting back at them.
“They all wanted to beat me up before they left,” he recalls. “Everybody wanted a piece of me. I learned how to defend myself, physically and verbally.”
Leguizamo also learned he could make it through anything, a lesson he took with him when he embarked on an acting career in an industry that didn’t necessarily value people who looked like him.
“A lot of my white friends from college were going to five auditions a day, and I was going to one every few months if I was lucky. And it was always for something horrible and degrading,” Leguizamo says. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, we went to the same school, studied with the same teachers. I had the same ability but not the same opportunity.’ [At auditions] it would always be me, Benicio Del Toro, Luis Guzmán and Benjamin Bratt, and the roles were for gang members or thieves and murderers.”
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The actor started writing his own material instead, resulting in critically acclaimed stage shows like 1990’s Mambo Mouth , 1992’s Spic-O-Rama , 1998’s Freak and most recently 2016’s Latin History for Morons . They all satirized Latino stereotypes through Leguizamo’s own life experiences and aimed to teach the audience more about his community.
“When you see yourself represented, you feel validated. You feel like you have a chance. I think a lot of my career has been motivated by that,” he says of battling for Latino representation. “Growing up in America, they don't talk about Latin writers or teach Latin history or accomplishments. Negatively, that has an adverse effect on other communities looking at us, who don't know what we've done.”
30 years later, Leguizamo is still fighting the good fight. He most recently decided to boycott the 2020 Emmy Awards when Latino talent and shows were almost completely left out of the major categories. The only Latin nomination was for The Handmaid Tale ‘s Alexis Bledel, whose dad was born and raised in Argentina while her mom grew up in Mexico City.
“I’m boycotting,” Leguizamo told Yahoo! ahead of the show . “If you don’t have Latin people, there’s no reason for me to see it. What’s the point?”
“It’s unbelievable that our stories aren’t being told and there’s one reason for that,” Leguizamo said. “Executives don’t see us, don’t get us [and] don’t care about us.”
“We’re less than one percent of the stories being told by Hollywood streamers and networks, that’s cultural apartheid,” he added.
Critical Thinking is available on demand now.
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