In his new Netflix special, Latin History for Morons, actor and comedian John Leguizamo takes his audience through a robust retelling of Latin American history. The special, taped last spring in New York, was inspired by the realization that his teenage son wasn’t learning about his ancestry in school. His son’s gap in education led Leguizamo, who is Colombian-American, on a research binge, which turned into the filmed special about overlooked Latinx contributions to American society.
Leguizamo’s special covers what he believes to be the essentials from the start of the Mayan civilization up to today, which he jokingly refers to as the “Pitbull” era. The historical walkthrough is structured to examine how Latinx people came from a sprawling empire made up of 70 million indigenous humans to a segregated society where they are now policed, targeted, and belittled at every turn.
The special is more than a history lesson. Within the first few minutes of the special’s start, Leguizamo admits that at times, his otherness as a Latino left him feeling hopeless because of historical erasure. He bluntly states, “If you don't see yourself represented outside of yourself, you just feel fucking invisible." With that statement, Leguizamo examines how genocidal wipeout from European conquistadors starting in 1492 and centuries of inaccurate, racist representation has plagued modern Latinx people.
A critique of the film is that, despite Leguizamo’s attempt to frame the Latinx experience as monolithic, it isn’t. Different facets of postcolonial-systematic oppression affect Latinx communities in different ways and Leguizamo's attempts to umbrella these issues was frustrating for some.
Surprisingly, one thing Leguizamo could have spent more time discussing was the representation of Latinx people in Hollywood, especially considering that he stated his children often relate to figures in modern pop culture more so than historical figures.
UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report 2018 found that while minorities represent nearly 40 percent of the total population in the United States in 2016, only 2.7 percent of all top film roles went to Latinx actors. In broadcast-scripted shows, Latinx people were underrepresented as well, playing six percent of all roles.
It’s easy when you’re naming off some of Hollywood’s Latinx super stars like Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria, Michael Peña, Sofia Vergara, and Salma Hayek. But as Leguizamo notes during the special, many Latinx actors have taken (consciously or subconsciously) typecasted roles that are overly sexual, domestic, criminally minded, or gang-related.
While monetary excess and long-term success appear to solidify the aforementioned Latinx actors into the Hollywood elite, it can be argued that honest, nuanced storytelling is not being made because of the lack of opportunities for writing, producing, and directing roles.
Latinx directors, over any other minority group, are the least likely to be on set in the director chair according to 2018’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. (Overall, 1.3 out of every 10 film directors are people of color.) When Latinx directors aren’t making executive decisions regarding the face of their films it shows—Latinx people have 5.6 percent the roles in cable scripted shows and, of the few movies made last year that did have a minority or Latinx lead, were least likely to get ample international distribution.
At one point in Leguizamo’s special, the actor states that, throughout the 33 countries that make up Latin America, they all stem from a handful of indigenous civilizations (Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs), and that no matter what borders now divide the modern countries, Latinx people all come from the same roots. It’s a romantic thought, but not one that explains the one-dimensional European-featured, loosely-curled hair of Latinx people in film.
For an example of this we can look to the CW's Charmed that premiered last month and was helmed by the creators of Jane the Virgin (Jessica O’Toole, Amy Rardin, and Jennie Snyder Urman). The show was initially marketed as a Latina version of the original 1990s hit show, but once the cast was set it was revealed that only one of the actresses is actually Latinx, Melonie Diaz. As Entertainment Weekly reported, Madeleine Mantock, who plays the eldest half-sister, identifies as Afro-Carribean and Sarah Jeffery, who plays the youngest half-sister, identifies as African-American. Rather than cast Latinas for the role of Latina sisters —which could have been just as visually diverse— the network went with white-passing Latinas.
There is a blatant discrepancy in the success of “white Latinx” actors versus Afro-Latinx actors in Hollywood, particularly when it comes to women. Last year’s Top 10 Latino Celebrities published by Variety featured Hayek, Vergara, Selena Gomez, Jessica Alba, and Cameron Diaz —Zoe Saldana was the only Afro-Latinx person represented. The discrepancy is also evident in the lack of Afro-Latinx representation on panels meant to uplift, promote, and hear the perspectives of working Latinas in Hollywood.
The moment Europeans conquered the Americas, as Leguizamo narrates in his special, not only did they bring weapons, germs, and diseases to the continents—they brought Eurocentric idealism and anti-Blackness, as well. Though any ancestry test can quickly point out how many Latinx people have African roots within their bloodlines, generations of Latinx people inheriting European ideals and a lack of factual historical context of their ancestry have led to a pattern of anti-Black exclusion that blatantly thrives today.
Undoing the cultural erasure of Latinx contributions to American society isn’t an issue that’s going to be solved by one Netflix special. Money talks, and, in Hollywood, things will only change in front of and behind the camera when Latinx people demand better and more consistent representation through financial investment. The work also needs to be done internally to educate others how systematic oppression and colorism is ingrained into Latinx history—from the Caribbean to Central and South America. In the meantime, we can appreciate Leguizamo for attempting to start the conversation.