John Leguizamo on Latino Vote: "Trump Got Back What He Put In"

John Leguizamo unveils his Frida Kahlo-Inspired Broadway Marquee - Getty-H 2019
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The actor and activist says outreach and fear-mongering by Republicans in combination with "insidious self-hate" explain Democratic weakness with voting block: "You've got to court us"

This election, few have been more activated among the Latino electorate than John Leguizamo. The Colombian American actor, 56, partnered with political action groups like The Lincoln Project and the Biden campaign itself to mobilize Democratic Latino voters — to mixed results. Yes, according to exit polls, the former vice president got twice as many Latino votes as President Trump did, but Trump's strength among Latinos in three key battleground states — Florida, Texas and the still-to-be-called Arizona — helped secure him some key electoral votes, despite what many polls predicted. With the nation on edge as final vote tallies trickled in, Leguizamo checked in The Hollywood Reporter to dissect where the campaigns went right, and wrong, with Latino voters.

It seems like there is an underestimation of the Latino vote in some fashion every election; what lessons are we failing to learn?

With Latino people, we're always an afterthought, and that gets in my craw a little bit. We're the largest ethnic group in America, the second-oldest ethnic group in America after Native Americans — so it's not like we just got here. It's not like we're not present and we're not doing things. If you don't keep us in mind and put us in the forefront, you're not going to get us. Nobody comes after us. Nobody knocks on our doors. Nobody's talking about our issues. Nobody has a Latinx vice presidential candidate or is dangling the carrot of Latins as cabinet members. Trump at least knew enough to target them. And that's what he got. He got back what he put in, you know?

Do you think Trump did a better job than Biden in courting Latino votes?

Yes, because he was aggressive about it. He kept saying, even in his debate, he mentioned the word Latinos. Biden didn't ever want to mention it. I know Biden had a lot of Latin people in his campaign, but he needed to talk about our issues and about us and mention us. And court us. You've got to court us. Trump did court us and did go down there and microtarget Latino people in really clever and devious ways. They do it via WhatsApp in Arizona and in Florida — targeting Latino people and telling them things that would scare them. They even attacked radio stations, Spanish radio stations in Florida, to scare Colombians.

Scare them how?

They would say to Colombians on call-in radio in Miami — because there are about 400,000 registered Colombians to vote and another million Cubans registered — they said, "Do you want Colombia to turn into Venezuela with this president? You will. And you know he's a pedophile." They did the pedophile thing. And then they said, "Don't vote by mail because your vote will be lost and won't be counted." So they would put all these ads on, and not one of these radio stations contested it.

What specifically were they saying about pedophilia?

That Joseph Biden's a pedophile. And they said it on WhatsApp. And they said it in Arizona, too, that Biden was going to knock down statues — that he was going to knock down the Virgin Mary.

These were Trump-approved ads?

I don't know if they were Trump-approved, but they were certainly Trump-supporting and Republican-supporting. Just putting out complete lies. That would freak some people out who don't have media literacy, you know?

Did anything about the results give you optimism?

One thing that heartened me is that Texas almost went blue and that was in huge part due to Latin people. Because Texas is 40 percent Latin, 12 percent black. So there's no reason besides crazy gerrymandering and voter suppression that it shouldn't be blue. There are Latin people that are Republican for whatever reason — self-hate or hyper-religious. It touches on some of the machoism too. It makes them feel, "We're assimilated" — you know that weird thing that happens to immigrants sometimes: If they attack other immigrants then they look less immigrant? There's a history here.

The one good thing about Miami was that only 50 percent of Cubans voted Republican for Trump. I thought it was gonna be like 99 percent. So that gave me a lot of heart and hope that at least 42 percent are media savvy, they're searching for facts and not just watching Fox News.

Cubans, I guess I can understand the thought process. But I don't understand how Mexicans on the border of Texas, where Trump is putting up walls, how they could support him.

Texas is a trippy place. El Paso, Austin, San Antonio — very liberal, very Democratic. But you're going to have your people who grew up there under hundreds of years of serious oppression: Jim Crow laws against Mexicans; "No dogs or Mexicans allowed" signs; lynchings of Latin people. Six thousand Latin people from the 1800s to early 1900s were lynched, shot and burned alive. So there is this continued fear of being other. You can't discount that, because when I go to Texas and Arizona, a lot of Latin people say to me, "Oh, I'm not Mexican. I'm not Latin. My family comes from Spain."

What's behind that, do you think?

There is that unfortunate self-hate through all my culture, through all South America, Central America and the Caribbean from the Conquest. And that's hard to fight. When that beautiful woman from Roma [Yalitza Aparicio] was put on the cover of Latin Vogue, people wrote horrible letters. "How dare you put such an ugly face on magazines?" That's the insidious self-hate. Because like the majority of us are mixed race — Black and Indian and white. And the majority in our countries who run everything are white European. This doesn't really go away that easily.

I'm seeing discussion on social media that it's the wrong path to view Latinos as one monolithic voting block. That there's huge variances in nationalities, geography, education level, and it's a bad strategy to think of them as one. What are your thoughts about that?

Yes and no. I mean, when I hang out with all my Latin people — Cubans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorians, Ecuadorians — there is a cultural bond. There is a language bond. A musical bond. You have a shorthand. But like white people, you have Southern white people, Northern white, you have West Coast white people, you have poor whites, elite whites. But you still are seen as one. But I mean, you're so varied. Same thing with the Black community. [Latinos] are one, but at the same time, we are very different. And you do have to approach it differently. Just like you approach white people in the South to get them to vote in a different way than you do New England whites. It's no different. Economic class has a lot to do with it — you have to include education.

I've also seen from certain Latin thinkers, especially more Gen X generation, pushing back against the term Latinx. It seems to bother them, that term, as something that's been affixed to them by woke culture.

It's a silly battle. It's not really that important, but people have a hard time with change. When we were Latinos, some people said Hispanic — and the more militant of us were like, "No, Hispanic means we belong to Spain and we don't belong to them." I love Latinx because it feels like this new beginning for us, in a way. It's our superpower, like Latin X-Men. I love it because it's also inclusive of women, because when you say Latino, it immediately excludes women because we have a masculine and feminine in Spanish. So Latino subconsciously is doing macho things. I have a daughter and I want her to be included in everything. So I like Latinx, and the younger people are gravitating to it. Some of us who are more progressive and in the know and have a pulse on what's going on like Latinx because of all the possibilities. And the older folks, it's going to take them a bit, like it always does. It feels like a Renaissance, you know?

Some are pointing to the numbers of Black and Latinx that voted for Trump and arguing that the whole narrative as Trump as a racist or white supremacist is entirely a media construct. And those votes are the proof. What do you think about that?

I mean, how can you not see that what he says and what he does is racism? But I address that back to the self-hate that I was telling you about. And also sometimes people don't care about others — they just care about their finances. You have to include that, too. He says he's going to cut taxes. He says, "I brought you the healthiest economy." And it kind of looked like that because Obama had set it for him, but it looked like he did and he looks successful. Because they watched the TV show The Apprentice and they were sold that. America is a capitalist country. You can never discount that people have come here for a better life and a better life means more money, more opportunity. And sometimes it means not really thinking of others.

So you're no doubt watching the news: What's your anticipation, or your feelings, about what's going on right now?

It's upsetting in a lot of ways that the country's operating like a banana republic. It's hard to believe that they're trying to stop votes. A democracy is to count every vote. And they're trying to find ways around that — going to the Supreme Court, trying to find ways to game the system. I find it so disgusting and despicable, but at the same time, you see those numbers coming in and you see the blue wall coming up. The call to everybody said, "We got to vote in large numbers." And we did. Their dastardly tricks didn't work. It paid off. It's looking like it's going to be Biden. It really does.

Finally, do you think art has suffered under Trump? And do you think it could get better in the next four years under a Biden presidency?

I don't know that art has suffered under Trump. Look at the young people who have been politicized under Trump. The children are proud, they're playing voting games in school and asking, "Mommy, who are you going to vote for?" My kids are protesting for Black Lives Matter. I think art has done the same thing. We all hunkered down and we know we have to make more meaningful art. I think art sometimes flourishes under fear of despotism. Because artists have to take risks. Entertainers entertain, but artists have to reflect the times.