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John Leguizamo really, really loves Latin history. “I’m a history addict. I’m an idiot savant in history,” the actor, writer and producer says, laughing. “Latin history’s become my thing — my passion — and I try to smuggle it wherever I can.”
The Menu and Encanto star had done a version of that with his popular one-man Broadway show Latin History for Morons — a creative journey that would eventually inspire elements of his newest adventure. That’s Leguizamo Does America, a travel show all about exploring the known and lesser-known layers of Latin cultural history across the U.S.
The docuseries, which airs on MSNBC, streams on Peacock and is produced by NBC News Studios, treads both familiar and unfamiliar territory as it guides viewers through a food- and dance-filled cultural journey across six locations — New York, Miami, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico. While traversing each locale, the Emmy-winning performer unpacks the region’s specific cultural history as it’s tied to Latin identity.
It’s got all the satisfying elements of a travel show, but with a spin only Leguizamo could bring. It also marks one of the few instances in TV history that a major travel series has been led by a Latino host, with the actor joining the ranks alongside Kim Haas, who launched her PBS series Afro-Latino Travels in 2020.
Ahead of his MSNBC show’s premiere, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Leguizamo about the show’s inspirations; embracing both specificity and generality within Latin experiences; the intense filming process; why he teamed with MSNBC; and where he wants to go if he gets a second season.
There’s very little Latino representation in the travel show space. Can you talk about why you wanted to do this show and how it might expand on what travel shows have typically been?
Oh, that’s a great question. I use the travel show method as a way to smuggle content because I want all of America to have Latin envy and want them to feel like they wish they had been born Latin. That’s my mission, and for Latin people to feel very proud of being Latin. I felt like the travel show was the best way for me to get my message across in a really fun, exciting, different and unique way. I went to look for Latin excellence all across America. I went through the first six cities of my Latin comedy circuit — 26 cities that I go across America with the biggest Latin populations, and I picked my first six cities. I found these great artists, chefs, politicians and activists. Then, we sat down, we ate a meal, we drank a little, we danced a little, and we laughed a lot, and that was the recipe.
You really ingratiate yourself in these places where you have a shared larger cultural identity, but you aren’t always specifically of the community you are highlighting. How did you approach getting people to trust you and open up while walking that line?
I was a Latin New York City kid, and I never wanted to leave my neighborhood because I was terrified. I was a Latin person traveling across America. I was always afraid, but my tours opened up the world to me. I go, “Wait a minute.” I went to Chicago. “Whoa, yo. This is predominantly Latin. What? All Mexicans and Puerto Ricans here?” Then, they took me to San Francisco. I go, “I don’t know.” Then, I get there, and it’s like a huge Latin population. Then, they take me to Texas and I go, “Texas? I don’t want to go to Texas.” Then, boom: Houston, Dallas, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, McAllen, Austin, El Paso — a huge tour — Denver, Colorado, Miami, of course, Tampa, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Boston. I’m going to all these cities and finding so many Latin people from different cultures, and they’re coming to see my shows. I’m talking about Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, South Americans. I’m finding that we have more in commonality than we have in differences. Having dinner with them when I was in these cities and hanging out with them, I realized there’s diversity in our community, in the Latin diaspora, but we are also a lot more unified by cultural language and music. As I went to these different cities, I was like a diplomat. I was coming in there respectfully, in love with our culture and the differences in it, and they allowed me. They welcomed me. They knew I was an ally.
Let’s talk about the history element of this because this isn’t the first time you’ve done something of this nature. How did you want to integrate it?
I’m a history addict. I’m an idiot savant in history. Latin history’s become my thing, my passion, and I try to smuggle it wherever I can. I said I wanted to do this show, I want it to be funny, but I want it to be like my one-man shows: a lot of impact, important, and about something within all the humor, laughing, dancing and whatnot. I know all these facts, so I brought all the facts wherever I could. Knowing that Juan Rodriguez was the first immigrant in New York City before the Dutch and the brother started his own business like we do wherever we go, we’re very entrepreneurial. It was fun smuggling that fact and other facts everywhere I could.
There are a lot of places you could have taken this show: Travel Channel, Netflix, even PBS. Why did you go with MSNBC and by extension Peacock?
Because — I got to say — they didn’t go with me, which is kind of the thing that I’m talking about. It’s a Hollywoodn’t situation. I was pitching this show everywhere and it took four years. Cesar Conde, the chairman of NBC[Universal], being Latinx is why this show exists, is why I had this opportunity. No other executives were seeing the value in talking about Latin culture. I live in New York City where we’re equal to whites in population, and we’re less than one percent of the journalists at the New York Times, less than one percent of the stories being told in the New York Times, the New York Post, the New Yorker, the New York Magazine. This is our city, and it’s like a cultural apartheid. That’s what’s happening because we don’t have enough journalists or executives who are Latinx, who see the value in our Latin history, our Latin stories, and in our Latin culture.
There does seem to be a larger conversation about access and where certain communities are watching content the most. You’ve got a show on linear cable and on streaming, which offer different price points. Did where your show aired matter to you?
Yeah, I was hoping to get the widest audience. You’re right because when I came out in 1990 with Mambo Mouth, a lot of Latin people didn’t have HBO — couldn’t afford HBO — so they all started pirating it. But I was not getting the majority of my people, and I knew that there was a difference. I mean, luckily I started touring and bringing it to them since they couldn’t come to me. MSNBC hopefully has the broadest appeal. The one good thing about streaming though, I got to say, is it’s going to be revolutionary for Latinx people. Nielsen just came out with a study that Latinx people on Netflix go to Latin content. Whether it be a Latin artist, a Latin name, Latin culture, Latin story — they do go after Latin content. A lot of executives used to tell me when they rejected my stories, my films, my TV shows, that Latin people don’t want to see Latin people, which was the craziest thing I ever heard in my life. Or they tell me that we don’t have to go after Latin people because they come to us anyway. Another thing that was unfounded. So I think streaming with advertising is going to be even bigger because the advertisers are going to want to know the demographics, who’s watching what. That’s going to be a huge boom for us.
History is a really apt space to understand the relationship between language and identities, both of which are things that can evolve and change with time. You explore that in this series by interchanging between terms like Latin, Latino and Latinx. Can you talk about embracing multiple labels for your community, even ones that have become contentious?
Yes, yes. I don’t know why Latinx is contentious, but it’s contentious. People get so riled up about it. To me, it’s ridiculous. Just the fact that we have a name, and that we’re checking a box, is huge. I mean, I know none of us want to be checking boxes. None of us want to be constantly talking about race, but you have to because otherwise you get excluded. Your communities don’t get funding. Your schools don’t get funded — unless you check that box and vote. You know what I mean? But I love Latinx. I know older people and some younger people don’t, but I feel it’s progressive. I feel like it’s inclusive. I feel like it’s inclusive of women. It’s inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. I feel like it sounds like a superhero, like X-Men. I just love the sound of it.
You’ve had a whole film career that has taken you all over but doing a travel show is a different kind of demand. What was filming like?
It was exhausting. I think if we get a season two, we have to have breaks — for the crew as well — because it was rough. We’d shoot five days a week, and travel the sixth day, and then we’d have one day to rest, barely. It was a little rough, but we plan to do more. I want to go all over Texas, Denver. I want to go to South America, Mexico. I want to go everywhere, so it’s going to be exhausting. We’re going to plan a little better next time.
We mentioned this before but you did a one-man show focused on Latin history. How was that experience different than helming a travel show?
Well, my one-man show, I could be as raw as I wanted to be and very personal, and I can be all of myself. The travel show, I wanted it to be fun. I wanted it to be light, and I smuggled in content and impact. That was the trick. I liked the joy in the show because there’s nobody who gets more joy out of life than Latin people with the least amount of opportunity. I wanted to show that. That’s how I want to move forward and what I want to show. Always Latin excellence, music, dance, drink and laughter.
Was there anything surprising about the experience of doing this show? Anything you weren’t expecting to learn? Any unexpected interactions?
There were a lot of surprises. I told the showrunners who were all Latinx and the majority of the crew — I think 75 percent of the crew was all Latinx, the DPs, grips, all that and writers — I said, “I’m not going to pull punches. I’m not afraid. I can handle myself. I’m from New York. I’m a tough boy.” We went to Puerto Rico, and the Indigenous population was upset with me because I had said that the Taíno had been exterminated completely during the conquest. They said, ‘It wasn’t a Caribbean holocaust. We’re still here and you do us a disservice because when you say we don’t exist. Then the government can come and take our land.” So that was shocking to me, and I felt appalled about my words and how it hurt the community, and I was able to apologize to them on camera. There were moments like that.
The thing about Latin history that I find out is that we were the first slaves in the Americas, but we died and then we were too rebellious, so we were replaced, unfortunately and terribly so by the Afro-Americans. Also, that we were lynched, and that Jim Crow laws were against us, too. Obviously, we didn’t have the same oppression as Black people. I’m not comparing it. But we had participation in that oppression. It’s crazy how I didn’t know about the oppression of Latin people. I didn’t realize that we had always been here. All that was really fascinating to me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Leguizamo Does America debuts on MSNBC Sunday, April 16 at 10 p.m. ET and streams on Peacock.
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