John Leguizamo’s Required Reading for America

Inspired by his one-man show, Latin History for Morons, the comedian recommends three books that challenge one-sided narratives of the past.

John Leguizamo speaks at the American Ingenuity Awards on December 5.
John Leguizamo speaks at the American Ingenuity Awards on December 5. (Annie Sullivan / Smithsonian)

John Leguizamo is on a mission to teach, as he might put it, “Latin history for morons.” So far, it’s going well: His one-man show with that same title was nominated for a 2018 Tony Award and released in November as a Netflix special. But the impetus for this educational pursuit didn’t come until a few years ago, when Leguizamo found that his teenage son was being bullied and ostracized because of his race.

“I wanted to give my son the verbal ammunition to defend himself,” Leguizamo said at the Smithsonian’s American Ingenuity Awards Wednesday evening, where he was an awardee. Rather than resorting to physical violence—“the lowest form of communication,” he said—Leguizamo wanted his son to “weaponize his knowledge” so that he would be equipped to respond to bullies and feel proud of his heritage. But as Leguizamo sought to teach his son more about the contributions and impact of Latinx people, he realized just how ignorant he was himself.

“I was struggling with my own Latin self-doubt, and how could I not be? I didn’t have [Latinx] heroes … or generals or scientists or authors or presidents in my textbooks growing up,” he said. “So, where should I have learned that stuff? Holla, my New York City, underfunded, public-school system.”

Leguizamo’s experience likely isn’t unique. It wasn’t until 1968 that an American university started a Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies department to teach students American history from a Latinx perspective. In 1995, the sociologist and historian James W. Loewen analyzed commonly used high-school history textbooks and, as The Atlantic’s Alia Wong wrote, he found that “those materials frequently taught students about topics including the first Thanksgiving, the Civil and Vietnam Wars, and the Americas before Columbus arrived in incomplete, distorted, or otherwise flawed ways.” Today, some schools have made strides in incorporating new texts and ethnic-studies classes, but these additions haven’t necessarily made standard history courses more inclusive.

So Leguizamo, in pursuit of everything his history books left out, started reading. He’s since distilled his recommendations—his “required reading for every kid in America”—down to three books: Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and Charles Mann’s 1491.

Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, published in 1971, unpacks how five centuries’ worth of exploitation of materials such as gold, silver, and sugar led to a “contemporary structure of plunder” in Latin America. The book has long been a touchstone: Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez handed Barack Obama a copy at their first meeting in 2009, and the celebrated novelist Isabel Allende wrote in the foreword to a 1997 edition that, among the few items she could bring with her when she fled Chile during the 1973 military coup, she packed Open Veins. Though Galeano shocked academics in 2014 when he seemingly disavowed his own text, Open Veins has, for the most part, retained its reputation as a seminal anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist work.

Leguizamo’s other recommendations, A People’s History of the United States and 1491, both analyze revisionist American history. The former, written by the historian and political scientist Howard Zinn, urges readers to rethink the legacies of previously lauded figures such as Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, while the latter (the follow-up to a 2002 article of the same name in The Atlantic) pieces together the history of Native and indigenous people in North and South America before European colonizers arrived. Like Open Veins, these two texts critique the one-sided narrative of America’s complicated history, bringing knowledge to bear against a long history of colonialist violence.

Through engaging with these texts and teaching his son about historical figures—such as the Spanish general Bernardo de Gálvez and his involvement in the American Revolution, or the thousands of Latinx soldiers who fought in the Civil War and both world wars—Leguizamo said that he “finally” felt more connected to American history.

“These facts are important because when Latinx kids don’t see themselves represented on stage or film or television or newspapers or history textbooks, what they’re told is, ‘You don’t matter,’” he said. “But when they see themselves represented, then they are told ... ‘You are important. You are authors. You are scientists. You are explorers. You are special. You are leaders. You are respected. You are the reason we are here.’”