When you boot up Latin History for Morons on Netflix, you can guess what you’re going to see: the titular Latin history for the titular uneducated morons. That is the most basic conceit of the one-man show put together by John Leguizamo, which is hitting the streaming platform following a Tony award-nominated run on Broadway.
It’s also an autobiographical retelling of a father’s quest to raise his son in a multicultural and cruel world when he himself didn’t have a standard father figure. It’s about revisionist white history, about the state of the U.S. in 2018, and most importantly, a study of one man’s grappling with a lifetime of disenfranchisement and brainwashing, or as he calls it, “whitewashing.”
There’s a lot to take in during Latin History for Morons and because it’s only 95 minutes, some parts make more of an impact than others. Leguizamo focuses the show around his experience with his son, who in eighth grade was bullied for being Latino. In interviews, he’s said this served as the inspiration for his deep dive into his own history, which he says at one point was “being kept from me.” All of that sits in the forefront, but is dragged down a bit by everything else Leguizamo wants to do.
Leguizamo is at ease on the stage, which is no surprise considering this is his seventh one-man show (his first, Mambo Mouth, debuted in 1991). The format works perfectly for the actor, who swings in and out of different voices, personas and emotions throughout the runtime, sometimes only after just a short pause. His caricatures of historical figures, people in his life, his children, and his wife sometimes border on the stereotypical, but his ability to jump into another accent—while simultaneously taking on different body language and vocabulary and ALSO sometimes using props—is impressive enough on its own without the content to back it up. It’s just a lot at once, which sometimes results in emotional whiplash. Your brain has to play catch-up when he switches from impersonating his teenage daughter at one moment to portraying Christopher Columbus as an Italian gangster the next.
Some of the jokes don’t land (there’s a specific one about Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs, that portrays him as a gay pussy who bows to the “butch” conquistador Cortes that produces quite an eyeroll), but there are so many of them that at least a few do. However, where the show shines is in those Latin history segments and how they impact him. They are educational—and not just to the titular “morons”—and paint a depressing picture about the history of conquered civilizations. He tells of the Caribbean Tainos, a peaceful civilization that was completely wiped out after Columbus, and the mixing of rape, genocide and perseverance that resulted in his ancestors.
We watch Leguizamo fall deeper into desperation as he tries to find a powerful, positive story to share with his son, and he keeps failing. This failure, and the ultimate success he finds through it, drives the show to its conclusion, which is the only uplifting message you can have in a show about centuries of cultural genocide: hey, at least they’re still here, and at least you get to watch it on Netflix.
Carli Velocci is a culture and technology writer and editor in Los Angeles with bylines in Polygon, Vice, SYFY Wire, and anywhere else brave enough to publish her. You can talk to her about her objectively good opinions on Twitter @velocciraptor.