John Leguizamo offers a simple inspiration for his latest series.
“I wanted to do a show where people would see this and say, ‘I want to be Latino!’ or ‘Damn, too bad I’m not Latino!’”
Leguizamo, the acclaimed actor, comedian, producer, and activist, takes viewers on a journey as the host of «Leguizamo Does America,» a six part docuseries premiering Sunday on MSNBC and airing on Peacock. Each episode focuses on a different city: Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, and its unique Latino heritage, as Leguizamo explores its culture, people and landmarks, and its food and restaurants. One episode focuses on Puerto Rico, a US territory.
Leguizamo takes viewers from the soundstages of Hollywood to a salsa festival in New York’s Spanish Harlem and a sacred indigenous ceremony in Puerto Rico, all while exploring Latino contributions to American life.
“Latinx history is the history of the United States,” says Leguizamo in one of the episodes, noting that Latinos have played pivotal roles, from the Revolutionary War to the birth of hip-hop.
“Leguizamo Does America” can be seen as part of the emerging trend of celebrity travel shows, such as “Eva Longoria: Looking for Mexico” (CNN) and “Down to Earth with Zac Efron” (Netflix). Leguizamo’s exhibition covers a lot of ground, from the origins of the famous bodegas or neighborhood stores in New York, to the resident latina host at the Los Angeles Opera. It features appearances by well-known actors such as George López, Gina Torres, Diane Guerrero and Michael Peña, who takes Leguizamo to his family’s famous Chicago domino-game gatherings, as well as notable figures such as Broadway director/choreographer Sergio Trujillo. , the director of Voto Latino. Maria Theresa Kumar and the fashion designer Raúl López.
But “Leguizamo Does America” does not hesitate to address the problems that concern the Latino community. In New York, Leguizamo organizes a dinner and, together with comedian and actor Aida Rodríguez et al, mentions the controversy over the word «latinx,» a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina, and why it is so polarizing to some.
In Los Angeles, Leguizamo discusses the challenge of creating Latino-themed stories with television producer Gloria Calderón Kellett. Due to the diversity and complexity of Latinos, “we are a difficult audience, because there has been such a hunger for representation that when there is one thing, it better represent us all,” she says.
In Miami, actress and playwright Carmen Peláez explains how immigration continues to transform the politics of her hometown. “Miami is the shore where the people of every failed government in Latin America disembark. … You know what government is currently failing in Latin America by the accent you hear on the streets of Miami.”
From his beginnings as a solo stage performer in New York City to his well-known roles on film and television, Leguizamo, 62, has enjoyed a long and multifaceted career. He received a Special Tony Award in 2018 for his Broadway show «Latin History for Morons» and earned Critic’s Choice and Emmy nominations for his role as Raymond Santana Sr. in the Netflix series «When They See Us.» In recent years, he has become an advocate for the Latino community, lending his voice to the fight for greater Latino representation in the entertainment industry.
Part of his reason for doing the show was that “it takes Latino kids a long time to understand that they have something to be proud of, that everything they are is something beautiful and powerful.”
Leguizamo said most people, including many Latinos, don’t know that Manhattan’s first non-indigenous resident was Dominican (Juan Rodríguez) or that one of its first TV moguls was Latino (Desi Arnaz). “This country was not made without us,” he said. «It was done thanks to us.»
‘A show for all kinds of audiences’
Ben de Jesus, the program directorHe said the series “was one of the life-changing experiences in my career,” adding, “This is something we feel is worth celebrating: our Latino culture and the richness of our food, our music, and our activism. There are a lot of Latino themes and people, but this is really a show for all types of audiences.”
In addition to the content, DeJesus, 46, is especially proud that the production team for «Leguizamo» included many Latinos. “John actually mentioned to us that, in his 30 years in the business, he’s never seen so many Latin names on a call sheet,” DeJesus said. “It was intentional, and important to us, to bring in as many Latino team members and staff as possible and provide them with opportunities to contribute their talents.”
For executive producer Carolina Saavedra, one of the highlights of the show was a visit to Washington, DC’s Hispanic Theater Gala. “Seeing the kids in the drama program really touched me,” she said. “As an immigrant child, it brought back the experience of coming to this country, feeling alienated and initially unappreciated because we don’t speak the language. Seeing that the children at the Gala Theater have a safe space to express their pain, to express themselves, reminded me of the beauty and value of this organization.”
Saavedra described working on «Leguizamo Does America» as «the most significant job of my career.»
“I always wanted to tell stories about real people, stories that would move people and start a conversation, stories about class and race and gender,” she said. “All of these things are my passion, and with this program I was able to do it.”
“I wanted to make sure this was an entertaining show, a show that is rewarding for any community that watches it, but also specific to our Latino experience, which includes both joys and hardships,” he added.
Leguizamo hopes the series will inspire a new generation of Latino scholars and artists.
“Somewhere, there are more kids, kids like us,” he says on the show, “waiting to see their stories on stage, on the screen, to see their faces, to see their lives. And they can, if we give them a chance.”