I went to see John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons at The Public Theater last night and during the talkback, someone asked Leguizamo why he focused so heavily on the successes of people who have served the country in the military and why he choose to make it such a patriarchal version of Latin History.
At one point in the script, John Leguizamo writes about how Bartolomé de las Casas wrote that machismo wasn’t even here until colonists brought it over. In that one statement, it is clear to me that he is regretting his social conditioning and begging the audience to investigate that along with him. I am annoyed with the ways some of these points can be easily glossed over by audience members who are attempting to create critical dialogue in a talkback session.
I want to be clear with myself that masculinity is not patriarchy. Patriarchy could not be shied away from due to the fact that we are talking about the realities of Latin American history, which were plagued by patriarchal actions (that look to me like toxic masculinity – raping, hyper aggression, performance of male dominance, etc.) that lead to complete destruction and resulted in lots of patriarchal practices passed down through generations, which is sad but real.
When I think about parts of the show that were patriarchal, I think about the ways Leguizamo used comedy to force viewers to ask hard questions about patriarchal socialization. At one point, his daughter tells him that he’s spent all this time sharing a myopic patriarchal view of history and he responds with regret saying something like, “oh no, now I have to read and reteach this whole history,” to which the audience immediately reacts negatively too since his character (himself) is pretty obsessed about this whole history exploring/sharing throughout the script. I think he’s essentially having this dialogue with himself as an artist who wrote the play but also as a character in the play who lived parts of this.
There are so many more moments I could point to where Leguizamo presented really complex internal struggles around masculinity and masculine performance – one being when he was trying to figure out how to insult someone without hurting anyone’s feelings and another being when he was taunting people at various points and sticking his chest out to them in an attempt to present as more masculine but really grappling with the posturing he felt he had to do.
Perhaps what’s most important to think about regarding this idea of it being too focused on patriarchy and making some people uncomfortable is to figure out where that discomfort stems from (the particular viewer or the show itself)? If you’re uncomfortable, who’s job is it to work through that discomfort? My sense is that people who are unfamiliar with our history will struggle very much when it is presented to them and it is important that they grapple with what we must grapple with when we learn about their history.
Interestingly enough, nobody asked questions about how tokenizing he was to all of the minoritized communities that he represented throughout or why he choose to go with particular stereotypes to represent minoritized groups, including men of color – as hypermasculine, alcoholic, and ghetto. It is almost as if the position he took on to exclude women’s, perhaps even white women’s, contributions to history, struck a chord with the audience in a way that his exploitation of caricatures - that have been generating and exploited through mainstream (white) media and theatre – did not.
So what does this mean for patriarchy as it relates to his show and is he doing anything that could help deepen our understandings of masculinity?
His response to this person’s question on patriarchy was something like: there is no way that you can shy away from the accomplishments of soldiers who have fought for this country. You can say that maybe I’m not smart enough, or maybe I’m not as good of an artist but you cannot say that I didn’t fight hard for the country when I died for it. That is why I chose to focus on the military.
In his comment, I heard something more nuanced. I heard: You (white folks) have set up a system in which I am unable to convince you that my achievements and the achievements of my ancestors are great enough to be in the textbooks or in the mainstream eye so I found a string of achievements that you cannot deny – because you talk all this patriotism nonsense.
You’ve also created a system where you don’t value my masculinity unless it is rooted in war or violence, therefore, when I talk about the masculine performance that my son exhibits and grows through throughout the show - from a warm sense of healthy masculinity, where he is in touch with his emotions and not interested in violence, to a more toxic version that he was forced into when he had to fight and get suspended due to terrifying acts of bullying - there is no recognition of the ways in which I’m working to unravel what masculinity could look like and does look like for some young, teenaged, Puerto Rican boys. This unraveling and exploration of various types of masculinity is inherently anti-patriarchal due to its resistance to a singular idea of what a man should be. My son’s masculinity, in fact, is anti-patriarchal in many ways but that blew right over your head because you were focused on a section of the show that overemphasized the ways that achievement is honored through the system that is patriarchal – which, by the way, I did not create and cannot stand.
To that end, I'd have to say: yes, this is certainly a contribution to deepen our understandings. I want to reflect more.