John Leguizamo in “Latin History for Morons,” at The Ahmanson Theatre through October 20. Photo by Matthew Murphy

John Leguizamo is a ball of fiery, funny energy, and as a father he’s concerned about what his son isn’t learning about the history of his Latinx culture. “Latin History for Morons” at The Ahmanson Theatre made me laugh a lot but taught me even more. Leguizamo deserves applause for his dynamic one-man show (1 hour, 50 minutes, non-stop), an incredibly entertaining, important and edifying lesson in unrecognized history.

The stage is a messy schoolroom, backed by a brick wall slathered with flyers, and a revolving blackboard where Leguizamo draws freehand maps and posts statistics that every school child—and every adult—ought to know, but doesn’t. “We’ve got a lot to learn and not a lot of time to learn it,” he tells us.

He calls himself a “ghetto nerd” who suffered the “racial rites of passage,” including a teacher who kept a rearview mirror on the chalkboard to keep an eye on the “beaners”; the cops and robbers shows on TV portrayed brown, black and red-skinned kids as “pervs and criminals.” He was raised among “feral latchkey kids, like Lord of the Flies without adults.”

To prevent his son from experiencing hardship and discrimination, Leguizamo sends him to a “respectable private school.” But his son’s bullied by another student who says he comes from a line of Civil War generals, and that his people don’t belong here; his son, whom he describes as “a gentle genius,” has no comeback.

That starts Leguizamo on the path to help his son find heroes from his own culture for the perfect comeback and for a school project. He quotes philosopher George Santayana’s aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He begins his self-education with Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” which opens his eyes to what’s missing from his every kid’s textbook.

He draws a timeline, 1000 BCE to today – and points out that between the two dates, Latinx culture is invisible even though, “Latin history is American history.” He shows us the percentages that make up his Latinx genetics: “We are a bastardly people,” he says, as he puts 40% native Indian, 25% black, some percentage Jewish, some Lebanese and the remainder, “I don’t know WTF it is” on the chalkboard. And why is this?

Because long before the Roman and Christian empires, in territory larger than the Russian empire, the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas who inhabited the Americas created massive advanced empires of their own. All it took was a fleet of Spanish conquistadors who committed “ethnocide” against “the pagan savages” by bringing weapons like cannons, germs like smallpox to decimate their populations and rape their little girls.
Not to mention the gold they stole, centuries-old “masterpieces of art” melted down to provide “Larry with a lovely kitchen counter” back home in Spain; “more than 500,000 tons of gold, and twice that in silver.” But that, he points out, is a whole other lecture.

He talks about the Tainos, whose 1000-year reign was completely peaceful. They didn’t stand a chance. He calls Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, with pyramids and hundred-room palaces surrounded by a lake, “The Venice of the West.” He acts out (humorously but painfully) the murder of Emperor Moctezuma by Spanish invader Hernan Cortes, who had convinced his people that Cortes was a god.

He then acts out how Pizarro, with just 160 Spanish soldiers, overpowered the Incan empire (Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia), ruled by Atahualpa. Engaged in civil war, and weakened after his victory, Atahualpa agreed to meet with the Spaniards but was ambushed. Millions died, thanks not only to weapons but to the germs they could not fight.

Exemplified by Horace Greeley’s “Go West young man,” American history is equally destructive. “Columbus was the Donald J. Trump of the New World,” who brought syphilis to the Native Americans, subjecting them to the “Caribbean holocaust.” Not to mention (he does) Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears in 1830; the huge wave of deportations of Mexicans in the 1930s; and today’s attacks on immigration. Hundreds of thousands of Latinos fought for America in the Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars 1 and 2, Vietnam and more.

Leguizamo’s faith is called into question; “How can a God that’s all merciful let people do this to each other,” he asks. And he goes to therapy, where the doctor says he’s suffering a case of “repressed ghetto rage” and “ancestral PTSD.”

Unable to persuade his son that emperors who lost their empires are heroes (“Dad, you make s**t up, I’m not gonna believe you again”), he gets a call from school that his son hit another boy in response to being taunted. His grades dropping, he’s put on probation with no repercussion for the bully; “his rich parents probably paid for the school library.” The world’s unfair when you’re treated as a second-class citizen.

But it’s his son who surprises everyone. His teacher selects him to speak at graduation, adapting his school project about his cultural heroes. And the upshot isn’t what you’re expecting; I won’t give away the uplifting, surprise ending but it’s completely satisfying.

Trust me. Learning what should never have been left out of history is not painful in this context. I highly recommend “Latin History for Morons,” now through October 20 at The Ahmanson Theatre.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.