False PRide?

So John Leguízamo isn’t really Puerto Rican. Big ups to Gonzalo Aburto for finally getting this on record but what is the proverbial takeaway?

I remember asking his mom, who is a really cool lady, about this specific question about 10 years ago and she said something about his great-great-great-grandmother being Boricua. I was of course skeptical, especially when estimates of the percentage of his Puerto Rican DNA that appeared in his own promotional materials varied over the years. But at the same time, I thought, damn, he really does want to be one of us.

I met John almost 20 years ago through a guy named Joe Vasquez, a South Bronx/El Barrio filmmaker who was as Puerto Rican as they get. On Saturdays we played ball Downtown and all the trash talk came from the Leggs-man. When John played Benny Blanco from the Bronx in Carlito’s Way, he certainly seemed more Puerto Rican than Al Pacino. His entire wise-cracking, b-boy obsessed, sneakers hanging from the telephone pole act carried an air of undeniable authenticity.

In a time when so many Latin Americans living in New York look down their noses at us and go out of their way to insist that they are not Puerto Rican, Leguízamo’s claim, even if stretching reality, is a refreshing expression of class solidarity. I mean, you’re going to give up all that Latin American literature boom/New El Museo del Barrio curating respectability to insist that you’re one of us? I even know some Puerto Ricans who insist they are not Puerto Rican.

We’ve had many honorary Boricuas in this town, there’s ample precedent for that. Much of the core leadership of the Young Lords were half-something else or full-on African-American. Rubén Blades appears to many of us to be the step-nephew of Cheo Feliciano or Tité Curet Alonso. For a minute, through her quickie with Jellybean Benítez, those early Madonna singles made her freestyle fresh.

I guess there is a difference between actually saying you’re Puerto Rican (when you might not be) and just claiming to be “honorary,” like say, Larry Harlow, or Joe Bataan. But I think Johnny says he is not just to maintain his considerably large fan base, but because (at the end of the day?) he’s feeling it. Feeling all that subway stink and attitude and sick of being locked down and profiled that tainted his Jackson Heights youth (if not his Downtown present), the same disfiguring scar that gave him, as a professional actor, the choice of being a klown, a kop, or a krook.

So let him march in peace. No hay mal que por bien no venga. Even Fat Joe isn’t fat anymore.


12 thoughts on “False PRide?

  1. Great piece Ed. There’s a point in all this we’re missing. “Promotion.” Leguizamo made his props playing very marginal Nuyoricans and to claim authenticity he had to claim the Nuyorican experience. Once the publicity machine kicked in there could be no turning back. And he’s still be claiming Nuyorican roots because it promotes his professional agenda. Too bad for him his pops outed him.

  2. Yes, great (and fun) piece.

    Hhhhmmmm… Since identity is such a slippery thing, I wonder if Leguizamo will have some curveball answer to the Aburto piece. I’ll stay tuned.

    I love this point you make: “I mean, you’re going to give up all that Latin American literature boom/New El Museo del Barrio curating respectability to insist that you’re one of us?”

    And I’m feeling your last paragraph in particular.

  3. Ditto. Great piece. One would think that that whole claiming-the-Rican-as-subcultural-edge/cred thing died out with early Madonna (as you note) or maybe Keith Haring, but Leguizamo still needs the Nuyo as a way to bridge downtown art and la comunidad (see Ghetto Klown). Old school, tu sabes? It’s an aeshtetic influence (he’s a big fan of Miguel Pinero, the original ghetto klown), and a social space (the barrio/hood as imagined and/or lived), recast as a biological identity.

  4. I don’t see any harm in what John is doing or has done. I think he is a very talented dude who has actually put us boricuas in the spotlight in a positive way. If he ain’t boricua he can be an “honorary” bori all day, any day in my book.

  5. As always, Ed your writing is skillful tells the story from the heart. Whenever I talk to you I feel like you’re an old soul with a grandiosity of vision and an almost Zen like generosity. Adal also has been able to maintain a perspective that inspires. Me? I’m looking up from the bottom of this Salsa barrel, don’t get me wrong, I’m able to live well but not without a tremendous effort to push this music and culture.

    Whenever we get to a place when we’ve salvaged a few palatable morsels, here come the birds swooping from the sky to scoop them up, kind of like the seagulls at the beach. I do make money when these folks use my music and promote the genre. BUT I have to admit a certain discomfort, maybe rage? When Marc Anthony takes my music and makes a film that stereotypes me as a drug addict who can’t speak Spanish. Or when he plays my stuff for going on two years now. (What happened to Baby Girl and all his other stuff?) Even goes on American Idol, without ever mentioning me or notifying me. He invites Sheila-E who is a good drummer but has nothing to do with this music.
    All Marc did was totally clone my work note for note, syllable for syllable and KARAOKE it on national TV. Then he invites everyone but me to the party. In the movie after cloning my tracks he tried to give Sergio George the credit for original music until I threaten to sue him. Then there’s the time he invited me to sit in on Aguanilé at Madison Square Garden. I had trouble getting in because somebody forgot to let security know I was coming. Then I waited about an hour and a half when an assistant walks in and tells me Marc changed his mind. :S
    That’s the kind of respect they have for their Boricuas brothers and the music.

    Even Ricky Martin is rapping clave when he sings Happy Birthday, But neither Marc nor Ricky ever share the spotlight with those of us that are still here and have fought the battles. There are still a few of us around you know. Eddie Palmieri is still kicking ass and puts on a hell of a show. I’m here and there many other old school Boricuas around who stayed true and gave blood to keep the music and culture real while they flitted around from pop and Hollywood to ballads and Mexican scene.

    Johnny Legz is another one. Just by the way he used to dance to the music I knew he wasn’t from the culture. John is a real piece of work. He needs therapy. I had to deal with him through the Mayor’s office and he was never able to loosen up and come down to my level. I mean clearly he identified more with Mayor Bloomberg than any of civilian non-stars. Bien come mierda. On another occasion I was on one of those morning talk shows to promote something. He never looked me in the eye or even said hello. He was chasing after Al Roker and anybody who he thought could give him some light. But the broken down Salsero? This is a Boricua? Nope, Boricuas love their Salseros.
    Is he doing us such a service y claiming to be one of us? All that self deprecating humor was not so self deprecating was it? It was more like doing an Al Jolson on us. He too is using some of my music in his show. Did anybody ask me about it? Naww you don’t have to. This dude is really a self-important creep.
    Let’s stop being so flattered when somebody picks up a flag or throws a couple of Salsa steps for the cameras.

    I’m glad he’s not really Boricua because maybe he’ll get some humility about this now that he has been outed. He had a license to say all kinds of “intimate” drug and sexual shit about our culture and like Anthony Weiner he has been exposed as a user and a liar.


    PS: Your writing is kick ass Ed. Really enjoy it. Nothing like it out here….

  6. such a great piece! this is key for me: “In a time when so many Latin Americans living in New York look down their noses at us and go out of their way to insist that they are not Puerto Rican, Leguízamo’s claim, even if stretching reality, is a refreshing expression of class solidarity.” EVEN if he is taking advantage of the barrio-ness for his own persona. More people should take advantage of their boricuaness besides JLo, Marc and John!
    I just had a Facebook back-and-forth with a Colombian who corrected our use of “Parada” for Parada Puertorriqueña. Of course its wrong, it should be “desfile.” But that is the point! Living in Spanglish!

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