Sunday, May 22, 2022
by John Leguizamo
Thank you, President Bradley, and congratulations Vassar class of 2022. Wow! You’ve been put to the test like no other graduating class before you and you’ve made it with flying colors. Woohoo! What an amazing student body you are. Bet you can’t wait to spread your wings, huh?
Look, I gotta be honest. I didn’t know what I was gonna talk about today so I asked a friend of mine, Spike Lee. (Ok. Full disclosure, I’m a big name dropper, so get over it.) So first I called my friend De Niro, but he didn’t pick up. And then I called my other friend, Mark Ruffalo, but he didn’t get back to me. So I only spoke to my other other-friend, Spike, who gave me some sound advice before I took on this enormous task. And he said to me, “John, don’t be intimidated by these brilliant students. And don’t try to be charming, or intellectual or funny. Just be yourself.” Thanks, I guess, but that was the most backhanded insult I’ve ever received.
And then, my ex-manager who’s a liar and a thief (but he means well) also said to me, “A man after 50 shouldn’t speak longer than he can make love.”
So I’ll be brief. Very brief.
So here’s my life in a Wikipedia entry: I wasn’t always as successful as I am now. Cause I was born poor. Yo, so poor … that when my friends came over I’d pretend that I’d been robbed and I’d be like “Oh, snap! Yo, all of our shit is gone! We must’ve been burglarized.” And my friends’d be like … “Yo, damn, John, they really cleaned out your house and the shit they didn’t take they broke. You better call the police.”
And we were so underprivileged that I never believed in Jesus or Superman cause I knew no White guy dressed like that was ever gonna show up to my hood and save me.
Yup, we didn’t have much but my immigrant parents made up for it with their gumption, y’know? Chutzpah. They were the ghetto version of “tiger parents.” And they pushed us. My parents were so driven, that I even had to earn my Christmas presents. That’s right. I had to read the encyclopedia from A to Z or else “Santa” wouldn’t give me my gift. Cause if I didn’t get through a certain letter in the encyclopedia, my parents would guilt me with how “I was gonna be an embarrassment to them and spitting on all their struggles. And therefore I wouldn’t deserve a Christmas present.” And I remember when I was starting out on the A’s in my Encyclopedia Britannica I got into an argument with my friend Aaron and I was like … “Yo, Aaron, your altruistic attributes are abstract and, alas, absent. Adios.” Obviously, I never got my Christmas present.
And the neighborhood I grew up in was tough. I got into a lot of fights. Well, correction: I mean, I got beat up a lot… cause we were the first Latin family in our neighborhood. We were like pioneers of reverse gentrification. And we set off the whole White flight in Queens. That’s White people running from the hood and getting the “F” out. And I remember our Irish neighbors would be like …
“Just sell! Cut your losses. Once one of them moves in, the rest of them can’t be too far behind.”
And the other White peoples were leaving too but before they left they gave me something: A beating.
Then, all my Latin peoples moved in, my Juans, my Ramons, my Joses—and I thought I was safe but na uh. Cause I got a beat down from them, too. So I realized pretty quickly that I was a magnet for beatings and that I needed a skillset to protect myself. And it worked. Being funny, kept me safe from bullying. I’d do all my funny voices so that Crazy Louie of the Latin Kings wouldn’t kick my ass. And I’d be like…
“Yo, yo, Crazy, if I do my Jerry Lewis, will you still kick my ass? Huh? Huh? Woah, woah, ‘Dean, I’m nervous from the service. Nice lady.’ No, Louie, how about Ricky Ricardo, huh? No, no, Don’t hit me, don’t hit me! ‘Lucy, Lucy, dan’t do that to me.’ Eh eh.”
And it worked! I made him laugh. Cause if I could make him laugh I wouldn’t get a black eye on my way to school anymore.
And on top of all of that mess, I still had to contend with my parents’ relentless Immigrant work ethic … and my Pops would be all like …
“Sangano, why can’t you be like me an overachieving underachiever. I own five businesses, I drive a cab, and I’m teaching myself Chinese while I sleep! Ni how mah?”
But with my parents’ ambition aside, I couldn’t have gotten here without the help of my mentors—caring, selfless mentors who went the extra mile for a problem child like myself. Like my math teacher Mr. Zufa, who said to me…
“Mr. Lesqueezeamo … Mr. Lesqueezeamo, you have the attention span of a sperm. If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread they can make something out of you! How about becoming a comedian, they make a lot of money by acting stupid.”
And believe it or not, he jumpstarted my acting career. Because from his putdown, I found an acting teacher in the Yellow Pages. (That would be “Google” for y’all. That’s how old I am.)
And I paid for my acting classes with my Kentucky Fried Chicken salary (I was the king of minimum wage). And I used my earnings to put myself through acting school. So I enrolled in the Sylvia Leigh Showcase Theater.
And I jet over to her class and I’m like, “Yo, Miss Lady, this place be mad cool and what not. You rich and shit. Ain’tchoo, right? Right? Yo, yo that’s what’s up, lady. That’s was up!” And Sylvia Leigh, who sounded like Katherine Hepburn was all like …
“My, your accent is like a speech impediment. Do people really speak like that? How do you understand one other?”
Cause that’s how I used to sound back then. How I sound now is a product of years and years of professional interventions. Like speech classes and tongue twisters. Cause I’d be practicing all the live long day. I’d be like … “Tis the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by the son of York. And all the clouds that lowered upon our house, into the deep bosom of the ocean buried. Now are our brows bound with victorious Wreaths. Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments. Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings … ”
Well, you get it. My acting teacher got me reading! And at 17, I became a play-reading maniac. And this was my “I found myself” moment! This was my “aha” event!
And I was so excited to tell my father about my momentous decision that I was gonna become an actor. But my Pops was all like…
“Pero, que carajo, John. Jesus Christ! We didn’t come to this country for you to be worse than us. Listen, you ugly son of a bitch, couldn’t you just do something with a little more dignity. Huh? Like be a men’s room attendant or the guy who watches athletes pee in a cup to make sure they don't take steroids? Huh? Huh?”
And that was all I needed. That was my impetus. Cause I knew enough then that whatever my father said, I should do the opposite. So I became an artist because artists can express what others aren’t allowed to express.
And I followed my dream against all odds. Cause back then, they didn’t hire too many of us—agnostic, short, Latin guys. And when they did hire us, we were criminals or maids—servicing America on the periphery either way.
And my Gramps, sensing my struggle, had some wisdom to impart, and he says to me …
“Mijito, papito, only White Latinos make it to Telemundo mijito. Stay out of the sun, nenito. Walk on the shaded side of the street, mijito. Don’t even eat dark food, papito.”
So for a while I was the palest Latino in NYC. Trying to pass for White. Then I made the idiotic mistake on my first big movie Casualties of War. And I accidentally laid out in the sun without sunscreen and I became a nice shade of Dominican and I got demoted. (Look it up and see if you think I’m making this shit up.)
And that was it for me. So I started writing my own one-man shows cause I got tired of the HOLLYWOUDN’T scam. The gatekeepers who didn’t look like me deciding my future with their glass ceilings, invisible quotas, and cheap tokenism.
So I wrote and produced for myself so that I could for once see our stories being told by us, for us, and with us. So I could finally feel like I was being heard and seen and not screaming into the void.
But I didn’t start wanting fame, money, or celebrity. No, I just wanted to be good at something. To find my niche. I wanted to be an artist! I wanted to act, anytime and anywhere, man. So I said “yes” to everything. And at the beginning I wasn’t very good either. No! I worked my ass off to be so damned good, that if they didn’t hire me, because of my ethnicity, they would have to deal with their conscience. And that was good enough for me. And somehow that became my mantra: As long as I was good enough for me. Because I didn’t want to be reliant on the outside world for validation. A world that didn’t accept me? Na uh.
But that was then … that’s what happened with my generation—the Baby Boomers. (You know who you are.) But now you’re a much better generation. I can see that from watching my son, Lucas.
And this is an incredible era. I wish I was born now with the democratization of the digital age. It’s also a much more diverse era, too. They say the world is changing but I say, “It’s just catching up.” It has always been a diverse world—it just wasn’t an inclusive one. And America was cheating itself out of a very important human resource: Its minorities, its women, our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. Our disabled. And our youth.
It’s also the era of #MeToo, of #BlackLivesMatter, of #OscarsSoWhite, of #ImmigrantsMakeAmericaGreat, and #LoveIsLove. So we are finally learning respect and decency and not just in public but in private as well.
You’re a great generation, “Generation Z”. Because you are the most politicized generation since the ’60s. I didn’t even know what a “midterm election” was till the last one. In my 50+ years I had never voted in “midterm election” and shame on me. Shame on my generation for being asleep at the helm.
And you’re also fortunate to have real-life superheroes inspiring you, like: Emma González, the Parkland gun reform activist; the great poet Amanda Gorman; the brave climate change activist Greta Thunberg. This is your generation. Take pride and own it.
So all this is to say: Don’t wait for your roommate or your bestie to do something or hope for fate to work your way. Just like I figured out a way to work against the Hollywoudn’t system, be creative, be pro-active, and be self-empowered. Trust me, it’s contagious. By being your best selves you get everyone around you.
Be a leader or help your leaders. There’s a place for everyone. Not just alphas and extroverts. Because we all have a special power. Lean on it. Motivate your tia, your abuela, and your primo, y el fulanito, y el tal cual lambon, y el pendejo del vecino, y el baboso mocoso, y la jodona chismosa. (Ask your Latinx friend to translate that for ya ’cuz it’s a good one.)
You know, I always make it a point to remind myself to stay grateful and cognizant that I didn’t get here alone. No, I stand on some strong broad shoulders. Mentors and allies that made it possible for me to get here: my teachers, my directors, people who took a risk in breaking the barriers and getting me past the gatekeepers so that I could be here speaking to you today.
And I also lean on the victories of giants who risked it all for me: Jovita Idar, the Mexican American journalist who saved Latin children from being lynched in the American Southwest during the Jim Crow era of the 1800s (cause there were Jim Crow laws against Mexicans back then, too.) And Sylvia Mendez, who in the 1940s fought in the courts against segregation of Latinos in the schools, paving the way for Brown vs. Board of Ed. And Cesar Chavez, the union leader and activist of the ’60s who coined the phrase “Yes we can!”
And now I will do what every Commencement speaker has done since the beginning of time—I’m going to dispense cheap advice to you.
Okay? Ready? Here we go:
As soon as you leave Vassar, go out and start actualizing your dreams, and if you don’t have a dream, then start with a passion or a hobby or an idea that burns inside of you. But it’s on you to do the homework and find out what really turns you on.
Then, do one thing every day that scares you. Sign up for acting. Sing. Dance. Box. Fall in love. Ask her or him or them out. Be kind. Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Cause sometimes you’re ahead, and sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself anyway.
This is your life … so dream big. Dream one size too big. Dream extra-large. Who cares? It’s just a goddamn dream anyway.
Drink wine, eat great food, and spend quality time with good friends. Tell stories. Reminisce about the good-old-days but look with optimism to the future. Travel often. Learn more. Be creative. Spend time with people you admire. Seize opportunities when they reveal themselves. Love with all your heart. Never give up but allow yourself to fail cause you can’t succeed without f’ing up now and then. Do what you love. Be true to who you are. Make time to enjoy the simple things in life. Forgive even when it’s hard. Smile often. Laugh freely. Be grateful. Try new things. Work hard. Don’t count the minutes; count the laughs. Embrace change. Trust in yourself. Be thankful. Be nice to everybody. Live for today. And above all make every moment count.
And if you take anything away from me:
It is that you only fail when you stop trying.
’Cause when you start seeing your worth, you’ll find it harder to stay around people who don’t.
Now, before I go, I wanna share this beautiful Aztec philosophy: At the center of Aztec culture exists “Teotl,” which means a single, dynamic, eternally self-generating sacred force! It means that we are all the same and all things are of equal value. We are one.
And as my old Incan Grandma used say: “If you kiss the llama, it won’t spit at you.”
Thank you, and congratulations.