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The New York Times
Leguizamo, at 8, Rode into the Unknown
by LILY KOPPEL
June 27, 2004
John Leguizamo, a performer whose very name conjures up images of urban poverty, cannot wait to have a Fresh Air Fund child visit his family.
But there was a time when the fund's programs evoked in him a very different reaction. As an 8-year-old boy, boarding a bus to stay with a Fresh Air Fund family in Rhode Island, he said, he was petrified.
Long before Mr. Leguizamo ever tangoed with a microphone, his aunt, a social worker in Spanish Harlem, came up with an idea to get him, his younger brother and a cousin out of the city for part of the summer. She turned to the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit organization that sponsors vacations in the country for thousands of disadvantaged New York City children who would not normally have a chance to experience such a different way of life.
His aunt signed the children up for the fund's Friendly Town program, which matches city children up with host families in rural or suburban areas. Last year, close to 5,000 children spent time with host families through Friendly Town.
Mr. Leguizamo, in "Sexaholix: A Love Story," one of his standup shows, has recounted parts of his experience.
"All I could think of was: My parents are getting rid of me," he said recently in an interview at Il Buco, a restaurant in downtown Manhattan. "They are finally fulfilling their promise that they were going to send me away if I misbehave, and I'm never going to come back. I could have sworn that this was my last train ride home. Last time seeing Manhattan."
For Mr. Leguizamo, leaving the city was no small matter. His identity is a product of the streets of Queens, and he draws on it repeatedly as a performer. An actor, comedian, writer and producer, he has explored minority characters in movies and in one-man shows, including "Mambo Mouth," "Spic-O-Rama," "Freak" and "Sexaholix." Despite his initial reservations about leaving Queens behind, a young Mr. Leguizamo wound up participating in the Fresh Air Fund for three summers. He visited two host families, in Rhode Island and Vermont, and went to one of the Fresh Air Fund's summer camps when he was 12.
His first summer away from the concrete landscape and his immigrant parents' small apartment in Jackson Heights was spent with a family at their country house, a converted farm in Rhode Island. Back then, arriving in lush, wooded Rhode Island, Mr. Leguizamo felt as though he had traveled to another planet.
"I get off the train and it's all green and camps and just beautiful,'' he recalled. "And there is this family. This white little WASPy family with kids. And they had magazines and they took me to the candy shop, and all immediately I forgot, I was like: 'Family? What family? I don't have any Latin family. This is my new family.' But it was so exciting. They were so friendly. I didn't expect them to be so friendly and so nice."
A new world opened up to Mr. Leguizamo, who grew up in a mixed neighborhood and went to school with black, Dominican, Chinese and Indian children. "It was all so different. It was like a dream come true," he said of his visit. "I was living the 'Brady Bunch' dream."
Mr. Leguizamo caught onto this new style of life quickly. He made friends, harvested the local strawberry patch, swam and fished in a nearby stream and a lake.
The experience was also sobering, he said, as the first context in which he could understand his family's poverty. "It wasn't funny. This was all really serious," he said. "And then I didn't want to come back home."
At the time of his first Fresh Air summer, he recalled, he hardly saw his father, originally from Puerto Rico, who was working at three jobs, one as a waiter at a Manhattan hotel. His mother, who immigrated from Colombia, worked in a doll factory. (By the time he was a student at New York University, after many years of his ambitious parents "working like animals," he said, his father became a real estate broker and then an accountant, and his mother became a manager in a bank.) The Fresh Air Fund prompted realizations that Mr. Leguizamo has continued to mine throughout his career. "I realized that white people weren't as scary as I thought they would be," he said. "They're human. That's the main thing. If you prick them, they do bleed. The whole Shylock speech came to mind."
As a child, most of the white families he knew of were on TV, and he found similarities to his host family.
"To live with them, they actually were like the sitcom," he said. "My family was always yelling and we all ate off of each other's plates."
But asked if he would trade in the tough surroundings of his childhood, Mr. Leguizamo declined right away. "When you are poor you still enjoy your life," he said. "You enjoy it differently."
At first, he did not understand the attraction of the peace and quiet of the country, compared with the nonstop razzle-dazzle of the city. But now, Mr. Leguizamo, whose father was a forest ranger before he came to the United States, loves the outdoors.
In fact, Mr. Leguizamo, his girlfriend and their two small children have a country house, opposite a nature preserve in New Paltz.
In the thick of his first Rhode Island visit, Mr. Leguizamo joked, "The Jungle Book" kept coming to mind. He identified with Mowgli, who was also a "little brown man," he said.
But in his case, he said, "You have a strange view of nature because you don't grow up with it. It's kind of alien."
"We should do a reverse Fresh Air Fund where we take a rich white kid and take him to the ghetto," he joked. "That would be mind opening."
Families who would like to open their homes to Fresh Air Fund children or register children for a summer vacation can call (800) 367-0003. Tax-deductible contributions to the fund can be made through its Web site, www.freshair.org. They can also be sent to the Fresh Air Fund, 633 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017.