This, the seventh Hay Festival in Cartagena de los Indios kicked off with a packed house for homecoming for Hollywood actor John Leguizamo. Born in Colombia but raised from the age of three in the United States, he shared with a packed, hushed audience at the beautiful Teatro Adolfo Mejia his rags to acting riches story. And they lapped it up.

His memories of life in Jackson Heights, a.k.a Little Colombia in New York were of a time before the rest of the Colombians had actually arrived. His mother held down two jobs, while his father womanized. His family were the second Latinos in the neighbourhood, following the Mexicans and “the place then was a frontier. I fought a lot, so that period taught me to fight but also I became funnier so I wouldn’t have to fight, and wouldn’t be struck.”

Playing the funny man on the block and a clown in school led to suggestions that he should try out his entertaining wares on the subway. This only managed to get him arrested, with his mother having to explain to the arresting policeman that he was not a delinquent, but rather that he was hyper-active. Yet, in school one of his math teachers, working on the principle that if you can make penicillin out of old bread they could make something out of him encouraged him to take acting lessons. which did with a woman with three hairs on her head.

At the time when he started to act professionally there were few avenues or roles open to Latinos who were either “type cast as rapists or murderers” so he wrote his own play and acted in it. It worked. Arthur Miller came to see it. Reuben Blades, also. Not to mention Al Pacino and Madonna. ‘The Mambo Mouth’, based on stories from his ‘hood, won awards, and put him right on track for the future.

John was very honest about where he learned much of his acting art and craft. In the Brian de Palma-directed ‘Carlito’s Way’ there’s a scene where Al Pacino spits before speaking. So John spat before speaking too. Imitation is more than sincere flattery. It’s about learning, too.

He’s now racked up about fifty films, playing transvestites, gangsters or voicing bears in films such as ‘Ice Age’. He researches meticulously, to the extent that for the latter he would eat food as a bear does: going even deeper into things, he and Al Pacino started to have menstrual syndrome and emotional problems when they started dressing up in frocks when their characters were women.

Nowadays he’s an unwaged but enthusiastic cultural ambassador for Colombia, in particular trying to build on the image of his birthplace and try to sell it as a place to make films. It helps that ‘Mexico is worse off than we are, which helps us out” in that regard. In a country such as Colombia which is healing itself after decades of atrocity such positive images can share that sense of healing with a wider world.