Life gives Lemon inspiration and heritage

Tony Award winning actor, poet and spoken word artist Lemon Andersen gave a speech on “The New Latino” in American society at the College on Monday, Nov. 18.

The purpose of the speech was to teach students how his upbringing and the people he knew influenced him as a performer and helped him to see the changing role of Latino-Americans.

Andersen says his identity was developed by education. (AP Photo)

Andersen, the winner of the 2003 Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event for “Def Poetry Jam,” spoke about his upbringing in New York City, in which he was born to a Puerto Rican mother and Norwegian father. While his first name is actually Andrew, he was nicknamed “Lemon-head” in high school because he had the lightest skin of anyone at the school.

“The name stuck,” Andersen said, and he kept the name Lemon into his professional life.

During the speech, Andersen spoke about the cultural shift that has made many Latino-Americans of second through fifth generations  take on other cultural trademarks, such as ways of speaking, musical instruments and even methods of performing. However, he added that because of the very diverse set of cultures that make up Latino-Americans in the United States, it would be impossible to make generalizations about all of them.

“I can’t speak for every Latino,” Andersen said. “I speak for those I identify with.”

He added that Mexican-Americans on the West Coast have a very different culture from the Latino-Americans on the East Coast and in New York City.

Andersen also mentioned the importance of education on one’s cultural identity.

“Education changed me,” he said. “I know more about our journey — to the point that I can speak about it, stand behind it (and) identify with it. Identity is about education.”

Andersen added that his education gave him some leverage over other performing poets.

Andersen also detailed his childhood, in which he stated that he often got to watch PBS as a child, especially when his mother would be doing drug purchases in his family’s living room.

“I watched a lot of ‘Masterpiece Theater,’” he said. “My mother was a straight-up drug dealer but loved PBS — she watched ‘Nova’ and ‘Masterpiece’ while selling drugs.”

Andersen pointed out another challenge for him — having the last name “Andersen,” which resulted in him being less accepted in the Latino community as a speaker.

“I just didn’t have the kind of last name that would appeal to colleges (and other schools) during Hispanic Heritage Month,” he said.

Andersen’s writing, performance and work with companies on diversity helped him get over the hump and get the kind of good media coverage to be a good speaker at schools.

The speech concluded when Andersen was asked about his work in such movies as “Inside Man” and “The Soloist.” Andersen stated that he had fun working with such A-List actors as Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Clive Owen and Denzel Washington.  However, as for his relationship with director Spike Lee, Andersen said, “(Lee) is my favorite person in the world.”