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John Leguizamo gets ‘teary eyed’ learning about indigenous roots

While appearing on "Finding Your Roots," the actor also that two of his ancestors worked for Spanish royalty.

John Leguizamo didn't know his family tree's complexities until he appeared on "Finding Your Roots."

The Colombian-American actor, 62, made several surprising discoveries while filming an episode that aired during Season Eight of the PBS show. For starters, he learned that two of his ancestors once worked for royalty.

His seventh great-grandfather, Sancho Londoño Zapata, worked as a local administrator for the Spanish crown and was the richest person in his area at the time of his death.

“Where’s my money?” Leguizamo joked after hearing the news. “That’s incredible.”

Leguizamo was shocked to see how far back his lineage goes. “I can’t believe I got a ninth great-grandfather. What, are you gonna go to the beginning of time?”

But it goes back even further. The show traces the star's 15th great-grandfather on his mother's side, arriving to Sebastián de Belalcázar, a Spanish conquistador. As Gates put it, "His boss was the king of Spain." De Belalcázar, who died in 1551 in Colombia, lived an "exceedingly well documented life for a man in his era," per Gates.

“(My family is) gonna freak out and bug out,” Leguizamo said.

The actor wasn't prepared to hear that his relative played a key role in the conquest of several Spanish cities while serving as a conquistador. Sebastián de Belalcázar served under Francisco Pizarro, the “infamous conquistador who brutally subjugated the Incan empire.”

Earlier in the episode, Leguizamo discovered that he has indigenous relatives in his lineage. "I'm getting teary-eyed," he said, while seeing an ancestor listed as a "noble Indian." He said, "It's incredibly to know that's where I get my indigenous blood from. The direct name, the direct person."

So when Leguizamo heard that de Belalcázar helped conquer several areas with indigenous people and obtained "vast amounts amounts of gold" for Spain, he felt mixed emotions.

“It’s one of the great crimes of history: the incredible artifacts and museum pieces that were melted. On one side (of the family) we made them, and on the other side we melted them. I’m kind of like Dr. Jekyll and (Mr.) Hyde here,” he said.

The show's host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., then told Leguizamo that de Belalcázar left his position and moved to Colombia. He went on to found major cities in the country, including Quito, Ecuador and Popayán, Colombia, where a statue of him was erected and lasted for centuries. A month before Leguizamo appeared on "Finding Your Roots," protestors tore down the statue.

"I had a feeling it had to go," Leguizamo mused. "I hope they put it in a museum. Maybe it doesn't need to be."

The actor added that he sympathized with the protestors.

"I'm not against that. I understand the horrors of destroying a people's culture, language and religion and stealing all that they had and now they're living in squalor. No I'm not for that," he said.

During the episode, Gates also traced Leguizamo's father's side of the family, solving the mystery of his grandfather's identity. The actor revealed that he never met his paternal grandfather. "I knew nothing," he said.

With a bit of research, Gates discovered the name and nationality of Leguizamo's grandfather: Martin Vargas-Cualla of Colombia. Previously, Leguizamo thought his grandfather was from Puerto Rico based on the fact that there's a neighborhood with the name Leguizamo on the island.

The actor instantly wondered why he doesn't share Vargas-Cualla's last name. As it turns out, Vargas-Cualla never claimed his son so Leguizamo’s grandmother gave her child her own last name.

“That’s where all the confusion comes from,” the star said.

Vargas-Cualla owned several properties and had children with multiple women, including Leguizamo’s grandmother. He was a rich, prominent figure.

Looking back on his own father's disposition, the actor said that he had a lot of "demons." He wondered if the lack of a paternal figure in his life played a role.

"He was never satisfied with what he did. (He was) always constantly questing for more, always trying to be better," he said.

Moving back two generations in Vargas-Cualla's family, the team found Higinio Cualla, Leguizamo’s great-grandfather. Higinio Cualla was a lauded mayor of Bogota, Colombia for 16 years, serving from 1884 to 1900. He was credited with modernizing the city.

"My chest is pumped up a little bit. I feel a little boastful," Leguizamo said upon hearing the news.

At the end of the episode, Gates broke down Leguizamo's heritage and told him his DNA shows traces of Native American, European and Sub-Saharan African. While reflecting on the experience, the star described what it felt like to learn more about his family tree.

"You know, you feel empowered in some way. You feel like you have all these people behind you, all these ancestors. You don't feel like you're just some spontaneous generation," he said. "That's beautiful."