Tony Valdovinos was in sixth grade in Arizona when the twin towers were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. From 9/11 on, his dream was to join the Marine Corps and defend his country. Shortly before graduating from high school, he met with a recruiter, only to receive the shock of his life: Valdovinos could not join the Marines — because he was living in the country illegally.
Unbeknownst to him, Valdovinos had been brought to the U.S from Mexico at age 2, but the family did not have legal status. “Learning the truth, I felt hurt, angry, betrayed and humiliated,” Valdovinos recalled. “I believed that Marines were warriors, and in an instant, I learned that was unattainable for me.”
Now a new musical based on Valdovinos’ life — ¡Americano! — will play off-Broadway in New York City. Currently in previews, the show opens May 1. It aims to show how Valdovinos channeled his anger into activism, and to restart conversations about the "Dreamers."
The name "Dreamers" comes from the DREAM Act — long-stalled legislation that would allow these young people to legalize their immigration status and remain in the country. According to the National Immigration Forum, there are an estimated 3.6 million Dreamers in the U.S. A smaller subset, including Valdovinos, have obtained temporary deportation relief through the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. But absent congressional action, the Dreamers’ long-term status remains uncertain.
For Valdovinos, 31, seeing his life depicted onstage has at times been wrenching. “It’s tough to watch some of my most devastating moments again and again, like when I confronted my parents about my being undocumented. The real memories get stirred up.” His parents had not told him about his status because they said they were trying to protect him.
For Broadway performer Sean Ewing, the lead in "¡Americano!," playing Valdovinos has been “truly, truly remarkable.”
“It is a bit overwhelming to play a real-life, living person,” said Ewing, who is originally from Colombia. “Tony has been so gracious and brave to share the details of his life, and the audiences are really responding.”
'It transcends being a Mexican story'
Featuring a nearly all-Latino cast, “¡Americano!” arrives in New York City after a record-breaking run at the Phoenix Theatre Company in Arizona.
Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda has been with the show since its first reading in 2016. “This has become a very personal piece for me, and I wasn’t sure how it would feel to New York audiences,” she said. “But it transcends being a Mexican story. It is an immigrant family’s story.” She believes that virtually anyone can relate to the Valdovinos family.
“Over the last few years, the humanity of the immigrant experience has been stripped away,” Carlisle-Zepeda said. “We’ve seen children in cages, and families being torn apart. It’s easy, for some, to forget that the Dreamers are people, and that they know America as their homeland. The thought of forcing them to go back to another country they don’t even know is horrible.”
A lead investor for the New York production is Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC), an advocacy group formed in Arizona in 1969 to combat discrimination against Mexican Americans.
“Our overall mission is economic empowerment and providing services to vulnerable people,” said Max Gonzales, executive vice president of strategy and relationship management for CPLC. “Yet here we are, co-producing a show that we someday hope to see on Broadway. It is an unusual thing for us, but one we felt committed to because of the story.”
To Gonzales, “¡Americano!” illustrates how Dreamers contribute to the country despite facing obstacles. Arizona students living in the country illegally, for example, must pay the higher out-of-state tuition rates for college, even if they've lived in the state most of their lives, which puts higher education beyond reach for many. This issue will be on the ballot in Arizona in November.
“This is not traditional advocacy,” Gonzales said, “but this is who we are.” Although “¡Americano!” is a high-risk investment, to CPLC it represents an opportunity with potential returns. “No show from Arizona has ever made it this close to Broadway. This is big for Arizona; we are this close to being on the Broadway stage.”
With its charismatic lead, Latin rhythms and colorful neighborhood characters, “¡Americano!” is somewhat reminiscent of “In the Heights.” That show had an off-Broadway run and went on to win the 2008 Tony Award for best musical. It was later made into a feature film that was released last year.
“¡Americano!” is singularly centered on the lives of Mexican Americans in Arizona. At a recent performance, a captivated audience laughed at the show’s references to menudo and pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread), as well as the pre-show recorded announcement that included the familiar Mexican word “Órale!”
While “¡Americano!” chronicles the journey of Tony Valdovinos onstage, the real-life Valdovinos stays focused on his career as a political consultant. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Marine veteran and state legislator Rubén Gallego, helping elect him to Congress. “I wasn’t able to join the Marines, but I joined a Marine (Gallego), and he taught me how to organize.” Valdovinos now runs La Machine Consulting, a political operations firm that recently celebrated its sixth anniversary.
Valdovinos is realistic about a potential legislative fix for the Dreamers. “During the Obama administration, the energy was there.. ... Now it has worn off.” He became involved with “¡Americano!” in part to “somehow help spark the conversation again.”
National polling has consistently shown public support for allowing Dreamers to stay in the U.S. and adjust their immigration status. Yet in recent years, the immigration issue, along with the country’s overall political mood, has become increasingly polarized. The upcoming midterm elections make it even less likely that any permanent relief for Dreamers will occur soon.
There has been an uptick in Republican support among Latino voters in states like Florida and Texas, which Valdovinos said does not bother him. “Part of the political process is that there are Latinos on the other side. I have friends who are Mexicano who vote Trump. It's a hard fact.”
In Valdovinos’ view, the Democratic Party needs to engage more consistently with Latino voters. “Democrats need to invest with Latino voters at every level of the electoral process, from school boards to citywide and congressional races. They need to invest in turning out Latino voters, as we are one of the biggest populations that doesn’t participate fully (in politics).”
Valdovinos is aware that some migrants, more recently refugees from Ukraine, are granted special permission to enter the U.S. while others from Haiti or Central America are not. "Although the situations of people are different, it is hard for all of us when policies are passed for some and not others,” he said. “Ultimately, it all comes back to organizing to make change.”
Valdovinos is optimistic about “¡Americano!” bringing his story to a broader audience. “We humanize ourselves when we share our stories,” he said.
“I’ve lost a lot of hope over the years, but I’ve gained a lot of strength,” he added. “My story is ultimately about organizing, and helping people mobilize — and we still have much, much farther to go.”
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