He tried to join the Marines. Then his life took a turn he never expected


(CNN)Tony Valdovinos says it’s hard for him to watch the musical about his life.

But there are many reasons he’s hoping you will.

“¡Americano!” begins with one of the most painful moments from Valdovinos’ youth — the day he tried to join the Marines at his Arizona high school, but ended up learning he was an undocumented immigrant and couldn’t.

    “It’s not a show to me. It’s actually, truly what happened. And to watch it in person just kind of hurts,” Valdovinos says.

      Everything changed for him that day. The future he’d dreamed of evaporated in an instant. And his life took several turns he wasn’t expecting.

        Becoming the subject of a musical, Valdovinos says, is only the latest example.

        Valdovinos, 31, is a political consultant now, and no stranger to sharing his story. But as “¡Americano!” begins its off-Broadway run, he’s hopeful new audiences will learn from — and be inspired by — his experiences.

          The coronavirus pandemic delayed the show’s New York debut. But Valdovinos says its message is as urgent as ever.

          The day he learned he was undocumented marked an end and a beginning

          Valdovinos still remembers the moment he asked his mom for the paperwork he’d need to join the Marines.

          He was nearly 18, and a military recruiter at his high school had just sent Valdovinos home after learning he was born in Mexico. But Valdovinos had been dreaming of joining up for years, ever since he saw the World Trade Center towers collapse on TV, and he was determined to go back to the recruiting office with documents in hand.

          “My mom just started to break down. She started crying. … Her whole demeanor changed. Her energy changed, Her shoulders changed,” Valdovinos says. “And she told me the truth.”

          Valdovinos was born in Colima, Mexico, and brought to the United States when he was two years old. Before his mom’s revelation the day he tried to join the Marines, Valdovinos says he had no idea he was undocumented. And after that day, he suddenly found himself unsure of his path in life.

          That’s where “¡Americano!” begins, but far from where the story ends.

          The musical goes on to portray Valdovinos’ discovery of a new mission as a political organizer and eventually the founder of his own political consulting company.

          “Being part of elections, even though I can’t vote myself, but being part of the organizing has been very rewarding. … It’s a lot about honor,” Valdovinos says. “It’s about helping to make sure that our communities are not looked down on and most importantly, suppressed.”

          Eventually, he landed a job as a field director during Ruben Gallego’s run for Congress.

          Gallego, now a Democratic Arizona congressman, is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. And as Valdovinos sees it, even though he never got to join the Marines, he did get to serve with one.

          “Being told to leave by the Marine Corps was a very big experience. But…meeting a Marine, who taught me how to cut political maps and knock on doors and canvas, was equally as impactful. And I think that’s what ‘¡Americano!’ is,” Valdovinos says. “It’s a story of moving back and forth, but not giving up.”

          DACA protects him from deportation. But his future is uncertain

          Four years after the fateful day when he learned he couldn’t join the Marines, Valdovinos’ life changed again when the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012. DACA gave deportation protection and work permits to Valdovinos and hundreds and thousands of other so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United State as children.

          It’s been nearly a decade since then.

          Year after year, politicians on both sides of the aisle have said they’d support legislation that gives Dreamers a chance to become legal permanent residents and eventually US citizens.

          “We feel like professionals in limbo. Literally my whole life has gone past, my whole youth has gone past with me in politics, hoping that we were going to get aid or a policy, and realizing that the country is not focused there anymore,” Valdovinos says.

          He says he hopes “¡Americano!” “re-sparks that conversation,” in Washington and across the country.

          They see the show as a new avenue for activism

          The show’s 2020 Phoenix run, he says, already seems to have opened some minds. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, described the performance as “powerful and inspirational.”

          And Valdovinos says he heard audience members leaving the theater saying they’d had “no idea that Dreamers even existed.”

          The possibility of reaching new audiences was a big selling point, Valdovinos says, when a creative team from the Phoenix Theatre Company pitched the idea of writing a musical based on his life.

          The theater approached him, he says, after hearing an interview on NPR about his work knocking on doors to reach Latino voters. He’d never imagined his life story could end up on stage.

          “I sat with them for two hours almost seven years ago, and I gave them my whole life story and my pains, my struggles, things that inspired me, things that happened, things that didn’t happen,” he says. “And they decided after a week that they wanted to put this into a production.”

          Years later, “¡Americano!” debuted on that theater’s stage, featuring music by singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez.

          “I realized, we can knock on doors forever and get chewed out by people who don’t support us, or have to beg people to care in the first place,” Valdovinos says. “But ultimately, when you watch a movie or a piece of art that resonates with you, I think it’s much more impactful.”

          And Valdovinos isn’t the only one hoping “¡Americano!” will help the story of Dreamers like him reach a different crowd.

          That was one of the main things Max Gonzales says he had in mind when his organization, Chicanos Por La Causa, decided to invest $1.75 million to help fund the show’s New York run.

          Chicanos Por La Causa is an Arizona-based nonprofit with a focus on community development. And becoming an executive producer of “¡Americano!” is a big step for the organization, Gonzales says. The arts, he says, can be an “innovative way of doing advocacy.” There’s a long history of arts linking with political activism, he says, like the famous prints of a skeleton holding a basket of grapes that highlighted the harsh conditions farmworkers face.

          As Arizona voters prepare to weigh a ballot measure that would re-establish in-state tuition for Dreamers like Valdovinos, Gonzales says supporting “¡Americano!” is another important way to get the word out.

          “We really wanted to have a part of the show because of its meaning and how compelling it was,” he says.

          ‘I’m an American’

          “¡Americano!” officially opened its off-Broadway run at New World Stages on May 1, and the show is scheduled to run until June 19. From there, its backers hope it will be Broadway-bound.

          No matter what happens next, Valdovinos says he’s excited to see the show’s message spreading, even if the performances are too personally painful for him to watch.

          In one of the show’s numbers, “Dreamer,” Valdovinos’ character — played in Phoenix and now in New York by Sean Ewing — belts out a ballad of belonging:

          This is my home

          My heart, my soul

          Who is to say this great country I vowed to defend is no longer my own?

          I’m not alone

          My roots are sown

          Who’s to say this great country I vowed to defend is no longer my own?

          I’m not alone

          My roots are sown

          All I’ve ever known is I’m an American

          This is my home

          It’s a message that Valdovinos hopes will resonate beyond the political arena, too.

            “I hope that somebody who’s anywhere close to at least the mentality I was in at the time where everything looked impossible, to realize that it is possible just by switching a little bit of perspective and having a little bit more courage through your journey, regardless of where it is,” he says.

            He knows how quickly fortunes can turn. And even when he’s not in the audience, he’ll be cheering for “¡Americano!” to succeed.