Tony Valdovinos is a “Dreamer” who sees the world as it is, not as he thinks it should be.
It’s a personal philosophy that’s served him well.
That was the biggest takeaway for me after attending a recent performance of ¡Americano!, a new musical based on his life story.
(Editor’s note: The author is serving as a creative consultant on ¡Americano!.)
It’s is an extraordinary tale, despite Valdovinos’ somewhat ordinary beginnings as one of millions of young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, brought to the United States in recent decades.
Valdovinos was two when his parents brought him to Arizona. Like most immigrant families, the family came in search of a better life.
Beyond the daily uncertainty of living in the U.S. illegally, life for the Valdovinos family was better, and largely uneventful, until the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
That morning, as he dressed for school, he heard his mother scream from another room. Afraid she might be injured, he ran to her, arriving just in time to glimpse an image on television of a man as he leapt to his death from an upper story of the World Trade Center.
At school that day, Valdovinos and his classmates spent the day shaken by news reports that the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks that left an estimated 3,000 innocent civilians dead.
Memories of the incident eventually led Valdovinos to pledge to join the Marines to help protect the nation against the scourge of international terrorism.
“Honestly, I really didn’t know much about Afghanistan or where it was or about fighting al-Qaeda,” he said. “In my mind, it was more like if a friend is in danger and needs your help, you don’t run away from it, you run to it.”
His dream of joining the Marines became a defining force in Valdovinos’s life. He was 17 when a Marine recruiter paid a visit to his high school. Valvodinos told the man he wanted to enlist. But after answering a few questions, like whether he had a social security number, Valdovinos, for the first time, realized he was undocumented.
“We were in the parking lot at my school and the recruiter told me, ‘Get out of my car, you’re wasting my time.”
The revelation left Valdovinos emotionally shattered. It was tough enough knowing he might never fulfill his dream join the Marines, but to discover he was not a U.S. citizen left him deeply anxious about his future.
Unbeknownst to Valdovinos, his future was already unfolding.
The attacks on 9/11 had rocked the nation and prompted a U.S.-led international military assault on al-Qaeda’s stronghold in Afghanistan. But it also led to a massive buildup of federal enforcement efforts at the U.S.-Mexico border—even though none of the attackers had entered the country that way.
Arizona was the main route then for undocumented immigrants entering the U.S., a result of earlier border enforcement efforts that led to near total clampdown on illegal crossings in the El Paso and San Diego corridors. The resulting explosion in illegal crossings through Arizona moved far-right activists to capitalize on the country’s fear of international terrorism.
Led by State Sen. Russell Pearce, the self-proclaimed leader of the Arizona’s Tea Party movement, Republican lawmakers began passing hardline legislation that culminated in 2010 with the implementation of Senate Bill 1070, though most of that legislative package would eventually be overturned in the federal courts.
It was in this turbulent political environment that Valdovinos, who once dreamed of hunting terrorists in Afghanistan, understood that he was now among the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in Arizona who were now being hunted.
Valdovinos said he felt adrift for a time, but at 20, inspired by friends and mentors like Ruben Gallego, a former Marine who would later run for Congress, Valdovinos began volunteering with local grassroots groups battling Arizona’s radical right.
Like the attack on 9/11, the fight to stop the State Legislature’s attacks on immigrants was personal for Valdovinos. On any given day, friends, members of his family and Valdovinos himself could be deported.
If joining the Marines was off the table, Valdovinos figured he could serve another way by dedicating himself to empowering the state’s burgeoning Latino voter base.
In 2011, Valdovinos was part of the successful effort to recall then Senate President Pearce (a key sponsor of SB 1070). That year, he was among the dozens of volunteers who helped a Latino firefighter, Daniel Valenzuela, get elected to the Phoenix City Council. The experiences changed his life.
“All of us involved in that realized we were the only ones fighting for our future, and that bills like SB 1070 were not what the community wanted. We were fighting for what we wanted, and winning, and it felt great,” he said.
In 2012, Valdovinos’ life took another dramatic turn when President Barack Obama issued an executive order providing Dreamers with temporary protection from deportation. The program is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Valdovinos is now one of about 700,000 DACA recipients nationwide.
Under DACA, Valdovinos was finally allowed to legally work in the United States, and he became the first undocumented immigrant hired at the Phoenix City Council. He worked for Council Member Kate Gallego, now the city’s mayor. But Valdovinos says he missed the excitement of the campaign trail and soon left to work as field director for Ruben Gallego’s campaign for Congress. (The Gallegos used to be married to each other.)
As field director for Gallego’s congressional campaign, “I lived every day with tremendous purpose,” said Valdovinos. Gallego won and is currently serving his third term in the House of Representatives.
As a non-citizen, Valdovinos is ineligible to vote. That hasn’t stopped him from working tirelessly to help add tens of thousands of voters to the registration rolls, mainly women, young people and people of color.
He now has his own company, La Machine Consulting Group, which mobilizes voter turnout for political campaigns. The company has more than 40 employees. Many are young people getting their first taste of what it means to help grow political power.
Despite his success as an entrepreneur, Valdovinos’ future remains uncertain.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected decide the fate of Valdovinos and hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients nationwide. The case before the court was filed by a group of Republican state attorney generals who want the Obama-era program repealed.
Most observers think the program has a 50/50 chance of surviving the justices’ review. If the executive order is thrown out, DACA recipients would revert to their pre-DACA status and be subject to deportation.
Valdovinos said he doesn’t waste time thinking about that possibility. Unlike the work he does organizing campaigns, DACA’s fate is out of his hands.
“We can’t campaign for that,” he said. “We can’t push lobbying efforts. We can’t even knock on doors.”
As for ¡Americano!, Valdovinos admits the experience watching his story on stage can be surreal at times.
Greeting the predominantly white audiences as they exit the theater, many of whom, Valdovinos assumes, may have supported SB 1070, has been a surprisingly gratifying experience, said Valdovinos. Audience response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“That, for me, is the goal of this play,” he said. “It’s to remind a lot of folks immigrants are people, too. We’re building real bridges. We’re humanizing the story of who Dreamers are. We’re just like them. When people come out of the theater and we’re shaking hands saying, ‘Keep going’, I feel like we’re winning against the people who don’t want us here.”
As for those who come see the show don’t see eye-to-eye with Valdovinos when it comes to the country’s immigrant policy, Valdovinos says simply, “It’s good to get to know each other.”
Still, he admits to being a little bemused by the presence in the audience of famously conservative politicos like Gov. Doug Ducey and Phoenix City Council Member Sal DiCiccio.
Earlier this month, Valdovinos hand-delivered a letter to Ducey’s office on behalf of local civil rights groups demanding that the governor veto proposed legislation declaring “sanctuary cities” illegal in Arizona. The bills being considered, say critics, follow through with “an idea championed by Gov. Doug Ducey last month in his state of the state speech,” and are reminiscent of the spirit and thrust of SB 1070, according to Arizona Mirror.
The truth is, neither DiCiccio nor Ducey are hardly viewed as allies of the immigrants rights community. Ducey enthusiastically endorsed the 2016 candidacy of Donald Trump, who is virulently anti-immigrant, although the governor recently rejected the president’s demand that Arizona refuse to allow the relocation of refugees in the state. For his part, DiCiccio has repeatedly clashed with local immigrants rights leaders during Phoenix City Council meetings.
And, yet, Ducey has called ¡Americano! “Powerful and inspirational.” DiCiccio praised the play as “an immigration story for these times and all times.
“I just saw this incredible musical last week and trust me, you do not want to miss this historic event,” he wrote on Facebook.
While I generally disagree with Ducey’s or DiCiccio’s politics, especially when it comes to immigration, I do think ¡Americano! is a “story for these times”—at a time when we could all stand to build a few more bridges.
¡Americano! runs thru Feb. 23 at The Phoenix Theatre Company.