All his life, three words meant more to him than any others he heard or read before them: honor, courage and commitment.
Although he can’t articulate just exactly why those words shaped his life, Phoenix resident, Dreamer and political operative Tony Valdovinos defies the odds and defines an experience uniquely Mexican-American.
Mr. Valdovinos bleeds red, white and blue.
“By the time I got into high school, I knew I wanted to join the Marine Corps. as my family and I learned very early on I wasn’t the valedictorian student,” he said. “At the time, I was very into weight lifting, and a lot of my life revolved around getting stronger --- for me, it was mostly about survival.”
Growing up in south Phoenix, Mr. Valdovinos lived a uniquely American life complete with neighborhood schools, friends and working in the family business.
But Mr. Valdovinos lived a life with a potentially devastating underlying truth: He had reason to believe it was likely he was, in the blind eyes of law enforcement, an undocumented immigrant.
“From the beginning, I never really had the same experiences as others,” he said of the underlying truth of his immigration status.
“My dad was the only one who worked. We struggled our entire lives, but it is how we were raised and, for me, it was very important to be with my father. But I was forced to witness my dad get significantly hurt on the job, at the worksite.”
It was during those hard, laborious hours on construction job sites searching for long-buried utility lines Mr. Valdovinos dreamed of something more.
Highlighting its 100th anniversary season, the Phoenix Theatre Company, is producing a major American musical, “Americano!” which is an original production written and composed based on the life, struggles and perseverance of Mr. Valdovinos.
The effort to produce an immigration-centered story with the Phoenix Theatre Company has been in the works since April 2015. But it wasn’t until Mr. Valdovinos came into the picture producers felt ready to move forward.
“I think it will be the greatest production I will ever be associated in my entire life --- except for two little kids,” said public relations executive Jason Rose, producer of “Americano!”
“In April of 2015 I was at a friend’s wedding, small talking about an idea I had and at the wedding was Michael Barnard,” Mr. Rose recalled of the chance encounter with the artistic producing director of the Phoenix Theatre Company.
“‘Sure pal,’ like a comedian who agrees to hear a joke that isn’t any good, is how I viewed the interaction. But I had an idea and I wrote it, and I registered with the screen actors guild. At the time, the story was more of an ‘Almost Famous’ vibe utilizing music like a jukebox musical.”
For the past 20 years, Mr. Barnard has been the creative artistic director of the critically acclaimed Phoenix Theatre Company.
“We spent about 1.5 years writing, hired a writer out of San Diego and at the time, a well-known local musician was going to do the music,” he said. “And, as these things go, there are several milestones you hit as you produce a work of this magnitude and one of them is a table read. We had one, and while it was good, we all kind of looked at each other and agreed it wasn’t where we wanted it.”
--- Jason Rose, Americano! producer
Mr. Rose explains at the onset “Americano!” was a work of fiction.
“I didn’t want to give up, and the theatre didn’t either,” he said when the project was stalled. “I said to everybody, I think we should pivot to a story with a Dreamer. From that point, we called Tony cold and we asked.”
From the second he walks in the door, you can’t help but love the guy, Mr. Rose says of Mr. Valdovinos.
“When we met with Tony, Michael and I looked at each other and knew this is an unbelievable story. From there Michael signed on as director and the rest came down to bending the music around the story.”
Born in Mexico, Mr. Valdovinos knew when he was 2 years old his parents brought him to the U.S. and told him from a very early age his citizen status was American --- yet “in process.”
Mr. Valdovinos believed the word of his parents until one day that changed.
“We were working, but we never earned any dollars from my father,” he said noting the daily working hours from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“We knew that going to work, we were looking at 12- to-15-hour days of hard, physical labor. My No. 1 job was to cut through concrete and remove concrete to search for utility piping, whatever it was, sewer, electrical piping. I really was the grunt on the job site, the broom, the shovel as I was never really good at the technical work. I was not very teachable at the sites.”
His ticket out of construction job sites he worked at from his early teen years? The U.S. Marine Corps.
“I believe very deeply in the Marine Corps.” he said pointing out the ideas behind honor, courage and commitment. “For a very long time I became a self-student of military operations. For myself, it was the honor, courage and commitment that will forever speak to me.”
The acts of terrorism against the American people on Sept. 11, 2001 sparked a new sense of patriotism and duty in Mr. Valdovinos, who was in sixth grade at the time.
“One of my teachers lost his sister at the World Trade Center,” he said. “It hit close to home. I remember the morning crystal clear, I had half of my legs in my Levis when my mom made a unique sound like something happened. When I went out to the kitchen my first thought was something terrible had happened because of the look on her face. Seeing her with her hand over her mouth like that, it was hard to conceive what was happening.”
--- Tony Valdovinos
His school, his neighborhood and the television screen all came together in the patriotic unity of a national call to action --- and a young Mr. Valdovinos was inspired.
“My teachers, everyone at school, they were just devastated,” he said. “The next week, we had a big case of water, a bucket and a duct-tape roll, which was to seal off the room in case of the usage of chemical weapons. It was weird, all I could think about was using the restroom in front of all of my classmates. I just thought to myself: ‘What the hell is happening?’
Mr. Barnard says he drew inspiration from Mr. Valdovinos upon the first impression.
“I tell people that this is a piece that puts a positive spotlight on the American Dreamer,” Mr. Barnard said.
“It identifies a particular Dreamer, but Tony’s story is not unlike many other Dreamer stories. There is such a unique situation because for many they didn’t even know that there weren’t citizens. Tony was raised as if he was a citizen.”
Mr. Barnard contends Mr. Valdovinos is one of the most heartfelt American patriots he has ever met.
“He is so devoted, so in love with the country and will do anything to protect this country --- that is why he wanted to be a Marine in the first place,” Mr. Barnard said, a fact Mr. Valdovinos says makes his inability to enlist in the Marines so devastating.
“And yet, basically, his entire life he has acted and been a citizen in this country in every way and form. I think the Dreamers are really in a unique situation.”
Mr. Barnard says the story of “Americano!” is uniquely American.
“They just want to have the opportunity to have the American dream and to give back to this country in a very positive way,” he said. “I hope in a very human way to put a spotlight on that experience. This show does nothing but honor this country.”
From sixth grade to high school, Mr. Valdovinos describes a life in preparation to join the U.S. military, specifically the Marine Corps.
“To me that was the No. 1 thing that really caught my attention,” he said of his aspirations of the time. “For me, I was just always constantly in the state of defense at school, I mean, a freaking white-looking kid in a Spanish-speaking area I was constantly defending myself.”
But as a junior at Camelback High School, Mr. Valdovinos thought he was about to punch his ticket and accomplish a lifelong dream to become a U.S. Marine.
“It is here now, and this is what I wanted to do,” he recalled of the recruiter coming to campus to sign-up students. “It didn’t happen at his office, it happened at school. We were in the process of getting me signed up and when it came time to confirm everything, the recruiter recognized my citizenship status and told me to leave. Everyone else was headed off to the Metrocenter to finish recruitment and I was told to leave.”
After this, Mr. Valdovinos was forced to confront the underlying truth of his life.
“I really confronted my parents about what was happening,” he said. “My mom broke down. She told me the truth and it was just devastating to know growing up believing you are a part of this process but to now know I was not part of anything. I found myself with zero options and, to be honest, it was the darkest few years of my life.”
Texas-based singer, songwriter Carrie Rodriguez says she was immediately drawn to the material.
“I was very intrigued,” Ms. Rodriguez said.
“My first thought was I know nothing of musical theater, why are they calling me? My second thought was what a great story and what a great opportunity. Honestly, just hearing Tony’s inspirational story, I could not say no.”
Pointing out she is a folk singer and songwriter, Ms. Rodriguez explains her own life experiences helped to guide her composition.
“The idea was intimidating, but the opportunity was too big to pass up,” she said.
“It has been a true collaboration from the beginning including very lengthy in-person conversations. For every song, we talked very in-depth about what was happening in his life at this time. Growing up in two cultures I think I was able to draw from some of my own experiences. He is just as much American as he is Mexican. In some ways it felt very natural to understand his point of view.”
The themes fueling the story of “Americano!” is something Mexican-Americans deal with --- and Ms. Rodriguez is no exception.
“I live in a predominately in a Mexican-American area with documented and undocumented immigrants all around me,” she said. “These are the people I am in the community with right now. A lot for me was just looking out the window and putting that into song.”
At 16, Mr. Valdovinos found himself emboldened in the belief he was destined for a life he didn’t want despite his ambition to be more.
“I had to continue working demolition, I just had to be there to help my dad,” he said of his dedication to family despite his anger over his citizenship status. “I just think at this time, my life started to move backward, but then Proposition 300 happened and that is when I was recruited from college.”
Arizona Proposition 300, which is formerly the Public Program Eligibility Act and was approved in November 2006, requires verification of immigration status for persons who are applying for state-funded services such as child care and adult education.
The measure also spoke specifically to in-state tuition and financial aid for college students, which directly impacted Mr. Valdovinos.
“For me, the only reason I was in school, was because my mom wanted me there,” he said of how, at the time, the original legislation was only going to apply to students seeking more than six credit hours per semester.
“It was then, I was first recruited into politics, the meeting happened at the very last second, I had to stand up for myself and say what had to be said, which was primarily about how much money the school was going to lose if Proposition 300 passed.”
--- Tony Valdovinos
Mr. Valdovinos said something that left him scratching his head was his own state representative voted for the measure.
“I had a lot of heart in me at the time,” he said as he describes his first introduction to an election canvass or an election precinct, but most of all, it was the legislator who voted against a measure that hurt him, a fellow Latino, and many others statewide.
“We weren’t canvassing for a candidate we were canvassing for our community --- and for ourselves.”
Mr. Valdovinos is a political consultant operating his own political firm coined La Machine situated along Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix. In his political career, Mr. Valdovinos has worked with several local, state and now congressional representatives.
“We have realized the impossible, is possible,” he said. “But make no mistake about it. We are still in the same fight we are continually trying to activate more people to get registered and to vote. It is my objective to ready for 2020 elections.”