How A Dreamer’s Secret Inspired The Creative Team Behind ‘¡Americano! The Musical’
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Antonio “Tony” Valdovinos dreamed of the day he could enlist in the U.S. Marine Corp. Though only a 6th grader on 9/11, he vowed to defend his country while watching the day’s tragic events. On his 18th birthday, he attempted enlisting but uncovered a secret which crushed his ambition. Valdovino’s parents never told him he was born in Mexico — or that he was an undocumented immigrant.

Though the DREAM Act never passed into law, young immigrants who lack papers and were brought to the United States as children are often called “Dreamers.” So are those granted some protections through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which permits them to stay in the country, provided they fit certain criteria.

Now, Valdovino’s life story has become a new off-Broadway musical. Called “¡Americano!,” the show is presented by Quixote Productions along with Chicanos For La Cause, an Arizona non-profit which works to end discrimination against the Mexican American community. The show runs through June 21st at New World Stages in midtown Manhattan.

A robust creative team is behind ¡Americano!, including composer Carrie Rodriguez, who is nominated for a 2022 Drama Desk Award for her work on the show, and former New York Times

NYT
Phoenix bureau chief and ¡Americano! c0-author Fernanda Santos. The two join Valdovinos in this Q & A.

Tony, how did your inspiring story become a musical?

Tony Valdovinos: I had done a lot of work politically for years before the Phoenix Theatre reached out. They interviewed me, calling me about a week after, and said they wanted to move forward with making this production. I didn’t know what that really meant at the time. Here we are seven years later, off-Broadway. It’s been an incredible journey.

Carrie, how did you become involved?

Carrie Rodriguez: I had no history with musical theater. I’d been to one musical before — “Anything Goes” — as a 10-year-old on a New York City trip. I’ve performed in musicals. I’m a violinist and have played in the pit orchestras for a few. But really, zero history.

Out of the blue, I got a phone call from the producer, asking if I’d be interested in writing music for this original musical. He told me about Tony. I started doing some research. A week or two later, I flew to Phoenix to meet Tony. The whole time, I’m thinking, ‘I’m a folk singer/songwriter. I’m not qualified to do this.’ But how could I say no? This is the greatest opportunity of my life to tell Tony’s story, to connect with Americans and help change minds.

And you, Fernanda?

Fernanda Santos: I’d covered this story as a journalist in Arizona but never felt fulfilled. I wanted to be able to go out there and show my outrage that all these years since the first version of the DREAM Act was proposed, we still have not found resolution for these people we call “Dreamers.” They’re not all DACA recipients. There are still tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of them who have no papers, no kind of authorization.

I was, at that point, a college professor writing a book. Jason Rose, the show’s producer, asked me to join the writing team with Michael Barnard and Jonathan Rosenberg. They were working with Carrie. I said, ‘I don’t write musicals. That’s not my thing.’ He asked me to think about it. Number one, I fell in love with this story. Number two, I felt this was my chance to highlight the wonderful Americans, like Tony, that are “Dreamers.” Third, as an immigrant, kind of ‘young, scrappy, and hungry,’ I was ‘not going to throw away my shot’ to quote from Hamilton.”

I started out as a newspaper writer. I now write opinion columns for The Washington Post. I’ve written numerous personal essays. I’ve written a book of narrative nonfiction. I’m now working on a memoir. Who says that I can’t try this other kind of writing? If I don’t try, I’ll never know.

I’m lucky to work with an amazing team that took me in, has amplified my strengths, and taught me a lot. We are breaking barriers, putting ourselves in positions where people like us are not usually seen.

At this year’s Oscars, Latinos were visible like never before. Is it a sign that opportunities are opening for the community?

Carrie: That’s a tough one. I do feel we’re still severely underrepresented. I’ve felt that way throughout my entire career — as a woman, as a Latina. I got started in the folk/Americana world as a singer, songwriter, and fiddle player. One of the first big festivals I played was in the South. There were some 20,000 people there. I remember looking out into the audience at everyone’s faces and thinking, ‘I’m the only Latina here, not just on the stage, but in this whole music festival.’

But like Fernanda said, the best thing we can do is be seen. We need young Latinos saying, ‘Wow, a Latina is the songwriter for this musical? Maybe I can do that, too.’

Fernanda: Originally from Brazil, I’m also an American naturalized citizen. There is this prevailing definition of mainstream, based upon an Anglo-Saxon idea of the United States, that has not really served our people well. Therefore, anyone like Carrie, like Tony, like me, our stories are on the edges. We are the other people, the ‘minorities.’

Well, the fastest growing category in the census was the mixed category. People are coming to a point where they realize they are more than just one thing. What is the mainstream if we have a country that’s changing? If we have a new American majority that is no longer an Anglo-Saxon majority? Who are we making art for? Who are we writing for? Who are we creating TV and audio stories for?

“¡Americano!” is showing that there are many people of color who will go to the theater. But theater makers never really stopped — until maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda — to look at the audience and say, ‘Let’s create a story about the people who are sitting there watching this musical and put it on stage.’ There’s a lot more to us than West Side Story.

What’s your favorite song or moment from the show?

Fernanda: The song “Voice of the Voiceless” has a ‘together, we’re stronger’ kind of message. “For Today” is a beautiful song about the fight for what’s right, a fight for freedom. But there’s a line that Ceci, the female lead, says to Tony, ‘Remember, you are the face of the New America.’ That’s such an important line with so many meanings.

What’s yours, Carrie?

Carrie: I feel the same way as Fernanda about that line. Every time I hear it — and I’ve heard it now many times — I feel very emotional. It’s a summary of what we’ve just seen.

Musically, I have different favorites on different nights. One of my favorites is “Dreamer,” the song that ends Act I. It’s the moment that Tony has just found out that he’s not documented and that his entire life has been lie. The heartache is very raw. But also, his love for this country is just as much present in that song. Having those two things side by side has a very big impact emotionally for people.

What about you, Tony?

Tony: I never wanted to be a political organizer. I love what I do but I wanted to join the Marines. Anytime I hear the song “Come & Join the Marines,” it really gives me those years back, the years before finding out the truth.

I don’t think Marines dance like they’re portrayed in the show. But that song has given me hope. I believe in the Marine Corps. It was an infantry Marine who taught me to fight with a pen, not a sword. Listening to that song gives me strength.

“¡Americano!” will play at New World Stages (340 W. 50th Street) in New York City through June 19, 2022. Tickets are on sale at the box office, by phone, or via Telecharge.com.

Listen to The Revolución Podcast full episode featuring Antonio Valdovinos, Carrie Rodriguez, and Fernanda Santos with co-hosts Kathryn Garcia Castro, Linda Lane Gonzalez, and Court Stroud, on Apple Podcasts, iHeartMedia, Spotify, Google, Amazon

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