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

By Catherine E. Shoichet | 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.

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