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It was a hot, hot summer day in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2012. But the extreme dry desert climate did not stop a group of young Latino activists from knocking on doors and sharing their personal stories in the hopes of mobilizing people to vote. The young activists couldn’t vote themselves; some of them were Dreamers, undocumented immigrants that grew up in the United States without papers.

As the Phoenix bureau chief for The New York Times covering the Southwest, Fernanda Santos followed them and reported on their efforts. “‘I’m undocumented, and I can’t participate in the electoral process, but this is why we need you to take part,’” Santos said, recalling the words of the youth. “They were so full of hope for the future, so full of a sense of empowerment, something that really made me understand what it truly means to be in America.” 

Fernanda Santos, pictured walking in New York City’s theater district, never imagined that her name would be on a billboard in Times Square. She moved to Boston from Brazil in 1998 to attend graduate school at Boston University. Her plan was to return to Brazil and get a job at a newspaper, but instead she stayed for an internship that changed the course of her life. Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra. 

Fernanda Santos, pictured walking in New York City’s theater district, never imagined that her name would be on a billboard in Times Square. She moved to Boston from Brazil in 1998 to attend graduate school at Boston University. Her plan was to return to Brazil and get a job at a newspaper, but instead she stayed for an internship that changed the course of her life. Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra. 

That day, Santos, who was born in Salvador, Brazil, met a Dreamer named Tony Valdovinos, a fiery young man with electric golden curls. “He was full of energy bouncing around, part of this small army of young immigrants and children of immigrants who were mobilized to change things in Arizona,” Santos said.

Santos and Valdovinos never imagined that after a decade of knowing each other, they would end up collaborating behind the scenes to bring Valdovinos’ story and the experience of countless other Dreamers to an international platform: a stage in the heart of New York City, through the musical ¡Americano!

Santos, a lifetime member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, is one of the co-writers of the Off-Broadway show. Valdovinos is a contributing producer. For both of them, it is their first foray into musical theater and an opportunity to reach a new kind of audience.

"There is something to be said about understanding what it is like to want to dwell with a sense of belonging —What does belonging mean? What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be an immigrant? — and maybe all these things are one in the same,” Santos told palabra in a recent interview at the Manhattan studios where the cast was rehearsing.

Dreamer Tony Valdovinos found relief seeing his life portrayed in ¡Americano!, a musical that brings hope, creates awareness and sheds light on what it really means to be a Dreamer. Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra. 

Dreamer Tony Valdovinos found relief seeing his life portrayed in ¡Americano!, a musical that brings hope, creates awareness and sheds light on what it really means to be a Dreamer. Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra. 

¡Americano! features an almost entirely Latino cast and team that includes lead actor Sean Ewing (“West Side Story” and “Amazing Grace on Broadway”) portraying Tony — the character inspired by Valdovinos — lead actress Legna Cedillo, composer lyricist Carrie Rodríguez, musical arranger Sergio Mendoza and choreographer Sergio Mejía. Chicanos Por La Causa, an Arizona nonprofit, is the show’s executive producer. 

The musical depicts the difficulties of being raised as an American citizen without the benefits of actually being one. It details how Valdovinos’ American dream of serving in the U.S. Marine Corps ended when he found out that he was an undocumented inmigrant, and how that inspired him to fight for change. 

Preview performances have already begun at New World Stages in Times Square. Opening night is on April 21, and the show will run until June 19. An earlier version of the show, which Santos consulted on, was performed by the Phoenix Theatre Company in early 2020.

Co-writing the latest version of ¡Americano! with director and scriptwriter Michael Barnard and scriptwriter Jonathan Rosenberg was a new challenge for Santos, who has led an impressive career as an award-winning journalist, author and professor. “I was really scared, intimidated by taking on what is essentially a big risk, in doing something that is entirely different,” she said.

Now a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Santos has reported in three languages: Spanish, Portuguese and English. She published her first book, “The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots,” in 2016 and is working on a second. 

“My career was always defined by journalism,” said Santos, reflecting on her new path as a scriptwriter for ¡Americano! “I think the word ‘writer’ is a lot broader. All these labels that we use are very restrictive and reductive. Every journalist is a writer; not every writer is a journalist.”

Santos, who came to the U.S. at the age of 24, brought a unique perspective to the project as a Latina, an immigrant, a mother and a journalist with deep expertise covering immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and Valdovinos’ community.

“I have walked in his shoes and in the shoes of others, not as someone that was an undocumented immigrant, but as someone who is right there by their side, in their homes,” said Santos. “I think when Tony looks at me, he knows that I know his story organically. I have lived that story.

”For Valdovinos, working with Santos to develop “the book” — what those in the industry call the script — was pivotal. “When Fernanda came in, it was the moment I was able to talk to someone that really understood me,” Valdovinos told palabra. “She made me feel safe, speaking the same language about my experiences with someone who understands these experiences."

Lead actress and singer Legna Cedillo, who plays Ceci in the show, reviews the script during rehearsals. “I want for people to be seen and heard, and I think with this we have the opportunity to amplify voices,” said Cedillo. Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra

Lead actress and singer Legna Cedillo, who plays Ceci in the show, reviews the script during rehearsals. “I want for people to be seen and heard, and I think with this we have the opportunity to amplify voices,” said Cedillo. Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra

A Heartbreaking Realization

Valdovinos, now 31, was just 2 years old when his parents brought him to the U.S. from Colima, Mexico. He grew up like any American-born child, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and loving his country. His dream was to become a Marine. But in 2008, during an encounter with a Marine Corps recruiter in the parking lot of his Phoenix high school, that dream ended abruptly. He did not have the documents required to start the enlistment process, his first clue that he was undocumented.

“Get off of my car. You’re wasting my time,” Valdovinos remembers the recruiter yelling at the time. 

That devastating moment would mark him forever. “I left the car so ashamed, and in so much pain,” Valdovinos said. His friends and his U.S. citizen brothers were able to join the Marines, but he had to go back to work in construction with his father. “I was deeply depressed and angry.”

Rejection from the U.S. military led Valdovinos to another kind of battleground. “I could not fight for the United States, but I fought for our community,” Valdovinos said. In his view, his encounter with the Marine recruiter, “taught me how to fight, not the way I thought I would, but to fight with la pluma (a pen). As they say, the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Indeed, ¡Americano! is about resilience and hope.

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The musical also shows the many obstacles Valdovinos faced. Not only did his immigration status prevent him from joining the Marines, it also blocked him from continuing his college education. In 2006, Arizona voters approved a new law that imposed costly out-of-state college tuition fees for undocumented students, putting higher education out of reach for most Dreamers in the state.

During rehearsals, actress Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda plays the role of Felicitas, Tony’s mother. This scene shows actor Sean Ewing (Tony) the day Valdovinos found out he was an undocumented immigrant. Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra.

During rehearsals, actress Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda plays the role of Felicitas, Tony’s mother. This scene shows actor Sean Ewing (Tony) the day Valdovinos found out he was an undocumented immigrant. Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra.

But Valdovinos became a strategic activist working tirelessly to encourage people to vote and to elect candidates who were more likely to be responsive to the needs of the immigrant community. Valdovinos finally found hope and an opportunity to make a difference. “We could not pay for our education, we could not vote, but we were able to volunteer and to talk to our neighbors about the importance of voting.”

In 2011, at the age of 21, Valdovinos became one of the leaders and founders of Team Awesome Arizona, a group of student activists determined to change politics. Their first effort ended in a victory when they helped elect Democrat Daniel Valenzuela to the Phoenix City Council.

In 2015, Valdovinos founded La Machine, a political consulting firm that has helped dozens of local, state, and federal candidates win elections in Arizona. Santos observed that when Valdovinos found out he wasn’t a citizen, he took “something really negative” and was able to transform it “into something really positive” — his political activity.

Who Tells a Story Matters

In different ways, Santos and Valdovinos both experienced firsthand the dramatic political changes that occurred in recent years in Arizona, a state long hostile towards undocumented immigrants. 

Arizona’s Republican-controlled state legislature passed a litany of harsh immigration laws in the early 2000s, culminating with Senate Bill 1070 in 2010 — an unprecedented state law that gave state and local police a larger role in immigration enforcement and was the strictest in the country. Meanwhile, the sheriff of Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, waged a local immigration crackdown that included arresting undocumented immigrants at their workplaces and in traffic stops.

“These were some of the most disenfranchised people,” said Santos about Phoenix’s Latino immigrant community. “People whose families have been oppressed by a history of racist policies and politics in Arizona. We have been so conditioned to think about ourselves as powerless, voiceless people who hid in the shadows.” However, many young immigrants had no fear.

“They were out there. They gave me full names, ‘Take my picture. This is who I am. I grew up here. I went to school here. I don't even speak Spanish, even though I was born in Mexico or El Salvador,’” Santos recalled.

Award-winning journalist and author Fernanda Santos reviews the script she co-wrote for the musical ¡Americano! during rehearsals in New York City. Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra.

Award-winning journalist and author Fernanda Santos reviews the script she co-wrote for the musical ¡Americano! during rehearsals in New York City. Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra.

This was the period during which Valdovinos helped form Team Awesome Arizona and met Santos, who began covering the budding movement to change the state’s politics.

Around the same time, due to advocacy by Dreamers on a national level, the Obama administration implemented DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a program that protects certain undocumented young immigrants from deportation and grants them work permits. While the program fell short of the kind of reform that many Dreamers would like to see — a path to citizenship for them and their families — it did allow some young immigrants in Arizona like Valdovinos to no longer live in fear and finally pursue their career goals. 

Santos connected with what she calls the “energy of change” in Arizona. When her time as bureau chief was up, she opted to stay in the Grand Canyon State. She had a sense that the traditionally red state was going through a shift. And it was. Arizona voters rejected some of the key politicians who had made Arizona famously aggressive towards undocumented immigrants. By 2020, Arizona voters narrowly chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump for president — the first victory for a Democratic presidential candidate in the state in 24 years. 

Santos’ familiarity with the story of Dreamers, the many stories she’d written about them, as well as the friendships she developed, helped her to write ¡Americano!

Actress/singer Legna Cedillo interacts with scriptwriter Fernanda Santos during a lunch break at the studios where the cast rehearses. Santos was excited to see her new theater project coming to life days before the first preview show of !Americano! Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra.

Actress/singer Legna Cedillo interacts with scriptwriter Fernanda Santos during a lunch break at the studios where the cast rehearses. Santos was excited to see her new theater project coming to life days before the first preview show of !Americano! Photo by Mariela Murdocco for palabra.

Who gets to tell the story of ¡Americano! matters. The play is shaped by both Santos’ and Valdovinos’ perspectives.

“I can feel it throughout the story, their journey being personal,” said Legna Cedillo, the musical’s lead actress who plays Tony’s love interest. “I think Tony and Fernanda being able to really bring their own essence and experience creatively is really important.”

Santos “offers insight on how the entire culture works within the family bond and the sense of support, and she can articulate it in a way that is very personal,” said Barnard, one of the co-writers.

¡Americano!, which is the first major play to tackle what it means to be a Dreamer, gives a voice to young immigrants like Valdovinos and raises awareness about their reality to a wider audience. The show’s release coincides with a moment of mounting uncertainty for Dreamers nationally. The DACA program that Valdovinos and so many others rely on is in legal limbo due to ongoing litigation in federal courts. Meanwhile, federal legislation that would permanently protect Dreamers and allow them to obtain legal status has been stalled for over two decades.

“It’s a different way to present the story to the audience and the audience to absorb it,” said Santos. “I don’t think a musical is better than a news story. They’re each so very different and, in my opinion, complementary.”

Santos hopes that Congress will take action and pass long-overdue legislation creating a path to citizenship for Dreamers. “I hope the people who see our musical leave with a broader and deeper understanding of what it means to be American,” she said.

In the end, writing ¡Americano! was not as scary for Santos as she anticipated. “It wasn't as different as I thought it was going to be. I think the most surprising thing about it was that for the first time in my career, I've done work that is entirely teamwork. But the greatest thing about this team, and it may be that this is a special team, is that we each bring into the puzzle something that is unique.”

¡Americano! has also brought Valdovinos something unique. 

“It helped me heal my soul,” he said.