Diego Brawn: From An Immigrant In Bolivar To Touring With Christian Music Artists
Diego Brawn is just 22-years-old, and he’s already living the life he dreamed of while he was a student at Bolivar High School: Touring with national Christian music recording artists.
The road that led Brawn to where he is today started in Mexico City where he was born. He doesn’t remember much about the time before he and his sister, mom and dad came to the United States.
"I don't know if it's that I try to block it out or something else," he said. "But, my parents--we didn't have a lot of money, and the culture in Mexico, there are rumors , basically, that in the U.S., like, there's money laying on the street, and there's so much opportunity, and everybody's is going to become a millionaire."
His parents brought their kids to Bolivar where an uncle was starting a Mexican restaurant. According to Brawn, that’s so the family could have a better life than they had in Mexico City. Diego was six or seven-years-old when they arrived, and none of the family spoke English.
"That was like the biggest obstacle for all of us," he said, "was 'how in the world are we going to communicate with people?'"
He and his sister had the help of a translator when they first started school, but, eventually, the translator told them they just needed to make friends, ask questions and learn.
"It was definitely a little frightening, because, you know, you have to go through elementary school trying to make friends and figure out who you are, throughout middle school and throughout high school and try to figure out who you are as well as not feeling like you completely belong, I guess," he said.
But they picked up English fairly quickly. It was harder for his parents, Brawn said, who still have a thick Mexican accent.
It was tough at times being in a rural Missouri community with a mostly Caucasian population.
"There were moments where people would dig, you know, at the fact that I was Mexican or my parents were," he said. "I actually remember this one moment my mom actually came home crying because she was at Walmart, and somebody from across the Walmart had actually just yelled, like, 'you're a wet vac," and my mom was just so taken back by the fact that somebody could be that cruel I guess," said Brawn.
Kids would sometimes make fun of the way his parents talked and make other hurtful comments. But he thanks them now for being “my fire to becoming what I am today.” But there were plenty of kindhearted people as he grew up, and he had lots of friends.
One of those friends invited Brawn to come to her church youth group with her when he was about 14. He kept going back and started listening to Christian music. He asked his mom to take him to Springfield for Winter Jam where several Christian rock groups were performing.
"And that night I remember seeing everything and seeing this big tour and people on stage and all the music I'd been pouring myself into," he said, "and I remember that night I prayed as a 15-year-old kid, and I said, 'God, if this is a desire that you have for me to be, like, in this industry whenever I grow up, like, take everything that I am and lead me and guide me to where you want me to go.'"
Then he said he “let it go,” knowing that it was a huge dream for someone from a small town.
At Bolivar High School he sang in the choir, and he taught himself to play guitar.
After he graduated in 2015, he was set to go to James River Leadership College with plans to become a youth minister, but he wasn’t entirely sure that’s the direction he wanted to go. He met a man named Nathan Johnson at a Christian music festival in Kansas City who told him that, if he wanted to get into that business, he needed to move to Nashville. So, Brawn decided, if his mom supported him, he was meant to go.
"She said, 'I know that God would be with you, and I know that you have good discernment and instinct,'" he said. "And she said, 'go do it, and if you fail, if you fall, if you need to come back, there's always college, there's always home.'"
He arrived in Nashville with a dream and a phone number for Nathan Johnson who, though surprised that Brawn had actually moved, agreed to meet for lunch. That led to a gig with a recording studio where, for the first couple of months, Brawn said he just watched and learned. Brawn ran into a friend from his new church one day at the studio and told him as he was leaving: "If there's ever anything I can do for you, let me know."
The next morning he got a text from his friend.
"'Hey man, I'm not sure if you were serious, you know, or not about working, but, if you are, I have tour that leaves tonight,'" said Brawn. "And I'm like, 'oh my Gosh, like, I'm going to have to go do laundry. I mean, I've never been on tour before. I don't even know what to expect. What do I bring? What do I do? What's going on?' you know? And, so, since that text, it just hasn't stopped...my life was forever changed by that one text from Andy."
The first tour was with singer, Natalie Grant, where he worked as a stage manager, learning on the job. If he didn’t know how to do something he’d look it up on his phone. It was Grant who encouraged Brawn to start the process of becoming a U.S. citizen when he was 18-years-old. Brawn had been talking to one of Grant’s backup singers, also Hispanic, about his status in the U.S. and how he didn’t yet have enough money to move forward with citizenship.
"Within a couple of hours Natalie texted me, and she says, 'hey, can you come on my bus real quick?' So, I jump on her bus, and I sit down and she says, 'hey, I hear that you're not a citizen.' And I said, 'yeah,' and she said, 'what's holding you back, you know, like why won't you become a citizen?' And I said, 'well, I'm working, and I'm saving up my money, you know, to become a citizen.' And she said, 'wow...just tell me how much it is. I don't care if it's thousands of dollars...whatever it is, tell me how much money that you need, and I'll write you a check right now for it,'" he said.
Grant followed through with her promise.
Brawn studied hard for the test and interview. There are 100 possible questions they could be asked, he said, and he was asked about 10. He passed, and in January of this year, in a courtroom in Nashville, Brawn took the oath of citizenship during a ceremony that he describes as incredible.
"My family drove all the way to Nashville to see it, and it was in a courtroom, and what was really, really neat about it was there were about 60 different countries represented there," he said.
The judge had each one stand up and say where they were from.
"You could see in one room, you know, 60 different countries, ethnicities...the way people would talk and their accents or, you know," he said. "It was incredible to see. It was like I was looking at the whole world in one room."
His mom became a U.S. citizen a year and a half ago. His dad and sister are going through the process to become citizens.
"As a family coming to Bolivar, Missouri, you know, in 2001, I would never ever have thought, you know, imagined me, you know, able to obtain a passport and go to other countries...and not live with the fear of being deported essentially," he said.
One of Brawn’s mentors is P.J. McClure, now a seventh grade teacher at Bolivar Middle School, who Brawn met while in the youth group at the first church he attended.
"Whenever he first shared with me, really, his mom's story--of some of the things that she went through, you know, and some of the scares with deportation and some of that stuff, it really hit home for me what he was dealing with and what was in front of him," he said.
McClure is proud of Brawn for going after his dream—and succeeding.
Brawn is still trying to figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. He just wrapped up a tour as a photographer for Toby Mac. He’s worked with Danny Gokey, Sidewalk Prophets, CeCe Winans, Kim Walker Smith, Big Daddy Weave and more. He’s currently in Israel with Chris Tomlin.
He’s a singer/songwriter/guitar player himself, but he sees how hard it is to be on the road all the time, and he isn’t sure he wants to pursue a career as a musician anymore. He’s happy doing what he does. And he gets home to Bolivar occasionally—for Mother’s Day and Christmas.