Dominican Cowboy

Nané’s Daniel Sahad on creating your culture as a first generation American.

I was born in Alexandria, Louisiana in 1993. My parents had moved from New York, and would only come to spend a short time there after witnessing a shocking amount of KKK memorabilia and proudly hung confederate flags (all in their acquaintances’ homes). Young Daniel’s first unconscious lesson: Human beings all wish to belong, but it’s unfortunate how divisive and cruel protecting a sense of belonging can be. 

My parents are a classic success story of two medical professionals that emigrated from the Dominican Republic and worked countless hours to move to America. My father’s roots are Cuban and Lebanese, and my mother is a poster-child Dominican with a Black father and a light-skinned mother. Growing up, my sister Mariel and I spent most of our summers and holidays there with our family. On one hand, we felt so lucky to be able to travel and experience the colorful culture of our roots, a culture we loved and one that felt so primally natural to us. On the other we were blamed for how lucky we were and made to feel separate from our extended family for it. Although Spanish was our first language, we were disregarded, overlooked, and compartmentalized as “the Americans” by the people we came in contact with as a whole. I remember feeling under high scrutiny for any action I took there in my early development, which gave me less space to claim as my own, and seemingly nowhere to belong. 

We spent the rest of the time in a small West Texas town proudly aligned with the Bible Belt of the United States. One hell of a contrast, I know, but it shared an adjacent core problem: a lack of belonging. I’m not sure there was a particular moment I recognized that I was different, or if I was just constantly expending energy paddling against the stream of the idea. Dodging and suppressing any evidence that made me feel uncomfortable when I was too young to truly understand that the color of my skin inspired any hesitation or disdain. Let’s remember, this is a time in a child’s upbringing where being “normal” meant you were unbothered. All of my friends were white, and as Daniel Andres Sahad, I was far from it. All I knew was that I couldn’t show weakness or fail, for it opened the doors to the insults of their predispositions. 

When you’re young, you don’t understand discrimination is happening to you, you just accept it as a part of life. I won’t include the obvious overt racist insults, but instead some curious occurrences I didn’t repress or choose to forget. (Hell, if my repressed memories could talk, I’d be hospitalized by now.) I remember being 8 years old and hearing my friend’s grandfather say “I normally don’t like people of your kind” after shaking my small hand and hearing my name. I remember being chosen as “the desert flower” in grade school when all of my classmates had been crowned some beautiful bullshit spring flower in bloom. I remember the angry stares when I spoke Spanish to my family on the phone or in restaurants. Needless to say, that part wasn’t awesome, but thankfully I was privileged as a great athlete, I had lighter skin, and my parents were medical professionals, which clearly exposed these racial problems yet shielded me from a lot of low hanging blows. It also secretly created a fun complex that reckons value is rooted in accomplishment, but that’s neither here nor there for today’s story. 

I don’t mean to paint this as a miserable upbringing, constantly under siege. That’s not how it felt. I consider myself to have had a blessed and beautiful childhood filled with many loving people and experiences. I’m sharing this with you to highlight that I (and many others in my position) never forgot that I was different, and was reminded of it so often, which made it so damn hard to take ownership of a space, my own body, and simply belong. I don’t provide this turbulent context and juxtaposition of my upbringing as something I resent, but instead as a proper vehicle for the thesis of my story: the appreciation I have for the culture my parents created for my sister and I. They took their favorite parts of their Dominican culture, and their favorite parts of American culture and created their own for our family. Not through assimilation, but through appreciation. They were unknowingly pioneering a world for their son to share with the greater public. They believed in something better, and so we created it. 

Oftentimes people see how openly my family loves one another, and remind us of how fortunate we are to have this relationship and culture in our home. Which is true, but they don’t see the years of strain this bond took in trial and error; in screams, in tears, and in incremental change. My parents understood early on that after a certain age, a relationship with your children is borrowed, it’s time given and by no means mandatory. This relationship is something to be fostered, honored, and challenged, because nobody will ever see your soul like your nuclear family does. Rosa and Jesus Sahad understood that it was the responsibility of a parent to make better children, and of the children to make better parents. They understood the value and reach of unconditional love. For if you can get to a place where everyone is equal, where everyone is loved beyond question, and everyone fights for goodness, then you have the foundations to create a culture of your own. 

My parents were raised in what I would consider an authoritarian culture, where children were submissive to parents without question or reason. By American standards my grandparents were abusive (often parenthood in general in this era), but my parents’ spirit shone through any and all trauma by the end of their years together in the same home. Some of my favorite people on earth are created despite negative happenings. I believe when the goodness of your spirit supersedes trauma and potential outlets to change for worse, it reveals the true threads of character in an undeniable way (not to say that I discredit how scarring trauma can be and that the promise of change is inherent in development). My parents went a different way. Growing up, they gave my sister and I the platform to speak our truth, as long as we looked them in the eye and said so respectfully. They spoke to us as equals, although strongly (and I mean strongly) urging a certain course of action. We knew what it was like to feel “separate than,” and they encouraged us to seek that in others. When a child sat alone in grade school, cried, or was bullied, they encouraged us not to be their hero necessarily, but instead to talk to them, even if it felt uncomfortable. To understand what people were going through at all turns of life. The different shapes of misfits and emotions. To look pain and joy in the eye, and give it space. They fostered our empathy, and now the faintest aroma of these expressions people aim to hide are undeniable to me in everyday conversation. They taught us to see what was unseen or what people wished to hide, to give it space, and most importantly to always use our power for good. 

I would say the strongest pillar in the culture we created was education. Sure, they saw music within me ever since I was a little boy, and they knew I would come to make my own decisions, but they never failed to reinforce the need for a higher academic education. In myself or any friends that would pass through my home. Higher education was the primary input that afforded them a life in America. Education allows us to understand different cultures, to gather empirical evidence when making critical decisions, to develop a global world view, and therefore a greater appreciation for the human experience. An understanding and appreciation for all humans, and a necessary lesson for every generation. Ultimately, I’m ashamed of how both my American and Dominican cultures treat minorities. How many more generations must suffer before we prioritize educating the youth? My mother and father trained us not to condemn the people who discriminated against others, to not meet hate with hate. These oppressors lacked the education and cultural awareness to understand concepts that were so different from their own. We are to educate our oppressors the best we can, not to hate or avoid them (this is loaded as hell, so as much as possible within reason). We are to speak to them in a clear, confident, and educated way, in efforts of making small incremental change. Sadly, I’ve watched the nooks of racism start to change over time when they are confronted with ethics and personified exceptions to their ideologies. We live in a society that consists of people who love to categorize others before they can live alongside them. Only when this compartmentalization can be interrupted with love, value, and open education do I believe we will pave a better path. Education was and is the key to a better society. I will live as a martyr and advocate of this cause, with the relentless work ethic and voice my parents instilled within me, in hopes that one day my children may not have to. 

At many turns my family was criticized by both Dominicans and Americans alike on decisions made on how they chose to raise us, but one doesn’t accept shade from trees that don’t bear fruit. Adversity is inevitable, internalization is subjective — though it definitely helps to have a team you trust when your hope falters. This next message I say for those of you who don’t necessarily feel you have a strong family bond. To those of you who have been made to feel foolish, lost, and alone as you transition cultures. To some of you who feel you may never belong. I hope you hear me now: You don’t need a strong family bond to create one, whether it be shared with friends or blood relatives. Let me be proof. My parents didn’t have references to help them get to where they are now, but if you work hard, if you fight for good, and your instinct is to love instead of doubt; the universe gives that back to you. With enough work and patience, you too can create your own culture. One that you share with your friends and your children, and that they will share with theirs. One that references your previous cultures but is ultimately molded by the ideals of a world you wish to see. You can create your own team, and as someone on a team, I can confidently say that nothing else can ever compare. May we all find one another, share goodness, relish in the better cultures we create, and subsequently continue to build a better world. 

There is so much I’ve left unsaid, but I feel I’ve made my point. If you got this far, thank you for listening to me. Remember to educate yourself to the cultures around you. Find yourselves some misfits and create your own kind of crew. Lead with love and not with doubt. Give others the space to belong even when it’s difficult at times, for it’s always good practice. After all, I believe what humans long for most is to belong. 

With love,
The Desert Flower
Daniel Sahad and the Sahad Family

Including words by Mariel Sahad, and the world we shared.

(Photo Credit: Alex Parker)

Nané is an indie R&B outfit from Austin, Texas. Called Nané as a term of endearment by his family in the Dominican Republic, Daniel Sahad determined the band’s name with a communal approach in mind – when you call him Nané, you’re family too. The band originally formed in 2016 at The University of Texas at Austin where Sahad and guitarist, Ian Green first started playing and writing together. Nané rose quickly on the Austin music scene, playing a series of sold-out shows in front of the shimmering curtains of Stay Gold and in their first year as a band, they headlined for crowds of over 1,200 people, as well as opened shows for Black Pumas and Bob Schneider among others.

(Photo Credit: Alex Parker)