Tsukasa (pronounced "su casa") Takahashi is dressed international b-boy style: he sports an oversized t-shirt and long baggy shorts, and a color bandana printed with Japanese characters peeks out from under his baseball cap. He is only 24 years old but commands respect in the lively breakfast room of Fundacion Pro Niños de la Calle, a non profit dedicated to sheltering Mexico City street kids.
18 months ago, Tsukasa left his comfortable life in Fukushima (a city north of Tokyo) to volunteer overseas with JICA, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, similar to the Peace Corps in the US. He was hoping to be placed in Africa, and was surprised when he was assigned to Mexico.
“All I knew about Mexico was [soccer], tequila, mariachis and cactus. I didn’t know Mexico was a country that had such extreme poverty, that the gap between rich and poor was so wide”, he says.
He arrived with little Spanish and immediately plunged into the difficult work of walking the around the DF, seeking out the children who live on the streets —their lives marred by drugs, violence and abandonment— and convincing them to step toward a better life through Pro Niños. The foundation tries to return kids to school and reunite them with their families, and gives then a safe place where they can eat and bathe during the day.
“It’s very hard. Sometimes they’re like, ‘What do you know about me, about my life?’ In the beginning I wanted to be as Mexican as possible, to try to gain their confidence. Eventually I realized that I’m Japanese, and that won’t change. But they’ve accepted me, and I have a lot of friends here.”
Now, Tsukasa’s rapid fire chatter is spliced with the chilango slang of his charges. He’s taught them origami, and how to write their names in Japanese. They call him Tsukasa sensei (teacher).
In December, when his two year stint is up, Tsukasa plans to return to Japan, to work in the kindergarten founded by his grandfather, and currently run by his father. “I’m the oldest son, and in Japan the tradition is that the oldest son has to follow in the father’s footprints. I guess I could just leave, but…” his voice trails off, the pause indicating the complications created by pushing against such strong customs. He says he’ll carry Mexico and his work with Pro Niños back with him, though he’s puzzling through exactly how to keep the link alive, and is aware of the challenges posed by distance.
“When I go back, I could forget; the chavos won’t be in front of me then. I could just think of my things, and my life.” Still, the passion he evinces for the work shows no sign of burning out, and he says that helping those in need will always be a part of his life. “Each of us has a little bit of power,” he says, “but together we can do lots.”
For more information on Pro Ninos, go to proninosdelacalle.org.mx or call (55) 5782-0619