If You Have a "Shitsumon," Tiger Dragon Martial Arts May Have the AnswerPublished Thursday, July 01, 2010
“Manny” Lacayo’s photo has a special place on the wall of Tiger Dragon martial arts school in Kendall. Bright-eyed and hopeful in his photograph, Manny was a teen who was changing his life for the better with the help of martial arts training.
But the gold chain Manny wore around his neck flashed too brightly. In 2008, the 16-year-old boy was fatally shot in the back by robbers, one of them an ex-convict.
Scrunched into a small shopping mall off Sunset Drive, Tiger Dragon is a tight-knit, family-run business. Noel’s wife Isabelle and daughter Rebecca, 19, are also instructors. His father is the accountant. Instructor Pierre Akers, 19, is a long-time neighbor. Castillo took Pierre to his first karate class at eight; today Pierre is a top instructor. Casie Yelesias, who strengthens literacy skills as part of the camp, and Jany Gutierrez, an administrator, are close family friends. Both are single moms whose children attend the all-day summer camp.
Born in New Jersey, Castillo grew up in Miami, the son of Cuban parents. While in the U.S. Army and stationed in the Panama jungle, he was exposed to martial arts training. But it was during his nine years with the county, seven working in correctional facilities, that he took the training to heart.
“I’m 5’4” and weight 150 pounds,” he says, “some of those guys were really big – I saw the need to do this.”
He set about training in earnest. As Castillo strengthened himself and advanced, working his way up to black belt, he saw more clearly how martial arts could benefit children – physically and emotionally. His first, and possibly most important student, was his own child.
Castillo’s son David suffers from hypotonia, a condition of extreme muscle weakness. Teaching and working with David to develop his motor skills convinced Castillo that he needed to share the training with more young people, including those with disabilities. He opened Tiger Dragon Miami in 2004, and the school adopted an inclusion (welcoming students with special needs) environment from the start.
While Tiger Dragon is a mix of martial arts styles, it is Japanese at its roots. Castillo has visited Japan several times and admires the culture’s traditions of respect, commitment and humility – values that are his own. In the school, he and the other instructors use every opportunity to teach these values to the children.
“Every belt deserves a new set of effort. Everything you get in this place, you’re going to earn,” he urges them. “Effort, effort, effort.”
Ricky, 11, has been practicing martial arts at Tiger Dragon since he was six.
“When you come here, you’re all sloppy and weak. The discipline helps,” he says, adding “life is all about defending yourself. “ Ricky see examples of bullying in his middle school, but says he doesn’t get bothered or victimized. He believes the martial art training is a big help in keeping him centered and confident.
At Tiger Dragon, the link to Japan goes far beyond the training mat: teaching Japanese to the students is a major component of the program. Castillo sees Miami – a laboratory of cultures and languages – as a snapshot of America and the future of the world. He does all he can to give his students “a leg up,” whether it’s teaching Japanese as a job skill, providing a job for a teen as an assistant, or strengthening the students’ work ethic and self-esteem.
“We want to give them a wider view of what the world is,” he says. “We ask ourselves: How can we continue to prepare them for that future that’s right around the corner in the world?”
“Tony” Vega has been the school’s Japanese instructor for several years but is leaving in July – to spend next year in Japan teaching English. In the summer camp, he teaches two groups for an hour each. Legally blind due to degenerative eye disease, Tony majored in Asian studies and religion at Florida International University.
“Tony’s a fantastic role model, an example that if you’re willing to work and sacrifice you can get anything you want,” says Castillo.
“Nanika shitsumon wa arimasu ka? Do you have any questions?” Tony asks the group of 10 or so students squeezed together on the floor in a small back room. The round red Imperial Sun of the Japanese flag is draped on one wall, Japanese paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. Tony drills the group on Japanese vocabulary words and a few are paying special attention. They’re part of a group that will travel to Japan in August.
About 20 in all – six students, parent chaperones and the whole Castillo family – will travel along with other U.S. Tiger Dragon affiliates for a week-long visit to Japan. They’ll train at Japanese martial arts schools, visit a host of sites and absorb the culture.
“The kids get the martial arts, but they don’t really understand the cultural aspect of it. When you go to Japan, you really have to humble yourself – it will really be a good trip for us,” Castillo says.
Castillo spends his days teaching at Tiger Dragon, at night he walks to a different beat: he’s a police officer on Miami Beach. He’s worked for 15 years in law enforcement, first with the county’s correctional division and in the past years as an officer.
“I do my part as a police officer and know that it serves the community, but doing it here and now at the beginning with these kids – that’s when we have a chance,” he says. “Where can you resolve society’s ills? Here and now when they’re young – or we pay later.”
Written by Michael R. Malone