Tatiana Shirasaki is determined to show her children
the importance of grit and the power of passion and
perseverance. Her 12-year-old daughter Natalie recently shot
this photo on the University of Wisconsin campus during
Where did you grow up? Where does your family live today?
I grew up in São Paulo, Brazil. My mother is Brazilian, and my father is Japanese. I grew up with people referring to me as “mestiça,” which means a woman of varied ethnicity. I have always been proud of being Brazilian-Japanese. My childhood memories are a wonderful mix of Asian and Latin cultures, and my extended family was a huge part of my youth.
My immediate and extended family remains in Brazil. It’s a big price to pay to have family so far away, but Mayville, Wisconsin, is home for my husband and me and our two children.
My parents and sisters live far away but are always present. We communicate daily. It is so enriching because the daily contact keeps our children fluent in Portuguese. My father worked to make sure that my sisters and I had the best education possible. My mother has been a constant presence in my life and has taught me more than books can teach. My younger sister Talitha runs the family business now, a private school from 3K through high school. Imagine managing 70 employees and 500 children daily! My sister Roberta is a family doctor at a fishermen’s village by the ocean. We wish we could be more present in each other lives. We try our best using technology.
What are some of your favorite childhood memories?
Degrees earned: Master of Laws – Legal Institutions (LL.M.-L.I.), University of Wisconsin Law School (2014), inducted into the Pro Bono Society and graduated with pro bono distinction; currently working to graduate with a Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.) degree
In Brazil, simultaneously earned law and journalism degrees
Previous employment in Brazil: Television journalist, lawyer, teacher, and wedding photographer
Languages: Fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. Basic knowledge of French, German, and Japanese. If I am under pressure, like when I met a person at the Dodge County Detention Facility who speaks only French, I can communicate.
Favorite quote: “Todos os dias eu me levanto para vencer.” Its literal translation is “Every day, I get up to win.” But to win also means “to overcome obstacles” and to “make this the best day.”
Favorite book: Memoirs of a Geisha (When I met my husband, we were both reading it, and coincidently we both received the books as a gift from our sisters. I had it in French, and he had it in English.)
Hobbies: Travel and photography
I spent summers at my paternal grandparents’ house, eight long hours away from our home. Those summers were a time for family to come together. Often my cousins would come, and sometimes there would be 20 of us! My grandparents had a huge living-dining room with minimal furniture, and we would sleep on blankets on that floor every night. Their home was in the back of commercial space in which they ran a grocery store for many years.
My grandfather had more than 100 bonsai trees and huge tanks of Kingyo fish. Twice per month he’d let us water the bonsai trees with beer and crushed eggshells. He told us that it would make the plants happy! After my grandfather passed, I heard that his brother in Japan told my uncle that the Matsu tree my grandpa planted when he left Japan also died the year that he passed. Now I understand why he spent so much time with his trees and the joy he felt from it. It probably reminded him of home.
My most fun memory of the Brazilian side of my family is that my grandmother had a pet monkey. My maternal grandfather was a businessman. We loved when he would give us old catalogs of his businesses filled with real samples. My favorite were the spice catalogs and the Christmas card samples. We would use them to make our own food menus and set up stores. There were fewer grandchildren on that side, so we often got creative with entertainment. And of course, there was Carnaval, the Brazilian festival marking the beginning of Lent. My mom’s sister would dress us in costumes and take us to dance at huge children’s celebrations full of serpentine and confetti!
When I was in high school, I became passionate about teaching English and Spanish to children. My Japanese grandparents generously allowed me to teach in their living room. When I was older, they offered me the commercial space in the front of their home to open my own English as a second language school. My grandparents helped me every step of the way as I built that dream.
Both sets of my grandparents were extremely proud that I became an attorney. In Brazil, when you become an attorney, they usually add the word “doctor” to your name. The first time my grandfather received a letter with my name and title on it, he framed it, and he displayed it for years.
Why did you pursue law as a profession?
There is a saying that if your parents are Asian, you have three options: become a doctor, become an attorney, or become a failure.
All jokes aside, I knew that was important to my family. That was the main reason I pursued law. It’s the idea of bringing honor to your family; there is something to be said for that. I am the only attorney in my family. Once in law school, I became passionate about pro bono work.
One year into law school in Brazil, a journalism school opened at another university in the same city, and I couldn’t resist. I enrolled in both universities and earned both degrees simultaneously. When I graduated, I was a Brazilian attorney and a journalist.
What brought you to Mayville, Wisconsin? What was your biggest adjustment?
I was working as a Brazilian television journalist and investigative producer, but I had my sights set on a new challenge. I wanted to be a part of the broadcast team at the 2002 Soccer World Cup, which just happened to be in Japan. Because my father is Japanese, I could work legally there. To prepare for broadcasting an international event, I set out to travel and practice different languages in the summer of 2001.
I spent time in London, France, and Germany, and ultimately came to the United States. During the U.S. portion of my trip, I called the Horicon family that I had met in 1997 when they hosted my sister as a Rotary exchange student. I asked if I could come to Wisconsin for a couple weeks to practice my English before heading to California.
Fate took hold from there. I met my husband, Dave, in Wisconsin one week before leaving for California. I really liked him. But we met shortly after the terrible events of Sept. 11, and by the time I had made it to California, I was too afraid to fly back to Wisconsin, so he packed his car and drove to California. The rest is history!
Love story aside, the move to the U.S. in 2002 was not easy professionally. In Brazil, I had my law license, I was a TV journalist, and I had my own English school. I came here, and I had nothing. I had to start over. That was by far the biggest adjustment.
When I first moved to Mayville, reality hit hard. I wanted to go to law school but could not afford it. I thought that I’d never be an attorney again. I struggled to find a job. I was finally hired as a third-shift clerk at a local Kwik Trip Gas Station.
There are wonderful things about small-town Wisconsin, some of which are ultimately priceless: safety and a sense of community are key for us. I really enjoy being part of our community. I still have a photo studio on Main Street. I volunteer at school and with different local organizations.
Tatiana with her family after being admitted to the State Bar of Wisconsin in September 2018. Now working on her S.J.D degree, she wants to cross that graduation stage one more time to honor her father and husband who, she says, have made extreme sacrifices for her education. Pictured (from left): Husband Dave, children Natalia and Henry, and parents Marli Soares Shirasaki and Roberto Yassuo Shirasaki
You eventually went to law school in Wisconsin. How did that happen?
My immigrant friends here brought me back to the law school in 2013. I came to the U.W. Law School to find resources to help with their immigration processes. Then I met Jason Smith, director of the law school’s graduate program. He made me believe that I could become an attorney again. He guided me for most of my new legal career. That meeting changed my life.
Ultimately, the decision to go back to law school was a family decision. For me to go back to school, my husband took on additional work responsibilities. He leaves our home around 7:30 a.m., and he gets home around 9:30 at night. Dave is my rock.
When I was pursuing a Master of Laws-Legal Institutions (LL.M.-L.I.) degree, we were raising a young family. Our son was only 4 years old and our daughter was 6 years old. It wasn’t easy on our family.
I studied for the bar exam at my kitchen table, and some of those days were 12-hour days. Our home lives revolved around the kitchen table. We had family homework time and meals at that table. There I would remain, long after everyone had gone to bed, still studying. It was a constant. By the end of it all, my kids had memorized several mnemonics for the bar exam! The process was hard but extremely rewarding. I believe both my children learned good lessons from it.
The decision to go back to law school had a lot to do with our children. I wanted a stable job, to give my kids an opportunity to go to college. I also wanted them to watch me set and work toward goals.
More importantly, I wanted to show them the importance of grit and the power of passion and perseverance. Passing the bar exam was a family achievement. The LL.M.-L.I. degree allowed me to take the bar exam and become a Wisconsin lawyer.
What have you been up to since your admission in 2018?
I work at the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the U.W. Law School, which provides free legal services to Wisconsin’s underserved immigrant community. Working here is a dream come true. It might sound cheesy, but to work in a place you love with people whom you admire is priceless.
I had always enjoyed family and intellectual property law. However, I was inspired by professors Erin Barbato and Stacy Taeuber. Their passion for immigration law sent me on a new legal path.
The clinic trains students in several aspects of immigration law. This may include filing applications for humanitarian relief available to noncitizen victims of crime, persecution, and human trafficking or defending noncitizens facing removal in Immigration Court. We also work with migrant children in partnership with the law school’s Family Law Clinic, under Marsha Mansfield’s directorship.
I am also an outreach specialist for South America for the law school’s graduate program. We live in a global society, and we all benefit from a network of international professionals.
Coming to study in Wisconsin is a great opportunity for international students to learn how U.S. law works, but it’s equally important for U.S. students to grow their own international network and to learn about other countries’ laws and culture. Diversity creates a richer environment.
You’ve discovered a passion for protecting migrant children from trafficking. How did that come about?
Through my work at the law school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic, in 2014 I volunteered at the Karnes County Residential Center, a detention facility for immigrant women and their children south of San Antonio, Texas. This experience uncovered a passion to protect migrant children from child trafficking and sexual abuse.
While in Texas, I asked whether background checks were conducted on the people receiving migrant children. I was told that current screening procedures did not require background checks or fingerprinting. I felt we were not taking adequate steps to protect these children.
Digging deeper, I found a 2016 Senate Report confirming that children had been placed with traffickers in the U.S. and that these terrible crimes were likely preventable.
Through the law school, I had access to some of the best minds in the field. Professor Alexandra Huneeus of the Center for Law, Society & Justice is an internationally known expert in human rights law. Professor Barbato has more than 14 years’ experience in immigration law. Under their guidance, I have been researching immigration for four years.
What drives you to do this humanitarian work?
That probably comes from being raised as a Rotarian. One of the themes that Rotarians live by is service above self. I’ve watched my father do this his whole life.
I am an alumna of the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights, and I had an opportunity to volunteer at the refugee camps in Greece in 2017. Through that experience, I was able to interact, learn, and connect with human rights specialists in New York and Geneva.
My experiences in Texas and Greece were incredibly sad. We heard lots of horrific stories. These women and children believed they were reaching a safe place but found a prison-like setting where they are called by numbers.
The situation in Greece was worse. Many refugees lived in tents. Volunteers monitored safe tents, where women and children who were afraid of being raped could go and sleep. It was heartbreaking. But I met some of the greatest volunteers while there. We continue to offer each other advice and follow each other’s work in the field of human rights. It is a great network.
You expect to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science degree next year. What does this mean to you?
In the hard moments, I want to make my kids proud and inspire them to go to college. But, I also need to cross that graduation stage once more to honor my dad and my husband, who have both made extreme sacrifices for my education.
Personally, even more important than the S.J.D. degree, is that my work, even if in the smallest way, contributes to a safer environment for migrant children.
About the future? I will be extremely happy if I continue working for the University of Wisconsin. I love working with students. I enjoy the work I’m doing now at the clinic. I also like outreach. It is natural for me to connect to prospective students, because I experienced studying at the U.W. Law School. I am open to exploring whatever life brings my way.
Down the road, I’d like to find a way to incorporate teaching or interacting with students in my career. I have taught English when I was young, I enjoy teaching photography, and I know I will love teaching law. I hope I can still contribute to society when I’m in my 80s.
You also have a photography business. How did that get started?
Photography is a passion, and I still have a photography business. In fact, I just returned from shooting a wedding in Guatemala. I enjoy photographing people, finding their beauty and registering life moments.
For many years I worked as a photographer, videographer, and video editor. I started photography using film cameras, and I had to learn how to get the desired effects. I really enjoyed developing my own film and getting creative in the dark room.
I’ve gained many friends through this business. They made me part of their special moments. I photographed them as high school seniors, then when they got engaged, and their weddings and families. Now I photograph their babies. Some have already asked if I am going to be around to photograph their children’s weddings!
My new passion is personal branding portraits. I really enjoy creating images for professionals that show them and the message they want to present to clients. The satisfaction of my clients when they see their images is what keeps me photographing.
Bonus question: What do you do in your free time?
Ha! What is free time?!