Batangueño in Harvard

Asia Society Director Arnel Casanova’s rise from poverty to international influence
Manila Times

At first glance, Arnel Casanova exudes a quiet influence, an authority that you will clearly notice when he speaks. His attitude radiates simplicity, a giveaway of his roots as a farmer’s son who grew up in Batangas.

His brilliance, meanwhile, is proof of his Harvard education. His name grabs attention by itself, although his story is much more appealing. The current executive director of the Asia Society, Casanova has risen to a position of influence, starting at the very bottom of the social ladder. His rags-to-riches story is a paradox, not unlike many we see in the Philippines, but unique all on its own.

“One of my greatest accomplishments is that my family has been lifted from poverty. Our life is very different now,” he says. “And also, generating inspiration for younger people, that they could achieve their own dreams if they work hard.”

Farmer’s boy

Casanova grew up in the town of Padre Garcia in Batangas, the third in a brood of eight children. His mother was a seamstress, while his father was unemployed.

“I had a happy childhood, but it was difficult because we were poor,” he recalls. “We were eight kids, and we got to help out in the family. Ako ‘yung taga-igib ng tubig tsaka ‘yung taga-sibak ng kahoy [I pumped water from the wells and chopped wood . . . ].”

Casanova went to a public school for his elementary education. “My school was about 2 to 3 kilometers away. Maaga kami gumigising, and then we go to school, naglalakad kami naka-tsinelas [We got up early to go to school, and we walked in flipflops].”

When he was in sixth grade, Casanova was accused by his teacher of stealing from his classmate.

“’Di ko maintindihan bakit ako yung pinagbintangan ng teacher ko. May nawalang pera kasi yung kaklase ko. eh ang layo layo ng upuan ko sa kanya. Tapos umiiyak na ko at pinipilit niya ‘kong umamin sa kasalanang hindi ko naman ginawa. Nung pauwi na ko hindi ko ma-accept bakit ganun [My classmate lost some money, and for some reason my teacher blamed me even though I was seated far from my classmate. I cried and (my teacher) kept forcing me to admit to something I didn’t do. When I was going home, I couldn’t accept what had happened].”

This experience taught Casanova that society is biased against people with little in life, that people pass unfair judgment on the poor just because they are poor. Because of this realization, Casanova vowed to do what he can to change the status quo, and give his family as well as others like them a fair chance at having a good life.

“There is really a need to change things, because of what I have experienced when I was young,” he says. “There’s a great inequality in the society, and people who are marginalized should be given the chance to realize their dreams and to realize their own potential based on their merits.”

Iskolar ng Bayan

After a year in high school, Casanova entered the seminary in the hopes that he can help change society through priesthood. However, after six years, Casanova decided that he might be better off as a layman.

“Actually, when I went out of the seminary, it was just for a year. I was thinking of going back. It was really the one-year ‘soul-searching period’ [we had to go through]. But I realized that my search was futile,” Casanova laughs. “I’m really not cut out to be a priest.”

He then decided to go to Manila to take his chances at a higher education. His two elder brothers had not been able to go to college, and his parents had already told him that their family could not afford it as they had five more children to send to school.

But Casanova was adamant. “I said, ‘No, I’m going to college.” So, with only P100 to his name, Casanova traveled to Manila to seek better opportunities. He lived with relatives in Manila, in a small place near Fort Bonifacio where they usually slept on the floor. Fortunately, he got into the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, where he took up a degree in English. “It was UP or nothing,” he says. “I realized that even if I get admitted to Ateneo or La Salle, or other private schools, I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the cost of living.”

Working for the government

Though he was a UP scholar, he still had to do odd jobs to sustain himself financially throughout college.
He worked at a fast food chain for six months, then tutored Koreans and Japanese students in English, got various editing jobs, anything he can do that can pay his tuition fees.

After graduating, he spent a few months working as a management trainee in a popular chain of supermarkets before deciding to pursue law. The next year, he began his law training at the UP College of Law, where he balanced his studies and his work for the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

“I was part of the negotiating panel for the RAM. I was the one who drafted the peace agreement. After the signing, we went to the peace negotiations with the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front].”

In his fifth year of law school as a working student, Casanova transferred to the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA).

“I was an activist in UP,” he explains, upon being asked about government work. “I joined the government because there is a need to change things. At the same time, I realized the futility of armed struggle. I thought that the best way to offer oneself for service is to join the government.”

Casanova worked for the BCDA for 11 years, working his way up the ladder from Head Executive Assistant to General Counsel and Corporate Secretary. He handled the prosecution case against high-ranking generals in the armed forces that won in the Supreme Court. Needless to say, his long stint in government as an honest public servant earned him many political enemies, as every government worker would know too well.

A few years ago, Casanova was charged with a plunder case at the Office of the Ombudsman by one of his enemies. It was only recently when the case was dismissed.

Says Casanova of his experience in the government, “If you want to stand up for what is right in the government, you become marginalized. You earn a lot of enemies. In my 15 years in government, I’ve seen wrongdoing being ‘incentivized.’ Mas organized ang mga corrupt, mas may pera [the corrupt ones are more organized and have a lot more resources].

“Yun ang challenge sa government. How can we promote good behavior, ethical leadership and service in the government? Kapag may mali, pwede mong sabihin [When there’s wrongdoing, you can report it], you can actually change it without being assassinated or marginalized, or harassed by lawsuits.

“That’s why I’m also active in Kaya Natin!,” Casanova explains, “because it’s an organization that we lack before, one that identifies and nurtures and supports good leaders. That’s what we’re doing now with Jesse Robredo, because we believe in them. Hindi natin pwedeng pabayaan sila [We can’t leave them on their own]. Otherwise, we will end up with leaders who do not care for us.”

Harvard beckons

The opportunity to study in Harvard did not really come knocking on Casanova’s door. “After being a lawyer and working for the government, I realized I needed a break, I needed some perspective.” And even though his only dream when he was a child was to lift his family up from poverty, he thought, “Why not apply to Harvard?” After all, he would have nothing to lose if he applied and didn’t get in. “Maybe I’ll end up with a bruised ego, but I don’t have much of it anyway. I can deal with rejection.

“Fortunately, by the grace of God I got in,” he says.

At Harvard University’s prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government, Casanova took up his master’s degree in Public Administration as an Edward Mason Fellow and a World Bank scholar. The farmer’s boy who once caught frogs in the fields for his family’s dinner was now studying the same lessons as several powerful world leaders. Among his classmates were a former prime minister of Tanzania, a member of the Thai parliament, chief executive officer’s of multinational companies, and Columbia’s secretary of the environment.

Being surrounded by such influential people provided Casanova with a different view of Filipinos vis-à-vis other world leaders. “You realize that these people, even Nobel laureates and great minds and rich people, they are no different from us, except the capacity to see things more clearly–because they have opened their minds to it. Going to Harvard made me realize, wala naman pa lang naiba eh [we’re not that much different],” he relates.

Harvard opened Casanova’s eyes to the bigger picture that is the global perspective. “It was my first time in the United States, and I was in the melting pot of world leaders and scholars,” he says. “My view of the world expanded exponentially, because staying here in the Philippines and being limited by the information you read in the newspapers and television, kakaunti pala iyon [it’s too little and not enough] . . . Our concerns here–compared with the concerns of the world—are trivial. We tend to sometimes belabor the fact that we are a poor country, but if we compare our country to African countries, you will feel so blessed to be a Filipino. We pity ourselves when the Philippines has so much to offer to the world.”

Influencing Asia

Now that he has learned to see things more clearly through a global lens, Casanova hopes to bring his knowledge and skills to bring the Philippines and Asia closer to the world. As Asia Society’s executive director in the Philippines, it is his responsibility to bridge understanding between Asian countries and the United States.

One of Asia Society’s programs is the Asia 21, where the 21 top young leaders from Asia are chosen by the Asia Society in New York to be a Fellow. Casanova was himself chosen to be Fellow in 2009, before he was tapped to be the executive director. The Philippines 21 is our country’s counterpart of the young leaders program, which Casanova handles, among many other programs of the organization.

“This is one of the programs that we really want to continue, because in preparing our young people for the future, we must be able to nurture young leaders now. That is our objective: to bring good leaders to the fore and connect them to the world.”

Greatest dream

“My greatest dream? I’m a serial dreamer,” Casanova laughs. With the many things that he has already accomplished, Casanova refuses to be complacent. Instead, he keeps busy not only by dreaming, but by making them come true. At the end of the day, however, his biggest dream is to live a meaningful life, a life that he had lived not only for himself but offered to others as well.

“I look at the day I’m going to die,” he shares. “In my deathbed, I could face God and say, ‘God, I have fulfilled Your purpose for me, I have done Your will.’ That’s my greatest dream.”

Niña Terol-Zialcita

Niña Terol-Zialcita is a “Communicator, Connector, idea Curator, and Changemaker” who uses the power of words and ideas to advocate causes and promote the Philippines at its best. She is’s Deputy Editor, as well as Editor-in-Chief of asianTraveler, the longest-running travel magazine in the Philippines. When she is not writing, blogging, or traveling, Niña is conducting writing workshops with Writer’s Block Philippines, hanging out at art galleries and cafés, and performing poetry with her husband, percussionist and performance artist Paul Zialcita. She is also the author of the book "[r]evolutionaries: The new generation of Filipino youth and youth organizations".

  • Paulo Cua ,

    • Myrna M.Mendoza ,

      The story of Mr Casanova is hearthwarming and inspiring! Such stories should be published in major dailies and even in tabloids to inspire young people to also dream and work hard for it! …God bless you, Mr. Casanova!

      • FELY MATHIAS ,