Each One Teach One:
Up and Out of Poverty—
Memoirs of a Street Activist
by Ron Casanova
as told to Stephen Blackburn
"An urgent, vital, necessary book."
—Fred Pfeil, author of
What They Tell You to Forget
Each One Teach One chronicles Ron Casanova's struggle out of poverty, homelessness and drug addiction to find dignity and purpose in his life. Through his own dramatic awakening, this Black, Puerto Rican activist ultimately finds his answer in helping other people.
"In this compelling life story, Ron Casanova paints a frank portrait of an "alternative" lifestyle unshaped by journalistic angle or political agenda.... Amidst endless media narratives of super tycoons and Wall Street millionaires, it's inspirational to hear about Casanova putting up the ultimate investment—his life—to support the dignity of others."
—Paul D. Dickinson
City Pages (Minneapolis)
Now I cannot recall all the names because it was too long ago and too many things have happened. I use my art work as a way of escape and a way of remembering. I paint Christmas cards and tigers and cartoon characters, but also scenes I've remembered from my life. I have the pictures in my mind. You want a picture, I'll give you a picture.... I can close my eyes right now and see my tent. I see the tents of a hundred other homeless people. I see the farm field where we stayed on the march to Washington out under the stars, warm around our fire. Then I see a lot of smoke in the sky, helicopters and helmeted police on horseback riding in among my friends who are trying to hold onto what little they possess. Every time I close my eyes it still hurts. I have been homeless for most of my life, but today I believe it is not coincidental that my name is Casanova. The English translation of Casanova is "New House." And that is what we are fighting for.
I never had any intentions of becoming an activist. I was born on June 11, 1945, and my earliest clear memory is of being put into the orphanage at the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin for the Protection of Homeless and Destitute Children, Mount Loretto, Staten Island, when I was three years old. Years later I found out that the name my parents gave me was Renaldo, but at the orphanage it was changed to Ronald. Ronald was the name I grew up with.
Mount Loretto was a big old orphanage in the middle of the suburbs on the southeast side of Staten Island, in the beach area. To me the orphanage was huge. The rest of the suburban houses weren't all that close. You needed transportation to get to them. The orphanage looked like a college campus, with one big boulevard down the center. One side was all male and one side was all female. Male and female separated by the boulevard....
As a child you look at people and they remind you of something. Sister Monica Denise reminded us kids of a bird because of her sharp features and because she was fidgety. So all the kids called her "Tweety Bird," mostly behind her back. One of her main faults, as far as all the kids were concerned, was that she was the kind of nun who would always hit people's hands with a twelve-inch wooden ruler with metal edges when they did something wrong.
In class one day, Sister Monica Denise stood with the map down, pointing at different cities and towns. Some kid got rambunctious and, as usual, got beat by athe ruler. Watching that nun smack the kid's hands, I worried that sooner or later it would be my hands under that ruler.
"Tweety Bird, if you live by that ruler," I said, "you are going to die by that ruler."
Some of the boys laughed at my wisecrack. Sister Monica Denise snatched me and hit me with the ruler. Then she took me down the hall to an office. Inside, a black priest stood up, the only black authority figure I ever saw working in the orphanage. He didn't say very much. He was the punisher....
The New Exodus March
...When the day came, only a handful of us from Tent City and Tompkins Square Park made the march. Karen came along. Thomas, the computer whiz of Tent City, came too. There was Chris Henry, his wife Barbara, Artie, Stanley, myself, and Terry Taylor, also known as "The Minister of Madness." Terry was a tall, slim, dark-skinned wild dude. He was angry and stayed drunk a lot. He was angry about the conditions of living in the park and about poverty. Last, but not least, there was Old Man John, who had bad feet.
Also on the march came representatives of Emmaus House and the United Homeless Organization (UHO), as well as people from the various homeless shelters. It's a sad truth, but a lot of them probably lost their bed space in the shelters and weren't able to get back into them. But they felt it was that important for them to get out there and speak for themselves. A lot of women living in shelters came on the march with us.
We started out from the U.N. Plaza at seven o'clock in the morning, around the middle of September, 1989. We wore these yellow and white hats that said "New Exodus" on them. Our Chinese friends gave us a gift of money for the march out of their collection. The woman, the mother, pulled $60 for Tent City out of their pot of donations. That got us started.
From the first step I was scared because I knew the power of the government. If they wanted to, they could stop us very easily. They had proved that a long time ago with Hooverville, when they ran tanks and cavalry through the tents of the veterans and their families....
The State Police met us when we reached the Jersey bridge. As a pedestrian you had to go up a spiral stair to get onto the bridge. Our intention was to march down the middle of the road, blocking traffic, thereby making more people aware of our march and our cause.
The Jersey state troopers had a different idea. They were waiting for us at the base of that stair and ordered us to go single file and only on the sidewalk of the bridge. When the word was passed back to me that the police would not let us cross the way we wanted, I barged to the front. I was drunk, so I wasn't in control. I was angry and started cussing out one of the State Troopers.
"You can't stop us!" I raged.
The officer pulled out his pistol and stuck it right at my nose.
"I ought to blow your head off," he growled.
Have you ever seen a cartoon where all of a sudden the cartoon character gets so scared that all the color drains out of him and he turns white? That's the way the alcohol went out of me as I stared down the barrel of that officer's magnum.
The policeman would not or could not shoot because there were too many people. And his boss told him to back down.
We did it their way. It took us a long time, almost an hour, to get everybody across the bridge single file, using only the sidewalk. The wind began blowing the rain harder. Hurricane Hugo at his best. As we walked, I watched the other marchers, struggling through the messy gray weather toward the dream of a better life. Troubled by my behavior with the officer, I did some heavy thinking.
When I first got involved in organizing that summer, I had a very selfish motivation: I wanted to live. I wanted to get off the street, I wanted to eat, I wanted decent clothing. I really want that understood: I went at this to save my life. I had no real concern for other people. (Maybe I did, but because I was in so much pain from my own life, I couldn't admit anybody else's pain.) Though I had been to the summit and other meetings with other groups, until the march I didn't have a real conception of a movement of a larger community of people working together to help each other. But I had been noticing that as I fought for the things that I needed, I coincidentally ended up helping other people get the same things. The people of Tent City had psyched me into believing that I was a leader. In the little bit of time between the Survival Summit and the march, I learned that people did listen to what I had to say.
Walking in the rain, I realized that if I was going to be an effective leader, I had better get smart and not be doing stunts like drinking a lot of wine and needlessly antagonizing the police. You can run your mouth all you want, but when you are actually out there, facing the enemy, that's a heavier thing.
Looking back at the more than 200 people beginning this march so hopefully, including a number of pregnant women, I realized that I cared. I knew we could be charged by the police at any time. We were going out there against Washington, the Establishment. Back when I was eight years old, I had made up my mind to become a social worker, a better one than they had at the orphanage. More than just the handful of Tent City homeless had been banking on what I did in that moment facing the policeman's gun. In that moment I felt the weight of those hundreds of lives. Never before had I had the push to become truly socially conscious, a community-minded person.
This was my opportunity. Our opportunity....