Cynthia Buiza is the executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center. She has spent her career advocating for immigrant and refugee rights around the world. The co-author of Anywhere But War, her poetry and prose have also appeared in various anthologies in the U.S. and the Philippines. Before joining a Zócalo/Center for Social Innovation panel, “Are American States Better at Protecting Human Rights Than the U.S. Government?,” she stopped by our virtual green room to talk about how she became a student activist, why Bangkok has the best food, and teaching herself to swim in the ocean.
When are you at your most creative?
I write poetry, and I dabble in a little bit of creative writing. When I'm a little bit stressed out to the point where I feel like I'm in despair because of it, that's where the creative juices start to flow.
I was raised Catholic, so we have this notion of when you are in dire straits, you need to figure out how to operate with grace. And that's been embedded in me and that somehow becomes a philosophical inclination, to seek grace in moments where I feel like I'm tapped out or I'm just needing some renewal.
You grew up in the Philippines—what was your favorite place to go as a kid?
The beach. That is where I often felt like I was free. [In] 15 minutes, you can walk to the beach from where we lived. We went there on weekends, and sometimes I would go there by myself. And for some reason, with a lot of chutzpah and just reckless daring, I decided I was going to teach myself how to swim when I was 12 or 13 years old. I nearly drowned, but I did learn how to swim.
As a poet yourself, do you have any poems memorized that you carry with you?
I used to have whole poems in my brain, sonnets from Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot. I remember fragments of J. Alfred Prufrock, like “I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” But it's more phrases now than whole lines.
Before I fell in love with poetry as an art form, I was crazy about Mother Goose nursery rhymes when I was a kid. Tragically, when you grow up a Filipino, your access to American literature is better than your access to your local Indigenous literature.
I had an aunt who, because she was a teacher, had collections of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes. I can vividly remember some nursery rhymes [now] more than I remember some of those formal poems—"Little Boy Blue,” for example: "Come blow your horn, the sheep's in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn. Where is the boy who looks after the sheep? He's under a haystack, fast asleep. Will you wake him? No, not I, for if I do, he'll surely cry."
When did you first know you wanted to be involved in humanitarian activism?
Very young, because I grew up in the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines during the civil war there, and the civil war lasted more than 20 years. One of the faculty in our department was abducted by the military. There was a campaign to find her, but she never was found. The assumption was she was killed. That’s really where it started.
I became a student activist, and after college, I was recruited by this nonprofit that was helping survivors of political violence in the Philippines. I was an organizer first, and then I became a researcher, and then I was promoted as a program coordinator in this nonprofit. It was called the Children's Rehabilitation Center.
It was intense—organizing in the mountains and trying to protect families from being killed by the Philippine military. It was the beginning of a long journey with social justice issues that, as you can see, I'm still doing to this day, here in the United States.
You’ve characterized your time as a humanitarian activist in Southeast Asia as “swashbuckling adventure.” Swashbuckling how?
I think I was putting a little bit of levity into [it]. Working in conditions of civil war or authoritarianism—it was dark. It was also really a lot of adventure. I've been shot at, I've dodged bullets. I've witnessed the exhumation of bodies that had been buried in mass graves and crisscrossed the globe. By the time I came to the U.S., I'd [lived or worked] in 15 countries.
There are days where I wonder why I'm still alive today. I was in East Timor right after the referendum, and witnessed the horrific aftermath of the fight for independence there. I was Indonesia in the middle of the separatist conflicts and the war in Aceh. I guess just to put a lighter spin on it, it was kind of swashbuckling.
How did gender politics factor into those experiences?
The thing with humanitarian work, especially if you work in conflict areas, is a lot of identity politics takes a back seat. Once you are distant from it, then that's where a lot of the gender politics happen. It was part of being a woman in a context of conflict where men created it. But I could not pay attention to my hurt because there were these people who were literally going to get killed if I didn't do my job.
What’s hanging on your refrigerator?
There are stickers from museums I’ve been to. I like to collect little replicas of some paintings that I like. But I also have a whole sheet of calorie counts, like how much calories does a bagel have? Or what portions to have on your plate. Which we never follow.
Do you have a favorite city to eat in?
Bangkok. I've been to Paris. I've been to Rome. I've been to Geneva… Berlin. They all have some amazing food—but Thailand, man. For 50 cents you could have really good food when I was living there. It's probably a dollar now. The food's super good. I never got hungry there and very rarely cooked, because it was cheaper to buy street food.
What is the biggest misconception that Americans have about the Philippines?
There is a popular rap about Filipinos that we are so Americanized. But we are deeply proud of our heritage, especially around communal and culinary heritage. I've heard this so much: “Oh my God, they're so friendly and accommodating!” And that is true, but that, I think, is the big misconception—that has nothing to do with servitude. That really has to do with the desire to be in community with you and have fun. We are oriented toward the fiesta spirit. If you're not part of our community, you can’t celebrate with us.
What are you reading right now?
The Louise Glück poetry collection from 1962 to 2012. It's the big thick collection of nearly all of her poetry. I treat it like the Bible, where I open a page and surprise myself with a poem. It's amazing what you can find if you just randomly open.