Filipino nurses in America: The unseen, unsung, untold story

Cate Cauguiran Image
Thursday, June 2, 2022
Filipino nurses in America: The unseen, unsung, untold story
This is the untold story of the Filipino nurse in America, from WWII's past to the pandemic present

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Filipinos are one of the largest ethnic groups currently serving the on the front lines of the pandemic, but the cost of this representation has meant a disproportionate impact.

It's another chapter of an immigrant population neglected by a stereotype that also has saved countless lives and uplifted the healthcare industry.

PART ONE: Filipino nurses in America: The history vs. the stereotype

The Filipino nurse in America is an immigrant nurse narrative not often noted in U.S. history.

"Every generation in our family, you know, are all nurses," said Maruja Torres, director of nursing at Peterson Park Healthcare Center.

It's the untold story of a community of heroes who are often unseen in the industry they not only dominated, but elevated.

"it's not just a job, it's a genuine love of, you know, taking care of sick people, especially here, you know," Torres said.

It's also the story of a journey, a migration that took them miles from the motherland.

"It is a culture shock," said Raquel Collanto, a cardiac care coordinator and nurse at Northwestern Medicine. "I was assigned to a nursing home. We don't have any nursing home in the Philippines."

They said they faced discrimination early on and throughout their careers.

"I don't even want to answer the phone because- 'Can I have anyone that I could speak English?'" Collanto said. "And I said, 'I can speak English.' And those are the heartaches, this is cruel."

The stereotype ill-defining an immigrant community, a dominant force in U.S. healthcare.

"As an Asian American historian, and as the daughter of Filipino immigrants, I am well aware that there is the stereotype of Filipinos and Filipino Americans as nurses," said Catherine Ceniza Choy, associate dean of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice at UC-Berkley.

The untold story of the Filipino nurse in America, from WWII's past to the pandemic present.

"I prefer to view Filipino nurses in the United States as a lived experience of unsung heroes," Ceniza Choy said.

Unsung for their heroism answering a decades-old U.S. call to fill nursing needs, and historians also say they are unsung for how their culture transformed an industry.

"It would not function the way it does without the labor of Filipino American nurses," Ceniza Choy said.

Asian American historian, author and daughter of Filipino immigrants, Catherine Ceniza Choy highlighting the works of the late Esther Hipol Simpson, a Filipino immigrant nurse and activist who came to Chicago in the 1970s. She was known for organizing against the racial scapegoating of two Filipino immigrant nurses in Michigan.

"They organized demonstrations and created petitions," Ceniza Choy said.

Another often untold story of the Filipino nurse, beyond dedication to duty, is their dedication to uplifting their community and the industry they were called to serve.

"They've made contributions through decades of caregiving," Ceniza Choy said. "But they've also broadened democracy and human rights in the United States."

The Filipino Nurse in America's story of dedication and duty, diminished by stereotype, is truly what Ceniza Choy called "a story of unsung heroes."

On March 11th, 2020, the world as we knew it was forever changed when the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And the healthcare industry was brought to its knees, fighting the frontlines of a pandemic war, initially without the proper protection for battle.

"We used trash bags to use as our gowns because there's so much shortage," Torres said.

Torres' long term healthcare facility was hit hard, so the Peterson Healthcare Nursing Director ditched desk duty and scrubbed up.

"Like soldiers, it's our duty now to serve," Torres said.

Despite being deemed "high-risk" for contracting the virus, Collanto refused when given the option to work medical units far from the COVID units that transformed and took over Northwestern Memorial's hospital wings with an influx of patients.

"Why turn my back? I mean they need me and this is what I want to do," Collanto said. "I have to stay and I have to fight for this and I did."

"It's important for the American public to know that Filipino nurses in the United States are literally risking their lives to save ours," Ceniza Choy said.

A March 2021 National Nurses United report said Filipinos made up 4% of registered nurses in the U.S. Yet, the nurses' union also reported a month prior, 26% of nurses who died of COVID-19 and related complications were Filipino.

The pandemic has started a new chapter in the story of the Filipino nurse - similar to their origins in the U.S., they are again answering a call to serve in our nation's greatest time of need.

However this chapter, combined with a surge in AAPI prejudice, has been a dark one, but one that sheds light on the crucial role the Filipino nurse plays in the U.S.

"These nurses are truly heroic, and yet, they have also been targets of surges in anti-Asian hate and violence," Ceniza Choy said.

According to an American Medical Association 2021 report, approximately one in four Filipinx working adults are frontline healthcare workers, despite the fact that the 2.9 million Filipinx in the U.S. represent 1% of the population.

The cost of representation is devastating. Given the struggles of the pandemic years and decades of being unseen and unsung, masked heroes Collanto and Torres hope their story unmasks the stereotype that has forgotten how pride of the Filipino culture has begotten the U.S. nursing industry.

"It's something that we can be proud of," Torres said.

It's a narrative these Filipino nurses are taking back as they tell their stories that are worth sharing. Who they are, where they came from and what makes a Filipino a Filipino.

"As Filipinos, I think its compassion is within us," Torres said.

And a nurse is a Hero. It's not a simple stereotype, but about celebrating the level of care when cultural familial values intersect with health and patients.

"Being a Filipino nurse, this what we were brought up that's what we were taught," Collanto said.

Their story of sacrifice, cultural dedication to family, duty-led diaspora. The true story of the Filipino nurse in America, no longer untold, but meant to be shared and sung out. And no, not all Filipinos are nurses.