Filipino Nurses in America: History vs. Stereotype

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CHICAGO (WLS) — The story of the Filipino nurse in America is a story of sacrifice and cultural devotion to family, a diaspora responsible for duty to the unknown.

“It’s the same story as every Filipino family,” said Maruja Torres. “And because of that sacrifice, having that dream of giving your loved ones a brighter future. You’ll do whatever it takes. Leave your childhood behind, leave your motherland behind.”

Filipino nurses have served their families overseas while on the front lines in America for decades, but are often diminished by a stereotype.

“They said all Filipinos were nurses,” Racquel Collanto explained.

“They’re always guessing, ‘Are you a nurse?’ Torres said “You know for us, is that something wrong?”

It’s a stereotype they say was forced upon an entire immigrant community and proliferated in the country that called them for help.

“It’s a problem when the general public misunderstands the Filipino American community through the prism of a flat, one-dimensional, limiting stereotype,” said Catherine Ceniza Choy, associate dean of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice at UC-Berkeley.

The Filipino Nurse in America is an immigrant nurse narrative that is not often noted in United States history.

“Filipino nurses are everywhere,” Torres said. “Either it’s a nursing home, in a home care facility, in a hospital.”

Yet invisible and overshadowed by a preconceived notion of biased prominence. Although popular, they are rarely advertised as such.

“Filipino nurses have been in the United States in great numbers for six decades now,” Ceniza Choy said. “And yet the general public sees them as perpetual strangers. I prefer to see Filipino nurses in the United States as a lived experience of unsung heroes.”

Racquel Collanto immigrated from the Philippines after graduating as a nurse in the late 1970s. She is now one of the North West Clinical Coordinators and Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.

“I was 22 when I arrived,” Collanto recalls. “I only had $20 in my pocket at the time. I have to help my family because I’m the oldest. I’m the first to go and I’m the one who graduated. So I really have to go to through it.”

Collanto and the other nurses who were part of his recruiting class joined Chicago’s Filipino health care staff who, even two decades later, are still reeling from Richard Speck’s murders of two Filipina nurses at Jeffery Manor.

“We were so scared to go out at night, so what we did was say, okay, let’s say you’re going to work, then I’ll go with you,” Collanto said. “I don’t get paid, you get paid. It would be enough to wait eight hours in the lobby just to have someone to be with.”

Ceniza Choy, an Asian American historian, author, and daughter of Filipino immigrants, said at this time that Collanto was part of an already existing wave of Filipino nurses to meet demands in different states and major cities like Chicago.

“In fact, the origins of this migration are rooted in the history of American colonization of the Philippines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Ceniza Choy said.

Ceniza Choy said the United States’ colonial past with the Philippines, including the establishment of an American nursing program, unwittingly prepared Filipinos to meet nursing shortages after World War II.

And the Filipinos answered the call. But literally answering the call hasn’t been easy for Collanto.

“The first few months, I don’t even want to answer the phone because, ‘Can I have someone I can speak English with?'” Collanto said. “And I said, ‘I can speak English.'”

Collanto went from obstacles to grief when she learned of her father’s death over the phone.

“I was so depressed. I worked in the ER at one point,” Collanto said. “But again, I still remember him like, ‘Just go fight. I mean, we need you. And also, you have a better life.’ You know, you can do that here.”

Torres immigrated to Chicago in the early 2000s.

“My aunt is a nurse, my cousins ​​are nurses,” she said. “My sister who is also based in Chicago is a nurse. My husband is a nurse.”

His “unsung hero” origins, if put to song, share the same melody and lyrics as Collanto’s story.

“The Philippines is a third world country and has this dream of giving your loved ones a better future,” Torres said. “And being a nurse is your main passport.”

Although the 2.9 million Filipinos in the United States make up 1% of the population, about 25% of working Filipino adults are frontline healthcare workers, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2021.

The crucial representation of Filipino nurses on the US healthcare workforce has not been free in this pandemic.

In the next part of our special report, we bring you the startling statistics that only add to the Filipino nurse in America – and their story of sacrifice, the story of the unsung hero stereotype.

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