The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the ways we live and work. Since March, many Americans were told to work from home, many were left unemployed, and many frontline workers continued to go to work to provide essential service—including nurses, a profession historically dominated by women. Today, 90 percent of nursing jobs in the United States are still held by women, of which an estimated 4 percent (about 150,000 total) originally hail from the Philippines or are of Filipino descent. Despite this small number, Filipino nurses have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, accounting for over 31 percent of fatalities among nurses.
At the height of the pandemic, many members of the Filipino community shared stories on social media about Filipino nurses putting their lives on the line to fight COVID-19. As Filipino American scholar Kevin Nadal put it, the scale of the trauma for the community has been “similar to times of war.” As we celebrate Filipino American History Month this October, it is important for us to memorialize these lives and consider how the rich, intergenerational story of Filipino nursing is one of resiliency.
How did Filipino nurses come to bear the brunt of the pandemic? The overrepresentation of Filipinos on the frontline has a long history tied to American imperialism, migration networks, and the formation of immigrant communities within American cities.
As historian Catherine Ceniza Choy argues, the U.S. colonization of the Philippines created the preconditions for many Filipino nurses to migrate to the United States for work. Following the United States’ occupation of the country after 1898, many Americanized training and education programs were established in the Philippines, including more than 10 nursing schools. This “inadvertently prepared Filipino nurses to work in the United States,” Choy explains, in combination with other factors such as the development of Filipinos’ English-language fluency and an idealization of life in the U.S.
An Exchange Visitor Program, created in 1948, alongside the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, spurred an influx of foreign-born nurses, a large number of which were Filipino, to enter the United States to fill a domestic shortage of nurses after the Second World War. Between 1965 and 1988, more than 70,000 foreign nurses came to the United States, including 25,000 Filipino nurses who provided critical services to hospitals in New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, Texas, and Massachusetts; many of these were women. These jobs gave nurses wages that were high enough that they were able to provide not only for themselves but also improve their families’ livelihoods back in the Philippines, even if this meant that they would remain apart from their loved ones back home.
Many of the nurses who came to work in New York City eventually moved to Queens. They settled around the area and helped form a thriving Filipino community: a Little Manila in New York. Today, 54 percent of Filipino New Yorkers live Queens, the epicenter of the coronavirus in New York last spring.
As a Filipino American myself, with many relatives and friends working as nurses, I grew worried and anxious about the safety of my loved ones, as did many in the community. As Dominique Flores, a first-year Filipina registered nurse working in New York told me, “One of the things that I believe that is ingrained in our core as Filipinos, regardless of whether we immigrated over or if we were born in the United States, is that we factor in family as a top priority in our decision making.” But Flores explained that rather than retreating into quarantine, many of her colleagues continued “go[ing] to work on the frontlines but having to make the sacrifice to be isolated away from their families for their own health and safety.” This was especially true for those nurses living with young children, elderly relatives, and relatives that would be considered “high risk.”
Because so many of the residents work in health care, the neighborhood looked different from other areas in the city during the shut down. As community organizer Jaclyn Reyes put it,
“I remember observing the amount of people still actively outside, still purchasing their morning coffee, still waiting for the bus or train. It was a contrast to the images of empty streets or the stories of people adjusting to working from home. Certainly there were many businesses closed down, just like everywhere else, but the people doing the essential work felt very visible in Little Manila.”
Even though the community has faced a lot of hardship this year, Little Manila residents have been working to keep their community together and even stronger than before. The Little Manila Queens Bayanihan Arts project is one such example. Led by Reyes, Xenia Diente, and other volunteer collaborators with support from the Laundromat Project, it is an effort by artists and cultural workers to engage and deepen the bond of the Filipino community in Little Manila and the New York City area through community art projects and creative placemaking.
One such initiative is Meal to Heal, launched in collaboration with the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns and Filipino American National Historical Society. It is a culturally-specific mutual aid program that seeks to fund and deliver meals from Filipino restaurants to healthcare workers. As Reyes explains, “Disaster has the tendency to displace vulnerable communities, and what makes a community more resilient is social cohesion. That’s what that work was about: to make the Little Manila community more resilient.”
The project also recently unveiled a new mural on the southeast corner of 69th Street and Roosevelt Avenue that reads, “Mabuhay” or “Welcome.” A ceremony to unveil the mural was held in June and the community honored Filipino lives lost during the pandemic, thanked essential workers and businesses, and celebrated the resilience and values of the Filipino community.
As we consider the resilience of the Filipino community during these unprecedented times, we must realize that the work to memorialize those Filipino communities around the world lost to COVID-19 is just beginning. As Flores shared, “Many nurses want their stories told and they also want to share the stories of those who weren’t able to share it. Years from now or maybe in a decade or so, we will look back at this experience and reflect on the work and sacrifices that Filipino nurses have made.” In these stories, and the actions of the community as a whole, lie the resilient Filipino spirit.
Written by John Sapida, MA student in the Museum Studies degree program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, developed in collaboration with the New-York Historical Society.
Special Thanks to Dominique Flores, Jacyln Reyes and Xenia Diente who contributed their voices to this blog post, and the Filipino American National Historical Society (Metro NY Chapter) for connecting me to them.