LIFE Summer Research Grant Reflections: Filipina Care Labor Migrations

This is the second blog post in a series written by the 2022 recipients of the Duke University Libraries Summer Research Fellowship for LIFE Students. You can find the first post in the series here. Tessa Delgo is a senior majoring in Global Cultural Studies.

Growing up in the American South, finding community with other Filipino Americans often felt difficult, especially compared to my relatives living in Filipino enclaves on the West Coast. Thus, when I chose to attend a Southeastern university like Duke, it was no surprise when I found little Filipino presence on campus, both in academics and in campus life (though it should be noted, there has been progress in this area even just in my short time on campus, such as the development of a Filipino student group and the approval of the Asian American Diaspora Studies minor).

However, I was surprised by the encouragement from faculty across seemingly-unrelated departments like History, Literature, and Spanish of my independent pursuits of Filipino/Filipino American Studies projects. My first academic foray into Filipino/Filipino American Studies was a summer history project completed after my freshman year, looking at mestiza (meaning “mixed,” traditionally someone of Spanish and Filipino heritage but now generally used to refer to any Filipina with a light skin tone) history through the autobiography of a Filipina American guerrilla leader in World War II. That project led me to Catherine Ceniza Choy’s book on Filipina nursing migrations called Empire of Care, which exposed me to feminist Filipino American studies and wound up being the basis of the research I pursued through the LIFE Summer Research Grant.

This summer, I conducted research on migrant Filipina nurses and other migrant Filipina female care laborers that became the foundation of my senior thesis in the Literature/Global Cultural Studies department, asking why the migrant Filipina nurse has not received the same level of scholarship in critical theory as other migrant Filipina care laborers. The history of Filipinas migrating to the United States to fill nursing shortages goes as far back as the Philippine-American war (1899-1902), when the United States set up nursing schools in the Philippines as an imperial ‘civilizing’ project, meaning that the migrant Filipina nurse is the oldest ‘figure’ of a migrant Filipina migrating to perform care labor in the Global North. However, studies of migrant Filipina care laborers tend to focus on domestic and sex workers rather than nurses, which, going into the summer, attributed to narratives that surround nurses granting the field an aura of professionalism and even heroism, especially compared to narratives around domestic and sex work.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the reality that, while Filipino nurses might be called heroes in the United States, they are hardly treated as such. Despite making up only 4% of registered nurses in the United States, Filipina/os made up nearly a third of all COVID-related deaths in the field. Going into the summer, my hope was to investigate the gap between the narratives and the actual lived experiences of Filipino nurses who have migrated to the United States over the past century or so. By investigating historical documents such as nursing education manuals and nurse recruitment advertisements and comparing them to first-person accounts from Philippines-trained nurses who migrated to the United States, such as those collected by Catherine Ceniza Choy in Empire of Care, I aimed to get a sense of the narratives that were created to attract nurses to America and how those narratives led to their oversight in critical theory.

With the help of the Duke Libraries Staff and my thesis advisor, I developed a ‘syllabus’ for the summer that included reading seminal works of Filipino critical theory, reading through American nursing histories and education manuals to understand their framings of the nursing profession and how these narratives align with American cultural ideas of the Philippines and Filipino culture, and delving into the Rubenstein Library’s archival collection of student nurse recruitment ads from the 1950s. Diving into this work introduced me to new fields of study and got me thinking about resources that I had not previously been exposed to through my classes. Looking into nursing education manuals made me think critically about my own education and the ways that hegemonic narratives seep their way into ostensibly “objective” things like professional training. Especially in such a care-centered profession as nursing, training in “ethics” is just as important as the technical, scientific skills — but how do you teach people to care? And what — or who — do you teach them to care about?

This, proving much more difficult than teaching someone to administer shots or change bedsheets, seems to be how Filipinas got so heavily recruited into the profession — seen as naturally docile and nurturing, they were seen as ideal hires that would also work for deeply unethical wages. But the “docile and nurturing” narrative, though admittedly a belief that many Filipinos hold and pride ourselves on even to this day, is itself tied to American colonialism. When Americans initially established nursing schools in the Philippines, there were worries that the native people were too ‘uncivilized’ for the profession. That is, until the advantages of having an American-trained candidate pool of potential laborers for a profession the United States struggled to fill became apparent and initiatives to recruit Filipinas to the Western world began.

From the Student Nurse Recruitment Ads archive in the Rubenstein

Doing this research further spurred my passion for Filipino American studies and put me in a much better position to begin my thesis work. I was exposed to so many of the Libraries’ resources — and how to use them — that I would not have been otherwise, which was a boon to me when the semester started and I did not have as much time to dedicate to my research. I also learned how to work with mentors, how to better organize and articulate my thoughts and questions around my research, and how to seek support when I needed it. I was also further enlightened to the ways that people go about researching topics at institutions that do not necessarily have an established department that aligns with their work. The work I was able to do this summer finally proved to me that my interests in Filipino/Filipino American studies are not “out of place” at Duke. That realization has been such a comfort and something I’ve returned to many times when working on my thesis throughout the Fall semester has sometimes felt defeating. I am immeasurably grateful to the Duke Libraries staff for believing in me and my project, and I hope to continue carving out a space for Filipino studies at Duke.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *