Virginia Man Documents the History of Filipino Nurses in America

Oct 1, 2018

If you’ve stayed at a hospital in Virginia, you may have noticed  some of the nurses were from the Philippines.  Thousands have come to this country over the years and a Virginia man has set out to explain why.

Ren Capucao is a graduate student in nursing at UVA, the son of a nurse from the Philippines and a lover of history.  He has won a grant from Virginia Humanities --  $6,500 for an oral history project on Filipino nurses.

“Filipino-Americans are the largest internationally educated group of nurses in the United States. Even globally the Philippines is the largest exporter of nurses to the world,” he says.

That trend traces back to the early 20th century when this country took control of the Philippines, taught residents English, and began training women in the newly created field of nursing.

Their own country couldn’t afford all the women who signed up, but that didn’t stop them.

“Back then, all you could do was teach, and nursing gave them another way to move up the ladder and go outside the household," he explains. "Most of them come from a rural background, and it’s very hard to live, so with nursing it gave them a way to escape the islands and also to explore the world, do things they never imagined they could do.” 

In this country they could earn more in a day than they’d make in a month back home, and after the Second World War some of their brothers joined the U.S. Navy as stewards and mess hall attendants.  Many ended up in Norfolk, making weekend trips to find brides in East Coast hospitals.

“Filipino sailors, they would take two Greyhound buses and travel to Philadelphia where a lot of Filipino nurses were at the time and court them, because they wanted to establish a family.”

Ren Capucao plans to tell their story, videotaping interviews with those who first came here and mounting a show at the Philippine Cultural Center in Virginia Beach next summer.