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For the love of family: The Filipina/o nurse diaspora

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Graduation March 1959, Chinese General Hospital School of Nursing in Manila, Philippines. Photo by Araceli Marcial.

For many Filipina/o nurses, family is at the very heart of migration, as explored by Jason DeParle. Cultural definitions of ‘family’ may include blood relatives or the collective Filipina/o community, and the importance of family formation and reunification has often guided these nurses’ movements across time and space. I myself am a product of Filipina/o nurse migration, as my mother immigrated to the United States in 1986. Fasting forward to last year, I graduated from nursing school and became a registered nurse, succeeding my mother, Jolly Capucao, who retired shortly thereafter from a nursing career spanning forty years. I never imagined becoming a part of the ubiquitous Filipina/o nurse stereotype, but my cliché identity search of the twenties directed my penchants for historical inquiry, empathy, and exploration of the human experience toward nursing. This is a narrative of how I became a nurse historian, and more broadly, a social history of family, nursing and immigration.

Presently, the Philippines is the largest sending country of nurses abroad – especially to the US – a phenomenon dating back to US colonialism of the islands: dreams of overseas migration link to the cultural history of the so-called American dream. The importation of the American model of nursing helped to justify the benevolent colonisation of the Philippines. However, nursing’s ability to confer social mobility among racial and gender minority groups inadvertently transferred to the Filipina/o people, and in 1911, the first migration of Filipina/o nurses to the US occurred. Nursing provided Filipina/os with unparalleled spatial mobility beyond the domestic sphere and the islands for socioeconomic opportunities, and skilled training that supported racial passing as white while working and studying in the US.

Regardless of funding method for travel, the colonisation of the Philippines granted Filipina/os the status of US non-citizen nationals, which provided few legal and physical barriers for Filipina/o nurse migration. In 1926, Felicidad Nolasco responded to a nurse recruitment advertisement by City Hospital, in Cleveland, which began her transpacific journey with her nursing friend Paula Nonacido. While the pair created friendships with their white colleagues, they inevitably left for New York, which had a bustling Filipina/o community, to find a sense of community they dearly missed. There, Nolasco was visited by her former nursing classmate, Rudolfo Eladio Acena, who had previously settled in Seattle in 1921, and rekindled a romance, later marrying in 1928 and then relocating to Seattle in 1931, as she was with child. Nonacido, a faithful friend, followed Nolasco a year later to help raise her newborn. 


Worried about her family during the Second World War, Nonacido returned to the Philippines. However, reuniting with her extended family back in the US was delayed until years after the war as she was then an alien subjected to the Filipina/o immigration quota wrought by the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934. Yet, the aftermath of Second World War created a critical nursing shortage – exacerbated by the massive expansion of hospitals by the Hill-Burton Act, increased insurance coverage, specifically from Medicare, and advancements in the medical sciences and technologies – reopening the doors of migration. The mid-century marked the mass migration of Filipina/o nurses through the Exchange Visitor Program (EVP) and  H-1 visas conferred by the Immigration Act of 1965. 


In 1959, Exchange Visitor nurse Araceli Marcial arrived at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey. After two years in the US, a stipulation of the Program required nurses to return to their countries of origin. Yet Marcial’s marriage to a Filipino naval serviceman granted her US citizenship. Family formation between Filipina/o nurses and naval servicemen dates back to the nascence of the twentieth century, alongside the introduction of nursing in the Philippines, when the US began recruiting Filipino men into the Navy as stewards. Through the Military Bases Agreement of 1947, supplemented by War Brides Acts, the recruitment of Filipina/os into the US navy lasted until 1992. Indeed, the intersection of these two groups over time helped support permanent residency for Filipina/o nurses. 


Jolly Capucao arrived in the US after being petitioned by her father, who was petitioned initially by the Capucao’s brother, a naval serviceman stationed in Virginia. Growing up in the rural fishing town of Bolinao, nursing became Capucao’s childhood dream to escape poverty and travel the world, which later served as a vehicle that aided her eight other siblings through hardship. At the age of fourteen, the passing of her mother forced Capucao to take on a maternal role. Fortunately, the community raised funds to support her matriculation into nursing school, and she graduated in 1976. She then returned the favour and supported her siblings through school, three of whom also became nurses. By 2000, the whole family reunited in the US in Hampton Roads, which by no coincidence houses the largest naval base in the world. Months after my own graduation as a nurse, almost twenty-five years since her arrival to the US, my mother returned to the Philippines having ensured that my sister and I were able to take care of ourselves.


The importance of family shaped these narratives and guided the broader migrations of Filipina/o nurses to and within the US. The love of family, whether it derives from family, friends, or fictive kinships, depicts the human experience that is often hidden within statistics of migration. I am not where I am because of chance, but because of a culmination of historical events. The reason for becoming a nurse historian is to venerate my mom, and the stories of unknown nurses who forged the path that I am able to take. Through the core cultural values of the Philippines and nursing imparted by my mother, I hope to advocate for nurses and patients alike and shape health policy across borders, toward a social environment that supports the collective well-being and nurturing of others – like family. 

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Reynaldo (Ren) Capucao, Jr.

Reynaldo (Ren) Capucao, Jr., MSN, RN, CNL is a nurse historian affiliated with the Eleanor Crowder Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry and a PhD student at the University of Virginia School of Nursing. He is studying the fields of nursing history, American studies, and digital humanities. His research examines the social construction of race within the Filipina/o nurse diaspora and migration as a space for meaning-making to answer larger questions about the nursing labour supply, transnational exchange of people and knowledge, and social history of nursing and immigration. Through his work, he hopes to address issues in healthcare by practising both academic and public aspects of history to inform policy making and to advocate for past, present, and future patients and nurses.

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