Touches on the Immigrant Labor Story of Pilipinx Americans, Self-Care, and The Noble Hero Role vs. The Reality of the Hard Work of Nursing. Also, the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll of the profession. The dances and the choreography are a “Prayer and Meditation” to the Pilipinx American Experience that is Distinctive to the Diaspora.
By Eleanore Fernandez. Posted Oct. 19, 2022
Alleluia’s 1:1 Interview
“Nursing These Wounds” was originally to be the first dance showcase of a three part series of performances that the celebrated and well respected choreographer Alleluia Panis has been incubating. Yet, as she plainly puts it, “Of course COVID upended a lot of projects. This project was delayed for a year.” Her intention through a grant with the Hewlett Foundation 50 Arts Commission was to tell these immigration stories throughout this century. From Pilipinx American agricultural laborers, the farmworkers, and Alaskeros to the 1920’s, 1930’s and throughout each decade but she wanted to actually tell the nurses’ stories first. Yet, she felt she had to start chronologically from the beginning with the Manongs’ story.
She points out that there has been a lot told of the Manongs’ story and she adds that her own last work was that very subject called “Man@ng Deity”, a piece about our Fil-Am laborers in Stockton and Delano. Even though we may know the history and statistics, Alleluia explains that the stories through her art are from a more “humanistic” perspective. This project developed from a series of panel talks, discussions with scholars, experts, educators, and from conversations from Fil-Am nurses themselves over a period of a little over a year.
There is so much information out there about the Pilipinx Nurse experience, yet her work is inspired by her gathering of these stories. Besides the research, she actually engaged with those that are called to this “care work”. From that knowledge, Alleluia has sewn together and created those pieces out of those conversations and discoveries. She discloses that she does not do “historical” depictions but that she creates strong forms that draw from many and not just from one specific particular individual. “Within our Pilipinx community there comes our own way.” She expands that Pilipinx Nurses are a phenomenon because traditionally, of course, it is always ingrained in the Pilipinx American community that it is always a noble profession, and she further reveals that there are many that love the profession and are great at it. Yet, through this particular show, she wants all of us to take a closer look, focus on who is feeding us that story from the beginning.
She mentions the history is about how the U.S. colonization was shaping it as a way to make it attractive for foreigners to immigrate for a better life to America. It is a layered, nuanced experience. Alleluia believes that this show is about “waking up people’s minds…to pursue more knowledge about these things.” Also, just to ponder about taking it back, why were we even told that we had to leave the Philippines? She states, “What if my parents didn’t come?” Would life have been different or better?” What she asserts is that each of us in the Pilipinx American diaspora have a complicated and also a complicit relationship in even being in the United States. She reminds us all that the kind of labor that is being exported out of the Philippines like for example, Merchant Marines and the Navy is largely from the Philippines. Nursing, like the military, is looked to as a well-respected career but it is hard labor, long hours, conditions that can not only affect your health and well being, but even cost your life.
Currently, it is reported that out of the 4% of Pilipinx nurses that work in health care, clinics, and hospitals, 20% were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pilipinx nurses are often give or take the shifts in the emergency rooms, ICU, or graveyard shifts that often are the schedules that many others are not willing to cover. She adds that there is also a difference between Pilipinx American born nurses’ point of view versus the newly immigrated Pinoy and/ or Pinay viewpoints in regard to those shifts. Right away, Pilipinx American nurses know it is biased and based on racism and will immediately call it out. Yet, the immigrant nurses know as well but will keep it quiet because they just need the work. Or as Alleluia elucidates it also maybe that attitude of, “Well, you shouldn’t complain because you have a good job.” Largely, sheer economic survival is what brings people here.
Alleluia keeps diving further, she elaborates that, “We usually have this where we blame ourselves for or we are just acting independently, when again what brought nurses to this situation and the propaganda. The underpinning is that you went there to get your education but do you know the history?” Again, Alleluia delves more into the emotional aspects of the individual personal stories that are distinctive to the Pilipinx American experience. She believes that this show is just the tip of the iceberg to pursue more knowledge about these things.
As she further declares that this, “…the whole idea of getting out of the Philippines to be better. Most people are happy to be living the life that they would be living. The professionals (who come from) in the University of the Philippines and Philippines pay for their education and they (still) end up in the U.S.”
She recognizes that as a person in the diaspora, she has her own complication and complicitness in being here. In terms of the nurses, the initiative she gave herself was to analyze what are the laborers and kinds of laborers exported from the Philippines. As mentioned prior, the Philippines sends out the largest seamen, Navy and Merchant Marines, it’s good for the economy because they send money home. Again, the overall mission and goal for most Pilipinx American immigrant stories is fueled with the desire and need for good employment and financial stability for so many nurses coming to the United States.
Alleluia further elucidates that she does not have all the solutions, yet just wanted to tell the story from a particular perspective. To her, what is most important in her choreography is that she is telling the story from the sacred mysteries. She wisely expresses, “That is the representation, what saves us, the people of the diaspora, is a connection to our culture. In educating ourselves with Philippine culture and native, indigeneous ones, how do we create our own culture here that makes us proud and grounded as human beings?” She further reveals that in her art, the spirit guide is a strong character in her choreography.
Alleluia and her ensemble are actually leading people to have a better understanding of the history of nurses here. Her own kind of take on the milieu of families and community is that there is such a huge respect within our community, as it should be. Yet, there is a hook, because since you are a nurse, you should send “boy boy” to nursing school in the Philippines. There is a sense of responsibility as being hailed as a hero. Many nurses have difficulty talking about their own issues, there is shame, where your family and friends will say, “How can you complain? You are making a good living. It’s a respectable job”. Alleluia has found through her research that the nurses she interviewed might not have gotten COVID, but the work is so stressful, they had high blood pressure, strokes and cancer, which she found shocking. “Those are things you can not draw up a direct line. Our family culture, there is a shame when you complain about when you are not well or you have to keep going and persevere, it is not allowing for people to be real about certain things.” There is a denial of things that ill us. Doesn’t mean we should suffer through…” She further explains that it is just that, “…things need to be aired out and talk about it but find solutions about it. Holding up a mirror that is particular to our things in the community and the difficulty.’
She also reveals that there is a huge difference between immigrants and Pilipinx Americans. They can see that the health care system is a big corporation. Alleluia, like many believe, her first interpretation is that it is such a noble profession. Yet, she reports that some nurses are sick of the corporate profit-making aspect of health care. She asserts that there is no shortage of nurses but that the healthcare system is squeezing as much labor as they can for profit. When the pandemic hit, she observed that the healthcare industry and hospitals really needed more nurses. Dr. Claire Valderama-Wallace, one of the scholars she worked with, stated that the pathway to get a job as a nurse is pretty intense. Just because you have a license does not mean you get a job right away. A lot of nurses are available, but they are not hiring.
In terms of how dance, music, and art can help facilitate and foster conversations about these complicated dynamics and history of colonization, Alleluia explains that dance is already a visceral art form, and it is not necessarily in your face, She dives deeper and teaches us that movement has a particular language that can basically help deal with traumatic issues and then allow for the information to seep through. Hopefully, that slow learning and also having that kind of physical experience as well will encourage people to open up and check out this new show. Outside of the event, she hopes that what people come away with is the honoring of that experience. The work that she has created and continually creates has always been a form of prayer and meditation. She points out that for example, Catholicism, the prayers, script are more rote and what has been uttered in centuries. In Protestant religions or other tribal, spiritual groups, it is more of an “asking for deities” help, there is a storytelling component to it that is very well practiced with pre-colonial tribal groups and what she is offering is prayer, meditation, and, again, an offering of human beings that have come through the Pilipinx experience. Through it she believes that we become kinder to each other.
There are reasons behind why certain things happen. She explained that she spoke to one nurse, where she was suffering from a stroke, and anxiety is there a lot, too. Yet, she was unable to accept what may be bringing it on and that they just brought it down to science. For example, they eat fried foods and they just take medicine for it. Alleluia wanted to share with her that, you cannot keep exposing yourself to the toxins even with the food you eat. Her main take away from all her interviews is that nurses are human beings like you and I. The immigration experience is similar to everyone of us. The American born children and their lack of understanding over here are the same. For example, at the ages of 12, 13, 14 you can leave your kids alone in the Philippines but when they are teens here in America, you need to be more vigilant. Also, love is not just showing them that you are working for them. American born children think, “Your parents work so hard because they DON’T care about you.” but in the Philippines it is “The parents work so hard because they DO care about you.” Also, their concerns are not really different from other immigrant families, they have unique issues they have to deal with but there are also joys and there is always that responsibility of sending money home, that again are not really different from other professionals. It is a thing that a lot of immigrants are saddled with.
Alleluia reports that a lot of American born nurses have real clarity for what is going on. She recounts that one nurse wanted to work as a public nurse and go to different homes, which is not thought of as glamorous as opposed to working for a big hospital. Parents or relatives may ask, “Why are you not pursuing a nursing job at other places, why are you staying with Public Health?” American born nurses are more attuned to the language of misogyny and discrimination. Getting those crappy hours, the immigrant nurse thinks, “This is what I signed up for and it is just work. Everyone else just throws it to Neng Neng and she will just take it. Administrators are mostly White women or white people. So, they get that, American born is so attuned with the culture. The immigrant nurses know it but again, may take it for the economics again, do not want to complain after coming here to the U.S.”
Alleluia recounts that some older Filipino nurses that she has interviewed in their eighties and nineties, when she asked how they fought against the earlier years when it was rife with racism and bigotry, she said they just said they just “fought” or in Tagalog “laban laban” against that. Alleluia wanted to focus on the average Pilipinx nurses’ lives and their day-in and day-out in this performance piece in this work. Alleluia said it has been an interesting journey and so amazing to have artists who have been a part of this project who are connected to nurses in their family. Alleluia confesses that she actually had no idea that most of her dancers had ties to nurses in their family. Yet, as she reveals, having nurses in your Pilipinx family is so prevalent. She really did not know but then, it just started coming out. She reveals that one of her collaborators, Andrea ‘Poko’ Devis’ family’s pathway to immigration was through her grandmother getting into nursing in the 60’s and also, John Mercardo, his mom is a nurse and she just retired. She says I don’t think we can help it. The show is presented as a narrative of four nurses and coloring them more as people, yet it stops at the choice of the nurse. One of the interviewee participants said her mother did not want her to be a nurse. She pointed out the flack you get from co-workers, the long hours, and despite her mother’s warnings, she became a nurse but then ended up leaving. She needed to experience it herself to go through the practice.
What ended up happening is that she worked in a hospital where she only was supposed to have three patients at a time, and she had an extra patient because they were understaffed at the hospital. When a patient dies on you, the guilt is intense and for this specific patient, she had to put that person in a body bag all by herself, due to understaffing. This visual of her putting this dead body in body bags is harrowing. The guilt and sadness of maybe missing something in the care of that patient was too much, so she left. A lot of those who are called into caregiving, they will go into Reiki or other modalities. Though some turn to alternative medicine and others, just keep going because again for them it is a good job that pays the bills.
List of the connections to nurses in this production, to see the impact.
Andrea ‘Poko’ Devis, Dance Artist
Grandmother migrated to the US as a young nurse in the late 1960’s.
She left her young children and husband behind and later brought them over.
Two of her daughters also became a nurse,
Jessica DeFranco, Dance Artist
She has numerous aunties who are nurses
Frances Teves Sedayao, Dance Artist
Aunts that are nurses all over the world
Allegra Bautista, Dance Artist
Allegra’s Grandmother was a nurse and mother (Victoria Bautista)
Her mother danced with Alleluia in the past
Jonathan Mercado, Dance Artist
Mother is a retired nurse based out of San Jose
His mother came out of retirement because of the pandemic
Joshua Icban, Composer & Music Director
Father was a nurse
Father was also in the military as a medic