The History of Filipino Nurses in Virginia

“Why are there so many Filipino nurses in Virginia?” This question—the driving topic of Ren Capucao’s research—stemmed from a longstanding curiosity about his own family’s identity and the roots of his Virginia Beach community. That curiosity ultimately led to the creation of a Virginia Humanities funded exhibition called, “A Culture to Care: The History of Filipino Nurses in Virginia,” curated by Capucao, which debuted at the Philippine Cultural Center of Virginia, in Virginia Beach.

Ren Capucao, a UVA nursing graduate student, has created an exhibit on Filipino nurses in the U.S., with the help of a Virginia Humanities grant. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)
One of the photos from the “A Culture to Care” exhibit courtesy Ren Capucao

Born into a community of nurses and raised by a Filipino-born mother who practiced nursing for forty years, Capucao has wondered since childhood why he and so many of his peers were encouraged to follow the same path, and, particularly, what led them to Virginia. National statistics confirm the pattern he noticed growing up: Filipinos make up 1% of the American population and 4% of its practicing nurses.

What Capucao has learned as a second-degree nurse and through his continuing doctoral studies is that, historically, nursing has represented a path to upward economic mobility—and, for women, increased social equity. Nurses began migrating from the Philippines to the US at the beginning of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until later, during the nurse shortages of World War II, that the diaspora truly began. Starting in the 1940s, the US government began increasingly recruiting Filipino nurses through the Exchange Visitor Program and the H-1 visa green card system. But ultimately, as Capucao discovered, the vast majority of Filipino nurses arrived in Virginia not through this system of direct recruitment, but instead via chain migration, or because of their ties to family and friends.

Additionally, when the US introduced professional nursing into the islands, it also began recruiting Filipino men for ancillary roles in the Navy—creating two gendered pathways for migration that led, unintentionally, to the creation of Filipino American communities within the vicinity of US naval stations. Hampton Roads holds one of the largest Filipino American communities in the country, with the largest naval hub in the world, Naval Station Norfolk, as its epicenter. The unlikely intersection between historical US healthcare and military policies has cemented the vibrant presence of the Filipino American community here in the Commonwealth.

Map from the “A Culture to Care” exhibit courtesy Ren Capucao

With support from a Virginia Humanities grant, Capucao presented his findings on August 10, 2019 at the Philippine Cultural Center of Virginia, located in Virginia Beach, in the form of a multimedia exhibition titled, “A Culture to Care: The History of Filipino Nurses in Virginia.” Using oral histories, photographs, and maps, organized around topics including gender, race, and culture, Capucao told a global narrative through the lens of place. For him, the binding themes have always been family and belonging. He frames his personal journey into nursing as a part of a larger story. “I’m not where I am because of chance, but because of a culmination of historical events,” says Capucao. “The reason why I want to become a nurse historian is to venerate my mom, and the stories of unknown nurses who forged the path that I’m able to take.”

An updated exhibition of “A Culture to Care” is currently on display at the Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, located at University of Virginia School of Nursing on the first floor of the McLeod building. You can also view an online version of the exhibition here.