By Christian L. Guzman, Contributing Reporter
Walk into a hospital and there’s a strong chance you’ll see a Filipino nurse. Data from the California Healthcare Foundation reports that Filipinos, despite representing three percent of the general population, make up 18 percent of all nurses.
Turn on the television to a show that is set in a hospital and suddenly the chance you’ll spot a Filipino nurse is a lot more … chancy.
“You don’t see Filipinos in shows like ER or Grey’s Anatomy [even though] they dominate the nursing industry,” said playwright Felix Racelis. “It’s as if [T.V. and filmmakers] live on another planet.”
Racelis wrote As Straw Before the Wind to more-accurately capture Filipino-American presence in American media. In the new play, Filipinos tell their stories. The main character, Nene Santos, is a Filipino nurse who owns and operates a convalescent home with her daughter, Pelita.
The primary conflict in the play is due to simultaneous obstacles Nene faces. She wants to grow her business, eventually retire and bequeath the business to her daughter. However, Pelita has plans to get married and leave nursing behind. Meanwhile, Nene continues to care for patients with problems like Alzheimer’s disease and a sense of abandonment.
On top of that, Nene deals with the trauma of being a survivor of World War II. Her experiences during the war are revealed through flashbacks, one of which has a major effect on the play’s story.
The role of the Philippines and Filipinos in World War II is not widely known in America. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that made most Filipino soldiers and guerrillas a part of the Armed Forces. The World War II Database estimates that about 1 million Filipinos died due to the war.
Racelis drew inspiration from his family to create Nene and her trauma. Many of the women in his family were nurses and some were survivors of World War II. Racelis said that the memories they shared continue to haunt him.
Because the story was so personal to him, Racelis has taken his time developing As Straw Before the Wind. He started the original draft 10 years ago, but would stop and then go back to it periodically.
“This is probably draft number 7,” Racelis joked.
However, this past year, Racelis answered a call of duty to move his play forward. The play’s director, Leslie Asistio, who is also Filipino, returned from a movie theater very upset with the lack of diversity in film.
“During the trailers I saw white people doing this and doing that … saving the world, drowning … just white people,” Asistio said. “I went on a rant on Facebook asking, ‘Where [are] all the Filipinos?’”
Asistio and Racelis knew each other from the organization First Stage LA, so Racelis reached out to Asistio with his play. It really resonated with her. When Asistio’s grandmother was pregnant with her father in the Philippines, a Japanese soldier put a gun to her face. He did not fire.
“A lot of people don’t know about the Japanese occupation of the Philippines,” Asistio said. This play’s [historical content] and characters are special to me and I am excited to put it on stage.”
Asistio and Racelis produced the play together. Since the play focuses on Filipino characters, they made an effort to cast talented Filipino actors. Asistio and Racelis ultimately cast Filipinos for the central characters in the play.
Nene is played by Tita Pambid. She has acted on stage and in film for more than 25 years—locally and internationally. And, in addition to acting, Pambid is a professor of Filipino language and culture at UCLA. This made the producers of As Straw see her as especially fitting for the play and its goals.
Pambid expressed a definite sense of pride with the play and her role.
“In Filipino culture, we take care of the elderly and believe in hospitality,” Pambid said. “We haven’t seen that in characters or stories in [America]. But we do in this play.”
Muni Zano is another experienced Filipino actor in As Straw Before the Wind. He plays Poncing Enrile, a veteran cared for by Nene in her convalescent home. Enrile provides the audience with additional perspective about Filipino World War II survivors. He mentions that most Filipino World War II veterans were denied benefits due to a law passed by Congress.
Since the Philippines were a U.S. territory during the war, Filipino veterans were indeed eligible for military benefits. But in 1946, the Philippines gained independence and the U.S. Congress decided to focus funds on U.S. nationals. Passing the Rescission Act enabled the U.S. government to achieve that.
Asistio said that although that issue is not the focus of the play, it is an example of the little-known realities that Filipinos live with.
Racelis wrote in additional elements of Filipino culture in the details of As Straw, such as the staple dish, Pinakbet, and Tagalog (a primary Filipino language). He hopes that Filipinos will appreciate the authenticity and that other viewers will appreciate learning something new.
Pambid shared a similar sentiment with regards to the play as a whole.
“I want the audience to see the presence of Filipinos … to know that we have served, and are serving, the United States, which is a multicultural country,” Pambid said.
Time: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through Sept. 4
Cost: $12 to $20
Venue: The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles