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Opportunity is Knocking

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Posted: Monday, March 31, 2008 12:00 am

McALLEN - Sitting in a darkened movie theater in Manila, Philippines, more than 40 years ago, Lilie Schneider decided she was headed for the United States.

So when she was old enough, she signed up for a nursing program.

"When you go to the movies they show you all these nice places to go. It looked so pretty," said Schneider, now a 52-year-old nurse at McAllen Medical Center, of her first glimpse of the United States on the silver screen.

"For (Filipina women), nursing is the only way to get out of the country."

Almost wholly buoyed by a nursing shortage in the U.S. medical industry, the Filipino population in the Rio Grande Valley has exponentially grown for decades.

Nurses from the Philippines first started arriving in the Valley in the 1980s, but it wasn't until the 1990s, as NAFTA's effects began to unfold, that the local push to recruit foreign nurses really got going. With more people settling in the area because of growing economic opportunities, there was a need for greater healthcare services.

International employment agencies were put on speed dial and lucrative signing bonuses were offered to those willing to sign multi-year contracts.

"They were offering $50,000 (bonuses) for four years at McAllen (Medical Center)," said Aster Vargas, president of the local chapter of the Philippine Nurses Association of America.

"The bonuses are done, but people are still coming down ... if you buy a house in Los Angeles or New Jersey, a cheap house is $300,000; but here a $300,000 house will be beautiful."

Word of mouth

The Filipino community, once largely unnoticed, is now an obvious and integral part of operations at area hospitals.

Within South Texas Health System - the private corporation that runs five major hospitals in the McAllen area - 20 percent of nurses are classified as Asian, most of whom are Filipino, according to spokeswoman Dalinda Guillen.

Two decades ago, when there were only a handful of Filipino nurses in local hospitals, Normita Hayes - now 65 and working at a long-term care facility in McAllen - was hired to a high-level nursing position at Brownsville Medical Center.

One of the first Filipinas to work in the Rio Grande Valley, she quickly encountered resentment in her local subordinates.

"They called me the foreign devil," she laughs. "There were no other Filipinos around then. Things have changed a lot and we're more accepted."

By the 2000 U.S. Census there were 1,685 Filipinos living in Hidalgo County, up from 204 in the 1990 Census.

"There was a lot of recruitment in the Philippines 15 years ago and a lot of them stayed," said Patti McClelland, the head of human resources at South Texas Health.

"They have relatives all over the country, who hear the word of mouth about the Valley. That's how we get the nurses to come down."

Common ground

Nowadays, many Filipino families are firmly entrenched here.

They have busy social calendars occupied by food-laden parties. They shop at Filipino stores that have opened in recent years in North McAllen on 10th and 23rd streets, where they can find the kind of fruits and dried fish common in their country.

And they have come to find a kinship with the predominant Mexican-American population.

"We were both colonized by Spain, so we have very similar values to Mexicans," Vargas said.

"You live with your parents until you get married, even if you're 50 years old. And we feel it's the parents' responsibility to send their children to college ... they shouldn't have to work."

Of course, assimilation has also meant some growing pains.

Hayes made a point of raising her son the "Filipino way," which she said involves long hours of study and a heavy dose of manners. Then he turned 15, rebelled and became more American with each passing year, she laughs. He is now in his mid-20s.

"The majority of Filipino children are very productive and successful, and more obedient than my son," she says with an air of good-natured resignation.

"He's a Texan."

James Osborne covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4428.

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