BELINDA ELLIS: The Filipino nurses, we are, we are trained to take care of patients no matter what, right?
We're used to this.
TINA MCDUFFIE: As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across America, members of the Filipino community stepped up onto the front lines.
ALEKSA MANILA: It's probably universal, that natural tendency to be caring.
MCDUFFIE: Filmmaker Geena Rocero presents the stories of four Filipino Americans providing vital care, a production of the WNET Group's Chasing the Dream initiative, "Caretakers."
♪ ♪ ROCERO: When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I felt like the perspectives of Filipino American nurses were not being heard.
Uplifting perspectives that we don't often get to hear.
I wanted to show Filipinos as we are, and tell the stories of not just nurses, but all types of people providing vital care.
♪ ♪ (car horns honking) I'm Geena Rocero.
I'm a Filipino-born American model, writer, director, and TED speaker.
If you're Filipino, or Filipino American living in the U.S., you probably have a friend or family member who's a nurse.
An estimated four percent of nurses in the U.S., about 150,000, are Filipino.
One of these is Belinda Ellis, an emergency room nurse practitioner.
With over 30 years of experience crossing multiple continents, Belinda is a true veteran of frontline medical care and among the thousands of Filipinos that jump into action as COVID-19 swept the world.
♪ ♪ ELLIS: We have a coworker in the emergency room that just, that died of COVID, and up to now, I don't understand why.
That was the worst experience for me as a nurse.
I have 30-plus experience as a nurse.
♪ ♪ My name is Belinda Ellis.
I'm a nurse practitioner in the emergency department.
♪ ♪ I studied nursing in the Philippines-- it's so lame-- because I loved the uniforms.
I used to see nurses in the bus, they're passing our house all the time, and I said, "One day, I'll be in that bus, and I'll be the nurse!"
My father wants me to be a lawyer, up to now, that I'm already old.
(laughs) ♪ ♪ (speaking Filipino) We're all, like, striving to go to another country because in the Philippines, I have to tell you, we are really underpaid as nurses.
Maybe your one-month salary in, in America is equivalent to probably a year of your salary here, in the Philippines.
Of course, we all wanted to go to the United States, but my first job outside of the Philippines is Iraq.
I was in a military hospital there.
The patients were all mostly, like, prisoners of war, so they were very young.
♪ ♪ After Iraq, I went to Saudi Arabia, and then from Saudi Arabia, I came to America, and my first job was in Bellevue Hospital.
So, AIDS pandemic in New York, this is new to America, right?
They don't know what's going on.
These patients are really, really, like, emaciated.
They don't know the treatment here-- it's, like, nobody is, no, nobody wants to touch them.
Most of the nurses doesn't want to go to that, to that unit.
They, they refuse to go.
But the Filipino nurses, we are, we are trained to take care of patients no matter what, right?
We're used to this.
I used to take care of TB patients in the Philippines.
They're vomiting blood all over here.
We don't even have masks, we don't have gloves, and we took care of them.
♪ ♪ It was in 2007 when I started working in Elmhurst, in the emergency room.
I was the first nurse practitioner in the emergency department.
(siren wailing) ♪ ♪ REPORTER: Inside the hospital, a biomedical battlefield.
The emergency room is packed with patients.
Patients started coming in with fever, chills.
They started coming in with, with a cough, shortness of breath.
We're over the limit, because people just keep on coming.
We don't know what we're dealing with, right?
Nobody really knew.
And then, we don't have the treatment.
My patients, they don't know what is going on.
They're, they're all, like, scared.
Some of the nurses resigned.
(chuckles) They said they're not taking care of this patient, right?
So, I don't blame them, they're scared.
♪ ♪ We didn't know that COVID was, you know, like, starting, and this nurse was always in triage, and he was...
He was such a beautiful nurse.
He loves patient, he's always making jokes, he's always smiling.
And one day, they said, "Oh, he's in Mount Sinai Hospital," and...
The problem is, we didn't even see him.
You know, the wife thought that he has no friends at work, which is so sad, because of course we love him.
(clicks tongue) (crying): And then all we heard is that he, he really fought.
He was in the hospital for a long time, and then when... All they announced is that he was dead.
We... We have the grieving process that we did with the, with, with the hospital.
And we all talk about our feelings, and... (sniffles): How we all felt, you know, working in a hospital with all these COVID patient, and that's how we dealt with it, we'd just talk about it.
♪ ♪ Dancing is our way of releasing all this pressure.
These are my girlfriends that'd go out all the time.
They are my besties, right?
We love the, you know, dancing.
It makes us all free.
All the, all the anxieties are out of the window, and we're just ourselves, and we enjoy each other company.
We laugh, and while dancing, we're talking.
♪ ♪ We care about people, and we care... We care about our patient like they're our family.
We cry together.
(sniffles) And then we just, we just, like, work and work, and took care of the patient.
That's how we dealt with it.
We know that the patient needed us, so, we just went in, and took care of them.
♪ ♪ - In the midst of the first wave of COVID-19, hospitals nationwide were all hands on deck.
Retired doctors returned to duty, entire classes of medical students graduated early to join struggling I.C.Us., and Angel Bonilla, an accomplished singer, the first openly trans contestant on The Voice, jeopardized her life, and her voice, to go back to work as a registered phlebotomist.
♪ ♪ (Bonilla singing in Filipino) BONILLA: When I realized that I have a chance to not sing again, it actually made me sad and depressed because singing is my life.
(singing in Filipino) ♪ ♪ My name is Angel Bonilla.
I am a professional singer and I am a phlebotomist.
I'm originally from the Philippines.
When my mother discovered my talent, when I was five years old, I started competing singing competitions.
(speaking Filipino), I was very happy.
I became the first trans contestant.
I used to watch reality TV shows from the United States.
It's always a dream come true, na, one day, (speaking Filipino) (Bonilla singing) The thing that I love performing in front of the live audience is the energy.
♪ Nothing left ♪ ♪ For me to give ♪ (crowd cheering and applauding) I moved to Los Angeles, California, to finish my studies.
I decided to get a vocational course to become a phlebotomist, and I started working in a hospital for five years, but one day, I realized, if I would like to sing, I have to choose one, because in the end of the day, one will suffer, and I decided to choose singing.
(speaking Filipino) I started touring around America and around Europe, and then all of a sudden, the pandemic happened.
I've witnessed people dying, and I've never experienced that kind of situation in my life.
♪ ♪ Our country has a shortage of medical staff, and I think that that's the right time for me to step forward, and I decided to become a phlebotomist again.
The day that I contracted COVID, I started coughing, and I started having horrible headache.
Every time I wake up in the morning, I don't feel myself.
I was throwing up, dizzy, high fever, and no appetite.
I realized that I am a long-hauler after I was diagnosed of having spasmodic dysphonia.
It is a condition where it technically paralyzed my vocal cords, and it gives me a choking experience, and sometimes shortness of breath.
It feels like someone's strangling me.
It scares me because I don't know if I'm gonna survive or not.
Mother Karina is my community mother.
She's always been there since day one.
She's very supportive to the trans community, and she helped a lot of people, including me.
KARINA SAMALA (speaking Filipino): I am Karina Samala.
I am a proud transgender woman.
I've been working with this community for over 25 years now.
We have lost a lot of our community members because of COVID.
- (speaking Filipino): SAMALA: BONILLA: Making Salabat reminds me of my grandmother.
When I was young, she would make Salabat for me.
Salabat is a boiled ginger that sometimes you can put honey or brown sugar with it.
Salabat is a very good remedy for throat inflammation, so every day, I would always drink Salabat before I do my vocalization, and before I sing.
(vocalizing) BONILLA (speaking Filipino): ...because every time that I sing, I feel powerful, and without my voice, I am powerless.
After six months from the day that I got sick from COVID, I still experience the neurological symptoms, but, right now, I go to speech therapy twice a week, and I feel more comfortable singing now.
♪ Never thought I'll sing again ♪ ♪ But here I am ♪ BONILLA: As a long-hauler, every day before I sleep at night, I would see myself standing in stage in front of a large crowd.
- ♪ My voice ♪ BONILLA (speaking Filipino): - ♪ And I'll make it through ♪ ♪ I'm here ♪ ♪ ♪ - While Angel's voice has since recovered, and she's returned to performing, that first year of the pandemic required more healing than just the physical.
In 2020, more than seven out of ten Filipino Americans reported living with depression.
As a therapist by day and drag queen by night, Aleksa Manila addressed a surge in mental health needs by channeling the Babaylan, ancestral healers not bound by gender binary, who have been guiding Filipinos through crisis since pre-colonial times.
♪ ♪ ALEKSA MANILA: I've really grown to admire and respect the way my drag influences my work as a therapist, and vice versa.
I found a way for them to coalesce and cohabitate.
Hi, I'm Aleksa Manila.
I am a social worker by day and drag socialite by night.
♪ ♪ Professionally, I am a behavioral health specialist, just a fancy term for a mental health therapist.
Like many immigrants from the Philippines, I moved to Seattle to join the rest of my family.
We have a strong and vibrant Filipino American community.
In fact, my very first drag pageant title happens to be the Miss Gay Filipino, which was sponsored by the Miss Gay Filipino of Seattle Community.
♪ ♪ As a Filipino American, it's absolutely important to recognize the, the social stigma of mental health.
This pandemic reminded me of how many people don't think of mental health as part of our overall health, that we often just concentrate on the physicality of our health, when really it's all of those things.
And part of that, too, is supporting patients while they're recovering.
While they're experiencing COVID, just imagine the anxiety.
Again, the fear.
Being able to provide someone with that kind of support, that can be so beautiful.
And sometimes, that's all that we need.
♪ ♪ I just love that in Philippine culture, we honor the Babaylans.
I embrace that identity, and I know I've been guilty of being socially conditioned to sequester myself in the binary, either being gay or straight, and being man or a woman.
But the Babaylan spirit and identity is so powerful.
Through colonialism and imperialism, we had to sort of bury it, and it's only now that we get to unearth it.
And I'm so proud of my fellow trans siblings and trans activists that talk about the Babaylan, that talk about two spirits, that talk about the healers that personify the different aspects of being a human being.
And I can't believe I'm using some of the drag tips and tricks that I've learned over the years, that I'm, I'm incorporating in providing behavioral health support.
Drag adds humor to topics that are often taboo, and that might induce hurt, but drag allows an opportunity to talk about it in beautiful ways.
It's allowed me to be even more understanding, even more compassionate, of fellow drag kings and queens, and our community at large.
To be a drag mother in a drag house, it's probably universal around... That natural tendency to be caring, helping, assisting someone to be their best self.
And it's become, now, an annual tradition that every year I have...
I give birth to a drag baby.
- Aleksa pretty much sent me a message one day, and she said, "I just feel like "I have to listen to the signs, and, like, "this is your moment-- the stars have aligned.
It's time to become a Manila."
- (singing "Happy Birthday" in Filipino) - Don't think of it as a drag career.
Just think of it as family.
You, you can't build community without knowing what community is to begin with, and for me, that is my drag house and my drag family.
- ♪ And my dream for Ayala is ♪ Hello?
Rule the world!
- Manila, Manila, Manila forever.
ALEKSA MANILA: I now know it means so much to me to be able to recognize all these different facets of my identity, both from a personal, professional, social, spiritual-- and all these things.
(breathes deeply) ♪ ♪ All to say that I feel so empowered, that...
I get to be proud of all these things: being a drag queen who does behavioral health, and a behavioral health specialist, therapist, whatever you want to call it, and being able to do drag simultaneously.
♪ ♪ (pans clanging) - As people nationwide were clanging pots and pans in support of essential workers, many restaurant kitchens fell silent.
Between March and April 2020, some 5.9 million restaurant workers lost their jobs.
Among them, chef Channing Centeno searched for a new way to share his passion for food and nourish his community as it became a battleground for social change.
♪ ♪ CENTENO: Food has always been the part of my Filipino culture that I've held onto the most and kind of understand the most, and it's the part that's the easiest to share.
♪ ♪ Having food to gravitate around, and having a cause like Black Lives Matter to gravitate around, really made you feel a sense of community that we lost during the pandemic.
♪ ♪ My name is Channing Centeno.
I've been working in restaurants since I was 12, 13 years old.
I was raised by a single mother, but for the first ten years of my life, we lived with my lola and pa. My lola would watch me often, and I would be in the kitchen, doing homework, sort of always being around her cooking, just always smelling garlic, and watching her cook, and soon as dinner was ready, she's, like, "Channing..." (speaks Filipino) I've always cooked my whole life, like, I, growing up, watching my lola cook, so I started working as a dishwasher.
I eventually moved up to busser.
I just remember one day, being in the restaurant and being, like, "Wow, I wanna do this for the rest of my life."
One of my favorite questions to ask someone when I first meet them, I was, like, "What kind of food did you grow up eating?"
'Cause it kind of says a lot about somebody.
I actually didn't learn how to cook until, like, I moved to New York City.
It was the height of winter when I started missing sinigang and chicken adobo.
- I called my mom over the phone.
- And she would walk you through how to make it.
- Walk me through how to make it, and then once I'm done making it, I was, like, "That's how easy it is?"
- Yes, and my lola has never taught me how to make this, but one day, I was making a steak marinade, and it turned out to start to taste like her bistek.
- (murmurs) - Here, I'm gonna put this in the oven here, these onions with the bistek, we're gonna dry them out.
- Yes, I mean, they're caramelizing.
- Got the adobo in there, too.
- In here, we have the adobo, we have the marinated onions for the bistek... - My favorite thing is my classic, like, Filipino, like, soy sauce, which is, like, soy, vinegar, and sesame, and... - Ooh!
- Lots of red onion and garlic.
- And lots of chilies.
- Raw garlic?
- That's-- raw garlic, yeah.
- Okay, maybe we'll make some of that for today.
♪ ♪ WOMAN: ♪ The grass is greener... ♪ CENTENO: My mother's Filipino, my dad is Black, and so, my mom had to raise a Black man, and the way that she raised me is, she always made me understand that, like, "Listen, "this country is the way it is.
"As a Black man, you're gonna suffer these injustices.
You can either cry about it, or you can push through."
One of the main reasons why I started to cook for the protests is because, I went to a vigil for the first time.
When I was there, so there was another Filipino lady who was passing out the banana lumpia, and so I connected with her, and I was, like, "Listen, I wanna cook something."
For the next protest, I cooked food, and everyone loved what I cooked.
That was the only peaceful way I could figure out how to, where to put my energy, so the food I cooked for people had a lot of energy and love, and maybe some anger and sadness behind it, but it was food that could help sustain.
Food is something for the soul that, that fuels just, more than just your body.
It gives you something to, to connect over.
It creates senses of community, and when people don't have that, it, it hurts them.
♪ ♪ Cooking kamayan with friends is amazing.
It's a feast, it's a family-style feast, so it's just large pieces of meat, large pieces of fish.
It's just, it's, it's great.
♪ ♪ Cooking a giant meal like that, it's such a fun thing.
It's like a, it's a dance.
♪ ♪ C.J.
LAPID: People would always ask, "How do you eat a kamayan?"
I mean, the best thing about a kamayan is, there's no wrong way of... NATHALIE NERA: There's no rules!
- Just, like, just get in there.
- What does it mean to be grounded and actually using our culture, right?
And, and, and... LAPID: Yeah.
ROCERO: Sharing our culture.
- We grew up in just very predominantly White neighborhoods, and I don't think I ever really fully embraced or really thought much about being Filipino.
I feel like I'm my most authentic self... ROCERO: Mmm.
- ...when I embrace it more.
- In our community, right, we have family members that are frontliners, nurses.
Who here has, you know... - My brother himself was a frontline worker.
Hospitals weren't prepared for it.
They didn't know how to handle it.
Like, they were running out of masks.
What I did for my brother for seven days, literally, I cooked for him every day, and that's how I got in touch with my cooking.
- I feel like, being in the restaurant industry, it's basically a form of taking care of people.
Cooking for someone, whether it's at home or for somebody else, it's a form that you care about that someone.
You know, even if it's, like, a soup for someone who's a little bit sick.
- Yeah, I consider it a frontline job.
You have people who are nurses that take care of you medically, or you have, like us, people who literally feed you and provide food for you.
- None of all the important things that happened, wouldn't be possible without the essential workers like us, you know?
Providing the food, providing healthcare, like nurses, but... We were part of the community that just, like, helped build a community that was broken.
♪ ♪ CENTENO: I have a friend who... She's kind of, can see someone's ancestors, and I remember she's talked about my ancestors, and what they've been saying, "Wow, I've been cooking before."
I always think about how deep, you know, back the food that I'm cooking goes, and how not everyone has tried chicken adobo, which is crazy to me.
I think chicken adobo should just be as popular as spaghetti and meatballs in the United States.
- It's my dream.
WOMAN: ♪ I said follow, we gonna make it there someday ♪ - In every place where frontline workers are needed, across the United States and worldwide, you'll find Filipinos ready to serve and care with all their hearts, treating every individual like part of the family.
WOMAN: ♪ We gonna make it here ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪