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FilAm Woman Heads California’s Largest Nurses Union

FilAm Woman Heads California’s Largest Nurses Union
By: Adelaide Chen

A group of registered nurses in red scrubs recently descended upon Sacramento calling for a solution to the growing number of uninsured patients. At a hearing inside the Capitol, Zenei Triunfo Cortez, a
practicing nurse with three decades of experience, listened intently to a proposal to cover all residents in the state.

An immigrant from the Philippines at age 19 and the third youngest of eight siblings, Cortez never thought she would lead the largest nurses' union in the state.

This fall, she joins three other women on the President's Council of the California Nurses Association to help represent 75,000 registered nurses and signify a shift in the demographics of a workforce swelling with nurses from the Philippines.

"She represents a huge breakthrough for Asian Americans in the labor movement," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. Wong noted that Asian American workers are heavily concentrated in California's healthcare industry but "few Asian American leaders are in top positions throughout the country."

"That was what inspired me to become a leader. I needed to inspire other Filipino nurses to step up and provide a leadership role," said Cortez, who is in her early 50s.

And the nurses she inspired have passed that lesson on by becoming supporters for others in the field.

"Zenei taught me that you need to be an advocate for nurses in order to give good patient care. They don't teach us that in nursing school," said registered nurse Melissa Macasieb-Paat, who is the
chief shop steward at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in South San Francisco, where Cortez works in the recovery room and has worked for 25 years.

Cortez has even taken her gospel of nurses' rights abroad: last January, Cortez spoke at a nursing school in the Philippines about the rights of nurses working abroad in the United States.

"If we don't keep fighting for new ones coming over, it will be very difficult for them to get started. I understand what they have to go through now," she said, recounting her arrival to the United States
in 1974. "If we provide them with an education and background, their chances of being exploited are less. One thing we have to make clear is that, even under a visa program, they are regular employees just like us."

Cortez comes from an extended family of nurses, including her older sister, niece and female cousin. Her three sisters-in-law went to nursing school in the Philippines before immigrating to the United
States. Her father's youngest sister was part of the first wave of Filipino nurses, migrating to the United States in the '60s as part of the U.S. Exchange Visitor Program.

The reasons so many nurses come from the Philippines are economic, she said. "If they stayed in the Philippines they would earn $300 a month. For us here, it's way more than that."

The Philippines is the largest exporter of nurses globally, according to the American Nurses Association. In California alone, 10 percent of new licenses issued by the state in 2005 were for individuals educated in a nursing school in the Philippines.

These numbers don't include the number of Filipino Americans educated in the United States, such as Cortez, who attended the South Chicago Community Hospital School of Nursing.

Cortez attends 6:30 a.m. mass most weekdays and will continue to work full-time upon becoming president this September. But she is planning some time off to join documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in promoting his new movie, Sicko, about the struggle for universal health care in America.

Five years ago, Cortez was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus and became a patient in the healthcare system. The advanced stages required surgery two weeks after the discovery and included nine weeks of radiation treatment, leaving her 65 pounds lighter.

"I was one of the fortunate ones," she said, crediting a strong union contract, which provided full medical coverage and eventually helped her beat the cancer.

"Nurses in California are really at the front line of health care reform," said registered nurse Kasi Chakravartula.

"Zenei shows the diversity of nurses reflected in our leadership," added California Nurses Association staff member Chito Quijano. "It just makes sense."

Source: and PhilNurse

This is Cathy Babao Guballa and I write for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I would like to interview Zenei Triunfo. Please email me at if you know how I can reach her. Thank you!

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