Opinion: Filipino-American nurses' language lawsuit a civil rights victory for all
Filipino-American nurses in California recently won a discrimination lawsuit.
September 24th, 2012
01:20 PM ET

Opinion: Filipino-American nurses' language lawsuit a civil rights victory for all

Editor's Note: Emil Guillermo is a journalist and author. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and at www.amok.com.

By Emil Guillermo, Special to CNN

(CNN) - To the average American, the name Wilma Lamug may not have any meaning at all. But to the more than 3 million people in the Filipino-American community, the name could some day be as important as that of Rosa Parks.

Lamug and 68 other nurses in California’s Central Valley have achieved a major victory in their two-year language discrimination fight against the Delano Regional Medical Center. Without admitting guilt, the medical facility has agreed to undergo anti-discrimination training and monitoring, and more importantly, pay out a settlement to the nurses of nearly $1 million, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The nurses’ advocates at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center call the deal the largest language discrimination settlement in the U.S. health care industry.

Some might be very familiar with discrimination based on skin color or an ethnic look - but based on language or accented English? Some people - especially those who feel that English and only English should be spoken in America - might lack sympathy.

If that’s you, the case of the Filipino nurses of Delano, California, is instructive to understand how language discrimination can lead to a hostile workplace, one that’s unhealthy and illegal.

Attorneys for the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission said the Delano nurses faced “constant harassment and humiliation when they opened their mouths, or talked with family members on the phone,” the LA. Times reported. Essentially, the nurses were suppressed by an outright ban against speaking Tagalog or any other native Filipino dialect anywhere on hospital grounds. Although other languages from other countries like Mexico and India were spoken at the hospital, only the Filipino speakers were targeted. In fact, co-workers and security guards all were encouraged to be “vigilantes” and report any incidents of speaking in Filipino dialects. Anyone caught in violation of the language policy was threatened with suspension and termination.

The hostility and intimidation reached a tipping point in 2006. When Lamug launched a complaint to management after a hospital worker reacted to the distinctive scent of Filipino food, which is often fried and garlicky or with a fish-like aroma. Lamug claimed the co-worker sprayed room deodorizer directly on a Filipino nurse’s lunch, the L.A. Times reported.

The ugly incident brought out a real hatred for all things Filipino and is directly related to the language ban. The situation gave Lamug the courage to speak out and organize others, which ultimately led to the suit alleging civil rights violations against the hospital.

Ironically, what people were reacting to wasn’t always a Filipino dialect. "Sometimes, we were speaking English,” Lamug said in the L.A. Times. “But due to our accent and diction, they thought we were speaking something else.”

As a Filipino-American, I can hear Lamug just by reading her quote. It is the accent of my parents, a sound I hear in my ear and in my heart.

Tagalog and the other dialects all have a Spanish lilt, thanks to more than 300 years of Spanish colonization. And thanks to decades of American colonialism, English is an official Philippine language, too. Pronunciation gets tricky. Some Filipinos pronounce the V sound like a B - "banilla ice cream," for example - or the F and P sounds can mix - Porky Pig might be “Forky Fig."

It can make for some unintended humor. But  when their accented English brought on the ire of hospital management, there was nothing humorous about how they were treated.

In some ways, it’s particularly fitting that the nurses in Delano have triumphed. The history of Filipino immigrant protest in the United States dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, well before Cesar Chavez and his United Farmworkers. At that time, Filipino immigrants were the primary farm workforce in California and were organized by Filipino-American labor leaders Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong. It was Itliong in 1965 who led the walkout at table grape farms, in what is known in labor history as the Delano grape strike.

As the farmworkers came to be dominated by Mexican labor, Chavez took over the union and most of the Filipinos left the fields. As new immigrants from the Philippines continued to arrive in this country, many turned to the health services area, including thousands who work under special visas to fill nursing shortages. Hence the critical nature of the Delano case: If this could happen in a hospital in Delano, where Filipinos are up to 12% of the population, most assuredly it is happening to some degree elsewhere, where Filipinos are just another immigrant group.

But will those Filipino-Americans have the courage to fight back like Lamug and the Delano nurses?

I don’t speak with an accent, and can sound like a white man from Omaha, Nebraska. But there have been times when, as a young reporter, I would be subjected to overly chummy managers all too willing to share their racist jokes in a Filipino accent. Too young and insecure to fight back, I only wish I had had the fighting spirit of the nurses back then.

Most of the time Filipino-Americans do not file suit, preferring to “go along to get along.” It means the bullying and intimidation are allowed to take place and slowly fester, with Filipinos left to internalize the racism that clearly has no place in America.

Indeed, to all immigrants who speak with an accent - not just Filipino-Americans - the Delano nurses’ triumph is an inspiration.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Emil Guillermo.

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. sky guy

    If they don't like speaking english, then tell them to press 1.

    October 27, 2012 at 11:49 am | Report abuse |
  2. k_Daraa

    I discriminate when communicants with the english-speaking public, don't retain the skills to do the job, which often happens with people that speak a foreign language at home, and english as a second language, at work.

    October 20, 2012 at 4:02 am | Report abuse |
  3. Karl

    I am sitting in my iunsrance office and my co-worker is updating us on Scout! As a mother, my heart is breaking for you all as this journey has to be mentally and physically wearing you down. I truly believe in miracles and stand in agreement that God will destroy this infection that is in Scout's precious body, I pray that God will give the Doctors the answers to get this under control and that he will restore her back to 100% health in the NAME OF JESUS! Praying for you all to be renewed with strength and praying blessings and many more blessings to come to your family and little Scout!Continous prayers and hang in there. God BlessMelissa Somerville

    October 15, 2012 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
  4. CWilliams

    Interesting. I have requested that healthcare team members please communicate physician orders in English. However I cannot conceive of a restriction on a foreign language for general conversation or a private phone conversation. How could such an order not be seen as restrictive and discriminatory? I say the $1 million is a great education tool. Good for those brave nurses!

    October 9, 2012 at 1:06 am | Report abuse |
    • babydoc

      The $1 million won't come out of the pockets of the people who were perpetrating the discrimination – so they won't learn. Some lawfirm will get a big payday though.

      October 27, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. WinniDog

    What we don't want is a Tower of Babble. A common language, say English, is for all to use so that we can communicate. Those that speak other languages should be congratulated. Our country is a proverbial melting pot of many cultures and languages, all of which contributed to our greatness. Local dialects notwithstanding, 'tis still English that should be spoke, y'all. It's sad that so many citizens seem to want everyone to be the same. That's against human nature. Frankly, I can't imagine a more boring life than one without diversity. Let's spend less time harping on our differences and concentrate one getting along with each other, showing tolerance toward others that differ from us.

    October 7, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • ker

      No, you did not just say that!!!

      "It's English that should be spoke..... It's sad that so many citizens seem to want everyone to be the same."

      OMG do you NOT see the hypocrisy???

      October 15, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. T.C. Couhig

    This is the most ridiculous thing I've read in a while. Who are these idiots policing language? Air freshener on someone's meal? It almost sounds like fiction. Sad that it actually happened.

    October 4, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
  7. karen

    Absolutely, it's a victory. The U.S.A is more of a melting pot today than ever before. Each culture enriches our society. Bad behavior is usually reflective of bad management. There should be no tolerance for bad behavior in any setting for any reason. This is especially true in a professional setting where people are supposedy educated in cultural diversity.

    October 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Retired Nurse

    I have worked with some real pieces of work in the nursing industry. There is a saying that nurses eat their young – I wonder sometimes if it is really true. To think that people who are "committed" to caring for the sick and are supposedly compassionate can act this way in the workplace against someone based on how they talk sure makes me wonder.

    October 2, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amani

      We will be vigilantly panyirg for Scout and your family! Our son Jonathan spent the first five months of his life in the NICU, he had to have major surgery to connect his esophagus to his stomach at 8 weeks old. It was an 11 hour surgery and thanks to God, against all odds it was successful. Like Scout, his lungs collapsed after surgery and he got pnuemonia. Those days following surgery were full of setbacks. Prayers went out all over FB, and I KNOW they helped!! Our little Jonathan is such a joy and inspiration to us, and I know Scout is the same for you! My heart just went out to you and your family, it took me right back to our hospital days! Thanks for keeping us updated, and we will pray, pray, pray!! 17 months later, Jonathan continues to improve and get stronger everyday, I Know Scout will too!!

      October 13, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Bing

    After reading this, I'm sure that any American-Filipino medical worker would be smoothly assimiliated into Filipino society and warmly welcomed into the medical community even if they spoke broken Filipino. And if these American-Filipino medical workers sued their Filipino employers, their employers would all be punished with a hefty settlement payment and subjected to "insensitivity" training classes, and it would be cons celebrated as a "Civil Rights Victory For All!." Oh, that's right, they don't believe in civil rights unless they are in someone elses country where they can flaunt their own ethnicity at the societal expense of the host nation.

    September 28, 2012 at 3:29 am | Report abuse |
  10. Marjorie

    @ Jorge......well said! ahahahaaaaaa

    September 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jorge

    How funny, all these English-only comments from folks with barely adequate spelling and redaction skills, who ignore that there are thousands of U.S. citizens from New Mexico, New Orleans, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Marianas Islands, for whom English is a second language. There are no provisions in federal law imposing reasonably acceptable English as a prerequisite for citizenship, otherwise hundreds of thousands of Southerners, with their barely intelligible FoghornLeghornGooberPootytangese, Midwesterners with their vocabulary-challenged YosemiteSamFestusese and Northeast Tristaters with their every-third-word-is-a-profane-utterance Brooklynese would have to be deported tout-suite.

    September 26, 2012 at 7:39 am | Report abuse |
    • laura

      I am Southern, white, open minded and kind. I work with Filipino personnel at a hospital, Muslims from Africa, and black and white Americans. We are all good to each other. I can understand them, they understand me just fine. I Don't assume everyone is ignorant because of where they live.

      October 21, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Denver_mike

    As someone whom must communicate with several dozen nurses daily, most usable to communicate in reasonable english,i find this disgusting. the customer pays the price.

    September 25, 2012 at 10:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Denver_mike

      I ment unable to communicate, darn auto correct. I also have to say accents are fine, but the paper work, and MARs are all in english. If you cannot communicate in the common language, learn or GTFO

      September 25, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
      • Marinalva

        Mandy, Gabe I will pray for Scout. Keep believing..it rellay helps! Our Son Trey has had many procedures done and he has come through them all. These kids are all miracles in how they recover. We are thinking of Scout and rellay praying that everything works out and she recovers fully. God Bless Scout and her FamilyTony

        October 15, 2012 at 2:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonquil

      This wasn't about communication. It wasn't about their being unable to do their jobs and communicate with patients and co-workers, in a language that the majority of this country speak and has been spoken in America since this country was founded.

      It sounds like some nasty people in this workplace chose to single-out these Filipino-American co-workers because of their accents, the language they spoke during personal conversations and what foods they chose to eat for lunch. It sounds like the perpetrators were nasty pieces of work, just picking on co-workers because they felt like it. This had nothing to do with patient safety and occupational competence. That's the difference.

      September 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |