What We Need to Remember this National Hispanic Nurses Day

By: Melina Lopez, 2021 KE Fellow 

There’s no better time to think about what being a bisexual Mexican and Puerto Rican nurse means to me than when Bisexuality Awareness Week, Latinx Heritage Month and National Hispanic Nurses day happen at the same time. It’s hard, though, because I can never reflect on these identities as mutually exclusive. It’s even harder when I think about how within the greater scope in which these identities exist (i.e. bisexuality in the LGBTQ community, heritage in the Latinx community, and nurses in the healthcare field), each of these identities have long, deeply rooted histories of erasure and subjugation. 

For bisexuality, it’s the tendency to question the legitimacy of the sexual orientation and consider it less valid than being gay or lesbian. For heritage, it’s the phenotypical hierarchies of power that values lighter-skinned over darker-skinned Latinx people in sociopolitical contexts. For nurses, specifically Latinx nurses, it’s the use of gender as a rationalization to subject nurses to the male-dominated field that is medicine. 

I don’t have the privilege, or rather the ability, to separate these histories from one another since separating these realities would mean erasing their marginalized truth. In thinking about these identities, I’d like to specifically hone in on the role of U.S. imperialism in the history of professional nursing in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico, formerly a colony of Spain, became and still remains a colony of the U.S. under American Protestant missionaries seeking to bring salvation and civilization to Puerto Rico in the early 20th century by introducing hospitals and nursing schools to the island. These nursing schools adopted racist admission policies that excluded Afro-Puerto Rican women by arguing that allowing women of color into the nursing program was not in the best interest of the hospital, nor to the women. White nursing advocates for these ‘whites-only’ admission policies reveal an interesting acknowledgment, compliance, and continuation of women of color’s marginalization in nursing because they claim that Afro-Puerto Rican admission into these schools would not only undo all of the work to advance white women’s political power as nurses, their admission would be unfair to them because they would still be considered socially and professionally inferior to white nurses based on the island’s classification of race, which is a fluid hierarchy based on phenotypical registers of Blackness where money and education have the power to essentially ‘whiten’ Puerto Ricans and grant them higher social status. 

These imperial and local ideologies of race, in conjunction with the belief that Afro-Puerto Rican’s presence in nursing would weaken the white nurses’ political power in health, suggest that gender and social class superseded race when it came to the professionalization of Puerto Rican nursing. It’s important that we acknowledge these intersections this National Hispanic Nurses Day to show that while yes, Latinx nurses have made incredible strides in the advancement of nursing and deserve to be celebrated, we cannot deny how the execution of Nightingale nursing was done at the expense of Latinx, specifically Afro-Latinx, women. 

So, as we celebrate Bisexuality awareness week, Latinx heritage month, and National Hispanic Nurses Day, I urge you to pay special attention to the role American nurses have played in establishing the state of nursing in Latin America. I also caution us from celebrating the myth of homogenized, universal “Latinidad” this Latinx heritage month. Rather, let us all look at the US role as facilitators of these countries’ socialization into American norms and practices through the nursing field. 

Ellen Walsh, “’ Called to Nurse’: Nursing Race, and Americanization in Early 20th Century Puerto Rico, Nursing History Review 26 (2018): 138-171. 


Melina Lopez is an inaugural NSRH Karen Edlund Fellow, providing insights to the NSRH Community for Bisexual Awareness Week (September 16-23) and Latinx Heritage Month (September 15- October 15).