When Azela Oconor came to Oxnard to visit her sister in 1986, she never knew that she would find job-hunting so easy.
With a nursing degree from a Philippine university and two years of experience at a New York hospital, Oconor applied as a surgical room nurse at two hospitals in Ventura County and immediately landed interviews. Two weeks later, she snared a job at the Ventura County Medical Center.
For Filipinos such as Oconor, the nation's serious shortage of nurses has become a ticket for entry into the United States. Lured by annual wages of $40,000 and higher, Filipinos readily leave their homeland for a salary that far surpasses the dreams of most nurses in the Philippines. Often they find jobs within weeks of submitting an application.
"A lot of people go into nursing because they want to go to the United States," said Oconor, 33, who now lives in Oxnard. "In the Philippines, if you work as a nurse you can't afford anything."
Oconor is one of at least 500 Filipino nurses working in the area, according to estimates from the Filipino Nurses Assn. of Ventura County.
Association President Bea Gan said many more Filipinos who live here have nursing degrees but work as medical technicians and nurses' aides because they have not passed the exams required in the United States.
Most Filipino nurses came to Ventura County as wives of servicemen stationed at the Naval Air Station at Point Mugu or the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme. They settled in neighborhoods around the bases and found jobs at local hospitals. Others began nursing careers in the United States and brought husbands with them when they settled in Ventura County.
"It's easy to find a job anywhere in the world if you're a nurse," Gan said.
A number of retired Navy seamen like Al Bautista, 57, found second careers in nursing after stints in the military. Bautista spent 20 years as a Navy cook before he retired in 1974. Four years later, he was hired at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard.
Bautista is only one of the many Filipinos who work at St. John's. More than 100--about 24% of the 450 nurses--are Philippine-born, hospital officials estimate.
At Camarillo State Hospital, officials estimate that 93, or 44%, of the 211 nurses on staff are Filipino. Figures were unavailable for the Ventura County Medical Center, but Gan said at least a quarter of the 400-nurse staff comes from the Philippines.
Like Gan, whose first job was at a university hospital in Philadelphia, many Filipino nurses trained at teaching hospitals in the East and Midwest before settling in Ventura County. They are lured to the area by friends and family members who have joined the county's cluster of Filipinos in southeast Oxnard.
Most Filipino nurses are drawn to the United States by the dramatic increase in pay. Gan, for instance, was 23, newly married and making only 300 pesos, the equivalent of $30 a month, when she decided to leave her home in Manila. Her father, a retired U.S. Navy seaman, encouraged her to leave.
Like Oconor, some nurses say they were approached by U.S. hospital representatives sent to the Philippines to recruit workers. Others said poor working conditions drove them from their homeland.
Dee Manansala, 41, left the Philippines after working at a small, understaffed public hospital in Quezon City where medical equipment was outdated. "Even patients' families have to help change the beds," she said.
When Mellie Nagal, 50, graduated with a nursing degree in Manila, she said she was appalled at how friends and relatives of the staffs of Philippine hospitals landed all the best jobs.
Eventually, she got a job at a small hospital only because her aunt worked there as an accountant. She secured another job as a company nurse at a cigarette factory because a friend worked there.
"You cannot get a job unless you know someone at the hospital," she said. "You graduate from a university, and you cannot even get hired."
Since 1973, Nagal has worked at St. John's. Her first job was in the critical care unit, and she rose quickly in the hospital ranks to her present managerial post as an assistant vice president of nursing.
"I don't think I could be in my position if I was in the Philippines," she said.
At St. John's, a common religious and ethnic background has helped Filipinos create an informal network among job-seeking friends.
"This is a Catholic hospital, and 80% of Filipinos are Catholic," she said. "A lot of them live in Oxnard and Port Hueneme. Some of them refer friends here."
Nagal said she has only returned to the Philippines twice since she moved to Oxnard. Most of her relatives, including two sisters, a brother and her parents, live in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
"I still love the Philippines," she said, "but it's better here."