Filipino nurses started joining New Zealand’s medical workforce in the early 2000s. Monina Hernandez, head of the Filipino Nurses Association of New Zealand, says the Philippines is one of the top producers of healthcare workers in the world, and that our medical professionals are known to the best in the field. More than 5,000 Filipino nurses have qualified for positions in New Zealand this year alone, making up more than 9% of the NZ workforce.
So it was quite curious that in “Shortland Street,” the island country’s longest-running medical drama—it’s been on television for almost three decades—there’s never been a Filipino doctor or nurse in the narrative. That is, until recently, when a dusky Kapampangan beauty by the name of Marianne Infante joined the cast as Filipino registered nurse Madonna Diaz.
Marianne meets Madonna
Madonna was at the peak of her career as the Director of Nursing back home in the Philippines. She cuts quite a strong figure. Like the real-life Marianne, Madonna is “very outspoken, determined, loud and tenacious when it comes to our work and our roots,” said the Filipina actress in a previous interview.
Everything was well and good until a surprising turn of events changed Madonna’s life forever. She fell in love with a Kiwi. This prompted her to take a leap of faith—move to New Zealand and start a new life there. In a twist of fate, however, Madonna and her husband’s marriage leads to a separation, which makes her a single mother. This is where her story revolves.
Raised in Sindalan and Minalin Pampanga, Marianne says her character speaks so much of who Filipinos are at the core—“extremely resilient.” She can very much relate to her role, taking inspiration from her parents who made sure she and her sister would have a better future in Aotearoa (the Māori name of New Zealand) where the family has been based. The Infante family moved to NZ when Marianne was 11 so she practically grew up there.
“I have a lot of gratitude for the hard work and sacrifices [that] my parents did,” she told ANCX in an interview hosted by New Zealand-based PSTV5online. “A lot of my groundwork for building Madonna is based on that tenacity—making sure that solo mothering is honored and raising a child in a foreign land is implemented well in the story.”
For Marianne, what happens to Madonna pretty much happens to people in real life. “Life is hard for anyone who has to uproot and replant themselves somewhere and I think [Madonna] is a very nuanced character, so I really have to listen to what she has to say—not just me saying her lines but where this character really wants to go.”
The bright-eyed actress says she doesn’t need to look that far for inspiration because her mother, like Madonna, works in the medical service. She is a mental health support worker, while Marianne’s sister is a clinician. Also, their family often encountered Filipino healthcare workers in the past when they were in and out of the hospital taking care of a cousin with cerebral palsy. Filipinos were at the emergency room, at the reception, at the nursing station, or at the lab taking blood samples, she says.
Making an impact
Marianne, thru her agency, had to audition for the role of Madonna by sending a self-tape. “The first time I read the script, I said, ‘I’m going to be me.’ In terms of my voice, how I would deliver the line—it’s like how I would speak if my Mama was talking to me,” she shares. “I just connected with the character and I unapologetically spoke in our Filipino accent.” Two weeks after, she found out she got the job.
For Marianne, who graduated with a Bachelor in Performing and Screen Arts degree at Unitec, Auckland in 2016, landing the role in “Shortland Street” could help pave the way for more Filipinos to be represented in New Zealand TV. There were a few Filipino actors that had appeared on the show in the past, but they did not play the role of a Filipino. One of Marianne’s biggest dreams as someone in the performing arts is “normalizing our moreno/morena faces onscreen.”
“I’d like to make people aware of how Filipinos sound and look like,” she says. The actress admits she still encounters questions like “Are you Samoan? Are you Māori?” and she would always proudly introduce herself as a Filipino, complete with her strong Pinay accent.
Before clinching the role on “Shortland Street,” Marianne has been very active in Aotearoa’s theater scene. She had written and starred in Aotearoa’s first Filipino-NZ theatre production titled “Pinay,” which was directed by Kiwi-Filipino writer and comedian James Roque. The said play premiered at Basement Theatre in 2019, presented by Proudly Asian Theatre. “I wouldn’t call it a break into stardom or anything, but it was when I felt most comfortable in my own skin, my culture, and in the profession I am most passionate about.”
Marianne would like to see more Filipinos in New Zealand’s creative spaces—whether it be in theater, TV, or film. There is a prevailing stereotype that the path to success and financial stability in NZ would be to carve a career as a nurse, doctor, engineer etc. “I would also like to encourage them that the arts can be a path as well,” she says.