Glimpse at the Origins of Filipino Surnames

November 25, 2008

Almost all Filipinos have Spanish names, these names came from a decree (1849) that required everyone to have surnames similar to that of a Spaniard or at least derived from a list they provided. Before the implementation of the decree, most Filipinos were patronymic. No clear standard in naming children upon baptism. The practice of adopting names from the Catholic Saints were influence taken from the Friars. Narciso Claveria, the liberal and vigorous governor, foresaw that such practices of incoherent names of the natives (some even without it) would present challenges later on both in tax collections and records. Written records were very deficient at that time it made document verification difficult. Tracing ancestry before 1800’s was almost impossible.

Some Prehispanic tribes does not even possess surnames. There were instances that a child’s name was taken from his appearance or some natural event (some tribes even had a tribal culture of having no names). When the Friars started baptizing the Indios they initially started using names of saints, mostly naming people based on what the Saints feast day. This practice became the norm. Claveria’s decree amended this in 1847.

Aside from significantly improving the governments collection of tributes, the decree’s greatest gift was that it paved the way for the native to wholly integrate in the society (as would be in  the case of the Chinos). When the so called evolution of the Filipino identity finally became clear, the Catholic names, made it uncomplicated for the native without an education to function as fully accepted subjects within the society. A Christianized native, that had acquired a Christian name enjoy the benefits of having a name familiar with that of an elitist or a Spaniard. This method of making Hispanized names obligatory to all is often slandered as the doing of the Spaniards for they intend to completely control every aspects of the Filipino life, but a clear reading of its anon effects would illustrate how it improved the Christian communities, as it was visualized by Claveria.

Loose Guidelines

In most towns, individuals would have names opening with the same letter of the alphabet. The surnames were based on the town of origin. Those starting with “A” (like mine) are set aside for those people who dwells in capital. The outlying town receives names starting with the subsequent letters, “B” for the second town, “C” for third town. This practice was never across the board, there were exemptions. The last names was also based on the first letter of the town, such is the case of Capas, it was assigned to “C”, this explains the predominance of the surnames that starts with this letter, such is the case on other towns all over the islands colony.

The authors of the book State and Society in the Philippines has this to say, “A town would choose the names of one letter of the alphabet, a second choose the names of another letter, and so on. Until recently, one could tell the hometown of the an individual by his or her surname. This was true, for example, in Albay province. Those of Oas town, those with “O” from Guinobatan, and those with “B” from Tiwi. This also explains why many Filipinos today bear Spanish names although they may not have Spanish blood”

What was Claveria Thinking

Nowadays, whenever someone would raise the question on how a Filipino got his Iberian sounding name, others would be quick to point to the “decree” ordering everyone to take on a Spanish name without apparent explanation of what’s the reason behind it.

Claveria offers us his explanation:“During my visits to the majority of the islands, I observe that natives in general lack individual surnames which distinguished them by families. They arbitrarily adopt the names of the saints as their last names, this results to the results in the existence of thousands of individuals having the same surnames. Likewise, i saw the resultant confusion with the regard to the administration of justice, government, finance and public order and the far-reaching moral, civil and religious consequences to which thismight lead, because the familynames are not transmitted from the parents to their children, so that it is sometimes impossible to prove the degress of consanguinity for purposes of marriage, rendering useless the parochial books which in Catholic countries are used for all kinds of transactions.” he continues,”for the purpose of catalgue of family names has been compiled, including indigenous names collected by the reverend fathers provincial of the religious orders, and the Spanish surnames they have been able to acquire, along those furnished by the vegetable and mineral kingdoms, geography, arts, etc. In view of the extreme usefulness and practicality of this measures, the time has come to issue a directive for the formation of a civil register, which may not only fulfill and ensure the said objectives, but also serve as the basis for the statistics of the country, guarantee the collection of taxes, the regular performance of personal services, and the receipt of payment for exemptions. It likewise provides exact information of the movement of the population, thus avoiding unauthorized migrations, hiding taxpayers, and other issues.”

The decree after all was not conceived out of greediness and malevolence intent but by having a successful administration of records. The Governor plainly stated the benefits of having surnames for the natives on the long run would prevail over its initial awkwardness. This order that gave us the names that we still bear with us until now is perhaps the greatest impression of the Spanish era aside from our religion.

Some Exceptions

There were exceptions, indication of the orders flexibility, i.e., the direct descendants of ancient rulers (i.e., Mojica, Tupas etc.) were excluded and were permitted to maintain their surnames. The Tagalog nobility was also spared (i.e., Gatmaitan, Hilario etc.) this is the reason why we still hear these surnames up to now. For the rest were given regulated name (based on the Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos). There were those who were ordered to take on unique surnames (usually names of flora & fauna) to make them more visible, like in the case of the Rizals, which already had Mercado, a name taken by the first Francisco Mercado (Domingo Lam Co’s son). Its interesting to note however that Asuncion Bantug pointed out in her book “Si Lolo Jose”, that the reason behind the change was that original Francisco hated the name Mercado for it means “market”, choosing another name, Ricial. The Mercados later on started using their second last name, Rizal, as an act of uniting behind Jose’s flight.

With the decree also came the opportunity for those without surnames to obtain one. A catalog of names where one could pick was handed to the natives (a directory of Spanish names). The Friars being elected as the agents of organization during the initial years of the decree proved to be successful. The policy was generally realized and Claveria’s requirements of a unified registry was created and this would give the Filipino today a way to trace their lineage. The practice also made sure that the surname of the the mother would be attached, this explains “y” (police, NBI and other national records) after the fathers surname. According to the study prepared by Pepe Alas, we’re the only nation now that still follow this format.

The Chino Christiano

These Mestizos were allowed to hold on to their name Chinese surnames. This was accredited by the administrators so as for these Mestizo’s not to lose their lineage and culture. It was a regular practice also then to generate a last name by merging Chinese names, like that of their parents (i.e., Yu -chen -co, Lim -cau -co etc.). Many of this surnames having “co” at the end because of the Hokkienese polite suffix of “ko” (meaning “big brother”). There were also occasions that the Catholic Filipino Chinese would blend their native names to that of a Christian name, this adaptation is unique and is said to be the only one of its kind in the world. Contrary to what most accept as true, that these names were imposed without due considerations, the Christianized Chinese mestizo’s supplies us with a clear example of the laws flexibility (like the considerations for the Tagalog noble clans). The decree was in no way meant to disassociate the Filipino to his native origins and his family.

The Filipino Chinese then was different from the Baba of Malaya and the Javanese Peranakan, both Chinese immigrants, as Wickerberg says, ” the Chinese mestizo in the Philippines was not a special kind of Chinese, he was a special kind of Filipino”.

This points to the fact of the Filipino Chinese integration to the Filipino society – they became a Filipinos, their prosperity and influence during the Spanish era is a proof of their contributions to the society as key actors.The other Sino immigrants in the neighbouring colonized regions, the Filipino Chinese was not restrained in their comunity but was encouraged to integrate and participate. It was observed that some eventually lost attachment to the Chinese culture and as the author of the book “Brains of the Revolution” says, “instead, a very strong affinity for a Philippine version of Hispanic culture”, referring to the Mestizo’s preference to the hispanic culture.”

Looking back

Contrary to the claims of renowned historians that this decree stripped us of our native identity, the scheme actually restored the self-esteem for the Filipino then. Today, as we go on with our contemporary lives, we have government agencies going up the mountains and registering natives (for administration, medical and educational purposes), in some cases, missionaries meet up with this tribes to baptize them and give them Christian names, how is this different from what the Claveria decree formed?

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  1. Interestingly though, most of the more known Spaniards in our history had Basque surnames: Urdaneta, Lardizabal, Zuzuarregui, Legaspi, Inchausti, Zobel, Ayala…

  2. The Basques were foremost shipbuilders and mariners, this is the reason why they have played major roles in expeditionary conquest for Spain – in our country, the majority of the pioneers that first arrived were Basque, from the conquistadors to the missionaries, our first Catholic Bishop for example, Domingo de Salazar was Basque, the success of the Manila-Acapulco trade lured more of them here, the greatest Spanish defender of Manila, Simon de Anda was Basque, even Crisostomo Ibarra of Rizal, was Basque. Most of the political class, now and then are of Basque ancestry.

  3. Rightfully so. We owe much to the Basques. Too bad they didn’t spread Euskera, that would’ve made things more interesting.

    That’s also why it’s a misnomer to label the Spaniards as “Kastila”; this should be rectified in our educational system.

  4. The Basque came here as Spanish agents, missionaries and conquistadores – the ones that got here were very loyal to Spain, as De Anda would prove when he fought the Brits.

    We refer to them then as “Kastila” because of the language, not becasue they were from that region, the Castillian version of Spanish was referred to as the “Spanish” standard then – some say its Spanish in its purest form, like Bulacan is to Tagalog back in the days.

  5. Call a Basque “Kastila” and you’d find your ass in ETA’s hitlist.

    Even today, the colloquial term for Spaniards is “Kastila.” Like I said, this doesn’t do justice to our colonizers; most of them were Basques, Galicians, and Andalusians. It gives a wrong impression that Spain is homogenous with Castille. As you know there were many independent kingdoms that existed prior to the marriage of Isabel of Castille and Fernando of Aragon which marked the forming of Spain as a single political unit. It was at this time when Castillian became the language of prestige, and everyone else started to adopt its use, displacing all the other languages (Leonese, Aragonese, Galician, Asturian, etc).

    Can’t we just call them “mga Español” instead?

  6. re Kastila. It is not our fault that when Spain was colonizing the country, it was the dynasty of the kings of Castilla and Aragon who were ruling Spain. Where we got Kastila–we did not invent the term out of ignorance, it must have come to us from the colonizers themselves. And why did Basque, Galicians, Catalans allow themselves to sail to the Philippines under the Spanish Castilian banner. Everything just happened that way.

  7. Gosh, nold, the comments made me forgot what were my original thoughts: that you’re a very good writer who also happens to love his topics! There…

  8. Your too kind Senor, thank you, I never thought much of myself as a writer [this article is chock-full of grammatical errors, I write on the spot and rarely edit my blogs- but I’m glad you like it], I consider writing as an act of faith, what you write would either make a connection or get wholly disregarded as a worthless piece [and I’m very familiar to this one] – but my dream has always been to write so that people would be more conscious of the Filipinos past, we’re a generation persuaded to detest our true historical foundation, we were educated to recognize myths rather than factual history, for those of us who understand, we have a responsibility to right these leyenda negras. I’ve added you on my blog list – thank you again for dropping by.

  9. Cual no era mi sorpresa cuando descubrí la existencia del apellido Asprer en Filipinas. Este apellido poco extendido en Cataluña hoy en día, quedamos cuatro, veo que en Filipinas es muy usado.
    Imagino que los Asprer Filipinos no tienen el mismo origen que los catalanes, sino que lo obtuvieron de ese “Catálogo de Apellidos” a partir del “decreto Clavería”, para facilitar el censo e “hispanizar” su nombre.
    Agradecería que algún Asprer filipino me lo pudiera corroborar

    1. Necesita estudiar la lista de apellidos de Claveria. Es posible que el nombre Asprer no esta en el Catalogo o no fue usado por el Catalogo como un apellido. Entonces los Asprer filipinos son descendantes probablemente de una familia Cataluna porque la practica de Claveria no fue por toda la poblacion.

  10. No había aclarado que el origen del apellido Asprer, está en la provincia de Barcelona en Cataluña (España), en concreto en Sant Joan de les Abadesses.

    1. Hola:

      Entre mi familia ancestral tengo registrado a don Joan Pau De Salvador y d’Asprer, oriundo de Vilafranca del Penedès, nacido en el siglo XVIII. Agradecería cualquier información acerca de su familia, porque de su historia hay bastante información, pero no doy con sus padres, abuelos ni demás parientes.

      Un saludo desde México

      Viviana Tort

  11. @Gil – Asprer comienza con la letra “A” (i.e., apellidos catalán; Alas, Abella, Aguilar, Arballo, Agosti…are common Filipino surnames) – podría ser la razón por la que fue elegido por algunas familias en el catálogo.

  12. The development of our names, indeed were a product of social and management development during the Philippines under the Spanish Government stage.

    Yes Castila is just one region of the whole Nation of Spain. Castila being a part of Spain, is Spanish. But Spanish which covers many regions including Castila, is not necessarily Castila.

    The Basques or Euskaldunak are considered as the oldest and purest race in Europe. They have produced great artists, businessmen, soldiers and political leaders in places mostly where the Spaniards or French heavily interacted like in Spain and France and their former colonies. That is why they are proud of their race and want to preserve it. Whether a people are militarily and economically powerful and known or not, we should give them due respect as a people.

    In the same manner that we Filipinos should be respected as far as our sovereignty, dignity and aspirations as a people is concernd. But unlike the Euskaldunak, we Filipinos should have self-respect first as in the case of the American behavior towards our Filipino soldiers and civilians. As of the present, the Americans are already stepping on our feet but the Filipino soldiers among us, are the first ones to defend the Americans.

    Let us be aware of our national identity. Let us recover it.

  13. As Filipinos, we have a national identity that is culturally rich and diverse. We should embrace this diversity and use it as a springboard for progress and unity.

    We should recognize the contributions of all Filipinos of different backgrounds wherever there ancestors may have originated.

    From Filipino-Chinese to Basque Filipinos; to Filipinos without a hyphen, the Philippines is better off because of their contributions and commitment to the country.

    From world-class cigars to the oldest chinatown in the world; and the best empanada in the hispanic world, the Philippines has it. Mabuhay!

  14. how about our barangays? was there a decree naming them so? i ask this because there were so many barangays in our town in romblon which start with a prefix “ag”, like agbaluto, agnipa, agpanabat…etc..

  15. how about our barangays? how were they named? was there a decree? in our town romblon, romblon, theres a lot of barangay whose names start with prefix “ag”, like agnipa, agpanabat..etc…how this came about?

    1. @Hipolito – Maybe, and this a guess like all the rest, they decided to name their communities using their own language and that those evil kastila, recognizing that these people, who like them immigrated to these isolated islands, have some tradition that deserves to be recognized, recorded them in the books. And there, we have written history we can all be proud of. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, do you?

  16. I thought the hispanization of Filipino names started earlier in the 17th century, A grand uncle Ignacio Meliton, a curator of the University of Nueva Caceres in Naga City was said to have traced the Meliton lineage up to the 18th century. And so with the Ballecer Family which lineage I intend to trace also from the beginning of the 18th century..

    1. Those who bears Spanish names because they’re Spanish carries that name and from what I gather need not adapt any other names. Which I believe is the case for your ancestors (even after marriage with a local girl). Those who had acquired new Hispanized names were those who did not have Spanish names to start with. But these were not implemented against the wish of those who wanted to keep their ‘noble’ heritage. Which explains why even after this order, so many kept their native names with only the spelling being changed to adapt to the Spanish language.

  17. I have two questions on the topic:
    1. Based on the distribution of surnames by General Claveria, does it mean that those with similar surnames are necessarily related?
    2. I am trying to trace the origin of my family surnames; Sumido, Arcos and Alamo. Are these surnames Spanish, Mexican or local?

    Muchas gracias por su ayuda

      1. So no public online copy then? Too bad, I was interested in that catalogue but then we are talking about Philippine history, rarely digitalized and accessible to the common folk.

  18. I was wondering why in Laguna & Batangas we still have Filipino surnames eg. Dimasupil, Dimaguila, Malabuyoc, etc… and why we ended up with Maligalig as a surname. The good thing is if your last name is Maligalig then we are related. Hihihi…

    1. Traditional names like yours was retained since these were your ancestors noble character or known trade or in some cases names of nobility (i.e., names with “gat”, lika gatmaitan, gatchalian etc). Contrary to common belief, the Spaniard did not implemented the decree to erase traditional names. They did it for taxation purposes, not to purge the island of preSpanish names. So many Filipinos today still have their ancestors name like my accounntant friend Dimaculangan. He’s a top tier accountant by the way.

  19. I’d like to know about Filipinos that have Spanish surnames
    before Claveria produced the Catalogo. I have ancestors from before 1849 that have Spanish surnames (I don’t want to come across as someone who wishes to have Spanish ancestry, by the way. I do genealogy for fun, and I have managed to get the names of my great-great-great-grandparents and a great-great-great-great-grandfather. All of them have Spanish names and surnames. One surname, Cuneta, apparently has record in Spain (a relative was in the country and decided to get information about the surname, and he found the family’s coat of arms with Spanish motto written underneath it. I saw it myself but only in the form of a poster. I don’t give much attention and importance to oral accounts because I prefer to see the DOCUMENTS myself.)

    I have two hypothesis: 1) The patriarch is either a Spaniard or half, 1/4, 1/8, etc., or 2) the patriarch heard the word from a Spanish-speaking person (this, I believe, is much more plausible)

    I want answers. Hence, I’m asking someone who I believe has it. Thank you, and I’m glad I came across this blog. 🙂

    1. Claveria made the usage of Spanish surname prevalent (for tax purposes and documentation) but natives adopting Spanish surnames was common, Spanish names or a hispanized one is required for baptism and documentation. Your features should tell you if you have Spanish ancestry. Just sayin’ ☺

      1. Thank you very much! I’ll add the information to the family’s history. I’m not surprised, actually, because Pablo Cuneta looked Chinese. I suspect one of his parents or forefathers were Chinese and adapted a Spanish surname.

        And yes, I know. I look Chinese but my brother looks mestizo. A paternal great-grandmother was half-Spanish and got some of her looks. I look nothing like him. 😂

        Anyhow, thank you again. I appreciate it! ^^

  20. As a Canadian of English ancestry, I have only recently started learning about the fascinating pre WW2 history of The Philippines and the Filipino people and am equally fascinated by their predominately Spanish surnames. My GF’s surname (Abuque; pronounced “ah-boo-kay”)) is apparently very rare (even in the Spanish-speaking world) and is mostly isolated to the Philippines, where even there it is not widespread. She claims that it may be a derivative of the surname Albuquerque, though I have not been able to find any evidence of this through Google searches.

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