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A point of interest in the history of the Filipinos is the evolution of names; here is a gist of what transpired through the centuries

In the Philippines, a Spanish surname does not necessarily mean a Hispanic lineage; though quite a few would like to think so, even bringing home their family’s “coat-of-arms” bought from a souvenir shop in Madrid as bragging rights. But unless you know for sure, whether from family records or lore, that you are descended from a Spanish immigrant—be he a soldier, a businessman, or a friar—your Spanish-sounding surname may find its ancestor only as far back as 1850, in a book called Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos.

The catalogue accompanied the 1849 Claveria Decree which mandated all Filipinos to adopt a family name. It presented 60,288 surnames, mostly Spanish, from which all the indios (natives) with a few exceptions, must choose. The decree, enacted in 1850, was the initiative of Don Narciso Claveria y Zaldua, then the governor general of the Philippines. Claveria must have been an orderly man and an organised leader who could not stand the mess in a nation without a system of surnames. Indeed, that posed a problem, particularly in attempting to prove the degrees of consanguinity for marriage purposes as well as for matters of tax and inheritance.

With the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521, but before the enactment of the Claveria decree, names, both first and last, were casually adopted by the natives. Most popular were those of saints such as San Jose and Santamaria, often resulting in multiplicity, as in the case of Santos, commonly considered the Filipino Smith. This was aggravated by a Church rule of giving the sacrament of Baptism only to those with religious names. Ergo, the proliferation of the name Maria.

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Above Don Narciso Claveria y Zaldua (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

We can cite the case of the great-great grandfather of our national hero Dr Jose Rizal from the writings of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP). Lam-co (“Lam, esq” in English, “co” being a notable title in Chinese ancestry) migrated to the Philippines sometime in the late 1600s. On a Sunday in 1697, at the age of 35, he was baptised at the San Gabriel Church in the predominantly Chinese community of Binondo and adopted “Domingo”, his baptismal day, as his first name.

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Domingo Lam-co married the Chinese mestiza Ines de la Rosa and had a son born in 1731. The boy was named Francisco but for his surname, he was given the name Mercado, believed to be a gesture of gratitude to another friar of the same name, as well as after a Spanish mestizo friar renowned for his botanical studies. The NHI notes, “The surname ‘Mercado’, which means ‘market’ in Spanish, was quite appropriate, too, since many ethnic Chinese were merchants, and many having adopted the same surname.”

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Above Catalofo Alfabetico de Apellidos (Photo: Philippine National Archives, Manila / Wikimedia Commons)

In general, however, there was hardly any system to speak of. Surnames were not handed down to the next generations; siblings assumed different surnames in some cases.

Although in the case of Francisco Mercado, he passed on his name to his son, Juan, who did the same to his children, one of whom was Rizal’s father, also named Francisco.

So, where did the family name Rizal come from? NHCP writes that when the Claveria decree was imposed, Francisco chose the additional surname, which came from the Spanish word ricial, connoting a green field or a pasture. Was Mercado not Spanish enough for Francisco? Did it not exempt the family from being required to change their name? Or, did Francisco want a name associated with what he did, which was farming?

For whatever reason, the prominent Rizal historian Ambeth Ocampo confirmed: “The family was not exempted from the 1849 Claveria decree.”

In an e-mail to Tatler, he added: “And contrary to popular belief, especially what we are taught in school that Jose Rizal did not use Mercado so he would not be associated with his elder brother Paciano, the national hero actually used both Mercado and Rizal when he was in school in the Ateneo and UST. Sometimes he used the surnames interchangeably, sometimes he used both.” As a side note, Paciano had gained notoriety with his links to Father Jose Burgos, one of the three martyr priests known as Gomburza; and a popular supposition is he suggested that Jose use the surname Rizal for Jose’s own safety.

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In an additional comment, Ocampo said that many “old pre-Hispanic surnames” were exempted from the decree. These names were usually “qualities of warriors [Dimayuga, Dimagiba, Macaspac, Macapagal, Catacutan, etc] and those that were of the pre-Hispanic upper class [not royalty] such as Gatbonton and Gatmaitan”.

These names are covered by the fourth rule of the Claveria decree which states: “Natives of Spanish, indigenous, or Chinese origin who already have a surname may retain it and pass it on to their descendants.” The key to the retention of names is stipulated in rule number five: that “families can prove that they have kept for four generations their surname”. But not all cases. “…those like de la Cruz, de los Santos, and some others which are so numerous that they would continue producing confusion, may pass them on to their descendants; the Reverend Fathers and the heads of provinces are advised to use their judgment in the implementation of this article,” rule number five continues.

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Some pre-Hispanic names spared from obliteration by the decree were: Africa, Altamirano, De los Reyes, Gonzales, Lopez, Panganiban and Roxas.

Early Filipinos, however, did not consider names a problem. Before the Spaniards arrived, they were known only by first names, with positions in their communities added as their title. Through historical records we met: Humabon, rajah of Cebu;  Çilapulapu, datu of Mactan; Kolambu, chieftain of Limasawa; Sulayman, rajah of Manila. There was nothing strange or unique about this as it was practiced in all Asian civilisations in that era.

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Above 1521, Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) drawing his sword while engaged in a battle against natives. Leader of the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe, Magellan left Seville in 1519 and sailed through the strait named after him to (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Three centuries into the Spanish rule, a system for surnames was still not adopted. However, practices peculiar to the Filipinos were widely in place. Such as, names of specificity. For instance, references to relationships may be added to a name, as in Marawi’s Datu Akadir Akobar who was also known as Amai Pakpák (father of Pakpak), mentioned in a column by Jimmy Laya, an authority in Philippine culture. Or, to places of origin, as in taga-ilog for somebody living by the river and taga-ibayo for someone from across the sea or the mountain.

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What Filipinos opted for, however, is the Spanish form of nomenclature: a given name which almost always comprised two names, followed by the middle name which was the mother’s maiden surname, then the family name. This choice is different from the practice of the other influential coloniser of the Philippines, the Americans, who use as their middle name a second first name and not the maternal surname.

Many names were also derived from characteristics or virtues, as in Roman times’ surnames of virtue (cognomina et virtute). Several of these started with Dima, which translates into “cannot”. These surnames interestingly found their way to the Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos and were curiously concentrated in the province of Batangas. Some historians surmise, that this particular page of the Catalogo was assigned to this southern province. Dimagiba, Dimayuga, Dimaculangan (cannot be destroyed, cannot be shaken, cannot be short-changed) are just three of the many proudly Filipino names which have lasted the centuries.

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And well into the 1900s, physical characteristics attached to first names clearly identified families. Joseng bangko could be the common name of every member of a family descended from this ancestor who was flat footed. Like, “apo ni Joseng bangko [grandchild of Joseng bangko]”. Luya or ginger is another popular appellative, making one wonder if olden-day Filipinos had a foot fetish, as the name connotes web-footedness, like the ugly shape of this nutritious tuber. I also remember tales from my granduncle about the most beautiful maiden in town who was named, of course, Mariang bituin (star).

If Claveria were alive today, he would be pleased with the naming system that he initiated. But then again, he would probably notice a modern fondness of Filipinos for nicknames—Coycoy, Dingdong, Tingting. Would his logical mind approve? Well, too late for a Claveria Decree Part II.

This story was originally published in the February 2022 issue of Tatler Philippines. Download it on your digital device through ZinioMagzter, or Pressreader.


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