The Roots of it All (Pt. II)

The most interesting thing I was looking forward to when receiving my DNA test results was something I slightly dreaded, but something I expected would not be found.

With the three-hundred-plus year rule of Spain over the Philippines, one might expect that the Spanish intermingled with the natives based on all the Spanish surnames which most Filipinos sport. That is what I figured during my younger years, until I learned about something called the Catálogo Alfabético de Apellidos.

Essentially a book of names, the Catálogo ended up as a financial tool for one Narciso Clavería, otherwise known as the First Count of Manila. In 1849, he decided that he could ensure that any family tributes and taxes were being paid out to the government by the natives if he simply assigned each city and province a set of last names.

In a meeting with provincial governors and other officials that would help implement his plan, and with the assistance of local Catholic churches, Clavería essentially tore out and handed each person in attendance a few pages of the book, instructing that all families in their region should pick a name from the book and adopt it as their family’s new last name.

Narciso Clavería, the First Count of Manila

As it turned out, the alphabetical nature of the book meant that each province and town were essentially handed names that rarely ventured from the same starting letter – in fact, quite a few of the smaller towns ended up with families whose chosen last names ended up starting with the same last letter. Also, families without any close blood relations might pick the same last name, complicating the family tree tracing based on last name.

I actually found a copy of the book online before I sent in my sample and, sure enough, my last name was in there. I fully expected that would be my only real Spanish connection, other than the fact many of my ancestors lived under Spain’s rule for centuries.

In doing further research, I found out it how much of an extra challenge it would be beyond the Catálogo book to trace a family tree based on our last name. Several of the issues resided in the general way Filipino natives named themselves, as detailed in this article in Positively Filipino by San Francisco State University Professor Penelope V. Flores. In some ways, it reminded me a bit of how some indigenous peoples of the Americas might name people.

First, the natives were named after the area where they lived. If one lived by the seashore he was Kato Tabing Dagat. However, if Kato changed his address to the forest glen, he became Kato Ginubatan. He was the same person yet he was registered as two persons in the municipal registry book.

Second, the traditional practice was to be named as the grandson of so and so, as in Apo ni Tuliao or Apo ni Lagmay. In Onofre D. Corpuz’s book “The Roots of the Philippine Nation” I had come across the signature of some people written in the ancient, extant syllabary that reads: Apo ni Gagui. If the grandfather died, the name changed to the father’s name as in Anak ni Batak, or Anak ni Tasyo.

Third, if the person had a unique characteristic, his name was a physical description of his/her person. Cross-eyed Juan was called Juang Duling. Berto had a misshapen jaw, so his name became Bertong Bukol. A little satirical ridicule happened when a very bald guy was called Kulot (Curly).

So, in terms of tracing family lineages back through the centuries, that seems highly unlikely in my case. But as far as the DNA results, I did find a couple of surprises.

The first surprise, which wasn’t a huge surprise in hindsight, was a trace of Vietnamese heritage. Again, considering the large amount of trade in the western Pacific ocean throughout the centuries, along with the fact that China and Vietnam share a border, it’s not surprising that my results came out this way.

The second surprise was something that, prior to the test, I thought was highly unlikely. Because of the last names, many Filipino and non-Filipino people assume the natives have a large share of Spanish blood in their DNA. But as I learned with the Catálogo, the last names were assigned for government tax payments, not actual family ties to the Spanish. Also, prior to the results, I read a couple sources that stated roughly 2-4% of the country’s population has Spanish lineage, as the Spanish generally did not mingle with the lower-class natives.

Well, I found out I was in that tiny percentage.

Some later research led me to conclude a couple things: the exact percentage of Filipinos that have Spanish heritage MIGHT be slightly higher depending on the province. But whether that is actually true, and what that exact overall percentage is, won’t be known without more research. From what I have read, genealogy in the Philippines is somewhat behind the world in terms of record availability and completeness as well as the total research done. The obstacles mentioned before make it an even more daunting task to even tackle.

As far as the revelation, the odds are my gained Spanish heritage was almost certainly not the result of a fairytale-style romantic type of relationship, something similarly portrayed in the highly mythologized story of Pocahontas and John Smith that was popular in the olden days. The chances are really high that the child birthed (most likely from my mother’s family tree) was the result of a big power differential situation between a Spanish man and a Filipina woman.

I have seen my share of genealogy shows, and I always know how tough it is when an African-American guests finds out that their European heritage was gained through that power differential. I’ve marinated in that thought myself and, despite the uncertainty in my situation, I realized there’s not anything I can do to change the past. However, there is something I can do now to help ensure that this power differential and its consequences are eliminated. One small way to do that, I figure, is to write about my experience, to keep this history known to future generations.

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