Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Claveria and the Myth of the Spanish Ancestors

Ask any Filipino with a Spanish-sounding surname and they will tell you that their great-grandfather or great-grandmother was a Spaniard. Some families tell stories they heard from elders that their family actually came to the Philippines with Ferdinand Magellan or the other conquistadores! This claim is very common, but when you look for these so-called Spanish ancestors in the church records, you will notice that many of these were actually described as indios.

The thing is, the Spaniards never fully intermarried with the natives in the Philippines as they did in Mexico, Venezuela, and their other former colonies. And according to verifiable archival documents, more than 90% of each town's population were described as indio (or native Filipino) in most church records. During the Spanish period one could be described as a peninsulares or a Europeo Espanol, an insulares or a Filipino Espanol, sangley, a mestizo (usually mestizo Espanol or mestizo sangley), infieles, or the most common of all: an indio.

If one was a peninsulares, that meant he or she was a Spaniard born in Spain. An insulares was a Spaniard born in the Philippines. A sangley was a Chinese. A mestizo was a half-breed; a mestizo Espanol means he was half Spaniard and Filipino, while a mestizo Sangley meant he was half Chinese and Filipino. Those described as infieles were the Moslems who were usually taken into homes as servants or slaves. Finally, an indio was a native inhabitant of the Philippines.

Other families may have had Spanish ancestors, but records in the church say otherwise. Of course it also very possible that a Spanish ancestor did exist in some cases, but after some time the descendants of the said Spaniard were considered local-bred and thus were identified as indio. This is highly likely, though we have no more records to prove it.

The thing every Filipino has to understand upon starting a genealogical quest is this: the Claveria Decree of 1849 has many repercussions when it comes to Filipino culture in general, and in Filipino genealogy, in particular. Domingo Abella, former head of the National Archives, stated in his introduction that only time will tell if the decree has been bane or boon to Filipinos.

On the one hand, because of this decree, Filipinos began to use surnames legally. Some historians would argue that Filipinos already had surnames prior to the decree, but based on my study of old records, only the Spanish, mestizo (part indigenous Filipino, part Spanish or Chinese), and Chinese families had surnames. Even half-breeds with surnames sometimes forgot they had surnames already. Moreover, the principalia (the ruling native families) were no different. Though many of them mimicked their Spanish overlords and had surnames, most of these were religious or very popular Hispanic surnames. I believe that Governor Claveria is to be appreciated for this decree simply because he made sure that the use of surnames is standardized and legalized. Forget the actual reason behind it (taxation, census, monitoring for the forced labor, etc.). What I am thankful for is the simple fact that had it not been for the decree, I believe I would have been called today as Todd Alexander, and my father before me would have been named Alexander Adriano, and his father would have been Adriano Wenceslao, and so on. The pre-1849 Filipino pattern of naming was predictive: if Jose’s father’s name is Pedro, then the boy would be known as Jose Pedro.

Another conclusion made by Domingo Abella in the publication of the Catalogo is this: that genealogical study has been made more difficult because of the decree, especially once one goes beyond 1849. However, in my experience, I have not been able to encounter this difficulty. In fact, the surname decree has made my research beyond 1849 relatively easy. My great-great-grandfather, Bonifacio Lucero, was born prior to 1849, and was originally named Bonifacio Jose, the second name after his father Jose Lucero. If not for the surname decree, I would have had a hard time connecting him farther since Jose Lucero was sometimes known as Jose Luciano or Jose Francisco in different records. This, plus the fact that many records have been either lost or destroyed, would have made it more difficult to trace beyond 1849.

One repercussion of this decree, however, remains painfully clear: many people in the Philippines whose surnames are the same should not automatically conclude that they are related. Whenever people would ask me about the possibility of relatedness between two people sharing the same name, I would always ask them if they know the origin of their family. If they tell me that the two same surnames come from the same town, I would confidently claim 95-99% probability of being related. If they are from different towns but from the same part of the province, there is a lesser probability of relatedness. One only has to remember that some provincial heads in 1849 distributed the same pages in the decree to two or three towns, thus there would always have been the high chance of duplication of surnames in these areas. And when one family name is found in two distant cities, towns, or provinces in the country, then the chances of being relatives are almost slim to none.

In the end, it would be up to the patience of every Filipino wishing to unearth his roots to try hard to verify if his surname came only due to the 1849 decree, or if they’ve always had it in their family. Whatever its effects on Filipino historiography, the Claveria Decree is just another reminder of how colorful Philippine history is.

Many families would later discover that, perhaps, the old stories told to them by their elders are, unfortunately, not accurate, such as being descendants of foreigners, having foreign blood, coming to the Philippines with Magellan, and so on. In the long run, one’s bloodline matters little. What is important is the tracing, preservation, and transmission of these histories so future Filipinos and their descendants will have an idea as to where they have been, and where they are headed.

(C) Todd Lucero Sales, 2012.


  1. great write up. I've spent 95% of my years doing genealogy the past 23yrs explaining to Filipinos about the few intermarriages that existed with foreigners although some may descend from Spaniards, that doesn't grant them Spanish citizenship.

    1. Thank you. WE should all stop misrepresenting ourselves but it's hard when it's 'cool' to say you are half Spanish, especially in the Philippines. Everyone and their mama says it!!!

  2. Thank you, K. I admit I was one of those people who felt a Spanish surname meant Spanish blood. Only after spending some years doing research have I become enlightened. I suppose all we can do is keep on educating others to understand what matters is the history itself, not the kind of blood we have in our veins.

  3. a small genetic sampling done by an american university showed that Filipinos, at least, in that sample had about 3 percent european blood(forgot the exact percentage), but it was not more than 4% for sure, although again, this was a small statistical sample.

    a very accurate way to find out if one had a european ancestor is to is to send your hair sample to one of those popular genetic ancestry companies. they are very accurate. For example, I know from our family history , that from my mother's side alone, I would, in theory have 12.5 percent caucasian "blood". after , my brother sent in his hair sample, it turned out it was slightly higher at 16% probably from one of my dad's ancestors. We used his company https://www.23andme.com/

  4. Please stop spreading the myth that only 3.6% of Filipinos have any European ancestry. It's simply not true. If you actually read the study where it came from

    you'll see that it was only testing for paternal haplogroups, and 1 of the 28 Filipinos they tested had a European paternal haplogroup. That is not talking about ancestry as a whole. You should know that

    And I'm on 23andme, and I've seen plenty of results of Filipinos and almost all of them have at least some European ancestry. It's usually just a small amount, but some people are 25%+. It just depends.

  5. Interesting article.
    You are basing you conclusions on marriage records.

    "Other families may have had Spanish ancestors, but records in the church say otherwise. "

    I doubt that the church kept records of children born out of wedlock. Given that Spanish Conquistadors were young men, away from their homeland for a very long time combining with the natural beauty of the Filipina, my guess is that there were a lot kids born out of wedlock. Way more than through marriage.

    1. Yup, I agree with you. It is of course difficult to know the extent of Spanish and Indio dalliances. My take is at the end of the day if the records really don't say you are Spanish then let's leave it at that. And if we want more confirmation then genetic genealogy is the key to all our confusion. There have been cases when a family is described indio in records simply because their Spanish ancestor was more than 3 generations removed (usual timeframe for racial classification. After 3 generations of being mestizo español or mestizo sangley it usually reverts to indio). After genetic testing it was discovered they did have Spanish ancestry, albeit very very distantly.

  6. My grandfather of my grandfather use to receive a pension from the government of Spain. We lost all the documents after the mt. Pinatubo erupted.

  7. All very interesting and I agree that the Church would not record the "illegitimate" children. There are a lot of mestizo -all combinations (not just Castilian blood) looking people in the PI. Just compare photos of the indigenous tribes still living such as the T'boli and B'laan in Mindanao. Most of us would still look more like them if invaders/settlers had not gone to the PI. A lot of pinoys don't even recognize me as being pinay, it doesn't matter that I'm first generation U.S.

  8. Hello:

    I have a question regarding the article. Now, before anything else, I'm not one of those people that insinuate that they are superior because "I am part Spaniard, and you're not." For background, I got my DNA tested recently, two months ago by Accu-Metrics, an accredited American-Canadian org., and it turned out that I am ratioed as 39% Native American / 61% European, primarily Iberian. I'm a naturalized Canadian citizen (we moved in 2008, fairly recent), and my family originated from the Tagalog/Luzon area. Now, would my result help explain the Manila-Galleon-thing? I'm not sure it happened at all because I only read it on Wikipedia, and you guys seem to know what you're doing--so if you can help me investigate this matter, that would be awesome.

    PS: My family genuinely knows that we have legitimate Spaniard heritage on my mother's side of the family, but we were shocked seeing the ratio and the substantial Native American findings.



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    2. Sounds like your ancestor, being part Native American and European, could have very well been a Mexican with (Mestizo roots) if your family originated from the Luzon area. I would dig deeper. Where you matched with any 4th cousins from Spanish speaking countries? My friend had exactly your ancestry composition and she was matched with people from Mexico. My friends parents were born in Luzon. But this percentage is very rare though. Most of my Filipino friends do not have any European blood. 3 of them had their Asian lineage broken down, and Aeta came up on GED match after they uploaded their raw data from Ancestry.com. East Asian, Polynesian, and South Asian are the most common regions that show up after a Filipino takes the DNA test. Like I said before, your results are very rare in a Filipino. Kudos!