When Filipinos were not Filipinos

According to our high school history textbook, when the Colegio de Santo Tomas ( now University) was established in April 1611, it opened its doors to Filipino students. But, that was misleading, the late Dr. Domingo Abella used to argue because the Filipinos then were offsprings of full-blooded Spaniards born in Las Islas Filipinas. The natives were not called Filipinos and were certainly not admitted to Santo Tomas until much later. A physician by profession, Dr. Abella became a pioneer in local history when he began to research the origins of Bicol. At his own expense, he mined the archives in Spain and Mexico, scrutinizing primary sources, translating and reproducing these for his Bicol Annals. In Mexico, he came across an intricate caste system of criollos, mestizos, zambos, mulattos, coyotes, saltatras, etc. all the result of intermarriages since the Spanish conquest.

In a similar vein, neither was Lapulapu a Filipino, although we extol him as the first Filipino to resist foreign invaders. We have other heroes who were strictly speaking not Filipinos, but they were natives of these islands so we honor them for their role in the anti-colonial struggle.

Who then were the Filipinos? Those born in these islands of pure-blooded Spanish parents. They were also called “hijos de Españoles” or “naturales de Filipinas “ or ”insulares “. They were not considered natives like the “indios”. Sometimes they were called “criollos” like their counterparts in the Spanish colonies in South America. This means that when we read “Filipino” in history books, we must check its historical context; today’s “Filipino” is not the same as the “Filipino “ of the 16th and 17 centuries.

The conquistadores and missionaries who first arrived in the 16th century did not have women in tow, it was strictly forbidden to invite the opposite sex to circumnavigate the globe. In fact, the natives of Cebu and Panay were baffled at the shiploads of men without women; that was why they believed the Spaniards did not come to stay, so they lowered their guard. I wonder when Spanish couples began having children in Las Islas Filipinas.

However, according to historian Clarita T. Nolasco ( Creoles in Spanish Philippines, 2019), the “criollos” were originally offsprings of the conquistadores and that many of them lost their parents because of wars waged to subdue rebellions, or to ward off Dutch and Muslim maurauders. Those poor orphans roamed the streets of Inramuros begging for food until the King of Spain heard about their plight and signed a royal decree establishing charitable institutions. The earliest was the Colegio de Santa Potenciana founded in 1591 for orphaned girls; for abandoned Spanish boys, an orphanage called Colegio de San Juan de Letran was opened in 1620.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a Spaniard born in the Philippines was called “Español-Filipino” or simply, “Filipino”. That was an indication of one’s place of birth rather than a concept of Motherland, or an inchoate sense of nation. Professor Nolasco said the “Insulares” were a very small class in the Philippines when compared to the “criollos” of other Spanish colonies like Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Colombia, etc. Filipinas was two oceans away from Spain, so very few were attracted to seek their fortunes where the only spice was cinnamon and gold or silver mines were few and far between. In the course of time, the “Español-Filipino” no longer remained exclusively white, especially in the 19th century. The “criollo” class was “ infiltrated” with “hybrid” Spaniards, wrote Prof. Nolasco; there were mestizo children born of the union of Spaniards with natives, or of natives with Sangley (Chinese) and other non-whites. One’s racial category was primordial; official permits to carry arms, to change one’s residence or start a business demanded information about one’s bloodline. The “indio” or native was always at the bottom of the pecking order.

My mother, once chairperson of the NHI/NHCP found the birth certificate of her great great grandfather, Leon Jorge, which described him as “un indio de este pueblo”, an” indio” of this town ( La Ermita). When she presented said certificate during a reunion of the Guererero clan, many of our relatives were incredulous and absolutely horrified. Our illustrious ancestor was not even an “insular” nor a mestizo sangley, he was an “indio”!

Fr. Jose Burgos, champion of the secularization of parishes, was born in the Philippines of a Spanish father and a Spanish mestiza mother, so he was an “hijo del pais”, a “Filipino”. However, he expanded the meaning of “Filipino” to include the native indios, especially the native secular clergy. Nationalism was already taking root; native ilustrados, criollos and mestizos went to Europe and founded the Propaganda Movement. Like Fr. Burgos, they appropriated the concept of “Filipino” as their own and were certainly not ashamed to call themselves, “indios”– “Los Indios Bravos.”

Today, for very different reasons, we should ask ourselves if we are Filipinos who are not Filipinos.