Filipino culture

[OPINION] The myth of the mestizo

Sterling Herrera Shaw
[OPINION] The myth of the mestizo

Nico Villarete/Rappler

'There appears to be a historical misunderstanding at foot, and the idea of what a mestizo was in the Philippine context has been lost'

It seems to be fairly common in my experience to run into Filipinos who claim some sort of Spanish heritage, oftentimes a grand-lolo or grand-lola or a distant relative. What is striking about these experiences is that it disagrees with the historical literature and the anthropological realities of the  mestizos of the Philippines. In truth, there appears to be a historical misunderstanding at foot, and the idea of what a mestizo was in the Philippine context has been lost. In the Philippines during the Spanish period, there were indeed many mentions of mestizos. However, mestizos in the Philippines were actually almost entirely Chinese-Filipino mixed-race people, not Spanish-Filipino mixed-race people. How do we know this? Because of historical documents and research, and because of modern genetic studies of the population of the Philippines. 

As the historian Vicente Rafael has discussed in his works, the geographic distance of the Philippines and its relative lack of precious metals was a major impediment to large numbers of Spaniards moving to the archipelago. In addition, the few that did essentially segregated themselves within areas such as Intramuros, and in fact residency laws were established to further promote this arrangement. This is similar to colonial Vietnam, for example, where the French colonizers largely lived in the French Quarters of Ha Noi and Saigon. In any case, this lack of Spanish immigration to the archipelago made it so that there was never any significant ethnic mixing. A Spanish-mestizo class never emerged (nor did a creole class), and without that, Spanish language never became a truly significant language, or at least not one that would seriously challenge the supremacy of the indigenous languages. In addition to the lack of teachers due to this lack of a creole class, the Spanish friars also ignored the Spanish Crown’s order to teach Spanish to Filipinos because they feared it would weaken their own position in society. The Philippines was only really useful economically for the Manila Acapulco trade and what was essentially slave labor.  

Then why does the term mestizo appear so much in Philippine history? It’s because of the introduction of a different group of immigrants to the islands. Of course, since precolonial times there has been at least some Chinese presence in the islands, particularly in Manila. However, it was during  the Spanish colonial period when immigration began in large numbers. The immigrants were mostly of Hoklo and Hakka Chinese heritage, which also are the two major groups in Taiwan nowadays, and in fact both the Philippines and Taiwan became destinations for these groups during roughly the same period.

In the modern Philippines there is no legally-defined mestizo class, and in fact the Philippine government does not really recognize race at all. This is a big reason for the confusion, since no one really knows what mestizo means unless they dig through Spanish records. What do those records say? It is a complex situation. The parts of the archipelago that were controlled by Spain were divided into four classes of people: Spaniards and Spanish-mestizos (which were free from tribute), indios (who we think of as “Filipino” in modern times), Chinese, and Chinese-mestizos. These last three groups paid tribute, but the tribute was based on their racial grouping. Indios paid the least, the Chinese-mestizo paid double that, and the Chinese paid even more. These pay differences were based on the idea that each group had a different earning potential, which is related back to the slavery mentioned earlier, which the indios and Chinese-mestizos were required to do. Additionally, these racial classes were rather jumbled and nonsensical. The son of a Chinese father and india or mestiza mother would be a Chinese mestizo. All the male descendants were Chinese-mestizos. However, a daughter’s status would change depending on who she married. Even a Chinese-mestiza marrying an indio would result in her own classification switching to indio, and her children also became indios. This meant that no matter what, there would always be a large amount of people classified as mestizo, no matter their actual  background.  

In fact, Chinese-mestizos had become such a large and important group by the 1800s that the word mestizo itself defaulted to the Chinese-mestizo meaning. This definition is even used in the  Diccionario de filipinismos and in testimony to the US Philippine Commission, both by Retana; not to mention that Chinese-mestizos also made this same point. Additionally, in 1810, records show that  there were around 2.4 million indios in the islands, 120,621 mestizos, but only 4,000 blancos (which were what Spaniards and Spanish-mestizos were referred to). Something else interesting to note, but not really significant to my argument, is that Chinese-mestizos were concentrated in Tondo, Bulacan, and Pampanga. Outside of these three provinces, there were relatively few Chinese-mestizos, and as a whole 90% of the Chinese population lived in Luzon. The rest of the archipelago was basically entirely indigenous. By the end of the 1800s, the Chinese population (not mestizos) had grown to over 100,000 due to the end of immigration restrictions, and that of course led to a blooming in the mestizo demographic.  

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Some people also believe that the prevalence of Spanish surnames in the islands indicates some  amount of intermarriage between Spaniards and Filipinos. However, this was not the case. In precolonial or “traditional” Filipino culture, there are no surnames at all. This was something brought to the islands by colonization. Of course, converting to Christianity and taking Christian names was the way Filipinos before 1849 got their Hispanic names. This process happened in the far south of the archipelago too, with many Filipinos taking Arabic names when converting to Islam. However, an even bigger event in naming history happened in 1849. That was the passing and implementation of the Claveria Decree. Because of difficulties in administration, the Spanish government passed this in order standardize names in the country. Filipino families were made to choose from a list of Spanish and indigenous names, which was called the Catalogo alfabetico de apellidos. This is where most modern Filipino families can trace their surnames to.  

Ultimately, all of this historical evidence is now supported by population genetics. In a 2021  paper by Maximilian Larena and many other Filipino population geneticists, it is discussed how the findings of their genetics study on migrations of people into the islands over the millennia showed that only about 1% of Filipinos possess the genetic signal of European heritage. This compliments and further confirms the historical records: there was never any significant intermixing between Spaniards and Filipinos.  

Why is all this important to Filipinos? It is because there needs to be a stronger identification with the very real fact that Filipinos are all indigenous people who speak their indigenous languages, and the presence of an erasure of the role of Chinese people and their Filipino descendants in building  the Philippines. These histories are important to questions of identity that people may have about  themselves. –

Sterling V. Herrera Shaw is currently a graduate student at the University of the Philippines Diliman. His degree path is in Philippine Studies, where he focuses primarily on sociocultural issues, but also devotes much research to economic development in the country.

Contracting Colonialism, by Vicente Rafael 
The Promise of the Foreign, by Vicente Rafael 
“The Chinese Mestizo in Philippine History,” by Edgar Wickberg (in the book More Tsinoy Than We Admit, ed. by Richard Chu) 
Claveria Decree of 1849 
Catalogo alfabetico de apellidos
“12 Important Insights into the Genetic Origins and Diversity of the Filipino People,” by Maximilian Larena, Carlo Ebeo, Adrian Albano, et al. (a supplement to the article “Multiple  Migrations to the Philippines during the last 50,000 years”)

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