Why Filipinos Have Spanish-sounding Last Names

“You’re Filipino? So, you’re like basically Spanish.”

If you’ve heard something like this before or said it to a Filipino person, you’re in the right place. Chances are you’ve come across a Filipino and wondered why they have Spanish-sounding last names, like Garcia or Rodriguez. They have chinky eyes, brown skin, eat rice with everything while praying the rosary…but boast last names like Garcia and Rodriguez.

Worried you might say something stupid? Have no fear, the #YLWRNGR* is here. I’m Lauren Espejo, aka the #YLWRNGR, your honorary Filipina American and I’m here to show you what makes your friendly neighborhood Filipino oh so Spanish adjacent.

The short answer: Spanish colonization from 1565–1898

The long answer: If you paid any attention in your high school history class, you have most likely heard the name of explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Sent by Spain to discover new territories, Magellan ended up on the Philippine island Homonhon in 1521. What you may not know is that he was killed in the Philippines through an order from our bad ass indigenous leader, Lapu Lapu, in April 1521. Historians note Lapu Lapu as the first Filipino native to resist Spanish colonization. (You go, Lapu Lapu! Opening doors for future revolutionaries.)

According to the CIA’s ‘The World Factbook’ (say what? that’s a thing?), the Philippines became a Spanish colony one way or another only to cede to the U.S. in 1898 after the Spanish-American war. Thirty-seven years later, Philippines became a self-governing commonwealth. A lot of corrupt politics and American assimilation ensued from that point forward, but we’ll get to that another day.

As you can imagine, with “civilization” comes raping, pillaging and overall racial class categorization. In college as an art major, I was desperate to learn more about my family’s motherland, specifically regarding Spanish colonization. I found myself in the New York Public Library examining the work of Justiniano Asuncion. He was sent by Spain to the Philippines to report on all of the different types of Filipinos that Spain should be aware of. A full-on, complete report including Asuncion’s original watercolors along with their paired inked notes dating back to 1841. Needless to say, I hit the jackpot.

To wrap up this mini history lesson, here are three examples of Asuncion’s artistic interpretation on what Filipinos in the 1840s looked like. I’ve also weighed in on my take on Colonial Spain’s reaction to these representations and whether or not they might’ve deemed these people as threats to the crown.

“A Rich Mestizo”
Threat to Colonial Spain?: 
Nah, he’s one of us. Good work on the see-through shirt. This way we will know if he is concealing any weapons. Pass this off as the latest fashion in formal wear. Call it a barong.

“A Manila Man”
Threat to Colonial Spain?: 
Major threat, needs to be taught how to be a proper gentleman. What are those on his feet, egad! Also, make sure to interrogate that rooster. Dude is looking a little too revolutionary for my taste.

“A damsel going to early Mass”
Threat to Colonial Spain: None whatsoever! This is a major success story, we did it. Her family has adopted our religion and she looks like one of us. *high fives in the royal court* Make sure to put this in the annual report, front cover!

“I get it now. Filipinos are Asians that were super indigenous and straight up thriving off of the land, but Europeans came in and it was pretty much a wrap after that.”

Gold star for you! As crappy as this origin story might seem, they really did rub off on us. Catholicism, for one. A metaphorical and literal melting pot of a cuisine and dialects that are a mixed baby of Indonesian, Malaysian, Māori with a dash of the romance language that is Spanish. I hope the next time you call a Filipino or Filipino-American, “basically Spanish,” that you think twice and not yellow rice.

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