How Filipinos Got Their Surnames

Catalogo de Apellidos  (Source:

Catalogo de Apellidos (Source:

Lately my preoccupation with names has become an obsession. To make my pedestrian interest sound more scholarly and pedantic I have used the sociological term Onomastics as my topic of research. It means, the science of studying naming patterns.

The problem I encountered with names in old colonial Philippines was a pain in the neck.

The Regidor (Treasury Accountant) had complained constantly like a broken record to the Governor General of the impossibility of fulfilling his tax-collecting task due to the liquidity of naming conditions in the whole archipelago. There was simply no credible way of registering and validating the people and the population because of three anomalies that created confusion for his department

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).

Sometimes, very cruelly, a disgusting name was given to an individual. Even names of towns did not escape this naming pattern. That is how “Cagayan” was made into a place name. In Spanish cagar means “to poo.” Cagayan means the place where to do your “number two.” Philippine American Writers and Artists President Edwin Lozada tells about his friend, a physician, whose name happens to be Dr. Cagar, or Dr. Shit. His Hispanic patients don’t want him treating their ailments.

The given surname changed when the kid grew older or if another signpost event occurred in his lifetime. Fathers, sons, brothers who belonged to the same immediate family tree had different surnames. Tracing one’s genealogy became a daunting endeavor.

Examples in the literature are very instructive about European Onomastics. The northern Europeans used the suffix “son” in their names. The son of Anders was called Anderson. Richard’s son was “Richardson.” In Spain, the son of Rodrigo became Rodriguez. Hernando’s son became Hernandez, Gonzalo’s son became Gonzalez and Fernando’s son became Fernandez.

With this in mind, Governor General Narciso Claveria, who didn't have anything better to do, asked Madrid for a list of names to be given out to the colonial subjects in the Philippines. Madrid collected all the names in all the provinces of Spain. It was called Catalogo de Apellidos.

Governor General Narciso Claveria

Governor General Narciso Claveria

Claveria thought: “If I can standardize all the surnames in the Philippines, I can trace all the family tributes and personal taxes of every single one.”

The personal head tax was four reales or two chickens and a sack of rice. And besides, this new naming pattern made it easy to trace the lineage of all the tulisanes and highway bandits who roamed the countryside.

Claveria in 1849 called a meeting of all the provincial governors in the country. Gleefully armed with his Catalogo, he instructed them to give a surname to all heads of families under their jurisdiction. The parish priests helped.

He tore pages of the Catalogo and gave them to those present. Consequently, what happened was unexpected. Since the lists of surnames were listed in alphabetical order, provinces appeared to have surnames beginning with a certain letter of the alphabet. An appropriate example is like tearing several pages from a telephone book. The likelihood of having the same beginning letter is high.

In my province of Mindoro alone, in Lubang community, the surnames of most people begin with “V” -- Ventura, Villamin, Villaraza, Villarosa, Villarica, Villavicencio,” Villaclara,” etc. In my hometown of Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, the surnames in my class included Acedillo, Acedera, Abaca, Abadilla, Abierto, Acera, Aboboto, Agay, Acasio, Adeva, Alvaro, Alfalfaro, Alcancia, Abolencia, Abadejo, Abad and so on.

In the town of Miagao, Iloilo, all surnames began with “M.”

This surnaming program was enforced with severe penalties. One example was Dr. José Rizal’s mother. She was arrested and made to walk all the way from Biñan to the provincial capital of Laguna because among other things, she refused to use the name Realonda, which was assigned to her.

This is the reason why in the Philippines, we carry Hispanic surnames. They were allocated to us by decree. It never came from our own ancient naming patterns. In effect, it was an intrusion. It truncated us from our own personal identity and cast us off from our inner core of who we really are.

How some indigenous names remained and persisted had two possibilities. Some families were able to retain their old nomenclature because, before the decree was imposed, these families had been registered in the town census as pacified, baptized and had paid their taxes.

The other possibility was that the old surnames were not changed because their names were already registered in the government books or municipalities for some misdemeanors (prison cells). The most likely explanation was that others fled to the hills.

What if the Catalogo never happened? We would have had a most interesting study of names indeed, a rich tapestry of an ancient, patriotic, indigenous and very non-Hispanic onomastic history.

In order to find out what our pre-Hispanic names were before Claveria’s Catalogue of Surnames went into effect, I had to dig deep into our legends and myths.1 There I discovered a very interesting naming truth. Some of our forebears were named after their grandfathers!

Let me start with the letters of the alphabet and just allow me to identify five indigenous surnames. Our readers may be familiar with some of them.

A: AponiTolau, AponiBolinaw, AponiAngara, AponiAndaya, AponiBakal
B: Buhay, Banaag, Bantug, Binay, Bitoon
C: Cabanituan, Cabangis, Calookan, Casaysay, Cuyapo
K: Kalaw, Katigbak, Kintanar, Kanlaon, Kawit
D: Dimapilis, Dimayuga, Datu, Dimaano, Dumaguit
G: Galang, Gatdula, Gatbonton, Gatmaitan, Gatchalian
H: Humabon-gabon, Habagat, Handiong, Hinumbian, Hagonoy
I : Indamat, Inciong, Ikaliwan, Ilaw, Indang
L: Lagumbay, Liwag, Lakandula, Lacaba, Lumanlan,
M: Magsalin, Mañaul, Makapagal, Manalo, Madamba
N: Nakpil, Nabis, Nagtahan, Nalundasan, Nilinaw
O: Odiongan, Oton, Olongapo, Otawis, Obando
P: Paquiao, Paquing, Panaligan, Padayao, Paramisuli
R: Roldan, Ranit, Ramit, Ranao
S: Sikatuna, Sabtang, Sumulong, Sikat, Sapnit
T: Tapales, Tatad, Tumaneng, Tupas, Talisay
U: Ulan, Untalan, Umali, Umano, Umangkat
W: Wigan, Waling-waling, Walan, Wika
Y: Yambot, Yambao, Yumbugan, Yumina, Yabonan


We enjoin our readers to submit to us more ancient names outside of the Catalogo. I promise that I will continue on with my cultural quest. In a future piece, I will expound and examine how, compared with other cultures that can trace their family tree for hundreds of years, we have lost the moral family authority to prolong and enhance our patronymic cultural capital for future generations (as if we never cared) because we had abandoned the onomastic practices of old.

1 Damiana Eugenio, 2001. Myths and Legends of the Philippines, Vol II. Diliman, Q.C.: University of the Philippines Press.

Penelope V. Flores

Penelope V. Flores

Penelope V. Flores is Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University.

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