Up to now, I’m still wondering what my family name means. Am I related to Mr So-and-So? Or, to this famous music composer?
I’m not sure. I haven’t ventured into tracing my family tree. Should I undertake a genealogical study of my family name’s origin.
After reading Mr Renato Perdon’s account of how Filipino family names came to usage, I don’t think I have the resources.
Mr Perdon in a chapter of his book Brown Americans of Asia wrote that when Governor-General Narciso Claveria was the head of the Spanish colonial government, he issued on November 21, 1849 a decree called Catalogo Alfabetico de Appelidos (Alphabetised Catalogue of Surnames) which mandated the adoption of surnames.
“The decree was to correct the capricious habit of Filipinos to adopt the names of saints that resulted in the existence of individuals having the same surnames, although unrelated. This habit also caused confusion that “hindered the implementation of regulations governing the administration of justice, public service, finance and public order. Claveria also noted that because of the situation, it became impossible to prove the degree of blood relations between parties to a marriage.
“The catalogue of family names also adopted names from the vegetable and mineral kingdoms, geography, arts and others. Pages from this catalogue were sent to all provincial governors who distributed them to the mayors of various towns. Every town, in accordance with the number of families within its jurisdiction, was assigned a number of surnames arranged according to letters.
In spite of the rigidity of implementing the decree, accidents happened. In some places, only a few pages of the catalogue arrived. This is the reason why, even today, in many towns of the Philippines, there are people whose surnames almost all begin with a letter A, others B and so on.”
Mr Perdon, a historian, curator, teacher, and cultural heritage consultant, concluded: “Without knowing both the old and the new surnames, it would be impossible to record a family tree beyond 1849.”
Where would this leave us now?
I’m not sure. One thing is sure, though. Whether we like it or not, we, Filipinos, have to live with the consequences of this historical accident.
But, if you are really desperate to have an Anglo-Celtic surname, by all means— do so. In Australia, it takes only a deed poll to do that.
Romy Cayabyab is the publisher of emanila.com
Posted: 12 Apr 2006 (emanila.com/pilipino/)
Re-posted: 23 July 2007
Updated: 8 December 2009