We Were Indios: A Short History on Becoming Filipinos

llustrations of ethnic groups in the Philippines at the time of their initial contact with the Spaniards as shown from the Boxer Codex manuscript (c. 1590).

When the Spanish explorer and priest Ruy López de Villalobos reached the archipelago in 1544 he named it Las Islas Filipinas (The Philippine Islands) in honour of Prince Philip of Spain who will later become King Philip II (Rey Felipe II de España). He was the same king who sent the mighty Spanish Armada to conquer England under Queen Elizabeth in 1588. (The fabled fleet failed.)

The Discovery of the “Indios” and the Birth of the “Filipinos”

The Philippine Islands had no unified national identity yet when the Spaniards came. These islands were locally governed by chieftains traditionally called Datus in both the Visayas and Mindanao and Lakan or Apo in Luzon. The tribal villages occupying the islands and the separate main lands lived autonomously under these chieftains.

It was not until the 19th century that the terms Filipinos and Indios were widely used in literature. The name Filipino was derived from the colony’s name Las Islas Filipinas, however, the name was not actually used to ‘label’ the local inhabitants. Originally by intention, the first Filipinos were strictly Spaniards born in the Islands and the “original” inhabitants were still called Indios. It was indeed a misnomer. But why Indios?

It might interest you to learn that it was exactly the same misnomer committed on the natives of North America by Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) − the “Man who discovered America” called them Indians. He mistakenly thought that he already arrived in India, thus the name Indians. Why blame him since Europeans at that time referred to the entirety of South and East Asia as the Indias or the Indies.

That answers our question. Since the Philippine archipelago was believed to be located in “India”, therefore the inhabitants are called “Indios”. We may already speculate how the early Spanish conquerors called the natives.

The Filipinos by social status were particularly called “Insulares” − a class-tinctured term given to creoles born in the Philippines and the Marianas. (Creoles were Spaniards born in Spanish colonies.) Layers of names had been assigned to this particular group of Spaniards, i.e., Creoles, Insulares, and Filipinos. These Insulares were second-class citizens in the Spanish hierarchy. The first were the “Peninsulares” − full-bloodied Spaniards born in the Iberian Peninsula, i.e., Spain, who were living in the colonies.

Below the Insulares were the local “Principales”. In the 1590s the Spaniards created the Principalia as recompense to and recognition of the native’s rule and royalty.  King Philip II himself issued the decree institutionalising the rights and privileges of this native ruling class. Its primary purpose was to establish an immediate connection between the locals and the colonial government. The subjects under them were placed at the bottom of that hierarchy. They retained the name “Indios”.

The Rise of the “New” Filipinos

Though the name Filipinos was first used to refer to the rich Spanish colonial elite, it slowly became associated with the locals. In the late nineteenth century, nationalism was gradually growing among the Principales, especially from its rising new generation called Ilustrados (the enlightened or learned ones).

The Ilustrados, at least most of them, came from the long line of Principales and wealthy land owners, but some from the growing middle class. They were the local intellectuals educated in the universities − both here and overseas. This young group of thinkers was influenced by European thoughts on liberalism and nationalism. They sought social reform through a fair system of political and economic governance.

These Ilustrados were the towering figures in the development of a new sense of Filipino identity and nationalism. Most prominent were Graciano López Jaena, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Mariano Ponce, Antonio Luna, and José Rizal.

Three Ilustrados in Spain 1890: José Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar and Mariano Ponce (L-R).

Out of this patriotic endeavour the nationalist movement was born. Even with a strong feeling of reluctance among these Ilustrados the Indios, i.e., the labour class, were included in the movement. Most prominent perhaps was a young man named Andres Bonifacio.

At the height of the insurrection in the late 1890s the “Filipino” identity became the identity for all living in the archipelago. In early 1898 when Emilio Aguinaldo was in Hong Kong he sent a follow-up telegram to the resistance movement who were in Manila. In this letter he joyfully expressed the following:

Filipinos, the great nation, North America, cradle of liberty and friendly on that account to the liberty of our people … has come to manifest a protection … which is disinterested towards us, considering us with sufficient civilization to govern by ourselves this our unhappy land.” (Storey and Lichauco, p. 46.)

From this message it was clear that they referred to themselves as Filipinos.

The Recognition of the “New” Filipinos

At the dawn of the American occupation, those who were significantly involved in the conquest of the Philippines by the United Sates referred to the inhabitants as Filipinos as well.

The American Consul Wildman in Hong Kong sent a letter to Aguinaldo saying: “The United States undertook this war [against Spain] for the sole purpose of relieving the Cubans from the cruelties under which they were suffering and not for the love of conquests or the hope of gain.  They are actuated by precisely the same feelings for the Filipinos.” (Storey and Lichauco, pp. 46, 47.)

Commodore Dewey himself spoke of Aguinaldo’s aggressive campaign in aiding the Americans, “I was waiting for troops to arrive and I thought that the closer they [the Filipinos] invested the city, the easier it would be when our troops arrived to march in. The Filipinos were our friends, assisting us; they were doing our work.” (Storey and Lichauco, pp. 47, 48.)

General Thomas McArthur Anderson, commander of the land forces  commented, “Whether Admiral Dewey and Consuls Pratt (of Singapore), Wildman ( Hong Kong) and Williams ( Manila) did or did not give Aguinaldo assurances that a Filipino government would be recognized, the Filipinos certainly thought so, probably inferring this from their acts rather than from their statements.” (Storey and Lichauco, p. 51.)

After the Spanish rule came to its formal end in December 1898 through the Treaty of Paris the Americans annexed the Philippine Islands. After the Second World War, the American occupants removed the “Islands” thus the name “The Philippines”.

It was indeed a long and laborious journey of a people who just wanted to be identified as equals. To be Filipinos was not really about becoming Spaniards, it was essentially about experiencing the same dignity, respect, and treatment. And besides, being called Indios was already wrong on the first place.


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