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Paul Morrow

    Clavería's catalogue


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Governor and Captain General of the Philippines from 1844 to 1849, Narciso Clavería y Zaldúa made surnames mandatory for Filipinos
The book that gave many Filipino families their names: the Alphabetical Catalogue of Surnames,1849

Filipino surnames can be confusing for people who are not familiar with Filipino culture and history. While there are many indigenous names in many native languages as well as Chinese-derived names, the prevalence of Spanish family names leads many to believe that Filipinos are Hispanic – as though they were Mexicans who just happen to live in Asia.

Before Spain occupied the Philippines in the 1500s, most Filipinos had just one name. Some were descriptive while others had obscure, or unknown meanings like most of our names today. Most of the old names that appear in history books belonged to rulers such the datus Matanda, Lakandula, Lapu-lapu and Humabon. Some Filipinos had a second name that described a family relationship but unlike the old European custom in which a man was referred to as “the son of so-and-so” (Johnson, Peterson etc.), in the Philippines, people were identified through their children, as in “the mother or father of so-and-so.”

Filipino names – anything goes

When Filipinos began to convert to Christianity, they took on the names of Catholic saints, symbols, sacraments, feasts and even popes. When it came to naming a child or choosing one’s own Catholic name it was “anything goes” – not much different from today except that Hollywood was not an available source of names yet. Many Filipinos back then took two or three names and changed them whenever they wanted. Surnames were not strictly applied to whole families and often each family member would choose a Spanish surname that was different from the rest of the family. The resulting confusion drove Spanish bureaucrats crazy because, without clear family lineages, legitimate births and inheritances were often hard to prove and the clergy worried that Filipinos might be marrying their own cousins or other family members. Also, with so many Filipinos choosing the same popular surnames like de los Santos and de la Cruz, it was not easy for the government to track the movements of Filipinos – making tax collection and law enforcement difficult.

A catalogue of surnames

So, after about 300 years of this confusion, the government decided to take action. In 1849, Governor Narciso Clavería began the process of making a civil register of the entire population. The first step was to sort out the names that people already had and then to make rules so that Filipino families would all have consistent surnames. See an English translation of Clavería's Decree of 1849 below.

Clavería released the Catálogo alfabético de apellidos or the Alphabetical catalogue of surnames, which contained 60,662 surnames, both Spanish and indigenous, that had been collected by parish priests throughout the country. The catalogue was distributed to the head of each province who was required to figure out how many surnames each town would need and then assign them alphabetically. A list of the allotted surnames for each town was given to its parish priest who instructed the barangay (neighbourhood) officials to summon the oldest male member of every family to choose a family name and have it entered into the new civil register.

Filipinos who already had surnames could keep them as long as they were not on a list of banned names. To avoid any false claims to special rights, taking the names of ancient Filipino nobles like, Tupas, Lakandula or Rajah Matanda was not allowed. However, families that already had a restricted surname could keep it if they could prove that they had been using it for at least four generations.

Overused names like Cruz, Reyes, Santos and others were supposed to be banned, too, but Governor Clavería did allow provincial officials and priests to use their own discretion in the matter. Judging by the huge numbers of these common surnames that are still around today, it seems that most officials let it slide. In some areas, though, such as Quezon and Albay, the whole law, including the alphabetical distribution of names, was so strictly enforced that in some towns almost everybody’s surname started with the same letter.

Filipinos who changed their names after being registered faced at least eight days in jail or a fine of three pesos. School teachers were instructed to keep a register of all their students’ surnames and to make sure that they matched their parents’ surnames. They also had to make sure that the students used only their registered names. If the rules were not enforced, provincial officials were allowed to punish the teacher.

Modern myths

Clavería’s decree is at the root of some myths and misunderstandings that we have today about Filipino names. Some people believe that the Spaniards forced Filipinos to give up their own names and assume Spanish names, but this is not true. Clavería’s catalogue listed all kinds of names that were collected from all over the Philippines. The purpose of the catalogue was not to get rid of native names but to set up a civil register so that the government could keep track of the Filipino population for tax collecting, law enforcement and church records. To do that, Clavería needed Filipino families to have a surname. The origin of a surname did not matter as long as each family member had the same one.

Another myth that some Filipinos believe is that having a Spanish surname means having some Spanish ancestry. They assume, and in some cases they even claim, that one of their great-great grandmothers married a Spaniard, or came to have children from a Spaniard through some sordid incident. The truth of the matter is that for most of the Spanish era, there were very few Spaniards in the Philippines. In most provincial towns, the only Spaniard was the local friar. According to the 2000 census, 95% of the population in the Philippines has an unmixed Malay heritage. Although mestisos (people of mixed race) are extremely influential in Filipino society, most estimates put the combined number of all types of mestisos at no more than 2% or 3% of the entire population and only about half of those are Spanish mestisos, who are based mainly in Manila and Cebu. Chinese-mestisos and full Chinese combined are estimated at only around 3%.

A 2001 Stanford University study showed a slightly higher percentage of Filipinos carrying European genetic material (3.6%), but the sample size was only 28 people, which meant that only one of the 28 had any European ancestry. Also, the samples were all taken from around Manila where the mestiso population is concentrated.

The reason that so many Filipinos have Hispanic last names is mainly because their ancestors changed their names when they became Catholics or when they had to choose a surname for Governor Clavería’s civil register in 1849. Taking a new name when a person became a Christian was customary, just like it is for people today who convert to Islam. Often a priest would choose the name, but for many Filipinos it was the “cool” thing to do, anyway. The Spaniards had the power, so taking a Spanish surname gave the illusion of having a little prestige and style. Old parish records show that some Filipinos added their new Hispanic names to their old native names but after a few years, they would eventually drop the native part.

Indigenous names survive

Fortunately hundreds of native Filipino names did survive. Some of these were high status names that belonged to important families that kept them even when they converted, while other names belonged to those Filipinos who had eluded Spanish rule.

Some indigenous names have obvious meanings while others have been obscured by time and the evolution of languages. Many families have original Filipino names that may not look Filipino because they have retained the old Spanish spelling – names such as Bondoc for bundok (mountain) or the Ilokano name, Agcaoili (to hold on to), which would be spelled Agkawili in modern Filipino.

Some names are not flattering to their owners but, for obvious reasons, most of the native names that have survived are those that express the positive or powerful qualities of people. There is strength and fierceness in names like, Macaraeg (maka+daig, able to win), Catacutan (fear), Panganiban (aware of danger), Agbayani (Ilokano, to be heroic) and Mangubat (Cebuano, to fight). There is defiance in Tagalog names like: Dimaapi (“cannot be oppressed”), Dimayuga (unshakeable). A favourite of mine is Lacanilao (Lakan+ilaw) or “noble light.”

Native Filipino first names gained a measure of popularity in the 20th century with some nationalistic parents giving their children Tagalog names such as Bayani (Hero), Magtanggol (Protector), Makisig (Handsome), Diwa (Spirit) and Mayon (after Mount Mayon) for boys, or Ligaya (Joy), Malaya (Free), Luwalhati (Glory), Mayumi (Modest), Awit (Song) and Luningning (Brilliance) for girls.

Chinese names

There are many Filipino surnames that look Hispanic but are really Chinese. Today most Chinese surnames have only one syllable, but until the 1800s, Chinese-Filipino families usually had three syllables in their names because they used the complete name of their patriarch. Other families may have come from northern China where two-syllable names are not uncommon. These names became more Spanish sounding when they were written in the Spanish alphabet.

One of the most famous of these is former president Corazon Aquino’s maiden name, Cojuangco. The head of the Cojuanco family at one time was Ko Chi Kuan, who was respectfully addressed by adding Ko to the end of his name and dropping his given name, Chi. Thus, Ko Chi Kuan was known as, Ko Kuan Ko, which eventually became Cojuanco in the Spanish spelling.

Some other hispanized Chinese names are Locsin (Xin Luk), Joson (Ho Sun), Lantin, Dizon, Quison, Vinzon, Licuanan, Landicho, Guingcanco, Lauchengco and Quisumbing. These names were once Chinese, but today they are uniquely Filipino and not found in China.

Whatever the origin – Hispanic, Chinese or native – most Filipinos today possess family names that only date back to 1849; and for that, they can thank (or blame) Clavería’s catalogue.


  • Abella, Domingo & Norman Owen, Catálogo Alfabético de Apellidos (1849), National Archives Publication No. D-3 (1973)
  • All Demographics of the Philippines, Retrieved September 5, 2006
  • Capelli, Christian et al. "A Predominantly Indigenous Paternal Heritage for the Austronesian- Speaking Peoples of Insular Southeast Asia and Oceania." American Journal of Human Genetics 68:432–443, 2001.
  • Santos, Hector. Katálogo ng mga Apelyidong Pilipino (Catalog of Filipino Names) at US, May 3, 1998. Retrieved August 28, 2006.
  • Philippines Genealogy Web Project. Surnames FAQ. Created on: October 11, 1997. Last updated: October 28, 2001. Retrieved August 29, 2006

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[English translation from Catálogo Alfabético de Apellidos (1849), National Archives Publication No. D-3 (1973) by Domingo Abella.]

During my visit to the majority of the provinces of these islands, I observed that the natives in general lack individual surnames which distinguished them by families. They arbitrarily adopt the names of saints, and this results in the existence of thousands of individuals having the same surname. Likewise, I saw the resultant confusion with regard to the administration of justice, government, finance, and public order, and the far-reaching moral, civil and religious consequences to which this might lead, because the family names are not transmitted from the parents to their children, so that it is sometimes impossible to prove the degrees of consanguinity for purposes of marriage, rendering useless the parochial books which in Catholic countries are used for all kinds of transactions.

For this purpose a catalogue of family names has been compiled, including the indigenous names collected by the Reverend Fathers Provincial of the religious orders, and the Spanish surnames they have been able to acquire, along with those furnished by the vegetable and mineral kingdoms, geography, arts, etc. In view of the extreme usefulness and practicality of this measure, the time has come to issue a directive for the formation of a civil register, which may not only fulfill and ensure the said objectives, but may also serve as the basis for the statistics of the country, guarantee the collection of taxes, the regular performance of personal services, and the receipt of payment for exemptions. It likewise provides exact information of the movement of the population, thus avoiding unauthorized migrations, hiding taxpayers, and other abuses.

Having heard the testimonies of the Most Reverend Bishops, the Reverend Provincials of the religious orders, and the Honourable Assessor General of the Government, I hereby order:

1. A copy of the printed catalogue of surnames, previously prepared for this purpose, shalt be remitted to all the heads of provinces of these islands.

2. These officials shall assign to every town, in accordance with the number of families therein, the number of surnames that appear necessary, taking care that the distribution be made by letters, in the appropriate proportions.

3. Having thus formed the catalogues corresponding to each town, the head of the province shall send these to the respective parish priests for distribution to the cabecerías (barangays); this distribution shall be carried out with the help of the gobernadorcillo, another municipal official, and two competent and respected principales. Each cabeza shall be present with the individuals of this cabecería, and the father or oldest person of each family shall choose or be assigned one of the surnames in the list, which he shall then adopt, together with his direct descendants.

4. Natives of Spanish, indigenous, or Chinese origin who already have a surname may retain it and pass it on to their descendants.

5. Children whose fathers are dead shall be given the surname of the paternal grandfather, and in the absence of this, the surname of the brothers or relatives of their father, thus avoiding unnecessary multiplicity and ensuring that those of the same family branch shall have the same surname.

6. The children of unknown fathers shall be given the surname of the mother, and if this is also unknown, the surname of the guardian, or baptismal sponsor, or of the parish priest in case the sponsor does not allow it.

7. In the lists that will be made for the cabecerías, in order to complete the register later, each person shall indicate (a) his baptismal name, followed by the new surname which may be assigned to him, and (b) the name which, until then may have served him as surname, leaving him free to retain this as long as he wishes.

8. To avoid confusion which might result to the prejudice of those who with their surnames inherited from His Majesty certain benefits, the names of Lacandola, Mójica, Tupas, and Raja Matanda shall not be adopted except by those who have a just title to possess them.

9. Families who can prove that they have kept for four generations their surname, even though it may be the name of a saint, but not those like de la Cruz, de los Santos, and some others which are so numerous that they would continue producing confusion, may pass them on to their descendants; the Reverend Fathers and the heads of provinces are advised to use their judgment in the implementation of this article.

10. Having notified the elders or parents of the new surname which corresponds to them and to the members of the family, that is, all those who because of their close relationship should bear the surname, each barangay shall be assigned two or three days for any objections which may be made before the parish priest; the latter will act on these objections in accordance with the provision of this superior decree.

11. School teachers shall have a register of all the children attending school, with their names and surnames, and shall see to it that they shall not address or know each other except by the surname listed in the register which should be that of the parent’s. In case of lack of enthusiasm in compliance with this order, the teachers shall be punished in proportion to the offense at the discretion of the head of the province.

12. The heads of families shall make known their new surnames to their children who may be absent, in addition to the notification that shall be furnished by the gobernadorcillo to the gobernadorcillo of the town in which the absent relative is residing. For this purpose they will form official expedients or specific communications to this effect, signed by the gobernadorcillo and the respective cabezas with the approval of the parish priest. Likewise, they shall remit to the head of the province a list of the names of individuals in the service of the army to whom a surname has been assigned, so that the said provincial head may inform the branches of the army, and the surname which corresponds to each soldier may be recorded in his personnel file.

13. For record purposes, the gobernadorcillo of each town shall keep a list of the individuals who, by virtue of the preceding article, have been informed of the surnames which they are to use.

14. In towns where the residents were born in other places where their families still reside, the gobernadorcillo, without prejudice to the provisions above, shall send a list of their names to the gobernadorcillos of the towns from which they had come, so that on the one hand, there may be no alteration or delay in transmitting the surnames which correspond to each one, and, on the other, there may be no unnecessary duplication. It adds to the confusion to assign a surname to individuals who should adopt that of the family from which they are descended, and no other.

15. The cabecerías in each town shall be numbered, starting from one and so forth; all classes of people in them shall be enrolled, natives as well as mestizos, no matter what their occupations may be, such circumstances being duly recorded.

16. Once the lists of the cabecerías are finalized and approved by the reverend parish priest, a register for each of them shall be prepared so that by assembling all of these, a general register for each town will result, signed by the gobernadorcillo and approved by the parish priest, following the customary practice for the annual inventories of the provinces; three copies thereof shall be prepared, one to serve as a master copy in the parish, another to be conserved by the head of the province in the archives, and the third to be sent to the Superior Government for inclusion in the expediente of this decree and for other uses as needed.

17. In order to obtain uniformity and to facilitate their completion, a sufficient number of registers, patterned on the attached model, shall be printed, to be paid for from the general discretionary funds of the province.

18. At baptisms the parish priest shall demand a sheet of paper whereon, in addition to the name to be given to the one to be baptized, the names and surnames of his father and mother shall be written, except as prescribed in article 6. The same shall be done at marriages, in which case not only the names and surnames of the couple to be married, but also those of their parents, shall be entered.

19. In the margin of sacramental certificates as well as in all public manuscripts or documents that may be issued by either the provincial notaries or the town judges, the surnames of the interested parties to whom the documents refer shall be written in clear and legible writing; all such documents issued under names other than those which had been assigned to these parties, as certified by the master registers or their baptismal certificates, shall be null and void.

20. Neither the heads of provinces, nor parish priests, nor gobernadorcillos shall approve applications or documents in which the interested parties do not express their names and surnames; this rule shall be observed in the Capital [Manila], in municipal and provincial courts, by authorities, military chiefs of the navy, and treasury, and any other officials before whom the natives may appear or present themselves.

21. Any individual who, after being inscribed in the new register, changes his name or surname shall be punished in accordance with the malice and circumstances of the case. The penalty shall be no less than eight days in jail, redeemable by a three-peso fine, and this minimum penalty shall be imposed only in the case of least malice, that is, those caused by negligence or inattention.

22. The register having been prepared with the maximum accuracy in accordance with article 16 the heads of the provinces may easily submit such statistical reports as the Superior Government may require, and at the same time ensure uniformity and precision, and avoid frauds, besides establishing the number of those who should serve in communal public works, contribute to the communal funds, and pay the taxes imposed by the law. The said register shall be prepared in accordance with the master copy, in which there are nine columns for those who pay tribute, those bound to perform communal labour, the name and surname of each of these together with those of the whole family, their ages, marital status, and occupation, the reason for exemptions from personal services or tribute, and a final column to be prepared each successive year, for recording any changes, increases or decreases in each cabecería.

23. Items in the ninth column, pertaining to alterations of each register, shall be entered most accurately, for this is the only way by which in the course of time it may become as perfect as possible, with the disappearance of inaccuracies which may occur at the beginning, especially with regard to the ages of individuals. The cabezas de barangay therefore shall each month note all the variations that may have happened in their cabecerías, and shall submit these annotations on the first Sunday of every month to the gobernadorcillo and the parish priest for their examination and approval.

24. The heads of provinces shall exercise the utmost zeal and the full measure of their authority, both for the preparation of the registers with the requisite accuracy, and for the strict implementation of the previous article, by which the desired perfection may be obtained, and various significant advantages may be derived. It is understood that by the coming month of June [1850] the registers shall be completed, and their submission to the Superior Government shall be accompanied by a report on the resultant increase in all the classes that compose the register.

In addition to their administrative and executive functions, as enjoined by the government, the parish priests should also, by their counsel and exhortations help make their parishioners understand the advantages which in various respects will result from the execution of this decree. To this effect, the secular and regular prelates are requested and enjoined to exert their pastoral zeal and the full influence of their authority and position so that the parish priests shall extend their cooperation, which is indispensable for the complete success of what is herein provided. It is understood that the Government shall take into account, for purposes of reward, the merit or demerit which each one may earn in a matter of such importance.

Let this decree, with the catalogue of surnames and the model of the register, be sent to the heads of provinces and to others whom it may concern.