Filipinos, who are they: a brief narrative history




Filipinos trace their beginnings to waves of migration that happened in the Indo-Pacific, the last of which were Indo-Malay influx into the northern coastlines. Earlier though, geological events that resulted in the changes of land masses, as well as the appearance and disappearance of land bridges also form part of their origins. Anthropological studies show that small mountain-dwelling tribes akin to the aborigines of Australia called aetas in the Philippines

are believed to have found their way to the northern mountain ranges through the land bridges.



But by the time the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan discovered the archipelago by accident, having taken an uncharted route in his search for spices, the Filipinos have had established a culture made up of kingships ruled by datus. Down south however, the islands that used to be part of the Madjapahit Empire, which was a powerful sultanate, stood apart with their predominantly Muslim culture.

Magellan landed in 1521 in one of the islands mid-south, called Limasawa where he planted the Cross and celebrated the first holy mass. Colonization and conversion hardly advanced with him as a battle of resistance led by a chieftain, Lapu-lapu, felled him on the seashore while trying to get back to his boat. It took another fifty years for the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi to re-establish Spanish rule and to confirm the naming of the islands after Felipe II (King Philip), then the reigning monarchy. This, he did in Manila on the ashes of a vanquished native fort Datu Sulayman ruled by the banks of the Pasig River


Intramuros, Walled City of Manila


On a piece of land that jutted on the mouth of the river, the Spaniards built Intramuros, a medieval walled city, declaring Manila the capital of the islands in 1571. In here arose the seat of the colonial government, of religion and learning. Inside what is barely 7 kilometers of walls, there were 16 churches including a cathedral, several gothic shrines, and some small chapels inside of convents and schools. Secular orders founded schools and seminaries, building them in Intramuros. The oldest university in Asia

, known to be older than Harvard, founded by the Dominicans and one of the earliest colleges run by the Jesuits exist to this day. Only two of the churches—one, being the Manila Cathedral and the other, the San Agustin Church and Convent of the Agustinians—have survived earthquakes, fires and bombings during World War II.

Colonial Rule


Spain ruled the islands through Mexico

. As with most colonial rule, the Spanish government was known to be oppressive. Life for native Filipinos remained economically stagnant except for those favored by the Spaniards. An elite class called the principalia that owned most of the farms, which were awarded by local Spanish officials, emerged. From most of these families, were born the landlords who owned large tracts of lands until the 1970s and for whom all of the townspeople, sometimes, served as chattels. This privileged class remains for the most part the ruling elite, most of them having converted landholdings into corporations.

While agricultural economy hardly advanced in Spanish times, farming developed to a certain extent with some kind of boost which came by way of new decrees on land ownership in the mid-18th century—an attempt by the colonial regime to increase production and hasten the conversion of the Chinese immigrants. This gave rise to a landed middle class. From this class would emerge an intelligentsia schooled in Europe and who brought back home ideas of freedom that swept France in the late 18th century. Jose Rizal, the Philippines

’ national hero executed at the Luneta, a Spanish promenade along the walls facing the bay, was one of them.


Spanish colonial towns and lifestyle


The church and state were not separate under Spanish rule. Towns were founded simultaneously as a ‘visita’ and a municipality. A ‘visita’ identifies the town first as a parish so much so that the axis of all Philippine towns is the church, a plaza and the municipal hall. The Agustinian and Dominican missionaries did most of the conversion and the town planning, using catechism to teach reading and church rituals to evangelize. Most of those brick churches were built—where they stand to this day—on grounds sacred to the natives. Labor for those churches was extracted from the natives though in Intramuros, the Spaniards hired the Chinese who sailed in.

The missionaries also converted native rituals of harvesting, fishing, and honoring the dead into religious feasts. Depending on the livelihood of the towns, the Spaniards chose a patron saint to be honored during these feasts. The natives were then encouraged to offer their produce to God through the intercession of such a saint. The feasts, called fiesta, were spectacles of religious processions, and community dancing and singing. Families gathered with especial dishes; their homes were decked with their produce made into craft objects. Such feasts are celebrated to this day.

The Philippine Revolution


American colonization happened with hardly any resistance. The Philippines had just gained independence from Spain in the 1898 Revolution. It turned out that Emilio Aguinaldo, one of the insurrectionists who won among the other revolutionary leaders had secretly sought American assistance in Hongkong; the US was engaged in the Spanish-American War then being waged in Cuba. Two years later, the Americans took over the islands after the Battle of Manila Bay described by historians as nothing more than a mock fight. A revolution broke out shortly after the establishment of the regime but it was short lived. In Mindanao

, however, the Muslims, then identified as Moros, put up a strong resistance that lasted for thirteen years when American troops partly defeated them.

American Rule


America ruled the islands as a colony from 1900 until 1934, when it granted the Philippines a self-governing status as a Commonwealth. Where public health and education almost came to a standstill during the Spanish times, the US

government introduced a series of reforms including efficient systems to deliver health services and prevent illnesses. More than inroads to health, they reformed public instruction,building a network of schools in all towns, and state universities. In consonance with their role to train the Filipinos for democracy, they also instituted English as the medium of instruction.

Among the most significant reforms in government rule the Americans initiated was the separation of the church and state. A number of religious landholdings were taken over and distributed to tenants. It was also during this regime when a schism led by nationalists in the clergy happened in the Catholic Church; they founded and established the Philippine Independent Church or Aglipayan church named after their leader. With the coming of the Americans, Protestant churches started to abound.

Philippine Independence


Four years later than promised by the law that granted it commonwealth status, the Philippines gained its independence on July 4, 1946

, shortly after World War II, a fierce war the Filipinos fought alongside the Americans against the Japanese. But rehabilitation was never complete—to this day, the government is still learning how to make independence and democracy work. The country has been plagued by economic stagnation and widespread poverty, thus, also of insurgency such as that of the Communist-led parties as well as the Muslim ‘separation-ist’ movement, and too, frequent protests in the countryside and the cities all aimed at overthrowing the government.


Martial Law and onward


The world-renown Marcos regime gave the country a semblance of political stability. Under martial law that lasted from 1972 to 1981, the Philippines emerged as a leader in Southeast Asia

in terms of industrial growth. But in truth, the masses grew more poverty-stricken and the gap between the rich and poor widened. In 1986, Marcos was overthrown in a most unique revolution led by oppositionists and the Catholic Church. Known as a ‘peaceful revolution’, it was waged with prayer vigils.

Miracles: Only Hope for Filipinos


A return to civilian rule, however, has not succeeded in an improved economy that must ideally seep down to the masses. To this day, the government is plagued by political unrest, a weak economy, and widespread poverty. Yet, Filipinos, as it is their nature, have demonstrated a most uncanny flexibility and a fierce spirit of survival. Most of all, as evidenced by religious gatherings, they continue to witness their faith in God’s providence—migration for one, for which they pray, petition and if granted, consider it not only as a blessing but a miracle.

Copyright 2007 by Alegria Imperial, unpublished essay, 2007