Who’s Hispanic? Who’s Filipino?

Who’s Hispanic? Who’s Filipino?

by Emily Monroy
January 15, 2016

Emily Monroy
Emily Monroy

A few years ago, I wrote an essay called ‘Who’s White?’ I asked this question about several individuals, both famous (controversial shooter George Zimmerman) and not-so-famous (two boyfriends of mine). I ended the piece by discussing whether my daughter, who is part American Indian on her father’s side (he’s from Nicaragua), would be considered White or not. Conclusion: maybe, maybe not.

Since then, a few new developments have occurred. Members of a Scandinavian club whose events I occasionally attend seem to think that my daughter looks Italian – which doesn’t surprise me because both her father and I have some ancestry from Italy. I wasn’t so prepared, though, when at least two people asked me if my daughter was part-Filipino (both were Filipino themselves, incidentally). In one case, the question came after I mentioned that my daughter had a Spanish last name from her father: having been under Spain’s rule for more than 300 years, most surnames in the Philippines are Spanish. One of my daughter’s surnames is Ramos, the name of the Philippines’ 12th president. In the other instance, a man working at my daughter’s school thought she might be Filipino because of her eyes.

I’ll concede that my daughter could probably ‘pass’ as a Filipino mestiza (Spanish word used in Latin America and the Philippines for a woman of mixed racial origins). These exchanges also got me asking my own questions: How Spanish are Filipinos? Are they an Asian people who just happen to have Spanish names? Or are they, like most of the inhabitants of Spanish America, all mestizo?

Several schools of thought exist on the subject. The first is that the majority of Filipinos do have a Spanish ancestor somewhere down the line, evidenced, they say, by the fact they have a Spanish last name. For example, my father’s housekeeper informed him that she was indeed part-Spanish because her family name was Narvaez (my father was sceptical, by the way). One Spanish-language book on the history of the Philippines says that millions of Spaniards fathered mestizo children in their East Asian colony.

In contrast, others deny that Spaniards or Europeans in general had much genetic impact on the Philippines and its people. A website run by a Filipino Canadian humorously states, ‘Dear Filipinos, Stop Claiming that You’re Spanish! You (probably) aren’t.’ He goes on to say, ‘Mating was not a prerequisite to adopt the Spanish name – merely converting to Christianity and swearing allegiance to Spain was enough.’ Some sources explain that Filipino natives were assigned Spanish names for census purposes (of interest, some native surnames, such as ‘Bondoc,’ remain; as well, Chinese family names are found among individuals descended from immigrants from China to the Philippines).

Without taking either school of thought as gospel, I decided to investigate their claims myself. My semi-educated guess was that Filipinos would have more European ancestry than other Asians but less than Latin Americans, for example. My research bore my predictions out. One study in the American Journal of Human Genetics from the early 2000s found that 3.6% of Filipino males possessed a Y chromosome (a chromosome passed from father to son) of European origin. (This figure would not cover people like my Filipino mestizo ex-boyfriend, who could ‘pass’ for Hispanic or even Italian but probably didn’t have a European Y chromosome because his Spanish ancestry came from his mother’s rather than father’s side.) According to a more recent study from the journal Genetics, Filipinos demonstrated a ‘modest amount of European genetic ancestry,’ while another report by one of the authors estimated that at least 5% of Filipinos’ genetic background came from Europe. Both those studies showed that Filipinos were more European than were other East Asians.

In contrast, Latin Americans’ genetic ancestry is believed to be about 50% European1, with the rest being mainly Native American and African. A study from Colombia similarly found that about 94% of Y chromosomes in men there came from Europe, even if most of these men’s mtDNA (which is passed from women to children of both sexes) was Native. Hence, it appears that Hispanics have approximately 10 times more European ancestry than do Filipinos, despite their homelands both being under Spanish control at one point or another.

The reason for this discrepancy lies in the fact that far fewer Spaniards ventured to the Philippines than to the Americas; thus a large mestizo population did not have the chance to emerge in the former. The result of this discrepancy is that Latin America (other than Brazil, which was conquered by Portugal) basically became a cultural outpost of Spain whereas the Philippines did not. To provide one example, although indigenous Filipino languages contain a considerable number of Spanish words, Castilian Spanish as a whole did not take hold in the Philippines as a mother tongue other than in the small mestizo community – and not even among all of them; my ex-boyfriend, for instance, only learned (some) Spanish in school. Nor was Spanish particularly used as a lingua franca, a role filled to some extent by the English brought by the Americans who took over the Philippines from Spain in the late 1800s.

What has the outcome been of Spain’s general lack of influence in the Philippines? On the positive side, had the Spanish language become widespread there, Filipinos might not have learned English so well – well enough that many of them are able to find work as nurses, nannies and other positions in much of the Anglo-Saxon world, including Canada. Of interest, Puerto Rico, another former Spanish colony that was eventually ceded to the United States, never adopted English widely even as a second language, as surveys on bilingualism among Puerto Ricans have shown. On the negative side, some Filipinos feel somewhat disconnected from the –albeit limited – role Spain and its heritage have played in their country. There is a demand, for instance, to reinstate the Spanish language as a compulsory subject in Philippine schools and universities. In my opinion, this might not be a bad idea: while perhaps of lesser utility than English, Spanish is still a useful language to know.

So in the end, I’ll hand it to the ‘Stop claiming that you’re Spanish’ website author that most Filipinos do not have Spanish or other European ancestry. But to say that Spain had no influence, either genetic or cultural, on the Philippines does not give the full picture either.


1 ‘Admixture, Cultural and Biological,’ Razib Khan (http://www.unz.com/gnxp/admixture-cultural-and-biological/).

Emily Monroy is a professional translator and is of Irish, Italian and Norwegian descent. Born in Windsor, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto. Her articles have appeared in several publications, including Interracial Voice, Cats Canada, and Urban Mozaik. She welcomes feedback on her articles. You can contact Emily here.


  1. “while perhaps of lesser utility than English, Spanish is still a useful language to know”

    That’s what you Anglos think. Just for your information, Spanish is the 3rd most spoken language in the world and many big multinational companies now especially in the US prefers someone who is proficient in both English & Spanish whereas English alone is not enough. Even in the Philippines, there is a growing demand especially for BPO companies for Spanish-speaking employees. Unfortunately more than 95% of Filipinos don’t speak nor even have a basic understanding of Spanish and it is why Filipinos only have limited options for employment opportunities. In Spain, Filipinos as citizens of an ex-Spanish colony, are among the few foreigners who have easier time acquiring Spanish citizenship and are also allowed to have dual citizenship. Unfortunately many Filipinos aren’t able to enjoy these benefits because of their deficiency in Spanish, which is one of the basic requirements for applying for a permanent residency and citizenship.

  2. Thank you for responding. I am certainly not saying that Spanish is useless. However, as the “international language” at the moment, English, not Spanish, is the second language people wish to learn. I agree with you, though, that it would serve Filipinos well to take up Spanish, not of course as a mother tongue but as a second language. If people like the Scandinavians can study multiple languages (I’ve met a number of Swedish people who have studied English, French and German in school, plus Latin and Greek), I do not see why the Philippines cannot institute Spanish as part of the school curriculum.

  3. I always liked the “Latinos of Asia” description as the quickest, easiest way to sum it up. It’s true that it’d be quite a stretch for most Filipinos to claim Latino heritage on any technical level, but the Spanish influence is absolutely the most readily identifiable characteristic that distinguishes the Philippines from its Asian neighbors, so it only makes sense for it to be celebrated.

  4. Thank you, Scott, for responding. I agree that the Philippines is the most Westernized nation in Asia – thanks to its 300 years of Spanish rule. Certainly the Spanish had a greater influence on the Philippines than the Dutch did on Indonesia, for example, as the anthropologist Pierre Van Den Berghe has pointed out. So perhaps the term “Latinos of Asia” does make sense. However, I’d stop short of saying that the Philippines is a Latin country – if it were, I believe, for instance, the Filipinos would have adopted Spanish as a first language as most Latin Americans (other than Brazilians, of course) did. Still, I’m more sympathetic to the view that Filipinos are “Latin” – even if I don’t share it – than I am with the view that Latin America is “Indian” (or, in the view of some, “African”).

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