Author’s Note: Academic essays often shy away from using the personal pronouns “we.” While scholarship attempts to value objectivity, the academy has always been riddled with subjectivity. It is nearly impossible to examine anything without bias. Everyone, academics included, subconsciously speak in the collective “we.” Identity is the core pillar in which people judge, evaluate, analyze, and exist. In the case of this essay, I think that the personal pronoun is warranted. As a Filipino American, uplifting the voice of my community is of the utmost importance to me. We have the strength to use our voice. 

Filipina poet Luisa Aguilar Igloria once wrote, “There will always be a significant part of the past which can neither be burnt nor banished to the soothing limbo of forgetfulness—myself. I was and still am that same ship which carried me to the new shore, the same vessel containing all the memories and dreams of the child in the brick house with the toy tea set. I am the shore I left behind as well as the home I return to every evening. The voyage cannot proceed without me.” 

Filipino history is undoubtedly a complex one. Within about four centuries, three different countries sought to claim the islands as their own. Spain. The United States. Japan. Each country left their indelible mark on history, “which can neither be burnt nor banished to the soothing limbo of forgetfulness.” The Philippines is a country that is not well-explored in academia. It is often relegated to a line in a history book if we are lucky enough to be included. Because the nation has been serially colonized, pieces of history are either lost to time or actively forgotten. The latter being far more nefarious, bringing the Philippines to the forefront of any colonial conversation is necessary, and in fact, fair. For every story that is told, it is bound to be untold. 

Approaching questions of identity is intimidating. People tend to fear multiplicity in conversations about identity simply because thinking beyond the binary introduces new questions. These new questions create more dialogues and paper trails. “Hidden” identities begin to reappear that the world is frequently not prepared to embrace. Society is often steered by the maps of the colonial past. If we follow these maps, we continue to view the world through the colonizers’ eyes. For every map that is drawn, it is bound to be redrawn. 

In 1521, Ferdinand Magellan claimed the archipelago of islands for Spain. His arrival marked 333 years of Spanish occupation. During this period, the Spanish established spice trade with mainland Asia (primarily China and Japan), formed the encomienda system where indigenous people were subject to abusive hard labor, and sought to convert every individual to Catholicism, among many other ventures. Being the only Catholic nation in Asia, the faith is a testament of Spain’s lasting legacy in the Philippines. With conversion came several other elements of Spanish culture: names, language, beauty standards, cuisine. In 1849, Governor General Narciso Claveria issued a decree that Filipino individuals must adopt Spanish last names, i.e. Santos, Garcia, Diaz, Dela Cruz, Gomez, Gonzalez. Under this piece of legislation, a refusal to use the name or change it resulted in imprisonment. All documents containing previous family names were invalid. In issuing this decree, Claveria sought to homogenize Filipino people beyond their religious status. [1] His goal was to re-order the very way of life in the Philippines. (This renaming system also extended to nature and cultural aspects such as art and music.) Essentially, Claveria instated a strictly Spanish identity. 

Language, closely connected to the theme of names, proves to be another element worthy of examination. Like religion, language was also long-lasting. Up until 1987, Spanish was a co-language with English and Filipino. The Filipino language uses 4,000 borrowed words from Spanish, which is about one third of its lexicon. [2] Chabacano, the only Spanish-based creole language in Asia, still has speakers today in the Southern province of Mindanao and Cavite. [3] Linguistically, Spain, driven by the work of humanist Antonio de Nebrija, declared that Spanish was the official language of the Philippines. As the lingua franca (the language of education, government, and commerce) of the nation, many writers during the three-century long colonial period used Spanish as their primary language. José Rizal, arguably the most famous Filipino revolutionary, wrote his final poem in Spanish (“Mi Último Adiós”). In 1924, even after the Spanish left the country, the Philippine Academy of the Spanish Language (AFLE) was created, showing us the extent of the Spanish sphere of influence even after the Spanish-American War in 1898. [4]

Spanish residence also brought European beauty standards that are deeply ingrained in Filipino culture today. Those with a lighter complexion, especially for women, experience more privilege in the workplace than those with darker complexions. Having a more European appearance was an asset, a status symbol that many individuals still seek to possess. Families are proud of their Spanish heritage and the privileges that it has brought them. 

Just taking a cursory look at Philippine history under Spanish colonial rule, we see the profound impact that colonizers had on not only the country’s structure but also how Filipinos themselves might consider their place in the larger global arena. Characterizing race/ethnicity has always been a controversial matter. Marginalized individuals must navigate a system which they themselves did not create. Colonizers and neo-colonizers formed racial/ethnic categories for people who were denied agency. They drew superficial lines based on skin color and geography, both of which are not substantial qualifiers when defining one’s identity. This still remains an issue today. 

There is an ongoing debate regarding how the United States Census chooses to count Hispanics. Who is Hispanic? What is the Hispanic experience? What background must they have to be considered a member of this community? Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race. Ethnicity, according to Merriam Webster, is the concept “of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religion, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.” [5] Oxford Languages defines ethnicity as “the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.” [6] Both of these definitions being considered, we must ask ourselves, who exactly is Hispanic? Traditionally, the U.S. Census Bureau has described the ethnic group as the following: “Americans of Spanish origin or descent… Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish-speaking countries.” [7] 

Notice that the definition excludes Portugal, Brazil, and the Philippines. The government claims that because these countries do not speak Spanish, they are not Hispanic. [8] Here, a problem instantly arises: must one speak a language in order to belong to that specific ethnic group? Is language the only defining factor of ethnicity? The simple answer to both of these questions is no. Applying this definition specifically to the Philippines presents a fascinating dialogue: how much of the country must speak Spanish in order for it to be considered Hispanic? What is the history of the Spanish language in a particular country? What influence has the Spanish language had on the communications within a country today? Although only 0.5% of the Filipino population currently speaks Spanish, that is not to say that there aren’t variations of Spanish among the 125+ languages that exist in the islands. [9] As mentioned earlier, a portion of the population speaks the Spanish-creole language Chabacano, and one third of the nationally recognized Filipino language contains Spanish words. Additionally, Spanish was an official language of the country until 1976, and mandatory education of the language lasted until 1987. [10] Evidently, Spanish is still active in the Philippines. Thus, is it time to rethink the influence that language has on ethnic categorization? 

Geography is another factor in determining one’s identity. The Census Bureau’s definition is geared towards individuals with heritage from Spain, the Caribbean, and Central/South America. Given that the label “Hispanic” is more affiliated with sharing a culture, why are Filipinos still denied a Hispanic identity? Society may say that the Philippines is too “Asian” to be considered Hispanic. Furthermore, due to the fact that the Philippines is a cultural mixing pot, incorporating Malay, Chinese, Japanese, indigenous, Spanish, and American cultures, the world may claim that Filipinos can only define themselves as Asian because it is the simplest. They may also claim that the country is too serially colonized to be recognized as anything other than Asian. The U.S. Census primarily refers to Filipino people as Southeast Asian but this puts forth another issue: where does Asia start and end? Are Filipinos Pacific Islanders? As we are starting to learn from unraveling the complexity of how history and sociocultural elements shape identity, we arrive at this crucial crossroads: can the Philippines identify itself as Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic? Truth be told, a singular experience for any one of these identifiers is non-existent. That is to say, alluding to merely one cultural, geographic, or linguistic, etc. experience goes against our ideas of an interconnected global community. Self-identification opposed to government regulated definitions should be the principal way of examining ethnicity. The freedom to choose gives Filipinos the agency to decide for themselves, something that colonialism has repeatedly robbed from them. 

The Philippines is a phenomenon where East meets West and West meet East. Former president Sergio Osmeña stated that the country was “equally at home in the traditions and civilizations of both East and West.” [11] Filipino author Anthony Cristian Ocampo also explores this notion. In his book The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rule of Race (2016), he explains that while the U.S. Census classifies Filipinos as Asian, “the legacy of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines means that they share many cultural characteristics with Latinos…Thus Filipinos’ “color”—their sense of connection with other racial groups–changes depending on their social context.” [12] We see here that we are continually pushing the limits of geography as an identifier, and perhaps it’s for the best. 

Much of our current geography is imperialist. Western colonizers frequently drew territorial boundaries without any consultation with the inhabitants of the areas they sought to exploit. Amerigo Vespucci was the first European to identify the Americas as a new continent, separate from Asia. Notably, Vespucci was an Italian merchant, eager to exploit the New World for its natural resources. European explorers subsequently based all their explorations on his vision of the world. Thus, geography is another medium through which colonialism was expressed. Unfortunately, we witness this reality every day. Without acknowledging this reality, we are complicit in perpetuating a colonial understanding of the world. 

Maps, beyond the coordinates, annotations of oceans, and country labels, do not all serve a geographical purpose. We are capable of mapping our history, language, and culture. It is significant to underline that human beings gave maps their meaning. A map, just like the one Vespucci drew in 1507, is intrinsically human. [13] Instead of viewing maps as static documents and relics of the past, perhaps we need to view them as dynamic, capable of being redrawn and reimagined. We must be active revisers and rememberers. We are agents of how the future might view the world. Both metaphorical and physical dimensions should be in conversation with one another during this process. In an effort to decolonize our minds, we must challenge, or even defy our current geography outright. 

During the reign of Charles V of Spain, the power of the Spanish Empire grew. The Philippines became the link between the Americas and Asia, leading to the popular phrase “el imperio donde nunca se pone el sol” [the empire where the sun never sets]. [14] The Spanish Empire depended on the country as the primary trade connection, the interlocutor between worlds. The Empire attempted to unify the state in order to consolidate power. Permitting this truth to fall into the historical abyss would cause a substantial loss of dialogue in scholarship, but more importantly diplomacy and social justice. Despite being an ocean away, there is an insurmountable link that pairs us with the Hispanic world. Despite years of serial colonization, there is an identity that we cannot erase, a centuries-long trauma that we cannot forget.

One would expect that the Philippines would have a seat at the academic table. Sadly, though, the country’s role in the Hispanic world goes vastly understudied. The academy, which perpetuates the status quo and institutions of dubious colonial backgrounds, is majorly responsible. We must not blame a particular individual but rather the system in which scholarship exists. Philippine Studies is often not included in many Asian or Hispanic Studies departments across the United States, or even the world. The matter may lie in the fact that the Philippines is too multifaceted to fit into any categorical course of study. A plausible solution to this might be not to include the subject at all, which is arguably more problematic than including it in either department. Studies of Hispanic Asia marry the two subjects and could open the door to future possibilities of scholarship in our interconnected, global world. [16] The discipline could provide us with another lens to further our understanding of colonization and sociopolitical interaction. Yet, for many Filipino scholars who may wish to pursue Hispanic Asian studies, they often must represent themselves and bear the responsibility of filling the gaping hole in the complex nature of Hispanic Studies as a whole. 

The Philippines has never been completely incorporated in the standard curriculum for learning about Spain and Latin America. The nation is relegated to one line: “and the Philippines.” This attitude of the Philippines as an afterthought must change if we wish to make the colonial conversation more equitable. Without proper representation in scholarship, the world is bound to forget a plethora of colonial realities that impact Filipinos each and every day. Analyzing the history of the Spanish Empire explains so deeply why the country is the way it is today. It must be said: this is not a new branch in scholarship. Rather, it draws upon the past to bring a multidimensional reality to the present. As a global community, one that must take increasing steps to ensure equitable representation, we must divorce ourselves from binary categories. We cannot reduce serially colonized nations like the Philippines to simply being this or that. We must accept a multitude of identities. The question rests with broadening the borders of our mind and working towards cultural self-determination. Who is the Filipino?

“I am the shore I left behind as well as the home I return to every evening. The voyage cannot proceed without me.” 



Isabella Garcia Bernstein is an undergraduate at Barnard College studying Spanish/Latin American Cultures and Archaeological Anthropology. As of Fall 2022, Isa serves as a member of the CJA Outreach Team, and is also secretary for Liga Filipina, concert producer for the Columbia Classical Performers, associate editorial editor for the Journal of Global Health, associate editor for the Barnard Bulletin, and a 2022 Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholar.



[1]  “Today in Philippine History, November 21, 1849, Claveria Issued a Decree to Adopt a Standardized Records of Filipino Names and Surnames.” The Kahimyang Project, November 21, 2011. 

[2] Weedon, Alan. “The Philippines Is Fronting up to Its Spanish Heritage, and for Some It's Paying Off.” ABC News. ABC News, September 4, 2019. 

[3] Ager, Simon. “Chavacano.” Chavacano alphabet, pronunciation and language. Omniglot. Accessed November 28, 2022. 

[4] JF Staff. “Academia Filipina De La Lengua Española Names Its New Honorary Academics.” La Jornada Filipina Magazine. La Jornada Filipina Magazine, August 6, 2021. 

[5]  “Ethnic Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed November 28, 2022. 

[6]  “Oxford Languages- Home.” Oxford Languages. Oxford University Press. Accessed November 28, 2022. 

[7]  Lopez, Mark Hugo, Jens Manuel Krogstad, and Jeffrey S. Passel. “Who Is Hispanic?” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, September 15, 2022. 

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ager, Simon. “Chavacano.” Chavacano alphabet, pronunciation and language. Omniglot. Accessed November 28, 2022. 

[10]  Tupas, Ruanni, and Beatriz P. Lorente. “A ‘New’ Politics of Language in the Philippines: Bilingual Education and the New Challenge of the Mother Tongues.” Language, Education and Nation-building, January 2014, 165–80. 

[11] Porter, Catherine. “What Is a Filipino?” What is a Filipino? | AHA. Office of War Information, formerly with Institute for Pacific Relations (American Historical Association), April 1945. 

[12] Ocampo, Anthony Christian. “The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race - Anthony Christian Ocampo.” Stanford University Press Home Page. Stanford University Press, March 2, 2016. 

[13] Ramani, Madhvi. “The Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name.” BBC Travel. BBC, July 3, 2018. 

[14]  Slack, Edward R. “Philippines under Spanish Rule, 1571-1898.” Oxford Bibliographies. Oxford University Press, June 30, 2014.; Yülek, M.A. (2018). The Old World Order: Trade Before the Empires on which the Sun Never Set. In: How Nations Succeed: Manufacturing, Trade, Industrial Policy, and Economic Development. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. 

[15] Wendt, Reinhard. “Philippine Fiesta and Colonial Culture.” Philippine Studies 46, no. 1 (1998): 3–23.