Philippines Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Filipino Roots

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Philippines Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Filipino Roots

By Todd Lucero Sales

Filipinos don’t really care about genealogy. At least that’s how it may appear at first glance. This idea really hit home for me after reviewing some data from my YouTube channel. I noticed the watch times of viewers from the United States and other places were consistently longer than those of viewers from the Philippines. How could this be? Family is such an important part of Philippine culture, I couldn’t believe there wasn’t more interest in learning about personal family history.

Family reunions are big in Philippine culture

Curious, I did some further research. In the Philippines, Google searches for the word “genealogy” have not gone above 50%. I decided to conduct an informal survey among 110 Philippines-based respondents, asking if they were “familiar with the term genealogy”. The results were eye-opening! Not only were four out of five unfamiliar with the term, three out of five thought “genealogy” referred to that branch of medicine that deals with the physical care of the female reproductive system!

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However, I also noticed the search result data changes when the word being searched for is “family tree” or even “family reunion”. There is a spike in the searches, especially with the term “family tree”. So it’s not that Filipinos are disinterested in genealogy. It’s just that genealogy, as a word, is something that not many Filipinos are familiar with.

This simple terminology discrepancy is where the differences in genealogy interest between Philippine-born and US-born Filipinos end. Because at the heart of every Filipino, family has always played a key role and knowledge of one’s family tree or history is, in fact, very common. Many Filipino families are quite familiar with their genealogies, albeit in an informal manner.

No matter your current location, here are ways you can conduct research into your own Filipino genealogy and family history.

Some Caveats Before Starting Your Filipino Genealogy Research

While the rules in tracing Filipino family trees are the same as any other, there are three important caveats an amateur genealogist interested in Filipino genealogy must be aware of.

1. There is no central database for records in the Philippines.

While there are websites you can visit (which will be discussed later) to research their Filipino ancestry, these are fragmented and incomplete. Also be aware there are no census or state records, like those in the United States, you can freely access. While these records do exist, it’s important to understand there are no centralized databases available. Most old records in the Philippines can be found in the National Archives of the Philippines, which is still at the initial stages of digitizing and making its records available to the public.

2. Most Filipino families only started using formal last names in 1850.

This is a crucial fact in Philippine genealogy. The use of surnames came in accordance with a decree promulgated in 1849 requiring all inhabitants of the Philippines to formally adopt a single family name for their respective families.

Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos

Unfortunately, this means any available website or record pertaining to a family name similar to your own does not automatically guarantee that it will be of any use. A very important but necessary first step for any Filipino genealogist is to establish, beyond reasonable doubt, that the last name you’re looking for is related to the family mentioned in the records, websites, or other sources you’re looking at. Make sure your family’s last name is a product of the decree and is the name taken from a catalog of names, or if it has always been used in their family.

3. There has been an implementation of the Data Privacy Act in the Philippines.

A third and final important fact about Filipino genealogy is the recent implementation of the Data Privacy Act in the Philippines. Signed into law in 2012 and taking effect in 2016, this law restricts the online access to records pertaining to personal information of anyone in and from the Philippines. In other words, while there are already quite limited resources for Filipino genealogy, the law has even made these resources more scarce and less accessible.

Getting Started with Your Research

Interview Relatives

Before even planning to check online, start by interviewing as many relatives as possible. Almost all branches in a Filipino family have their own stories about their ancestors and relatives, so it’s a must to talk to as many as possible. If you have direct access to these relatives, the better off your initial research efforts will be.

Find relatives through social media

If not, finding them through social media is the most common and fastest way to go. Most Filipinos in the Philippines belong to several chat groups or family pages on Facebook, so search for relatives both here and on other social media channels. While everyone may not be successful with this tactic, those who are get to connect with relatives who provide them with valuable information to help them in their research.

While any relative can provide you with information about the family, it has been my experience that the older the relative, the more details you get. Also, it is best to correspond or interview family members still living in the hometown or home country. They tend to have the “non-sanitized” version of the stories.

Search for leads online

One last basic step in doing Filipino genealogy is checking for leads online. While it’s true the internet does not always have everything you need, there are certainly valuable bits and pieces to be found online. Because resources and references are not as numerous for Filipino genealogy, be very careful when entering search perimeters online. You might think that the keywords “descendants (name of person)” or “(name of person) descendants” would yield the best results. Not true. In fact, these keywords are almost useless. They’re prone to return hundreds of thousands of results in a Google search, so be very specific.

Better online search results

The key to better search results is very specific parameters; instead of saying “children (name of person)” to get the names of a person’s children, first search for “son (name of person)” or “daughter (name of person)”, or “granddaughter/son (name of person)”. These results may not always give you a lot of information, but they may provide you with important leads. When searching for an ancestor or relative, search using the name and the town and country of origin. These initial online searches sometimes yield existing family trees, family websites, and other relevant information.

Using Free Online Sources

FamilySearch

Before the Data Privacy Act became enforced, the best source for researching one’s Filipino ancestry was FamilySearch, the online repository of all genealogical information gathered and made available by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Before 2016, the digitized records in FamilySearch were accessible. While these digitized online records are no longer accessible, the Records Search option is still available. Use this feature to track down records at a local Family History Center, where you can go in-person and get assistance from a member of the LDS church. This can be a big help with your initial research as many records have been indexed. Although the information will unfortunately be incomplete, it’s a great way to jumpstart your research.

Geni.com

Another free and useful website is Geni.com, which contains millions of family trees contributed by private individuals all over the world. You should at least find one or two relatives with a contributed family tree. Even if the settings are set to private, once you create a free account you can send a message to the manager of the tree. While there are many family trees in Geni that are authentic and accurate, it’s important to be aware of those that do not contain details. There are many trees in Geni that have not been authenticated or are sheer fabrications.

Other Online Sources

Other online sources include MyHeritage, Geneanet, and Find a Grave. There are limits to what can be accessed for free, but these free sites can provide additional details to one’s search.

Tombstone of Michael Zimmerman, great-grandfather of Elizabeth Zimmerman Duterte, former wife of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (Photo from Find-a-Grave)

An additional free resource for Filipino genealogy research are online newspapers and magazines from the Philippines, such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Esquire magazine. Searching Google Books can also help a lot, as well as online journals like JSTOR and Philippine Studies. Though not all issues are free, there are many that are and both have articles that discuss family histories. The National Library of the Philippines also has digital collections that can be useful.

Offline Research: Still the Best for Filipino Genealogy

It is unfortunate and sad to admit, but Filipino genealogy research has not caught up yet with the rest of the world. With the implementation of the Data Privacy Act, research into your Filipino ancestry has unfortunately taken a step further back. Although you can definitely find bits and pieces of information online, nothing beats going back to basics: offline research.

Naturally, the first option would be to visit your ancestral home’s church, but this is usually difficult for most. A great solution, and the easiest way to research, is through an LDS Family History Center (FHC). Most major cities and towns should have at least one FHC where members and non-members can visit and use for free.

Pardon de almas

So what records can be found? There are three types that are common in most cities and municipalities in the Philippines:

  • The first are church records, which are mostly baptismal, marriage, and burial records. There are also confirmation records available for most towns. Some towns are lucky enough to have additional church records such as the Libros de Gastos (accounting records) and the best type of local church records are the padrones de almas (Accounting for Souls), which were censuses that the friars conducted. If one finds this available in one’s town of origin then there should be a lot of genealogical data available.
  • There are also civil registries available, which are the records from the city or municipal civil registrar’s office. Most of these records date back only to the first to second quarter of the 20th century.
  • Finally there are notarial records, which may show land records, court records, wills and other legal documents.

Finding Available Records

After looking for available records from your own locality, search in the your province as well. For instance, after going through the available records from Cebu City, Cebu, check for records pertaining to the province of Cebu.

Using Cebu as an example, you can find the following types of records:

  • census
  • civil registration
  • court records
  • emigration and immigration
  • land and property
  • military records
  • notarial records
  • public records
  • schools
  • statistics
  • taxation

These are not purely genealogical, per se, but you can still find enough information in these records to add to your research.

Church records

Just concentrating on the basic church records (baptismal, marriage, and burial records), you can find a lot of information. Baptismal records, called libros de bautismos, usually mention the date of baptism, followed by the date of birth (and in many cases the time of birth, as well), and the name of the child. In most cases the order of birth is also indicated, making sure the older siblings are accounted for. These are followed by the name of the parents, then the godparents.

Matrimonial records, or libros de matrimonios, mention the names of the couple, the date of marriage, the parents of the couple, and wedding witnesses.

Sample marriage record

Finally, burial records, or libros de entierros, list the name of the deceased, the date of burial, the spouse of the deceased (if they married) or the parents (if they were single), and the two types of causes of death: either muerte natural (natural death) or muerte violenta (non-natural death).

Sample burial record

In 1868, the information contained in records expanded. Baptismal records began including the occupation, place of origin, and residence of the parents, the name, occupation, place of origin, and residence of the grandparents (and whether or not they were still living). Death records started specifying if the deceased was young or old and when available and the actual cause of death; it also included the names of parents and grandparents even if the person was married. This record-keeping style continued in most parishes, at least for baptismal records, until World War II. For death records, however, the mention of grandparents only lasted until about 1878, before returning back to the former style.

Family organizations and genealogical societies

One last offline resource to consider are family organizations or genealogical societies. Although the idea of formal family or genealogical societies in the Philippines is not as commonly accepted or popular, there are still quite a few number of groups that can help out those who are just starting their genealogical journey. Most of these are Chinese, but there are others as well. One example is the Ka-Angkan group of Marikina, Metro Manila. They even have their own family history center that contains records and family trees of the original settlers of the city.

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The Rise of Filipino Genealogy Research

The interest in genealogy in the Philippines is slowly catching up. While it cannot be denied that those with Filipino ancestry in the United States and elsewhere are more curious about their heritage, those in the Philippines have started to show interest.

More and more native Filipinos are looking for historical and genealogical articles and presentations online. This is especially true now, since the Philippines is celebrating the quincentennial of Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival in the Philippines and the country’s part in the first circumnavigation of the globe. With dozens of history webinars available online, many ordinary Filipinos are also starting to search for their own histories. Hopefully, this interest will be sustained and more effort will be made to research and preserve Filipino Genealogy.

Filipino Genealogy Resources

These resources should help anyone interested in Filipino genealogy get a head start in their research.

Websites

Facebook Pages

Books

Related Reads

Learn where Filipino surnames came from, some of their meanings, and how you can research your own Filipino last name.

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