The Philippine's Minorities

The Philippines is a country that is located in Southeast Asia and comprises an archipelago consisting of over seven thousand islands and islets. The Philippines is the seventh most populated country in Asia, with the amount of inhabitants exceeding one hundred million people. The country is also known for having the largest population of diaspora citizens with over twelve million Filipinos living abroad. For the administrative purposes, the islands are broadly categorized into three geographical divisions, namely Luzon, Mindanao and Visayas. The Filipino culture boasts of a diverse heritage brought about by the interactions with different peoples, from the Chinese to the Americans. This is in addition to indigenous communities who have chosen to retain aspects of their ancient traditions and customs. This paper will expound on the history of the Philippines in terms of the major islands, development of ethnic identities, language diversity and uniformity, the major Filipino ethnic groups and the road to a single Filipino national identity.

Historical Background

The principal inhabitants of the Philippine archipelago were the Malay, Negrito and proto-Malay peoples. The Negritos are purported to have journeyed via land bridges over thirty thousand years ago during the final glacial period. Later migrations via water occurred over several thousand years in frequent migrations pre and post the advent of the Christian age.

The societal and administrative configuration of the islands developed into a largely similar configuration. The rice farmers of northern Luzon are the only people who had a notion of territoriality which was necessary due to their agricultural activities. The rudimentary unit of community was the barangay, initially a family group led by a chief called datu. The barangay comprised of comprehensive social divisions of nobles such as datu, freemen and dependents. Dependents encompassed a number of categories which differed in the social status. These were the landless agricultural workers, individuals who had lost the freeman status due to their indebtedness or criminal acts and slaves who were mostly prisoners of war.

The advent of Islam in the Philippines, which was introduced by traders from the Indonesia, contributed towards the emergence of an administrative concept of regional states governed by sultans who exercised authority over the datu. However, neither the regional state concept of the Muslims nor the territorial concept of the Luzon rice farmers extended past their areas of jurisdiction or origin. The Spanish arrival in the 16th century found the majority of inhabitants living in barangay settlements.

Spanish Control

The Spanish colonization was marked by the arrival of an expedition from Mexico led by Miguel López de Legazpi in 1565 and the establishment of a Spanish settlement in Cebu. He also founded the city of Manila in 1571. Most of the islands ceded to the Spanish rule, thus generating the first amalgamated political structure which became known as the Philippines (PINAS, n.d).  

The Spanish Governor in charge of the Philippines installed a viceroy in 1589 who governed under the tutelage of the powerful royal audiencia. The Spanish rule was marked by frequent Filipino rebellions, mainly expressing their dissatisfaction with the encomienda system. Manila had become a leading East Asian trading hub by the end of the 16th century, carrying out a flourishing trade with the Chinese, Indians and East Indies (PINAS, n.d).

PINAS (n.d.) further states that the Philippines was responsible for supplying the mineral wealth, such as gold, to their Spanish colonial masters. The richly laden galleons from the Philippines to Spain were frequently attacked by the English and Moro pirates. The Dutch wars between 1600 and 1663 were marked by the continual confrontation with the Dutch, who were building their empire in the East Indies. Another problem faced by the Spanish colonialists was the frequent rebellions from the Moros, who resisted the Spanish rule and assimilation. Several punitive expeditions were deployed to quell the Moro resistance without certain results as they were able to fight off the Spanish with a considerable success. The Spanish rule on the islands began to decline due to frequent uprisings, which, in turn, empowered the Jesuit order, leading to the latter acquiring vast properties in the Philippines. The Jesuit order gained the influence, mainly because they were riding on the wave of the religious grip they held on the Christianized Filipinos. The defeat of the Spanish in the Spanish-American War in 1898 marked the end of the Spanish colonial rule, effectively making the Philippines an American colony. The American government later formed the Insular Government to rule their new colony (PINAS, n.d.).

American Control

The growing opposition to the increasing power of the clergy in addition to the rising desire for independence initiated the resistance against the Spanish colonial rule. Moreover, the Spanish bigotries, prejudice, and economic subjugations nurtured the dissenting movement that was greatly motivated by the exceptional writings of José Rizal. After the American victory in the Spanish-American War in1898, Commodore George Dewey supplied Emilio Aguinaldo - a Filipino revolt leader - with weapons to mount a formidable resistance against the Spanish on the mainland. The arrival of the American forces inland revealed that the Filipino mercenaries had subjugated the island Luzon apart from the fortressed city of Manila. They also discovered that the Filipino rebels had declared the independence of the Philippines. Thus, the former Spanish colony was transferred to the United States of America from Spain, when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1898. This treaty officially ended the Spanish-American War (PINAS, n.d.).

According to PINAS (n.d.), Emilio Aguinaldo mounted a new resistance against the American rule in 1899. Defeated on the battlefield, this turned out to be a thorn in the side of the American government as the Filipinos resorted to the guerrilla warfare. This made the suppression of this revolt difficult and expensive for the United States as it resulted in more casualties than there were in the Spanish-American War. The revolt was quelled by the capture of Aguinaldo. However, the issue of the Philippines' self-rule remained a significant issue in the political affairs of the United States of America and the Philippine islands. This issue was further convoluted by the increasing economic ties between the Philippines and the US. Despite the fact that an insignificant amount of the American capital was put into the Filipino industries, the American trade grew and dominated the Philippine economy. This resulted in the local economy being virtually exclusively dependent on the American economy. The Jones Act of 1916 saw the American government formally committing to grant independence to the Philippines. This culminated in the formation of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, acting as a decade-long provisional step that would result in the full autonomous rule. The Treaty of Manila, which was launched after the World War Two, established the Republic of the Philippines (PINAS, n.d,).

Manuel Roxas became the first duly elected president of the Philippines, when the independence from the United States of America was conferred on July 4, 1946. In 1947, the new Republic of the Philippinesand the United States signed a military aid pact. This would result in a ninety-nine-year lease of the United States on the selected army, naval, and air bases in the Philippines. A subsequent agreement reduced the number of years from ninety-nine to twenty-five years which commenced in 1967 (PINAS, n.d.). .

Main Islands

The main islands of the Philippines are Luzon and Mindanao. These two islands are in essence the largest islands in the archipelago, with Luzon being the largest in size followed by Mindanao.

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Luzon is the largest and most significant island in the Philippines. The capital city, Manila, in addition to Quezon City are situated there. It is home to the Tagalog and Ilocano ethnic groups. However, its indigenous inhabitants are the Negritos as well as the Igorots who are famous for their beautiful rice terraces on steep mountain slopes. As the major island, Luzon has played a pivotal role in the history of the Philippines. Luzon was the site of the Filipino revolt against the Spanish rule in 1896 and the American defeat of Spain in 1898. It was also in Luzon that the Filipino insurgency against America erupted in 1899 (“Luzon,” 2015)

Luzon is also the leading economic hub in the Philippines. Central Luzon is home to the Central Plain that is fed by the Pampanga and Agno rivers. The Central Plain is the most vital agricultural ground in the Philippines. It sustains the food reserves of Manila and is the top rice-producing region in the country and its second most productive sugarcane region in the Philippines after Negros island. The Bicol peninsula in Luzon is famous for its vast coconut estates, while the Cagayan River valley is renowned for its tobacco and corn. Fruits, vegetables, and cacao are the other major agricultural crops that is cultivated in Luzon. Apart from the agricultural produce, Luzon is home to lumbering and mining industries, mineral resources such as gold, chromite, nickel, copper, and iron deposits. In addition to this, the bamboo that is grown in plantations on the Bataan peninsula has a wide range of commercial uses (“Luzon,” 2015).

Manufacturing industries, such as textile, chemical and metal industries, are located in the Manila metropolitan area. Several fertilizer plants, oil refineries, cement industries, and wood mills are located in various areas of the island of Luzon (“Luzon,” 2015).


Mindanao is the second largest island in the Philippine archipelago. Roughly one fifth of the island is Muslim. The island lies below the typhoon belt and has a more favorable climate than Luzon. However, the island is susceptible to tropical storms and typhoons that have ravaged it. The principal cities of Mindanao are Zamboanga and Davao, with the latter being the most significant port. The main agricultural crops grown on the island include bananas, pineapples, coconuts, mangoes in addition to rice, corn, and coffee. The island also has a vibrant fishing industry. The island has witnessed a considerable industrial growth since the early 1960s. This can be attributed to the widespread harnessing of the waters of Lake Lanao–Agus River and the Maria Cristina Falls. This has occasioned in the founding of heavy industrial plants mainly located in the Iligan area. Mineral resources include gold, nickel, zinc and manganese (“Mindanao, 2016).  

Historical Development of Ethnic Identities

The Filipino culture was more or less a homogeneous society at the turn of the last decade in the 21st century, taking into account its distribution over all of the inhabited islands in the Philippine archipelago. With the exception of Muslims and upland tribal communities, nearly ninety percent of the society was unified by a similar social and spiritual background. Centuries of intermarriage have resulted in the Filipino society being comprised of a distinctive mélange of Chinese, Negrito, Malay, American and Spanish cultures. The Negritos were among the earliest inhabitants of the Philippine islands. They were then followed by the Malays who are credited with advancing the lowland Philippine agricultural field as it is presently known. The migration of the Malays throughout the Philippines resulted in two factors. The first result was the assimilation of the Negritos through the intermarriage, even though a slight percentage of the Negrito community retained their identity by withdrawing to the mountain regions. The second result was that the Malays' dissemination into several distinct groups. Some of these groups formed comparatively segregated communities on such islands as Northern Luzon, Mindanao in addition to some larger islands in the archipelago. The comparative linguistic studies indicate that the majority of these groupings may possibly have communicated in a type of "proto-Manobo." However, every group acquired a unique dialect that can be attributed to the centuries of interactions with particular communities and seclusion from others (USA International Business Publications, 2008).

In the 15th century, the introduction of Islam in the South saw the formation of distinct sultanates such as Sulu, Maguindanao, and Maranao on the Mindanao islands and the Sulu Archipelago. The Islamic influence had spread far North up to the Manila Bay by the mid-16th century. DuringtThe 16th century, the Spanish colonization of the Philippines was marked by the influx of new and different peoples to the Philippines. The majority of these peoples became permanent settlers and a slight number of them intermarried with the indigenous population. These intermarriages resulted in the birth of the Filipino mestizo or mixed Austronesian and Spanish descent peoples. This accomplished the task of affording a conducive environment to develop a Philippine national identity. However, the Spaniards were unable to break the Muslim autonomy in the Muslim sultanates which resisted the conversion to Christianity. This was in addition to upland tribal groups, mainly on Luzon and Mindanao, which resisted the Spanish influence. The Spanish influence was considerable among lowland groups based in Manila, however, they differed in terms of linguistic distinctions, thus hampering efforts to form a single Philippine identity (USA International Business Publications, 2008).

Among the migrants, who settled in the Philippines, were the Chinese workers who were referred to as sangley. However, the Chinese had a centuries-long trade with the inhabitants of the Philippine archipelago. The Chinese intermarried with indigenous Filipinos, and their offspring were referred to as the mestizo de sangley. The mestizo de sangleys were more widespread than the Spanish mestizos, owing to their prolonged contact with the native inhabitants. The opening of the Suez Canal opened up the Philippines to the increased interaction with foreign cultures due to an increase in foreign trade with other nations. This was witnessed by the settlement of the European nationals, such as the British and the French trades on the islands, who interacted and intermarried with locals. In 1898, the American victory in the Spanish–American War saw the establishment of an American colonial government in the Philippines. This opened up the country to foreign traders and military troops who brought along with them foreign cultures and languages that resulted in an impact on the already diverse Filipino society (USA International Business Publications, 2008).

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Language Diversity Uniformity

Currently, the eleven languages and eighty-seven dialects are spoken in the Philippines. Out of eleven languages, only eight, namely, Ilocano, Tagalog, Bicolano, Cebuano, Pampangan Hiligaynon, Bicolano, Pangasinan and Waray-Waray, are the native dialects for the roughly ninety percent of Filipinos. It is crucial to note that all the eight languages are from the Malay-Polynesian language group and are linked to the Indonesian and Malay languages. Nevertheless, none are mutually comprehensible, with each language having a number of parlances. It is interesting to note that some of the languages have a closer similarity to another. For example, it is easier for Ilocanos and Pangasinans speakers to learn each other’s language as compared to the other six languages. Similarly, Visayan Island language speakers, such as the Cebuano and Waray-Waray, communicate easily among themselves, rather than with other speakers such as the Tagalog speakers (USA International Business Publications, 2008).

Language divisions were magnified by the never ending public debate over the establishment and acceptance of a single national language. In 1974, the government initiated a policy that was meant to gradually eliminate the use of English as the formal language in the government and formal institutions, such as schools, and replacing it with Filipino. This language was based on the Tagalog language of Luzon. It was hoped that by the turn of the century, the Filipino national language would be accepted in the entire country, especially in non-Tagalog-speaking regions. However, the acceptance of the national language was initially slow, because most Filipinos had not accepted the national language which was termed as dominant to their own regional languages and native dialects. Critics, who were pro-English, argued that the English language was vital to the economic development, because it exposed the Philippines to global communication. This was in addition to facilitating the foreign commerce and making Filipinos open to the employment by international firms both in the Philippines and abroad. Consequently, Filipino came to be accepted and recognized as the national language and chief medium of communication in the Philippines. Spanish and English are also spoken by the elite minority in addition to their native languages (USA International Business Publications, 2008).

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