Spain remains: The major Spanish influences in the Philippines

By Virgilio A. Reyes Jr. 

The year 1521 was significant in Europe, which was shaken by Martin Luther’s challenge to both the Emperor (concurrently, Spanish King Charles V) and the Roman Catholic Church, headed by Pope Leo X. 

San Agustin Church in Manila, built during the Spanish colonial period, is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
This was also the year of conquest of Mexico, almost three decades after Christopher Columbus had landed in what would be called the Americas. In the 16th century, the Philippines would be envisioned as a base from which Spain could conquer Asia, just as it was beginning to do in Latin America.  

A Portuguese recalcitrant navigator, Ferdinand Magellan, was commissioned by the King of Spain to explore a trans-Atlantic and Pacific route to Asia, to rival that of the Portuguese.

These unprecedented events in human history were to be followed in March 1521 by the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in Samar and Leyte, and martial encounter with native chieftain Lapu-Lapu on the island of Mactan off Cebu.

An attempt by Magellan to intervene in a local conflict resulted in his death in combat and the beginning of Spanish influence in what would be known as the Philippine Islands. This fatal trip would continue and end in the first circumnavigation of the world captained by Sebastian Elcano with the survivors of Magellan’s original crew, who landed back in their point of Spain in 1522.  

The chronicle written by Antonio de Pigafetta was the first written record of the history and culture of the Filipinos on Magellan’s arrival. The Boxer Codex gives us today the first images of these Filipinos from the 16th century. 

Images of Old Manila and the Philippine Revolution used as book covers.
From the perspective of 500 years, what would we consider as the main effects of that first historic encounter between the Philippines and Spain, countries which lie at nearly opposite sides of the globe?

Spanish presence in the Philippines may be circumscribed by 333 years of Spanish rule, from 1565 (the conquest of Cebu and Manila) to 1898 (the end of the Philippine Revolution and the cession by Spain of the Philippines to the United States). The conquest of the Philippines was led by Miguel López de Legazpi and Fray Andrés de Urdaneta, who succeeded in subjugating Manila and laying the foundation of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade.

When the Spanish arrived, there had been small potentates established throughout the islands such as in Manila, Cebu, Butuan, Sulu, and Jolo. These had had connections to larger kingdoms and empires based in Java and Sumatra, and traded with China and other Southeast Asian kingdoms. The Philippines had been rich in gold and had many local products sought after in the Chinese mainland.  But no local power had yet envisioned unifying the islands or establishing a super-power to reign over all the small barangays.

The following may be deemed to be the principal effects of Spanish influence of 333 years:

(1) The definition of the geographical and political configuration of the Philippines corresponding to the area falling under Spanish rule for 333 years. The roughly triangular shape of the Philippines with around 7,107 islands and 300,000 square kilometers emerged from this period of Spanish rule. This has remained constant through the Philippine Revolution, American domination, Japanese invasion, and the independence of the Philippines in 1946 to the present. This was named the Philippine Islands and subsequently, the Philippines, in honor of then Prince of Asturias (and later King) Philip.

The Boxer Codex depicts a Filipino couple in red garb and adorned with gold ornaments.
(2) The conversion of the majority of inhabitants of the archipelago to Christianity with an important Muslim minority (principally in Mindanao) and animists in remote areas. Christianity in the Philippines incorporated beliefs and practices from these earlier religions. The Roman Catholic Church still plays a major role in the Philippines, with Protestant and evangelical sects coming into play. This is not surprising since the friar orders including the Dominicans, Franciscans, Recollects, Augustinians, Capuchins, and the Jesuits played a major role in the evangelization of the Philippines.

(3) The transformation of Manila into the central Asian node of the Galleon Trade between Mexico and the Philippines (which was the entrepôt gathering products from Asia for export to Latin America and Europe) for 250 years. The Philippines was thus a pioneer in globalization and became a significant regional economic point in this period.

Spain established the oldest Asian university, Santo Tomas, in the Philippines in 1611 and introduced the first Asian public school system beginning 1863. Among these was the Jesuit Ateneo Municipal, the alma mater of many Filipino heroes and eventually a university. Correspondingly, surrounding nations such as China noticed the importance of the Philippines resulting in significant Chinese migration and intermarriage with Filipinos. Manila was one of the most cosmopolitan cities of Asia in this era.

(4) The awakening of nationalism and awareness of the Filipinos as a separate political entity, as led by Dr. Jose P. Rizal and fellow members of the Propaganda movement of intellectuals and activists in Spain and the Katipunan secret society in the Philippines. This event was inspired by the Constitution of Cádiz and the liberal movements that shook Spain in the 19th century. Filipino youth from the principalia studying in Spain led in this movement.

Gold ornaments from Surigao illustrate pre-Hispanic artistry from the 13th century.
The execution of Rizal on December 30, 1896 triggered the Philippine Revolution, which was led by local nationalists such as Andres Bonifacio as well as patriots from the elite and middle class, such as the Luna brothers, Gregorio del Pilar, and Martin Tinio. Philippine independence from Spain was declared in Kawit, Cavite by General (and later President) Emilio Aguinaldo. The Filipinos sought an alliance with the United States of America, not aware of the latter’s plan to establish itself among the Western colonial powers.

(5) Though Spanish was the official language of the Philippines for more than three centuries, it did not survive the American occupation and the postwar years, where English and the national language Filipino (based on Tagalog) replaced it. Eight major languages plus over a hundred more are spoken in the Philippines currently. The various Philippine languages today incorporate many words of Spanish origin in their lexicon. A mixed Spanish-Filipino language called Chavacano has prevailed in Zamboanga City.

(6) Spanish influence is evident today in law, religion, education, language, family names, architecture, the arts, music, cuisine, and customs which have been adopted and blended into the present-day Philippine culture. Flora and fauna from Latin America (primarily Mexico) were introduced to the Philippines via the Spanish trade route here.

There is now a movement by the Philippine government to preserve and maintain heritage sites, while heritage groups and young Filipinos seek to revitalize aspects of Fil-Hispanic literature and language and Fil-Hispanic culture through its built heritage.

The Philippines and Spain have become closer in the modern era, with many reciprocal visits of their heads of state to each other’s countries. The reconstruction of Fort Santiago and Intramuros, as well as the survival of many monuments from the Spanish past, including several in the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, have ensured that the shared history of the Philippines and Spain will not be forgotten. It is a coincidence that a King Felipe reigns once more in Spain at this historic time. Moreover, 2021 represents the 75th year of emancipation of the Philippines from its last foreign ruler.

Topics: Roman Catholic Church , Spain , Antonio de Pigafetta , Christopher Columbus , Philippines
COMMENT DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted on this Web site are not in any way endorsed by Manila Standard. Comments are views by readers who exercise their right to free expression and they do not necessarily represent or reflect the position or viewpoint of While reserving this publication’s right to delete comments that are deemed offensive, indecent or inconsistent with Manila Standard editorial standards, Manila Standard may not be held liable for any false information posted by readers in this comments section.