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Pinoy Kasi

Filipino families

/ 01:42 AM October 10, 2014

There was a conference at the University of the Philippines Diliman on Tuesday and Wednesday to celebrate the 12th Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day, an annual event where scholars present papers looking back at the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines. One of the panels was devoted to family and society, with three papers that can help us understand the complicated configurations of Filipino families today.

This year’s conference had the theme “Explorations and Transformations: Creating Texts, Shaping Identities,” which focused on how the contacts and encounters we had during the Spanish colonial period were marked by transformations, even resistance and subversion. The tensions were certainly to be found in the way Spain tried to reshape our family life.


Dowry, bride service

Olivia Anne Habana of Ateneo de Manila University focused on the nature of marriages at the time of contact with Spain, reconstructed through the writings of early Spanish missionaries.

These descriptions were often expressions of dismay because our practices were so different from Spain’s idealized marriage. We had divorce and remarriage, which could be done fairly easily. Dowry systems (or transfer of goods from the prospective groom’s family to the bride’s) were varied, with different names such as “bigay-caya.” Another term, “sohol,” elicited chuckles from the audience because the term is still used today to mean giving or exacting payment to the fullest. Another term used was “bigay-suso,” emphasizing how the groom’s family had to compensate the mother of the prospective bride, breast milk becoming a potent symbol of the difficult tasks of a mother raising a daughter.

Marya Svetlana Camacho of the University of Asia and the Pacific had a paper aptly titled “Refashioning Marriage in the Colonial Order,” describing how Spain tried to impose a Catholic canonical model of marriage, which had just been promulgated during the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The Spaniards were not comfortable with dowry because once the transfer of goods had been made, or once the boy began bride service (“paninilbi,” or working for the prospective bride’s family), he could begin living in the girl’s house. (I’m using the terms “boy” and “girl” because under Spain, males could get married at the age of 14 and females at 12.)

There was concern also with the practice of betrothal (“deposorios”), where a couple would be committed to each other but not formally married.

The Spaniards’ intentions were noble, their concern being over the extent of freedom the prospective bride and groom had. For example, what would happen if a boy gave the dowry and bride service and the girl’s family decided not to push through with the marriage? Conversely, after a man paid the dowry and began to live with the bride-to-be, what would prevent him from backing out from the marriage?

The Spaniards introduced measures like a “palabra de casamiento,” a kind of word of honor that a marriage would push through.

They were also concerned about women being forced into marriage. Arranged marriages were common; in fact, they persist even in our 21st century, except that it’s harder now to force people to get married.


During the Spanish colonial period, a girl or woman being coerced into marriage did have an option, and this was to seek refuge in a beaterio, a religious house similar to a convent.


A third paper presented at this panel, by Lars Raymund Ubaldo of De La Salle University, was about adoption. It was titled “A Contextual Analysis of Ampon and Pag-aampon in Tagalog Religious Literature.”

Spanish chroniclers documented the widespread practice of “pag-aampon” or adoption among the indios or natives, with very clear rules. The ones adopted were not necessarily orphans; their biological parents agreed with the adoptive parents on the terms of adoption, with witnesses present. There were rules as well on inheritance, often based on the adopted child’s loyalty and the services given to his or her new parents.

Ubaldo described different aspects of the relationships in adoption: “pag-aalaga” (care), “pagtatangkilik” (patronage), “pagkukupkop” (protection), “pagdadamay” (compassion), and many more.

So important were the values around adoption that the theme of “ampon” appears in many Catholic prayers and novenas, where a person offers himself to the Virgin Mary or to other saints for adoption, a way of asking for protection.

I went to the conference particularly interested in this session because of my own interest in adoption in our own times. Adoption is still widespread, often without legal formalization, and I can see traces of older forms of adoption, with all kinds of different motivations. On the “practical” side, we know that adoption is still done, a rich couple taking in a child from a poor family, to have someone serve them, and care for them when they’re old. Others adopt children out of compassion, as many unmarried aunts do in the Philippines with nephews or nieces, pouring on them as much love and care as the biological parents would.

From the many conversations that cropped up right after the panel, I could tell there was a hunger for more discussions of this type. Dowry and bride service are still in practice today, as with boyfriends moving in to live with the girlfriend’s family.

“Pikot” might be better understood in this way: the male being forced into a marriage because he tried to take “something” without paying the dowry. “Pikot,” incidentally, has an older meaning of an ambush, or literally being caught red-handed.

I would have wanted to see demographers coming in with their data on marriages from the Spanish colonial period onward, remembering from some readings that in the past, poor people rarely married, simply because they didn’t have the resources. I suspect that’s what we still have today—the poor aiming for a grand church wedding which never happens because they don’t get to save enough. The panel moderator, Ma. Luisa Camagay, described how perplexed she was when, as a young researcher, people would tell her they were “kasal sa banig” (literally, married on the mat).

In the end, the many mat-married couples end up, in their old age, in a mass wedding sponsored by some politician, with their grandchildren as witnesses.

For next year’s Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day conference, I’m hoping to see a bigger panel to discuss family and marriage. By coincidence, the history conference in UP was being held at the same time that the Vatican is having a global synod on family life. Our scholars’ findings should be passed on to bishops, parish priests and marriage counselors to help them acquire a more contextual understanding of marriage and family life in the Philippines.

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TAGS: “Refashioning Marriage in the Colonial Order”, Ateneo de Manila University, dowry, Ma. Luisa Camagay, Marriage, Marya Svetlana Camacho, Olivia Anne Habana, Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day, Spaniards, University of Asia and the Pacific
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