Pinay’Merican: Que hay en un nombre?

Pinay’Merican is a series of personal entries about exploring identity, as a Filipino-American, an aspiring writer, and a millennial. This is also kinda sorta for my final project in Asian American Media this semester.

 “So if you’re Filipino, then why do you have a Spanish (last) name?”

At some point in his or her life, every Filipino has been asked this question when introducing himself/herself to a new acquaintance. (Or in some cases, a curious friend who may have waited for the right moment to ask this important question, regardless of how long he/she has known the person.)

It is a question that causes (subtle) frustration, from either the frequency in which this question has been asked before or the inability to provide a satisfactory explanation. But sometimes, the thought may not have crossed the name-bearer before. That happened to me a few times, whenever people asked about my last name.

‘Enaje’ can be pronounced in two ways: “eh-nah-hay” (phonetical Spanish) or “ee-nah-jay” (phonetic American). I used to pronounce my last name in the phonetic American, mainly because I never understood the history of my last name or Filipino last names, in general. Why do they sound Spanish? a question that settled in my mind for a long time, until I actually looked into why that is.

To the best of my knowledge, the Philippines was colonized by the Spaniards in the early 16th century. The archipelago was under Spanish rule for more than 300 years; within that time period, much of Spain’s cultural influence was integrated into Filipino culture and daily life. This includes religious affiliation (friars were responsible for spreading Catholicism among most of the islands), social hierarchy (mestizos were given higher privilege because of their Spanish blood), and language (the Spanish language was not taught in schools, as an implicit way to prevent any kind of linguistic equality among Spanish and Filipino inhabitants). Although the Philippines stands as its own republic (albeit having American influence in the early 20th century), there are still remnants of colonial mentality and influence within the country. The most evidential is in the Filipino name.

From what my parents have told me, we have Spanish ancestors on both sides of my family. My mother had a great-grandmother who was a Filipina mestiza (half Spanish, half Filipino). There was a painted portrait of her that my mother remembered seeing as a child, though that portrait has never been preserved to this day. Whenever my mother recounts this memory, she wishes that she could replicate that portrait to show how beautiful this woman was. And as for my father’s side, there isn’t much to say except that our family name, ‘Enaje,’ is Spanish, though its etymological origin is unknown.

I know that, nowadays, we have resources that allow us to search our family history on a vast database. But besides worrying about paying a certain fee or giving away personal information to access any archives, I am not sure that I would find anything about my ancestry, at least in the United States. For one, I am the first American-born member of my (immediate) family. Therefore, if I were to find any documents pertaining to American citizenship in my family, I would probably end up finding my own records, as well as my parents (they immigrated to the States during the 80s). If I wanted to find out about my family history, it would have to take place in the Philippines, where there is a high chance I would find anything in the archives pertaining to my lineage. But even that takes a lot of time, energy, and money (not to mention bureaucratic procedures).

So how else can I learn about the origins of my family name? In a long shot, there are two things that are easily accessible in our technological age: literature and language. Like I said, it is a long shot, but points me to the direction of understanding my own history. There were two instances where I came across my surname in text:

  1. A couple of semesters ago, I was in the library for some reason (to study for exams or to find a quiet place to chill). I waited to take the elevator to a lower level when I came across a framed print by Puerto Rican artist, José Rosa. (Did not include the image, because copyright and whatnot.) Examining the print of a man with his hands close to his face, as if in despair or deep contemplation, I wondered why this print caught my attention. Then I read the words: “Homenaje de Recordación a Don Zoilo Cajigas y Sotomayor” (Memorial Tribute to Don Zoilo Cajigas-Sotomayor).
  2. Recently, I thrifted a book of poetry by one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda. It was a bilingual edition of his Odes to Common Things. I read the first few lines of “Oda al jabón” (Ode to a bar of soap):

    Acercando                         When I pick up
    el                                         a bar
    jabón                                  of soap
    hasta mi cara                    to take a closer look,
    su cándida fragancia       its powerful aroma
    me enajena…                   astounds me…

It is difficult to determine where my surname comes from. It might come from something that sounds noble like homenaje (“tribute,” “homage”). But in the second instance, when translating the reflexive verb me enajena, it translates as “alienates me,” not “astounds me.” Though, it’s also difficult to pinpoint the context in which these words are used. But the main point is that wherever my surname derives from, it is evidence of a deeply rooted history of my heritage.

Names are indications of progressive histories. By that, I mean that our given names and family names are connected to a broader narrative of the world, that tell stories of our ancestors and cultures and reveal how we came to be in the present moment. For Filipinos with Spanish(-sounding) names, we share the history of a country that was under the rule of two other countries that left a huge impact on our perceptions and understandings of the motherland.

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