LOCATION: Philippines

POPULATION: 66 million

LANGUAGE: Tagalog (national language); English; Cebuano; Ilocano; Hiligaynon (Ilongo); Bicolano; Waray-Waray; Pampango, and Pangasinan

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Philippine Independent Church; Iglesia ni Kristo (Church of Christ); Protestantism; Islam; animism


The Philippines is made up of thousands of islands with many distinct cultures. For three hundred years, the Philippines was a colony of Spain. Despite speaking several different languages, 90 percent of the population share a common way of life and practice Christianity. The remaining 10 percent consists of many small groups, none of whom are Christian.

As early as 40,000 years ago, the first modern humans roamed the Philippines, which were then still linked to Asia by land bridges exposed during the Ice Age. Agriculturalists arrived from Taiwan between 3000 and 2000 BC . Some of their children and grandchildren migrated to colonize Indonesia, Madagascar, and the Pacific Islands.

The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (c.1480–1521) first visited the islands in 1521 on behalf of Spain. Spain saw the islands as a good place to build a base, and sent several expeditions. The Spanish brought the Catholic religion to the people of the islands, and European ways that had both good and bad results. Islanders frequent revolted against Spanish abuses. On the other hand, Catholic Filipinos stood with the Spanish against invaders and their own rebellious brethren.

In 1896, members of a secret society launched a revolution to end Spanish rule. On June 12, 1898, Filipinos proclaimed their independence. The United States moved to take possession of the islands for their strategic value. A war resulted, dragging on for years and causing the death of an estimated one million Filipinos. American rule introduced mass education in the English language. Japanese invasion and occupation of the Philippines during World War II (1939–45) devastated the country. The United States granted the Philippines independence in 1946.

For the next forty-five years, the Philippines struggled to establish a democratic government. The election of President Fidel Ramos in 1992 brought the country some stability and launched a period of economic growth.


The 7,000 islands (1,000 of which are inhabited) of the Philippines comprise a land area equal to that of Italy and a little larger than that of Arizona. If superimposed on the eastern United States, the islands would stretch east-west from New York City to Chicago and north-south from Massachusetts to Florida. There are eleven major islands: Luzon (more than one-third of the total land area); Mindoro; Palawan; Masbate; Panay; Negros; Cebu; Bohol; Leyte; Samar; and Mindanao (another one-third of the land area).

Mountains separated by narrow valleys dominate all the islands. Throughout the country, deforestation (cutting down of forest trees) has reduced the rainforest cover. This has encouraged erosion, which carries silt to the coastal areas and chokes the coral reefs.

The tropical climate is dominated by the monsoon cycle: from June to October the southwest monsoon carries torrential rains to most of the country; from November through February, the northeast monsoon brings warm, dry weather; and from March to May, easterly North Pacific tradewinds afflict the islands with a period of extreme heat and drought. Over twenty typhoons each year cause extreme havoc in the country.

Over 66 million people inhabit the Philippines. Population density is very high at 570 persons per square mile (220 persons per square kilometer). The population is growing at a rapid rate, due in part to Catholic opposition to the use of birth control. The country's economic difficulties have pushed many people to emigrate in search of work.


Some seventy languages are spoken in the Philippines. The five languages with the greatest number of speakers are:

Tagalog, the basis of Pilipino/Filipino, the national language, spoken by a quarter of the total Filipino population, concentrated in Manila;

Cebuano, spoken by another quarter of the population inhabiting the islands of Cebu, Bohol, southern Leyte, western Negros, and the northern and eastern coasts of Mindanao;

Ilocano, whose speakers comprise about 11 percent of the population found throughout northern Luzon;

Hiligaynon (or Ilongo), spoken by 10 percent of the population on Panay, eastern Negros, and southern Mindoro;

Bicolano, whose speakers represent almost 7 percent of the population and inhabit the long southeastern "tail" of Luzon.

After conquering the country (in 1898), the Americans introduced English as the language of government and education. In 1937, the government decided to promote the use of Tagalog as the national language. It is now called "Pilipino" by most people, although some other ethnic groups resist using that name. Tagalog-Pilipino is taught in schools and is heard in pop music, television programs, and movies, although people continue to use their local languages for everyday purposes. English remains important for professional, academic, government, and business careers.

Among Christians, names of Spanish origin are common. Filipinos generally have three names in the following order: (1) one's personal name; (2) one's mother's surname (usually appearing only as an initial); and (3) one's father's surname. Upon marriage, a woman's name follows a different pattern: (1) her personal name; (2) her father's surname; and (3) her husband's surname.


Many Filipinos believe that beings who can influence human lives for good or ill live around them in mounds of earth (including termite nests and backyard garbage heaps), old trees, and on mountaintops. In appearance, these beings are believed to range from beautiful goddess-like figures such as Mariang Makiling, mistress of a Luzon mountain, to monsters such as the kapre , a black-skinned giant. They may also take the form of dwarves and elves (often pictured dressed in archaic European fashions). By far the most widely feared supernatural creature is the asuwang , a being who appears as an attractive woman by day. At night, asuwang leaves behind the lower portion of its body in a hiding place and flies about in search of human victims, usually the sick, from whom it can suck the entrails with the aid of a long, tubular tongue. Inexplicable deaths in sleep are often ascribed to attacks by asuwang, although they are frequently also credited to bangungot , a fatal nightmare induced by witchcraft. Filipinos expect recently deceased kin to return in some form, as a moth, a strange breeze, or, if resentful of the living, as a wail heard in the night.

The legendary Juan Tamad (John Lazy) appears in a great many folk tales. His extraordinary laziness and stupidity involve him in all sorts of misadventures. He usually ends up being beaten up by his fellow villagers or scolded by his mother. In popular imagination, the opposite of Juan Tamad is Jose Rizal (1861–96), the national hero. Rizal was a doctor, scholar, and novelist who received his education in Europe. He was executed by the Spaniards in 1896, and became the supreme martyr of the Filipinos. There is even a sect comprised of 250,000 people that believes Rizal was the reincarnation of Christ.


The Spanish colonial settlers in the Philippines were Roman Catholic. Due to their influence, 85 percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic. This gives the Roman Catholic Church a powerful influence on national life, despite the separation of church and state introduced by the American colonists.

About 5 percent of Filipinos, concentrated in the south of the country, practice Islam, the main religion in neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia. About 3 percent of Filipinos still follow ancestral animist traditions.

Even Catholics believe in supernatural forces. Faith healers and spirit mediums, who use herbs and massage to treat physical ailments, are popular. Catholicism in the Philippines involves looking to patron saints and the Virgin Mary for help in everyday life. Although adult men tend to avoid weekly mass and some Filipinos are skeptical of organized religion, many others express an intense personal religious devotion. Acts of self-mortification such as the world-famous flagellations (self-beatings) and (nonfatal) crucifixions are practiced by a minority of Filipinos.


Christian holidays are the most widely celebrated holidays in the Philippines. Christmas festivities begin on December 16 with the first of the simbang gabi or misa de gallo, masses held before sunrise every morning before Christmas Day. After Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, families gather for a feast, the Noche Buena. On Christmas Day, parties are held, with children making the rounds, visiting relatives and godparents to pay respect to them and receive presents.

The other highlight of the year is Holy Week (week preceding Easter) in March or April, celebrated in different ways from locality to locality. Many towns hold a sinakulo, a traditional musical drama, staged over several nights (and occupying many hours per segment). This drama focuses on the sufferings of Christ but often including scenes from the Old Testament, all the way back to Genesis. Mass on the night before Easter is followed by the reenactment of the meeting of the resurrected Christ and his grieving mother (represented by life-sized statues carried in procession).

Another important nationwide festival is the Santacruzan in May, commemorating the discovery of Christ's cross by Saint Helena (c.248–c.328), mother of Constantine the Great (d.337), the first Christian Roman emperor. These celebrations feature processions in which the daughters of prominent families are splendidly dressed as Reina Elena (Queen Helena), and accompanied by male escorts and a parade of other couples.

On All Souls' Day (November 2), people gather at the graves of family members for a twenty-four-hour vigil. During the vigil, family members pray, clean the graves and decorate them with candles and wreaths. They also eat, drink, and play cards.

Each town has an annual fiesta in honor of its patron saint. Fiestas include public feasting, fairs, brass-band playing, performing arts, social dancing, sporting events (especially cockfights), and beauty contests.


To ensure the well-being and good fortune of a newborn child, a folk custom requires that the placenta be buried in a place where it will not be stepped on. This custom is still practiced in some rural areas of the Philippines. For Christians, baptism offers an occasion for the parents to choose a relative or friend to serve as godparent. The godparent-godchild relationship is almost like that of a family member.

Around the onset of puberty, boys undergo circumcision, without religious connotations; a simple lecture on hygiene by older female relatives accompanies a girl's first menstruation. Graduations from elementary, high school, and college require major celebrations. Wealthier families give their daughters debuts (special parties to introduce them to society) on their eighteenth birthday; the girl, her close female relatives, and male escorts rehearse set-pieces of ballroom dancing to perform in front of the guests.

Catholic weddings in the Philippines consist of the standard nuptial mass but also include a segment during which a white veil and a cord are draped over the couple's shoulder and an arias, an object made of coins, is presented to them (all symbols of unity and prosperity). A couple will have several sponsors (referred to as "wedding godparents"). The ceremony is followed by a reception, to which everyone even remotly connected to the couple and their families is invited.

Funerals are held several days after death to allow relatives of the deceased to arrive from as far away as the United States. The body is kept at home. There are always people keeping vigil over it, usually by playing cards or mah-jong through the night. A procession accompanied by somber music from a brass band accompanies the body to church for the funeral mass and carries the body from there to the cemetery amid dramatic weeping from older relatives. Afterward, mourners gather for nine nights to pray for the departed. Surviving members of the immediate family will avoid wearing brightly colored clothes for some time, often attaching a black ribbon to their clothes. A widow will wear only black for a full year. Family and friends get together again on the first anniversary of the death.


Filipino values aim to promote group solidarity and to emphasize individuals' mutual dependence. A person must have hiya, a sense of shame or a social conscience that prevents him or her from violating social norms. Unaccepted behavior damages the reputations of both the individual and his or her immediate family. An individual strives to earn and keep the respect of others, a value called amor-propio, Spanish for "loving oneself."

Filipinos are careful to show respect to those of superior status (due to age, education, organizational rank, perceived wealth, etc.). For instance, when speaking (in Tagalog-Pilipino) to an elder, a social superior, or a stranger, a person inserts the particle po or ho ("sir" or "ma'am") into almost every sentence. A person must show that he or she is grateful for the good others have done for him or her, and must be prepared to repay the act. Some utang na loob ("inner debts") can never be repaid, as with a child's debt to its mother for the gift of life.

A common greeting translates as "Where have you just come from?" and "Where are you off to now?" In reply, no one expects to hear more than "Just over there."

It is customary to greet older relatives with a kiss on the cheek or forehead. More traditionally, a younger person bows in front of the elder, take his or her hand, and presses it to the forehead to receive a "blessing."

While passing in front of older people or people of higher status, etiquette dictates that one walk slowly, bowing the head, and either clasping the hands together in front or extending one of the open palms in the direction one is going. One beckons another to come closer with a downward motion of the open palm. Pointing with the fingers is considered offensive; people point pursed lips in the direction they wish to indicate. When catching sight of acquaintances, quickly raising and lowering the eyebrows is sufficient sign of recognition and may substitute for small talk if one is in a hurry. Prolonged staring is considered aggressive, as is holding the arms outstretched. With merely a sharp, clipped hiss, mothers can show displeasure to their children; anyone can use a softer, somewhat more prolonged hiss as a very informal means of catching someone's attention. Physical contact between members of the same sex is a common sign of affection. In embarrassing situations, the reflex is to smile or sometimes also to lower the head and rub the back of the neck.

All guests, even unexpected ones, are served drinks and snacks. It is polite for the guest to appear reluctant to accept what is offered, but the host will insist. The guest leaves a little on the plate to show that the host has provided more than enough. Saying goodbye is usually a lengthy operation. Those returning from long-distance trips are expected to bring back presents (pasalu-bong) for those at home.

Chaperones, often of the same age as the dating couple, and group dates continue to make courting a public affair. Public displays of affection, though no longer taboo, are still subject to social disapproval.


Almost half the population lives below the poverty line set by the government. Sharing of resources by more affluent family members and relatives working overseas helps many of the poor. Standards of living also vary dramatically from region to region and between urban and rural areas.

The Spanish colonists settled the Philippines in a pattern called población. This is a town laid out in a grid around a church plaza. The población was in turn the center for a number of barrios, villages surrounded by fields. Many of the barrios had remote satellite hamlets (very small villages) known as sitios. Sitios have a small chapel that does not have its own priest, but receives occasional visits from the priest from the población.

The bahay kubo or nipa hut, a two-or three-room structure with bamboo walls and floors and a cogon-grass or palm-leaf roof raised on wooden piles, was the traditional style of housing for the majority of less wealthy Filipinos. Below the house, animals were kept, primarily pigs, chickens, and perhaps a water buffalo. In less-developed parts of the country, this remains the most common type of house. A little less than half of all housing was of this type as of the late 1990s.

In contemporary towns, houses typically have two stories with wooden walls, corrugated iron roofs, and cement foundations. Wealthier residences adopt Spanish elements such as tiled roofs and floors, walls of brick or stone, and iron grillwork on windows, fences, and gates.

Over half of households had electricity in 1990. Drinkable water was available to about 65 percent of households in 1990, and 20 percent of households had a refrigerator. Only about 4 percent of all Filipino household have telephones, but more than 50 percent of those in the capital, Manila, do. Over 50 percent of houses dispose of garbage by burning it in their backyards.

As of the late 1990s, less that 10 percent of households owned a car. In both cities and rural areas, people take tricycles (motorcycles with a passenger car on the side). In rural areas, kalesas (horsedrawn carts) are still common. Brightly painted jeepneys (originally U.S. military surplus jeeps with back sections lengthened to accomodate passengers) are the cheapest way to get around cities and between towns. Travel between islands is by large passenger ships or by airplane. The traditional bangka, an outrigger canoe, is still in common use for fishing and local transport.


The family is Filipino society's central institution. The typical household consists of a married couple, children, grandparents, and sometimes servants (common in middle-class households). Children generally live at home until marriage. Newlywed couples stay with either set of parents for some time. Older children, grandparents, and other relatives, help care for younger children; it is common for older children to help their younger siblings by working to put them through school, for example.

Older siblings are addressed with special terms—in Tagalog-Pilipino, Ate for an older sister and Kuya for an older brother. Filipinos feel equal bonds with relatives from both the mother's and father's sides. Married couples are expected to maintain equal closeness with both spouses' families.

Individuals are free to choose their marriage partners, but family approval is an important consideration. Among Catholics, divorce is illegal. It is legal only among Muslims and other non-Christians.

Filipino men and women have relative equality. Filipino wives manage family finances, giving spending money to their husbands just as to their children. Women are well represented in the professions, government, and business. However, men still hold most of the top positions.


The male national costume, the barong tagalog, is a shirt, finely embroidered and woven of pineapple leaf fibers. Indio (native) women traditionally wore wide-necked, wide-sleeved short blouses and ankle-length tube skirts; in public, they draped a shawl over their shoulders and wrapped a tapis, a small piece of cloth, over the skirt. Mestizo (mixed-blood) women preferred fuller skirts (or sometimes ones ending in a long train) and butterfly sleeves. This became known as the terno, the female national costume.

For formal occasions men wear either the barong tagalog or Western-style suits. Women wear either a modified terno or Western-style dresses. Daily casual attire often consists of shorts with or without a tank top for men, and a maong—a loose one-piece dress with wide sleeves and open neck—for women. For younger people, T-shirts and jeans are common.

12 • FOOD

Boiled rice is almost always included as part of a full meal. All other foods are called ulam (accompaniments). The ulam is often dried fish and some sliced tomato or onion. Only the well-to-do include meat as a regular part of the diet. Most Filipinos consume meat only at special celebrations (often in the form of lechon, roasted whole pig). Common preparations include soups heavy with vegetables and seafood (such as sinigang and tinola ); meat or seafood simmered in coconut milk ( ginataan ) ; Chinese noodle dishes (such as pansit ) ; stewed meat dishes of Spanish origin (such as adobo or kaldereta ), or grilled fish. A recipe for adobo is above.


Adobo Pork


  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 tomato chopped (or 1 Tablespoon tomato paste)
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ cup wine vinegar
  • 6 to 8 pork chops


  1. Combine all ingredients except pork chops to make a marinade.
  2. Heat a large skillet with a nonstick coating over medium-high heat. Brown pork chops on both sides.
  3. Place browned pork chops in a casserole. Pour marinade over pork chops. Cover casserole with lid or heavy aluminum foil.
  4. Heat oven to 350° F . Place casserole in oven and bake for about 40 minutes.

The adobo marinade may be used to marinate raw meat for up to twenty-four hours before grilling or roasting.

Seasonings tend to be simple. Typical dishes employ garlic, ginger, peppercorns, soy sauce, fish sauce, and shrimp paste. Numerous types of bananas are enjoyed, sometimes even eaten alongside the main meal. Desserts consist of a variety of rice-or cassava-based cakes, and sometimes a Spanish custard, letseplan.

The traditional mode of eating has been to scoop up food from flat dishes with the fingers of the right hand. (The left hand is reserved for personal hygiene.) Now, it is considered more refined to eat with a spoon and fork. The fork is held in the left hand and used to push food onto a spoon held in the right hand. Diners do not have their own individual portions served to them. Everyone takes from common dishes laid out in the center of the table.

Breakfast usually consists of leftovers from the previous evening's dinner, such as rice fried with garlic. Alternatively, fresh bread bought from a bakery may be eaten with coffee. The main meal of the day for rural people is lunch. In the city, the main meal is dinner when the entire family can gather together. An afternoon snack, called the merienda, is almost a meal in itself (usually without the rice). It is common for those who can afford it.

Smoking is common among men, but uncommon among women. Traditionally, the betel nut was chewed as a mild stimulant, but this is much less common today. Small groups of men often gather at night on the porch of a house to chat and drink beer and eat pulutan— snacks ranging from peanuts or quail eggs to grilled fish or shrimp.


The literacy rate (percent of the population who can read and write) is more than 90 percent. Elementary school lasts for six years beginning at age seven. It is followed by four years of high school. While almost all students attend elementary school (which is free), less than two-thirds of all students go on to high school, where there are fees. Some families cannot spare the money for fees and travel costs to high schools, which are often a distance away. Also, families need teenage children to help in the fields or otherwise earn income for the family. Many of those who do graduate from high school go on to college. In the 1990s, about 13 percent of the population held an academic degree. Filipinos have a deep appreciation for education, seeing it as a way to enter better occupations such as medicine, law, or education. Many families sacrifice a great deal to send a child to college.


The rondalla, a traditional music ensemble, consists of plucked and bowed string instruments to accompany social dancing and suitors' serenades. Many communities have a brass band to contribute to the gaiety of fiestas.

The tinikling is a folk dance where a couple executes intricate figures while skipping through two bamboo poles being clapped together at an accelerating pace.

When the Spanish arrived, Filipinos were using an alphabet derived from India, carving messages on palm leaves or bamboo. Word play ranged from riddles (bugtong) to extended debates in poetry (balagtasan) , an integral part of courtship. Long verse narratives, from retellings of Christ's Passion to heroic tales set in mythical lands, came to be composed in native languages. Today, most literature in native languages is confined to stories (nobela) appearing serially in comics.


About one-third of Filipino workers are employed in agriculture. Most agricultural workers do not own the land they work, but work either as tenant farmers or plantation laborers. The staple crops are rice, maize (corn), and sweet potatoes. In rural areas, wet-rice fields dominate the landscape. In some places, these rice fields are planted as terraces climbing steep mountainsides. The principal cash crops are coconuts, bananas, pineapples, sugar, tobacco, and abaca (hemp).


Sipa is an traditional game in which two teams of one to four players each hit a wickerwork ball with their knees, legs, or feet over a net or across a circle. Introduced by the Americans, baseball and basketball are popular. The professional basketball league pits teams identified by the companies that own them, rather than with cities as in the United States. Fond of watching boxing, many Filipinos also practice arnis, a martial art using bamboo rods three feet (one meter) long. Cockfighting (two roosters battling each other in a ring) commands a fanatical following. Held during Sundays, public holidays, and fiestas in mini-stadiums, cock-fights are the occasion for intense gambling.


Two in three households have a radio. One in three households has a television. Domestically produced programming is strong on talent shows, comedies, family dramas, and romance stories.

Traditional theater consisted of the comedia or moro-moro, verse-plays depicting warfare between Christians and Muslims, usually ending in the conversion of the Muslims. The zarzuela, a Spanish-derived operetta sung in local languages, has been-popular since the late 1800s.

Film tickets are comparatively cheap, and cinema attendance rates are among the world's highest. The Philippines possesses a lively film industry, producing comedies, action films (frequently punctuated with shoot-outs and kung fu), and melodramas. American television programs and movies attract a wide audience.

Children commonly play sungka, a game of skill in which players move cowrie (a type of seashell) shells around a course of two rows of seven holes carved in a wooden board. Every neighborhood has chess enthusiasts, and the Philippines has produced many world-class players. Card games and mah-jongg, a Chinese game similar to rummy that is played with ivory tiles, regularly involve gambling.


A variety of crafts are practiced by individual Filipino ethnic groups, including wood-carving; weaving textiles, baskets, and mats; and tie-dying.


Under the civil war conditions during the regimes of Ferdinand Marcos (governed 1965–86) and his successor, Corazon Aquino (governed 1986–92), human rights abuses were common, with government forces, insurgents, and anti-insurgent vigilantes victimizing noncombatant civilians as a matter of course. Under the Ramos regime in the late 1990s, the more prominent problem was violence by criminal elements, and by supposedly noncriminal elements such as corrupt law-enforcers and elected officials. Filipinos have little faith in their justice system since the wealthy and powerful are able to buy the verdicts they want.


Federal Research Division. Philippines: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1993.

Gochenour, Theodore. Considering Filipinos . Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, 1990.

Tarling, Nicolas, ed. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. Vols. 1 and 2. Singapore: Cambridge University Press, 1992.


Embassy of the Philippines, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Philippines. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

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