My father’s older brother, my late uncle Tatay Jesse, was the primary researcher of our family’s history. I remember him poring on dozens of documents and telling me about researching microfilms from the genealogical center to learn the names of our long-lost ancestors.
It’s been over a year since Tatay Jesse passed away, and because of my natural inclination to know more about our family’s history, I found myself taking on the role of researcher and records keeper.
Little did I know that continuing his research pointed me to a surprising discovery about some of our ancestors. After a couple of months of research using the Family Search website, I’ve begun reaching up to the seventh generation of ancestors.
With dozens of names registered in our ever-growing family tree, I noticed a couple of names that stood out in my research because they were written differently on the baptismal certificates I read.
Clues From Baptismal Records
Before I explain what stood out, allow me to explain the norm.
Baptismal records that date back from the early 1900s and back weren’t any kind of forms or typed document. It was a handwritten entry in a large logbook. The writing is in cursive done by the parish scribes of the local towns back in Spanish colonial Philippines. Naturally, the document is in Spanish and describes the event of one’s christening and birth.
It starts with basic information like the name, dates, and the parroco or parish priest who solemnized the baptism. The name of the town and province, as well as the Cabeza de Barangay or the ‘head of the town’ is mentioned along with the names of the parents, the abuelos paternos and abuelos maternos, the grandparents from both paternal and maternal sides, and of course the padrinos or the godparents.
I’ve studied enough Spanish to understand the gist of each certificate entry, at least enough to know where to focus my eyes when trying to laser into the name I’m trying to find, so I can add it to my ever-growing family tree.
It became a bit of a surprise when I saw the name of one of my ancestors, Juan Elle (or Elli, depending on the scribe’s spelling), littered across multiple entries of non-relatives. When I tried to investigate, I realized that the Family Search system automatically indexed his name to be mentioned as he was the Cabeza de Barangay during his time!
A Noble Discovery
Unlike today’s structure of the Filipino barangay, the barangay in colonial Philippines was ruled over by the local elite who supposedly had roots in Filipino pre-colonial royalty, such as the datus, rajahs, and lakans. While these terms are usually equated to kings, in reality, their purview and territories would be comparable to that of European dukes and counts.
The Principalia were granted the use of the title ‘Don’ (and ‘Doña’ for their wives) by the Spaniards. The title Don used with my ancestor stood out for me immediately since I know it’s reserved for those in positions of authority.
And so it was that I saw the name of Don Juan Elle. After double-checking this find, I hurriedly registered his name, title and all, in our family tree. Of course, I included his wife as Doña Inocencia Pranela de Elle. They were an integral part of the Principalia of Bacon (pronounced bah-kon), which was the first municipality in Sorsogon.
Interestingly, the first gobernadorcillo of Bacon was called Don Juan Elias, though I doubt he is one and the same as my ancestor since he lived in the late 1700s. But it’s striking how Don Juan Elle and Don Juan Elias sound very alike. I can only speculate that they could be related to each other, but until I have sufficient evidence, it’s all a dream.
While I can’t yet make a solid connection to the first gobernadorcillo of Bacon, I did find a connection from Don Juan Elle that led me to another prominent Principalia.
Marrying Within The Class
Don Juan Elle had a daughter called Sinforosa Elle. She had a daughter called Simeona, who had a daughter called Merced. Merced is the name of my late grandmother. That is how I trace my direct connection to this Principalia ancestor.
However, I realized another indirect connection. You see, Sinforosa had a sister, Monica Elle. She married a succeeding (or perhaps neighboring) Cabeza de Barangay, named Don Florentino Talion. In some of their children’s baptismal entries, the certificate indicates that the barangay’s Cabeza was the same person as the father.
It would seem that, like any society whose rules were dictated by class hierarchy, the Principalia deliberately chose to marry within their class. We can only speculate if Don Juan Elle marrying off his daughter to another Cabeza de Barangay was an arranged political union or simply an expected pairing of two young people who grew up together in the same circles, thanks to the closeness of their families.
Just a thought, since women didn’t usually take leadership roles in the community, I like to imagine the Doña Monica Elle de Talion exercising her political agendas by advising his husband. But of course, that’s just me daydreaming of a telenovela past for my ancestors of that time.
The Gubatnon Reveal
After I thought I had my fill of Principalia ancestors, I chanced upon a new “noble” discovery. My grandmother’s main patrilineal line—the Estiponas have always been a prominent name in Gubat, Sorsogon.
Based on the stories from my father, uncle, aunts, and even my grandparents when they were alive, I grew up with the impression that the Estiponas were the wealthy relations in Bicol. For one thing, they own substantial real estate there, even to this day. I know my late grandmother has a small patch of land in Gubat, to which we have a solid claim.
So it was kind of a fitting confirmation to discover that my seventh-generation great-grandfather, Don Marcelino Estipona, who was married to Doña Gregoria Endriga de Estipona, was Cabeza de Barangay—and therefore, a member of the ruling Principalia in Gubat, Sorsogon.
Don Marcelino’s son, Don Valentin Estipona, was also a Cabeza de Barangay based on some of the baptismal certificates of even their own grandchildren. One of Don Valentin’s sons was Fausto whose son Joaquin had a bright and lovely daughter called Merced, who is, of course, my beloved grandmother. And so that’s how I found out that I’m descended from yet another branch of the Principalia. Based on our records, Don Marcelino is estimated to have lived during the late 1700s or early 1800s.
Later during my search, I discovered that two of Don Valentin’s sons, Esperidion and Fausto, were also Cabezas de Barangay based on a couple of baptismal certificates. It seems the Estipona clan was deeply woven into the fabric of Gubatnon society as a formidable Principalia family.
Aside from the Elles, Talions, and Estiponas, I also found a Cabeza with the last name of Diesta, another ancestral surname—though I am yet to establish a solid connection with documented proof.
Mixed Heritage: Peasants and Princes
Being a member of the Principalia class today isn’t as significant as it once was hundreds of years ago during the Spanish Era. However, these kinds of discoveries give us a wonderful perspective of our family’s past.
For the longest time, I’ve researched my ancestors on my paternal side of Tevar and found humble roots. In their documents, they described themselves as ‘labradors’ (laborers), ‘tejedoras’ (weavers), and ‘hacendados’ (farmhand). It would have pleased them to know that many of their descendants today have gone so far in life and have thrived and succeeded in their respective lives, far greater than what they could have imagined, thanks to their sacrifices.
Now, with my recent Principalia discoveries, I’m afforded a new perspective of seeing some of my ancestors as the ruling elite, living privileged lives but at the same time becoming a political driving force. I see them as the prime movers in their respective communities, working to govern the people and fulfilling their roles as leaders. I can only imagine their struggle to hold a precocious and waning political power while being subservient to a higher colonial superior. I imagine it would have been quite a balancing act!
My Personal Conclusions
The time of the old Principalia has come and gone, but the significance and value of learning about our family history is timeless.
Knowing that I’m descended from them doesn’t really have any actionable or practical value these days. However, I think it’s a colorful footnote to our family’s history. It’s remarkable to think that we may be descended from the closest we Filipinos have to nobility and royalty in pre-colonial times—certainly aristocracy in the Spanish time.
This family history experience has engendered in me a sense of responsibility for the research my uncle left. It also gave me a longing to visit my roots in Bicol particularly in Bacon (Elle) and Gubat (Estipona). Of course, my longing extends especially to Bato, Catanduanes, where the Tevars are said to have originated. Now I intend to study and learn more about my ancestors and how their rule impacted their communities during their time.
My genealogy research remains incomplete, and I continue to look for names to include in our growing family tree. I think my uncle, Jesse Estipona Tevar, would have found my research amusing—especially since it features his mother, Merced, from whom we connect our Principalia roots.
Of course, I know he would say that all of that is secondary to what genealogy research is all about. Genealogy research and understanding our family history should be all about connecting with our honored ancestors, learning from our past, and remembering our dead.
I encourage everyone to do this worthwhile endeavor. You’ll never know what you’ll find!
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