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LOCATION: Philippines (northern Luzon)
POPULATION: 6.89 million (2000)
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Philippine Independent Church; Iglesia ni Kristo (Church of Christ); Protestantism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Filipinos


When the Spanish first encountered them in 1572, the inhabitants of Ilocos (then called "Samtoy") were living in large villages at sheltered coves or river mouths and were trading with the Chinese and Japanese. Although massive churches in a distinctive style give evidence of Spanish-Ilocano collaboration, the colonial period was marked by frequent revolts; the most famous of these was that led by Diego and Gabriela Silang during the British occupation of Manila in 1762–63.

Ilocanos were prominent in the nationalist movement, and many have risen to high office in the central government. The greatest of these Ilocano success stories was President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled for 20 years. During this time, development funds poured into the Ilocos region.


The three provinces of the Ilocano homeland (Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, and La Union) stretch from Cape Bojeador at the northwestern tip of Luzon down to the Gulf of Lingayen. Most of the population is concentrated along a narrow coastal plain that has only a few good harbors. This environment yields sustenance only with difficulty, forcing Ilocanos to be hard working and thrifty and very often compelling them to seek employment outside from their homeland.

According to the 2000 census, Ilocanos numbered 6.89 million (9% of the national population). Among all Filipino ethno-linguistic groups, the Ilocanos are the most famed as migrants, settling since the 19th century in sparsely populated expanses of the northern Central Plain of Luzon (provinces of Pangasinan, Tarlac, and Nueva Ecija) and of the Cagayan Valley in the northeast. In addition, many Ilocanos have established themselves in Manila and other major cities of the country, as well as in frontier lands on Mindanao. In 2000, Ilocanos were the majority group in the Ilocos region at 66.36%. They were the largest single ethnic group in the Cordillera Administrative Region, 39.83% of the population, twice the largest indigenous group, the Kankanay, and formed 11.48% of the population of Central Luzon, with 40.9% in Tarlac, almost as numerous there as Kapampangan, and 19.3% in Nueva Ecija. In Southern Mindanao, Ilocanos formed 11.48% of the population (as high as 17.7% in Sultan Kudarat).

Working as migrant laborers on sugar plantations in Hawaii and Guam and on farms in California since the first decades of the 20th century, Ilocano males constituted the first major influx of Filipinos into the United States; every Ilocano town has its "Hawaiianos," returned migrants who set up households with wives from their native place whom they have often courted by letter. Out-migration continues, though now women working as domestic servants in Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Gulf States are a significant component as well.


The Ilocanos speak a Western Austronesian language of the Northern Philippine group, whose closest relatives are the languages of neighboring mountain peoples. Ilocano has become the lingua franca of northern Luzon, with as many as 2.3 million second-language speakers, as Ilocano traders have long provided highland peoples with their primary link to the commerce of the outside world.


According to one Ilocano origin myth, a giant named Aran built the sky and hung the sun, moon, and stars in it. Under their light, Aran's companion, the giant Angalo, could see the land, which he then molded into mountains and valleys. The giants found the world they had created windswept and desolate. Angalo spat on the earth, and from his spit emerged the first man and woman. He placed them in a bamboo tube that he tossed into the sea. The bamboo washed up on the shore of the Ilocos region, and from this couple came the Ilocano people.

Like other Filipinos, Ilocanos recognize an array of supernatural beings [SeeFilipinos ], such as the katawtaw-an (the spirits of infants, who died unbaptized and who in turn victimize newborns). The karkarma, the souls of living persons, leave the body at death but linger in the house until after the post-funerary offerings of food are made to the deceased; sensed as a scent of perfume, the odor of a burning candle, or a strange draft of wind, they visit relatives who have failed to come to the sickbed of the deceased. The al-alia, the spirit doubles of humans, appear at their human doubles' death as the groaning of the dying, the cracking of glass, the rattling of beds, and the banging of doors, or in the form (at night) of a grunting pig, howling dog, or a crowing chicken. These signs remind the living to pray to God for the forgiveness of the deceased's sins (otherwise, the al-alia may visit misfortunes upon them).


See the article entitled Filipinos.


See the article entitled Filipinos.


Although today they are free to choose their own marriage partners, young people seek to secure the approval of both sets of parents. After gaining the consent of his own parents, who are to pay the dowry and finance the wedding, the boy makes a formal announcement (panagpudno) to the girl's parents of his and their daughter's intention to marry. The next stage is for the boy's parents to visit the girl's parents in order to set the date for the wedding with the aid of a planetario, an almanac identifying auspicious days. At a further meeting (palalian or ringpas), the boy and his kin come to the girl's house to finalize the wedding arrangements; each party employs a spokesperson who negotiates for his or her side in formal, metaphorical language. The families set the choice of wedding sponsors (an equal number [10–50] for each side), the dowry (land for the couple, or the money to buy such land), the sagut (the wedding dress, jewelry, and accessories, which the groom is to provide for the bride), and the parawad (cash that the groom gives the bride's mother as a reward for raising his bride).

The wedding feast (following the church ceremony) includes a ritual where the groom offers the bride a plate of mung beans (symbolizing fertility). The bride refuses the dish several times before finally accepting it. Then the bride offers the beans to the groom who in turn refuses the dish until an old man calls an end to the ritual (the pleadings and feigned refusals greatly amuse the onlookers). Another highlight is the bitor: guests contribute cash to the newlyweds either by dropping money onto plates held by two men seated on a mat (representing the bride and groom, respectively) or by pinning bills to the couple's clothing while the two dance (groom's kin on the bride and the bride's kin on the groom). After the wedding, offerings of rice cakes are made to the spirits of departed family members.

To announce a death formally, a piece of wood (atong) is lit in front of the deceased's house and kept burning until after burial, at which time it is extinguished with rice wine. The corpse (kept in the house) is dressed in its best clothes and a kerchief is tied around the jaw to prevent the tongue from showing; a basin of water mixed with vinegar is placed under the bed to remove the odor of death. Money is placed in the coffin to pay the "ferry man" who brings the soul to the other world. In the days before burial, relatives keep vigil over the body, wailing and recounting the deceased's good deeds. Sometimes, professional mourners perform the lamentation (dung-aw).

Before the funeral itself, each of the relatives pays their last respects by kissing the deceased's hand or raising it to his or her forehead. Extreme care is taken in bringing the body from the house to the church; any mishap or faux pas could cause premature death. After the church ceremony, the relatives pose as a group for souvenir photos with the coffin. Everyone in the procession to the cemetery must return to the deceased's home by a different route from the one taken there. Upon arrival, they must wash their faces and hands in order to remove the power of death.

See the article entitled Filipinos.


Ilocanos share the same basic values as other Filipinos [SeeFilipinos ], such as bain, which corresponds to hiya or amor propio ("face" or "sense of shame"). The fear of gossip and the desire to avoid the envy of others serve as strong pressures for conformity. Before pushing through with his or her own plans, a person feels alumiim, the need to figure out how others will react first in order to avoid embarrassment. It is essential to show panagdayaw, proper respect for the sensitivities of others; this requires that individuals speak about themselves only in the humblest of terms. Although Ilocanos are group-oriented, they also value a certain individualism (agwayas): one should not reveal his or her inner intentions to others, since it is unwise to be too trusting. A person is expected to overcome life's challenges through his or her own hard work, limiting his or her dependence on others to obtaining aid from close kin. However, Ilocanos do form savings associations (including as many as 50 women in a neighborhood), mutual-aid associations (financing members' major celebrations), and labor-exchange arrangements.

Life-passage parties and fiestas provide teenage boys and girls their main opportunity to chat and joke, as girls are confined to work in the house rather than the fields. For a boy to initiate a courtship is a serious matter, as the only proper end is marriage. On his first visit to the house of the girl of his interest, the boy brings one or two companions so that he can get their opinion of the girl later. During the second visit, the companions excuse themselves to allow the boy to confess his feelings to the girl (afterwards, he visits her alone). Love notes are also an important means of courtship. A girl is careful to preserve her chastity in case the courtship does not end in marriage.


Raised 0.6 m to 1 m (2–3 ft) off the ground, houses have beams of wood, walls of bamboo, and roofs of rice straw or cogon grass. Sometimes, newly married children may live in roofed extensions. On the bangsal, a landing on the staircase, guests wait before being admitted and wash or wipe their feet before entering the receiving room. Curtains or bamboo partitions separate the living room from the bedroom areas (most have beds but prefer sleeping mats). A separate storage room also serves for a place to change clothes. In traditional dwellings, outhouses provide toilet facilities.

Average family income in the Ilocos region was 142,000 pesos (US$2,784), while that in the Cagayan valley, the other region with an Ilocano majority, was p143,000 (US$2,804). These ranked respectively eighth highest in the country out of 17 regions and sixth (tied with Northern Mindanao), cf. the national average of p173,000, the National Capital Region's p311,000, Southern Tagalog's p198,000, and SOCCSKARGEN's (Southern Mindanao)s p114,000. In 2000, Ilocos Norte province in the Ilocos region and Isabela province in the Cagayan Valley had Human Development Indices (combining measures of health, education, and income) that were among the top ten in the country. Ilocos Norte ranked seventh at 0.689, higher than the national HDI of 0.656, and Isabela ranked tenth, slightly lower.

According to the 2000 census, in Ilocos Norte province (Ilocos Sur and La Union provinces have similar statistics), the proportion of houses with a roof of galvanized iron/aluminum reached 86.3% and with a roof of grass or palm thatch 10.12% (cf. 76.3% and 20.6% respectively in 1990). Over half of houses (52%, up from 27.1% in 1990) had outer walls entirely of concrete, brick, or stone, 22.9% of houses had outer walls that were half wood and half concrete, brick, or stone, 7.3% of houses had wooden outer walls, and 15.3% outer walls of bamboo or thatch.

In 2000, 8.9% of households in the Ilocos region had access to a community faucet, 16.8% to a faucet of their own, 25.7% to a shared deep well, and 23.3% to a household deep well, while 2.3% obtained their water from springs, lakes, rivers, or rain. A third of households (66.4%) disposed of their garbage by burning it, 12.5% by dumping it in a household pit, and 4.9% by composting it; only 11% had it picked up by a collection truck. 17.1% of houses were lit with kerosene lamps, 79.3% with electricity, and 2.5% with firewood. Four out of five households (79.9%) possessed a radio, over three out of five (62.3%) a television, over one out of three (34.4%) a refrigerator, one out of five (20.4%) a VCR, nearly one out of seven (13.9%) a telephone or cell phone, and one out of six a washing machine (16.5%) and a motorized vehicle (16.9%).


The structure of the Ilocano family conforms to the general Filipino pattern [SeeFilipinos ]. The father is the formal head of family, backing up the mother who disciplines the children and manages the house finances. The eldest child divides the chores equally among siblings. Grandparents tend to be more indulgent of grandchildren than the parents themselves.


Dress inappropriate for one's age or perceived wealth or status attracts gossip: "mabiag ti ruar ngem matay ti uneg" ("outwardly alive, but inwardly dying"); "uray napintas no inutang"("even if it is nice, it is acquired through credit"). Still, one should dress well for special celebrations. Everyday wear, especially at home, consists of short pants for boys, and dusters, loose skirts, shirts, and short pants for girls. Those working in the fields wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and a wide-brimmed hat as protection against the sun and mud.

During the rainy season, people wear a headdress of labig leaves extending well down the back. Older women wear their hair long and knotted in a bun, while men keep it short and apply pomade on special occasions.

See also the article entitled Filipinos.


Ilocano food essentially resembles that elsewhere in the country [SeeFilipinos ], but Ilocanos are especially fond of bagoong (a salty shrimp or fish paste). One regional specialty that has entered national cuisine is pinakbet, which is eggplant, bitter melon, okra, and green beans cooked with bagoong, tomatoes, and a little water (dried or broiled fish, meat, or shrimps can be added to enhance taste).

Other favorites are dinardaraan (cooked pig's blood, called dinuguan in Tagalog-Pilipino) and kilawen (the lean meat and intestines of water buffalo, cow, sheep, or goat, eaten raw or partially cooked with a sauce of vinegar, salt, hot pepper, and pig's bile).

Eating with their hands, family members squat around the food laid out on the floor or take food and eat in different parts of the main room. As food is regarded as a symbol of God's grace, there should be no noise, laughing, singing, or harsh words (including parents scolding children) while eating is going on. One should not drop food on the table or floor, or the food "will be angered and leave the household." Similarly, no one should leave the house while someone is still eating, for God's grace will go with him or her, out of the home.


In the Ilocos region, the literacy level was 95.23% in 2000, higher than the national figure; in the Cagayan Valley, it was 91.75%. See the article entitled Filipinos.


The Ilocanos have an epic, the Biag ni Lam-ang ("The Life of Lam-ang"), which, however, exists only in the form of a highly Hispanicized metrical romance composed in the 19th century. Ilocos is also the only place in the country where the zarzuela (operetta) is still performed.

See also the article entitled Filipinos.


Almost all farmers (the major occupation) own the land they till, except for those who are tenants of owners who are urban professionals. The staple crop is rice, though poorer people must mix cheaper maize with their rice. Root crops are also grown both as a supplement to the diet and for sale. Watered by wet-season rains or irrigation, wet-rice fields range from small plots that can only be worked with a hoe or dibble stick to those large enough for a water-buffalo–drawn plow; dry-rice agriculture is also practiced in the hilly areas between the flat-lands. Crops grown for market include tobacco, garlic (both Ilocos specialties), onions, and vegetables. Petty traders may travel as far as Manila to sell such products.

Farmers fish during the lull between planting and harvesting, usually in close offshore waters, rivers, or fishponds. An important part of the catch are ipon, small fish for bagoong (fish paste).

Cottage industries include salt making, basi-making (alcohol from molasses), pottery making (20 different types are produced in San Nicolas), weaving, basket- and mat-weaving, woodworking, and silversmithing.


One uniquely Ilocano game is kukudisi. A stick (the an-anak) is placed on a baseline scratched into the ground. One player makes the stick jump in the air; the other player tries to catch it before it hits the ground. If the latter cannot do so, a second, longer stick (the in-ina) is laid across the baseline; the player then tries to hit it with the an-anak. The next two phases of the game involve competing to see who can hit the an-anak (which has been tossed in the air and stuck into the baseline, respectively) with the in-ina the furthest.


Children enjoy such games as balay-balay (playing house), hide-and-seek, team-tag, jumping "hurdles" (sticks or outstretched arms or legs), and jacks.

See also the article entitled Filipinos.


See the article entitled Filipinos.


See the article entitled Filipinos.


According to the 2000 census, in the Ilocos region, the ratio of men to women was 100.76; in the Cagayan Valley, the ratio was 104.98 (possibly reflecting the latter area being one of in-migration that has been more male than female). In Ilocos, overall literacy rates were nearly as high for women (95.04%) as for men (95.41%). In a major change from the pattern from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1980s of male sojourning abroad for work, the majority of overseas workers from Ilocos in 2000 were women (61.75%); in the age bracket 20-24, 71.8% were women. Women, including female migrants from Ilocos, also heavily predominate in the work force of multinational corporations' factories in export-processing zones in other regions of the Philippines itself. With drops in the prices of the region's cash crops such as garlic and tobacco and in the demand for construction workers in the Gulf States and the continuing failure of the Philippine economy to generate sufficient urban jobs, unemployment among young men has been high in recent decades: many joke about becoming mail-order "house husbands" for Filipinas in the United States.

There is no cultural preference for having boys instead of girls. Indeed, families prefer girls because one can marry them off to other families, thereby expanding their networks of influence and assistance, without incurring the burden of paying the "male dowry" (sab-ong) for sons. Traditional Ilocano ideals of manly and womanly behavior do not entirely fit stereotypes of machismo/hyper masculinity and femininity seen in many other societies. In courtship, women appraise men's physical characteristics as freely and frankly as women do men's. Women are thought of as no less vulnerable to the seductions of male beauty and charm as men are to women's. For Ilocanos, ideal manliness includes the possession of verbal grace, used to woo a potential bride or displayed to keep an appearance of good humor when provoked in public. Young boys, who are competitive with each other, are not allowed to act aggressively towards girls. Masculinity is defined by emotional availability, rather than distance and coldness, even towards other men. It is common for groups of unmarried men in their twenties and thirties to sleep together without this thought of as homoerotic. Women share in agricultural chores, and men in household chores, including sweeping, cooking, and childcare. Women's entrepreneurship, to which women are trained from when they are little girls playing managerial games, contributes indispensably to most households, and some families are even supported primarily by the wife/mother's earnings with the husband/father staying at home to performing most of the domestic tasks.


Gordon, Raymond G., ed. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th edition. Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2005. (November 16, 2008).

Jocano, F. Landa. The Ilocanos: An Ethnography of Family and Community in the Ilocos Region. Quezon City: Asian Center, University of Philippines, 1982.

LeBar, Frank M., ed. Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Vol. 2, The Philippines and Formosa. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1972.

Margold, Jane A. "Narratives of Masculinity and Transnational Migration: Filipino Workers in the Middle East." In Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Politics in Southeast Asia, edited by Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.

National Statistics Office: Government of the Philippines. (November 16, 2008).

—revised by A. J. Abalahin