IN 1892, Jose Rizal began a new novel in Tagalog.
He realized that in order to reach a wider readership in his country, he had to write in his native tongue.
During this time of exile in Hong Kong, his elder brother, Paciano, had completed a translation of the “Noli Me Tangere” from the original Spanish into Tagalog that was corrected and finalized by Rizal.
Envisioned as a popular edition with illustrations by Juan Luna, this book was never to be. The original manuscript translation by Paciano has since been missing.
Nevertheless, Rizal completed a chapter of his satirical Tagalog novel and gave it the title “Makamisa” (After the Mass), but unfortunately he did not have the energy to complete it.
He stopped writing in Tagalog and began anew in Spanish. The drafts of this work were first published in 1993 in my book “Makamisa: The Search for Rizal’s Third Novel.”
Rizal spoke and wrote in Tagalog fluently, but he was unable to write a whole novel in his mother tongue. This is quite surprising for is he not, like Manuel L. Quezon, inextricably linked to the adoption of Tagalog as the national language of the Philippines?
Most quoted line
Isn’t the most quoted line from Rizal’s many poems that from “Sa Aking Mga Kabata” that goes, “Ang hindi marunong magmahal sa sariling wika/masahol pa sa hayop at malansang isda.” (He who loves not his own language/is worse than a beast and a stinking fish.)
Did Rizal write this poem at 8 years old? Did Rizal write this poem at all?
No original manuscript, in Rizal’s own hand, exists for “Sa Aking Mga Kabata,” traditionally believed to be his first poem.
Rizal had 35 years to publish or assert authorship. He did not. The poem was published posthumously, a decade after his execution, as an appendix to “Kun sino ang kumatha ng ‘Florante: Kasaysayan ng Buhay ni Francisco Baltazar’ at pag-uulat nang kanyang karununga’t kadakilaan” (Manila: Libreria Manila-Filatelico, 1906.) by the poet Herminigildo Cruz as follows:
Sa Aking Mga Kabata
Kapagka ang baya’y sadyang umiibig
sa kanyang salitang kaloob ng langit.
sanlang kalayaan nasa ring masapit
katulad ng ibong nasa himpapawid.
Pagka’t ang salita’y isang kahatulan
sa bayan, sa nayo’t mga kaharian,
at ang isang tao’y katulad kabagay
ng alinmang likha noong kalayaan.
Ang hindi magmahal sa kanyang salita
mahigit sa hayop at malansang isda,
kaya ang marapat pagyamaning kusa
na tulad sa inang tunay na nagpala.
Ang wikang Tagalog tulad din sa Latin,
sa Ingles, Kastila, at salitang angel,
sapagkat ang Poong maalam tumingin
ang siyang nag-gawad, nagbigay sa atin.
Ang salita nati’y tulad din sa iba
na may alfabeto at sariling letra
na kaya nawala’y dinatnan ng sigwa
ang lunday sa lawa noong dakong una.
Tracing the provenance of the poem to its source, Cruz claims to have received the poem from his friend, the poet Gabriel Beato Francisco, who got it from a certain Saturnino Raselis of Lukban, a bosom friend of Rizal and teacher in Majayjay, Laguna, in 1884.
Raselis is alleged to have received a copy of this poem from Rizal himself, a token of their close friendship.
Unfortunately, Raselis’ name does not appear in Rizal’s voluminous correspondence, diaries or writings. When Jaime C. de Veyra established the definitive canon of Rizal’s poetry in 1946 with a compilation published in the series “Documentos de la Biblioteca Nacional de Filipinas” (Documents from the National Library of the Philippines) “Sa Aking Mga Kabata” was not published in the original Tagalog but in a free Spanish translation of the Tagalog by Epifanio de los Santos as “A mis compañeros de niñez.”
Tagalog, according to the 8-year-old Rizal, has its own alphabet and letters. It goes back to pre-Spanish times. The precocious child even compared Tagalog with Latin, English, Spanish and “the language of angels,” whatever that is.
Filipinos raised on textbook history that depicts Rizal as a superhuman genius should give the poem a second look and ask, “Was it really written by an 8-year-old from Calamba just learning to read at his mother’s knee?”
The poem could not have been written in 1869 when Rizal was eight based on the use of the letter “k,” which was a reform in Tagalog orthography proposed by the mature Rizal.
In Rizal’s childhood they spelled words with a “c” rather than “k.” Further, the word “kalayaan” (freedom) is used twice. First, in the third line of the first stanza, there is mention of sanlang kalayaan (pawned freedom).
Was Rizal aware of the colonial condition at this young age? Kalayaan appears the second time in the last line of the second stanza.
Encounter with ‘kalayaan’
These two references ring a bell because kalayaan as we know it today was not widely used in the 19th century. As a matter of fact, Rizal encountered the word first in the summer of 1882 when he was 21 years old!
In a letter to his brother, Paciano, dated Oct. 12, 1886, Rizal related difficulties encountered with Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell that he was translating from the original German into Tagalog:
“I’m sending you at last the translation of Wilhelm Tell by Schiller which was delayed one week, being unable to finish it sooner on account of my numerous tasks. I’m aware of its many mistakes that I entrust to you and my brothers-in-law to correct. It is almost a literal translation. I’m forgetting Tagalog a little, as I don’t speak it with anyone.
“… I lacked many words, for example, for the word Freiheit or liberty, one cannot use the Tagalog word kaligtasan of course because this means that he was formerly in some prison, slavery, etc. I encountered in the translation of Amor Patrio the noun malayá, kalayahan that Marcelo del Pilar used. In the only Tagalog book I have, Florante [at Laura], I don’t find an equivalent noun.”
‘El Amor Patrio’
“El Amor Patrio” was the first article Rizal wrote on Spanish soil. He wrote it in Barcelona in the summer of 1882 and it was published in Diariong Tagalog in August 1882 both in Spanish and a Tagalog translation, “Pag-ibig Sa Tinubuang Lupa,” by Marcelo H. del Pilar.
If, as Rizal admitted, he did not encounter the word kalayaan until he was studying in Europe at 21 years old, how can he have used it at 8 years old in Calamba?
In light of its complicated provenance and the anachronistic use of the word kalayaan a shadow of doubt has been cast on “Sa Aking Mga Kabata.”
There are only two poems attributed to Rizal in Tagalog, the other is “Kundiman.” Both are questionable. All his documented poems are in Spanish.
If Rizal did not compose “Sa Aking Mga Kabata,” who did?
Our two suspects are the poets Herminigildo Cruz or Gabriel Beato Francisco.
Identifying the true author of “Sa Aking Mga Kabata” is important because millions of Filipino children are miseducated each year during Buwan ng Wika when they are told that Rizal composed a poem on his mother tongue when he was 8.
Will the real author of “Sa Aking Mga Kabata” please stand up for he who does not love his own poem/is worse than a beast and a stinking fish (“ang di magmahal sa sariling tula/mahigit sa hayop at malansang isda”).
To My Childhood Companions (Nick Joaquin translation)
Whenever a people truly love
the language given them from above,
lost freedom will they ever try
to regain, as birds yearn for the sky.
For language is a mandate sent
to each people, country and government;
and every man is, like all free
creation, born to liberty.
Who does not love his own tongue is
far worse than a brute or stinking fish,
for we should foster and make it great
like unto a mother blest by fate.
Like Latin, English, Spanish, or
the speech of angels is Tagalog,
for God, a wise provider, it was
who made and handed it to us.
Like the others, our language was equipped
with its own alphabet, its own script,
which were lost when a storm brought down in woe
the barque on the lake long, long ago.
(Editor’s Note: Ambeth R. Ocampo is the chair of the Department of History at Ateneo de Manila University.)