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In Other Words by Paul Morrow The poem that Rizal did not write

By Paul Morrow

   Kabata H Cruz 1906
The poem as it appeared in its earliest documented form in 1906, ten years after Rizal’s death. From Kun Sino ang Kumathâ ng̃ “Florante” by H. Cruz, pp. 187-188. The spelling here is relatively modern compared to Tagalog conventions of the 1860s, which followed Spanish spelling rules and therefore did not use letters such as K and W.
Photo by Maureen Justiniano with enhancement by John Paul Sumbillo.

August in the Philippines is Buwan ng Wika [Language Month] when Filipino is celebrated and promoted as the national language. During this month it is almost obligatory that somebody quote the familiar lines of the national hero, Jose Rizal:

“Ang hindi magmahal sa sariling wika ay higit sa hayop at malansang isda, kaya ating pagyamaning kusa, gaya ng inang sa atin ay nagpala.” [Whoever does not love his own language is lower than a beast and a foul smelling fish. Therefore we must treasure it gladly, like our mothers who blessed us.]

The tone is rather harsh but the advice given – to treasure our language – is commendable.

However, Jose Rizal never said those lines, nor did he write the poem from which they were paraphrased. By now it is no secret that the poem Sa Aking Mga Kabata [To My Fellow Youth] does not belong to Jose Rizal. Many scholars doubted the authenticity of the poem for decades but it was only recently that matters seemed to converge with at least three near simultaneous exposés. In July of 2011, Virgilo Almario debunked it in his book Rizal: Makata, Ambeth Ocampo wrote a couple of articles about it in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and I published a series of articles here in the Pilipino Express.

Nevertheless, traditions are not easily discarded and many institutions continue to attribute the poem to Rizal. I clipped the above quotation from fil.wikipilipinas.org and the entire poem can still be found at www.joserizal.ph, a web site maintained by Jose Rizal University.

What is the evidence?

How do we know that Rizal did not write the poem that gave us the famous “stinky fish” quote? There are many clues in the poem itself. For example, the language is too precocious even for an eight-year-old prodigy like Jose Rizal. There are also details that betray a 20th century authorship while the poem was purportedly written in 1869.

For me, however, the real clincher is the use of the word kalayaan [freedom], which appears twice in the poem. Kalayaan was not a common word in 1869 and there is irrefutable evidence that Jose Rizal himself did not learn the word until he was 25 years old. We know this because of a letter he wrote to his brother Paciano in 1886. Jose had written a Tagalog translation of Friedrich Schiller’s German play Wilhelm Tell and he wanted Paciano to review it. He explained that he found it difficult to translate some of the concepts in the play:

“My Dear Brother,

There I’m sending you at last the translation of Wilhelm Tell by Schiller… I lacked many words, for example, for the word Freiheit or liberty. The Tagalog word kaligtasan cannot be used, because this means that formerly he was in prison, slavery, etc. I found in the translation of Amor Patrio the noun malayà, kalayahan that Marcelo del Pilar uses. In the only Tagalog book I have – Florante – I don’t find an equivalent noun.”

Evidently, Rizal had not encountered the word kalayaan until he saw it in Marcelo H. del Pilar’s Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa [Love for the Native Land], which was his Tagalog translation of Rizal’s own Spanish essay, Amor Patrio. Naturally, if Rizal didn’t know the word kalayaan when he was 25 years old, he could not have written a poem in which the word appears twice when he was only eight years old.

Who wrote the poem?

Rizal wrote many things in his life apart from his two famous novels. He constantly wrote letters to friends and family, personal memoires, and essays for various magazines. A vast amount of his authentic writing has been preserved but apparently he never saved a copy of this now-famous poem or even bothered to mention it in writing in his entire lifetime. It is very clear that he had no connection to the poem. So, who is the true author?

The earliest documented appearance of Sa Aking Mga Kabata was in a book published in 1906, almost ten years after Rizal’s death. Author Hermenegildo Cruz presented it as an example of modern naturalist Tagalog poetry in the book Kun Sino ang Kumathâ ng̃ “Florante” [The Person who Composed “Florante”]. Cruz introduced the work as “a Tagalog language poem written by the hero Jose Rizal in 1869 when he was only about eight years old.” In a footnote, he added this about the poem’s provenance:

“For this poem I am indebted to my friend, Mr. Gabriel Beato Francisco. This was given to him by Mr. Saturnino Raselis, a native of Lukban, who was a teacher (maestro) in Mahayhay in 1884. This gentleman was a very close friend of Rizal who gave him (the teacher) a copy of this poem himself, a symbol, apparently, of their close friendship.”

Gabriel Francisco was a poet, novelist and the author of an 1899 play, Ang Katipunan. Mr. Saturnino Raselis, however, is a bit of a mystery. Rizal never mentioned this “very close friend” in any of his writing. Since Cruz was apparently the first to bring the poem to public attention, I would suspect that either he or one of his sources was the true author. And since we can’t even be sure if Saturnino Raselis ever existed, we are left with only Cruz and Francisco.

Did Francisco dupe Cruz with a phoney Rizal poem or were they in cahoots? Did one of these men commit a fraud by passing off his work as Rizal’s or did they attribute an anonymous poem to Rizal by mistake? With only circumstantial evidence — and my suspicions — I would place my bets on the poet, Gabriel Beato Francisco, as being the real author of Sa Aking Mga Kabata and the source of the malansang isda.

For much more information on this story and citations of sources, read the series, “Something fishy about Rizal poem”
A PDF of the series can also be downloaded for e-readers.

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