Published on

In Other Words by Paul Morrow


Something fishy about Rizal poem - part 2

Could Jose Rizal have written Sa Aking Mga Kabata?

Download this series in PDF optimized for iPad

Rizal at age 11 in 1872, the same year he said his imagination was awakened to avenge victims of injustice
Rizal at age 18 in 1879, around the time he wrote his diaries as a student in Manila

The famous poem attributed to Jose Rizal, Sa Aking Mga Kabata, gave us the well-worn saying, Ang hindi magmahal sa kaniyang salita ay mahigit sa hayop at malansang isda. [One who does not love his language is worse than a beast and a stinking fish]. In the first part of this series we talked about the word kalayaan [freedom], which appears twice in the poem, in spite of the fact that Rizal did not learn this word until 17 years after he allegedly wrote the poem.

This time we’ll look at a couple of other issues that cast doubt on the authenticity of this poem as a work of the national hero.

Young Rizal’s Tagalog

The first point that is usually raised when this poem is discussed critically is the fluency and sophistication of its Tagalog author. Tagalog was Rizal’s mother tongue but was his command of the language so advanced at the age of eight? None of his formal education was in Tagalog and later in life he would lament his difficulties with the language on several occasions. When he attempted to write his third novel in Tagalog, he gave up and started again in Spanish. 1

Rizal’s first teacher was his mother who taught him to read, but it seems that the emphasis was on Spanish not Tagalog. According to his diaries, written when he was a student in Manila in the late 1870s, Rizal’s earliest memory of reading was when he was so young that it was “still difficult for [him] to climb up on a chair.” 2 This is the famous anecdote in which Rizal’s mother reads him the story of the moths and the flame, interpreting from Spanish to Tagalog. However, one detail in this diary entry that is often overlooked is that the occasion of this storytelling – Rizal's earliest memory of reading – was actually a Spanish lesson. Young Jose was reading aloud for his mother from a Spanish book for children, Amigo de los Niños, but he was reading poorly, so she took the book and began to demonstrate how to read it properly. When she noticed that Jose was not paying attention, she stopped the lesson and began to read the story of the moths and the flame.

Sa Aking Mga Kabata

   Kapagka ang baya’y sadyang umiibig
   sa kaniyang salitang kaloób ng langit,
   sanlang kalayaan nasà ring masapit
   katulad ng ibong na sa himpapawíd.

   Pagka’t ang salita’y isang kahatulan
   sa bayan, sa nayo’t mga kaharian,
   at ang isang tao’y katulad, kabagay
   ng alin mang likhâ noong kalayaan.

   Ang hindî magmahal sa kanyang salitâ
   mahigít sa hayop at malansang isdâ,
   kayâ ang marapat pagyamaning kusà
   na tulad sa ináng tunay na nagpalà.

   Ang wikang tagálog tulad din sa latín
   sa inglés, kastilà at salitang anghel,
   sa pagka ang Poong maalam tumingín
   ang siyang naggawad, nagbigay sa atin.

   Ang salitâ nati’y huad din sa ibá
   na may alfabeto at sariling letra,
   na kayâ nawala’y dinatnán ng sigwâ
   Ang lunday sa lawà noong dákong una.

Rizal’s early diaries also mentioned that before he entered school he received some tutoring in Latin from a former classmate of his father, but the man died suddenly, five months into the lessons. 3

A young linguist?

Rizal’s formal education began in 1870 in a small classroom in Biñan, Laguna, a year after he allegedly composed Sa Aking Mga Kabata. In his student diaries he reminisced about his first day in that Biñan school:

“When I entered [the teacher’s] class for the first time… he spoke to me in these words:
“Do you know Spanish?”
“A little sir,” I replied.
“Do you know Latin?
“A little sir,” I answered again.

For these replies the teacher’s son Pedro, the naughtiest boy in the class, began to sneer at me. 4

If the poem is to be taken at face value, young Jose, despite his admission of having only a little knowledge of Spanish and Latin, was supposedly sophisticated enough to compare these languages with Tagalog. The fourth stanza of the poem declares that Tagalog is the equal of Latin, English, Spanish and the language of the angels. (See poem in the side bar.)

Curiously, English is included in the comparison to Tagalog rather than more predictable choices such as classical Greek or French. This is also a bit suspicious because English was not yet an especially influential language in the Philippines of 1869. Although his uncle, Jose Alberto, spoke English, Rizal didn’t begin to study English until about the mid 1880s. 5 Did young Jose have a premonition that this language would dominate the Philippines in the century to come?

The final stanza of the poem is about the pre-colonial syllabic alphabet of the Philippines, known as baybayin. This old script was one of Rizal’s inspirations for reforming Tagalog spelling in 1886 after he had read Trinidad Pardo de Tavera’s 1884 work on the subject, Contribución para el Estudio de los Antiguos Alfabetos Filipinos. 6 But did young Jose know about baybayin writing in 1869? This is an aspect of the poem that requires a little more digging.

A young revolutionary?

Another questionable aspect of this poem is the precocious social commentary of its alleged young author. The poem contains some very mature insights for an eight-year-old boy – the “stinky fish” line notwithstanding. There are some bold statements that are just as much about freedom and nationhood as they are about language. The first stanza of the poem equates a people’s love for their language with their desire to be free and the second stanza depicts freedom as the natural state of all creatures. And, as mentioned earlier, the fourth stanza "dares" to put Tagalog on the same level as Latin, Spanish, English and possibly Hebrew – if this is what is implied by “the language of the angels.”

These sentiments are quite innocuous today but young Jose supposedly wrote them in 1869 when freedom for Filipinos was considered a subversive idea, traitorous to the Spanish government. Censorship was the norm and Filipino culture and languages were generally not held in high regard.

In the lines, sanlang kalayaan nasà ring masapit / katulad ng ibong na sa himpapawíd, the poem talks about the people’s desire to gain their lost liberty, but in reality, Rizal’s main goal when he was older, and that of the other reformers, was to gain basic human and political rights for Filipinos within the Spanish Empire, not total independence from it. That fight only began in earnest with the formation of the Katipunan after Rizal was exiled to Dapitan in 1892.

Nevertheless, biographer Austin Coates said that this poem “embodies Rizal’s earliest known revolutionary utterance.” 7 And although the creation of the poem is set conveniently at the beginning of a brief period of reform and relaxed censorship under the liberal governor general, Carlos de la Torre in 1869, Rizal himself dated his reformist awakening to events that would occur three years later under another governor general, Rafael de Izquierdo.

In 1872, three Filipino priests, collectively known as Gomburza, suffered grizzly executions by garrotte based on trumped-up charges of complicity in a mutiny at the Spanish arsenal in Cavite. Their trial and executions were part of the general crackdown on the reform movement by the new regime that came in with the return of Spain’s monarchy, which had been deposed in 1868. Rizal said in an 1889 letter to fellow reformist, Mariano Ponce:

…without 1872 Rizal would be a Jesuit now and instead of writing Noli me tángere, would have written the opposite. At the sight of those injustices and cruelties, while still a child, my imagination was awakened and I swore to devote myself to avenge one day so many victims…8

So, Rizal was quite young when he first devoted his life to fighting injustice in the Philippines but, according to him, his motivation came in 1872. He did not mention the poem of 1869 to Ponce, which is significant because its general theme is more in harmony with that of Noli me tángere rather than its hypothetical opposite, which, according to Rizal, he might have written, if not for the events of 1872.

There is no disputing that Jose Rizal was a genius. He grew up to be an artist, an engineer and a physician. He spoke, or was at least familiar with, more than 20 languages. He wrote two very influential novels and many other works that inspired Filipinos to fight for independence. Even so, one must ask if even he, at the age of only eight years, could really be the author of a poem as mature, and perhaps as prescient, as Sa Aking Mga Kabata.

In the next part of this series we will look at where this poem came from, Rizal’s connection to it and who its real author might be.

Have a comment on this article? Send us your feedback.

Visit Sarisari etc. for more about Filipino history and language.
Find Paul Morrow on Facebook.


1. Ocampo, Ambeth R. Makamisa: The Search for Rizal’s Third Novel. New ed. Pasig City, Metro Manila. Anvil Pub., 2008. p.10

2. Rizal, Jose. (under the pseudonym, P. Jacinto) “Memoirs of a Student in Manila.” Chapter 8, undated. English translation by the José Rizal National Centennial Commission. Taken from José Rizal: Life, Works, and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist, and National Hero by Gregorio F. Zaide and Sonia M. Zaide. Metro Manila, National Book Store Publishers, 1984. Accessed through by Robert L. Yoder

3. Ibid.  Chapter 1. 11 September 1878. 

4. Ibid. Chapter 2. 28 October 1878.

5. Rizal, José. “Madrid, 29 January 1883,” Letters between Rizal and Family Members. National Historical Institute, Manila, 1993. p. 78
In this letter Rizal mentioned his plan to live in England to learn English, which he did in 1888.
_____ “On board the Djemnah, 7 July 1887,” Rizal Correspondence with Fellow Reformists. National Historical Institute, Manila, 1992. p. 143
Rizal tells about his voyage on the ship Djemnah where the passengers spoke several languages, including English, but only he could converse with all of them.

6. Rizal, Jose. “On the New Orthography of the Tagalog Language,” Miscellaneous Writings of Dr. José Rizal. National Historical Institute, 1992. p. 130

7. Coates, Austin. Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1968. p. 17

8. Rizal, Jose. “Rizal, Paris, 18 April 1889 to Mariano Ponce,” Rizal’s Correspondence with Fellow Reformists. Manila: National Historical Institute, 1992. p. 321

← Part 1Part 3 →