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Something fishy about Rizal poem - part 3

Who really wrote Sa Aking Mga Kabata?

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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.
The poem as it appeared in its earliest documented form in 1906. From Kun Sino ang Kumathâ ng “Florante” by Hermenegildo 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: Maureen Justiniano, enhancement: John Paul Sumbillo)


Did Jose Rizal really write the poem that gave us the phrase malansang isda [stinking fish] to describe people who neglect their own language? So far in this series we have seen that it was virtually impossible for Rizal to compose Sa Aking Mga Kabata when he was only eight years old, but is it possible that he wrote the poem and then just forgot about it? Did he also know the obscure word, kalayaan, which appears twice in the poem, and then forget it, only to re-learn it when he was 25 years old? Perhaps Rizal wrote the poem as an adult and then just claimed it was an example of his childhood brilliance. Of course, suppositions like these strain the very limits of credulity. The question we should ask is, “what do we really know about Rizal’s connection to the poem, Sa Aking Mga Kabata?”

Rizal’s manuscript

“From a historian’s point of view, documentation for this poem is sadly lacking,” wrote Ambeth Ocampo, then-future chair of the National Historical Institute (NHI), in a 1991 newspaper article. “The manuscript,” he continued, “…is not, and never seems to have been, extant.” 1

This is quite significant because Rizal was very meticulous about documenting every facet of his life. From his earliest childhood memories, recorded in his student diaries in Manila, to his Ultimo Adios on the eve of his execution, Rizal wrote about it. While studying in Madrid in 1882, he sent this instruction to his sister Maria in the Philippines:

I should like you to keep all my letters in Spanish that begin, Mis queridos padres y hermanos, because in them I relate all that has happened to me. When I get home I shall collect them and clarify them. 2

Ambeth Ocampo said in another article in 1996:

It is clear from Rizal’s letters, diaries, and other writings that he meticulously planned both his life and death down to the last detail. Nothing was left to chance, not even the choreography of his death. 3

Ocampo’s point was that Jose Rizal consciously cultivated his legacy as a hero. Certainly this poem should have had a prominent place in that legacy, but, apparently, Rizal was oblivious of it. If the poem was, in fact, his “earliest known revolutionary utterance,” as Austin Coates described it, surely Rizal would have remembered it in 1889 when he described his actual reformist awakening to Mariano Ponce. (See part 2 of this series.) Instead, he remembered the Gomburza martyrdoms of 1872, which happened three years after the poem was allegedly composed.

Since Rizal’s death, hundreds of his personal letters and other writings have been published, but, apparently, he never saved a copy of this now-famous poem or even bothered to mention it in his entire lifetime of writing. Why not? The reason is inescapable: he knew nothing about the poem and had no connection to it, except for what others claimed after his death.

Where did the poem come from?

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 Kun Sino ang Kumathâ ng “Florante” [The Person who Composed “Florante”].

The poem, like the rest of the book, was rendered using the new Tagalog spelling that Rizal himself had helped to develop in the mid 1880s. 4 If Cruz possessed an original manuscript of the poem, he apparently updated it from the standard Tagalog orthography of the 1860s, which followed Spanish spelling conventions and did not use certain letters that appear in this version, such as K and W.

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.” 5 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 good friend of Rizal who gave him (the teacher) a copy of this poem himself, a symbol, apparently, of their close friendship. 6

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. So far, I have found no mention of this “very good friend of Rizal” anywhere except in this footnote by Cruz. A letter from Rizal’s brother-in-law, Manuel Hidalgo, reported the cholera death of a Judge Saturnino in Calamba in 1882 7 but our Maestro Raselis (or Racelis) was apparently alive and well in Majayjay in 1884. The Racelis clan of Lucban, Quezon has a website showing their family tree reaching back to before 1870, but nobody named Saturnino is listed. 8

Another origin story

Austin Coates had a different story with even fewer details about where this poem, or perhaps another copy of it, came from. In his 1968 biography of Jose Rizal, he wrote, “This poem, copied from hand to hand, is said to have made a deep impression on Tagalog poets and those few others interested whom it reached…” and in a footnote, he added, “One of the very rare copies of this poem came many years later into the hands of Antonio Luna, the Filipino revolutionary general … to whom it owes its survival.” 9

While Coates’ book is generally considered one of the better biographies of Jose Rizal, he did not provide extensive information about the sources of specific claims such as this because he was writing for the general public rather than academics. He offered nothing further about Luna’s connection to the poem, however, the part about the popularity of the poem among Tagalog poets seems to echo what Pascual Poblete wrote in his 1909 biography of Rizal:

The public came to recognize his skill in poetry when he was only eight years old because of a beautiful poem that he composed, which astounded all the Tagalog poets in the province of Laguna. 10

Who really wrote Sa Aking Mga Kabata?

At this point we can only speculate. 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 at this point if the schoolteacher Saturnino Racelis ever existed, we are left with only Cruz and the poet/playwright/novelist, 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 own work as Rizal’s or – as Nilo Ocampo speculated – did their unquestioning admiration for the national hero simply lead them to attribute an anonymous poem to Rizal by mistake? (See part 1 of this series.) 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.

Next time we’ll look into some of the possible reasons why this poem might have been attributed to Jose Rizal and why it has been so successful.

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1. Ocampo, Ambeth R. “The Gettie-Pettie Letters” (8/21/91) in Rizal without the Overcoat. Expanded ed. Pasig City, Philippines. Anvil Pub., 2000. p.169

2. Rizal, José. “Madrid, 30 December 1882,” Letters between Rizal and Family Members. National Historical Institute, Manila, 1993. p.69

3. Ocampo, Ambeth R. “Was Rizal prophetic or a conscious hero?” (12/15/96) in Rizal without the Overcoat. Expanded ed. Pasig City, Philippines: Anvil Pub., 2000. p.243

4. See: Morrow, Paul. “Rizal and the Filipino language,” Pilipino Express News Magazine, Vol. 3 No. 12. June 16, 2007. 070616 Rizal spelling.pdf

5. Cruz, Hermenegildo. Kun Sino Ang Kumathâ Ng “Florante”, Kasaysayan Ng Búhay Ni Francisco Baltazar at Pag-uulat Nang Kanyang Karununga’t Kadakilaan. Unang Pagka-limbag ed. Maynilà: Librería “Manila Filatético”, 1906. p.187

Sa káunaunahan itititik ko ang isang tulang wikang tagalog na isinulat nang bayaning si Rizal niyaong taóng 1869 nang siya’y may mga walong taóng gulang lamang. [English translation by P. Morrow]

6. ibid p.188

Ang tulang itó ay utang ko sa kaibigan kong si G. Gabriel Beato Francisco. Ito’y ipinagkaloob sa kanyá ni G. Saturnino Raselis, táong tunay sa Lukbán, na naging gurò (maestro) sa Mahayhay ng taóng 1884. Ang ginoóng itó ay isang matalik na kaibigan ni Rizal na siyang nagkaloob sa kanyá (sa gurò) ng isang salin nitong tulâ, tandâ, dî umanó, ng kanilang pagka-katoto. [English translation by P. Morrow]

7. Hidalgo, Manuel T. “Calamba, 24 September 1883,” Letters between Rizal and Family Members. National Historical Institute, Manila, 1993. p.42

8. Lozada, Michael Gingoyon. The Racelis Family Tree Website. http://racelis3.net/ Accessed 7 May 2011.

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

10. Poblete, Pascual H. “Buhay at mga Ginawa ni Dr. José Rizal.” This was included in Noli Me Tangere; Novelang Wicang Castila Na Tinagalog Ni Pascual H. Poblete. Maynila: M. Fernandez, 1909. p. I

Napagkilala ng madla ang cagalingan niyáng tumulâ ng wawalóng taón pa lamang ang canyáng gulang, dahil sa isáng marikít na tuláng canyáng kinathà, na tinakhán ng lahát ng mga manunulang tagalog sa lalawigang Silangan. [Footnote:] Marami ang tumatawag ng Silangan sa Laguna. [English translation by P. Morrow]

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