Something fishy about Rizal poem - part 4
Why was Sa Aking Mga Kabata attributed to Jose Rizal?
Cigarette wrappers from the early 1900s – even back then, Rizal’s name and image was a hot commodity. Many businesses and organizations used his likeness to promote their products and causes. (Images courtesy of pinoykollektor.blogspot.com)
It is certain that Jose Rizal did not write Sa Aking Mga Kabata, the poem from which generations of Filipino schoolchildren learned the lesson that people who neglect their own language are “worse than beasts and stinking fish.”
As we have seen in this series, the word kalayaan is the smoking gun that proves Rizal did not write this poem, which only surfaced ten years after his death. However, the real “gunman” is still in the shadows. The man who first published the poem, Hermenegildo Cruz, could be the real author of the poem and the hoax, but he would have needed the co-operation of Gabriel Beato Francisco to at least remain silent when he claimed that Francisco gave him the poem. It’s my suspicion that it was actually Francisco who wrote the poem, but there is not enough evidence to “convict” him.
Was it a hoax or a mistake?
The possibility that some unknown poet might have innocently composed Sa Aking Mga Kabata and that someone else might have honestly, but mistakenly, attributed it to Rizal, is extremely remote. Given that a story was fabricated to link the poem to Rizal — through an apparently fictitious “close friend” of his named Saturnino Racelis — reveals that there was nothing innocent or honest about the alleged discovery of the poem. Any such story could only be false because, as we have seen in this series, Rizal could not have composed the poem and he apparently had no knowledge of it, whatsoever. The only thing that might let Cruz and Francisco off the hook would be to find evidence that Racelis really existed and that the poem really came from him. Then the case could be made that it was Racelis who duped the pair of writers.
A hoax is by far the most likely scenario, especially when it’s placed in the context of early 20th century Philippine historiography. At that time, nationalism and regionalism carried as much weight, or more, than empirical evidence. Many hoaxes were eagerly accepted as historical fact, not only by the Filipino public but also by the American academics who were in the process of establishing the new system of education. Pedro Monteclaro’s 1907 collection of Visayan legends, entitled Maragtas, was embellished by other authors and then passed off as an “ancient text.” 1 In 1912, Jose Marco began a 50-year career of producing phoney historical documents, including his most famous, the pre-colonial legal code of the fictitious Datu Kalantiaw. 2 Historian Glenn May found that even some of the most famous writings attributed to the revolutionary leader, Andres Bonifacio, have questionable origins and some might even be outright fakes. 3
Why pin it on Rizal?
What purpose would it serve to fake a poem by Jose Rizal? He was already a popular hero in the early 1900s whose reputation needed no further embellishment. Many people today still use the poem to glorify Rizal, but it seems the real purpose of the poem was not to glorify him, but to borrow some of his glory for another purpose.
Whatever the original motivation might have been for composing Sa Aking Mga Kabata, the poem eventually became the useful tool we know today for promoting the Filipino language. And, indeed, this is also the reason most often cited for its creation in the first place — to promote Tagalog over other languages as the basis of the national language. Rizal’s posthumous endorsement of Tagalog would have been very influential when discussions about creating a national language were just beginning.
The poem does seem perfectly designed for the purpose of promoting Tagalog in the early 1900s rather than in 1869. Before Sa Aking Mga Kabata, one of the best known quotes in praise of the Tagalog language was probably Fr. Pedro Chirino’s comment in his Relación de las Islas Filipinas of 1604. He said:
Of all [Philippine languages] the one most pleasing and admirable to me, was the Tagalog because… I found in her four qualities of the four best languages of the world: Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Spanish… 4
This opinion was quite obviously borrowed from Chirino and used in the fourth stanza of Sa Aking Mga Kabata:
Ang wikang tagálog tulad din sa latín
sa inglés, kastilà at salitang angel
[The Tagalog language is the same as Latin,
English, Spanish and the language of the angels]
The poet, however, could not resist updating the quote by replacing Greek with English, the language of the new colonial rulers. In 1906, it was not yet a foregone conclusion that Tagalog would become the national language. Many people wanted either English or Spanish to be the only common language for all Filipinos. Attributing to Rizal this endorsement of Tagalog, especially in comparison to English, would have been much more persuasive than the words of a Spanish missionary written 300 years before.
Rizal a hot commodity
Of course, this was not the first time that Rizal’s stature as a Filipino hero was used to further someone else’s cause. Even when he was still alive, Rizal’s name was the rallying cry of the Katipunan revolutionaries who collected donations in his name, elected him as their honorary president and hung his portrait in their session hall, all without his consent. 5 By the early 1900s, Rizal had become a hot commodity in the advertising world, too. His image and name were used to sell cigars, cigarettes, tobacco, matches, soft drinks, and even vinegar. (A good place to find pictures of these old products is at pinoykollektor.blogspot.com)
Why pin it on young Pepe?
One last curious thing about the hoax is the question of why someone would attribute such an obviously mature poem to an eight-year-old child. It almost seems like the hoaxers were relying on the premise that people will tend to believe a big fib rather than a small one. On a more practical level, since so much of Jose Rizal’s life was documented, a fake “lost” poem would have to be attributed to an obscure part of his biography to avoid direct comparisons with his well known literary works. Setting the creation of the poem in 1869 is convenient because Rizal family lore and even Rizal’s own recollections 6 hold that he was already dabbling in verse when he was a young lad. Even more convenient is the fact that no authentic examples of his poetry survive from 1869. The earliest poems in the National Historical Institute’s collection, Poesías Por José Rizal (1995) are dated six years after Sa Aking Mga Kabata and are written in Spanish. 7
Another possible reason for setting the poem specifically in 1869 might only be a coincidence, but that year did happen to be the beginning of a brief period of relaxed censorship under the popular Governor General Carlos de la Torre. His administration lasted fewer than two years, though. He was replaced by Rafael de Izquierdo whose administration cracked down on the reform movement and even executed the three Filipino priests; Mariano Gómez, José Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora — not the best time to compose a pro-Filipino poem that, allegedly, would be copied and shared among other admiring poets.
So, will the exposure of Sa Aking Mga Kabata as a hoax affect the stature of Jose Rizal as the national hero, or Filipino as the national language? To believe so would be to undervalue both because Jose Rizal’s legacy and the legitimacy of the Filipino language do not depend on this poem. From now on, the poem and its message will have to stand on their own. It would be a shame if the message within the poem were to be forgotten, only to be replaced by the memory of how we were all fooled for over a century.
1. Morrow, Paul. The Maragtas Legend, 1998. www.mts.net/~pmorrow/marag_e.htm
2. Morrow, Paul. “José E. Marco: Con Artist of the Century,” The Pilipino Express, Vol. 2 No. 15. August 1, 2006. 060801 Con Man.pdf
3. May, Glenn Anthony. Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio. Madison, Wisconsin, USA: University of Wisconsin, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1996.
4. Chirino, Pedro. Relación De Las Islas Filipinas Y De La Que En Ellas Han Trabajado Los Padres De La Compañia De Jesús... Roma Año MDCIV. (1604) 2. ed, Biblioteca De La "Revista Católica De Filipinas". Manila,: Balbás, 1890. p.52.
De todas ellas la que mas me contentó, y admiró, fué la Tagala. Porque ... yo hallé en ella cuatro calidades, de las cuatro mejores lenguas del mundo: Hebrea, Griega, Latina y Española. De la Hebrea, los misterios y preñeces. De la Griega, los artículos, y distinción, no solo en los nombres apelativos, mas también en los propios. De la Latina, la copia y elegancia. Y de la Española, la buena crianza, comedimiento y cortesía.
5. Retana, W. E., Horacio De la Costa, José Rizal, and Spain. Consejo de Guerra Ordinario de Plaza. The Trial of Rizal : W. E. Retana’s Transcription of the Official Spanish Documents. Manila: Ateneo de Manila, 1961. Third printing, 1998. p. 98, 101.
6. Rizal, Jose. “The Tagalog Art of Versification”, Miscellaneous Writings of Dr. José Rizal. Manila: National Heroes Commission, 1964. National Historical Institute, 1992. p. 111
7. Rizal, José. Poesías Por José Rizal. Commemorative Publication on the Centenary of the Martyrdom of Dr. Joe RIzal ed. Vol. Tomo III, Obras Literarias. Manila: National Historical Institute, 1995. Reprint, Second Printing, NHI, 1995. pp. 3-11.