Sa Aking Mga Kabata – Did the 8-year old Rizal write this Tagalog poem?

By Floro Quibuyen, Ph.D

Lolo Jose by Asuncion Lopez Bantug
Lolo Jose by Asuncion Lopez Bantug

(Note: Written in celebration of Buwan ng Wikang Pambansa. Parts of this essay are taken from the author’s A Nation Aborted, revised second edition, Ateneo de Manila University Press)

Sa Aking Mga Kabata, supposedly written by Rizal in 1896, is a wonderful poem that has often been cited to promote the Filipino national language. Philippine national artist for literature Nick Joaquin even sees in the poem evidence that the 8-year old Rizal “already saw the coming of Spain as a disastrous storm wrecking the barque of native culture ‘in the night of time’.” Indeed, notions of a rich indigenous heritage animate the poem:

Kapagka ang baya’y sadyang umiibig
sa kanyang salitang kaloob ng langit,
sanlang kalayaan nasa ring masapit
katulad ng ibong na sa himpapawid.

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

Ang hindi magmahal sa kanyang salita
mahigit sa hayop at malansang isda
kaya ang marapat, pagyamaning kusa
na tulad ng inang tunay na nagpala.

Ang wikang tagalog tulad din sa latin,
sa ingles, kastila, at salitang angel,
sa pagka ang Poong maalam tumingin
ang siyang nag-gawad, nagbigay sa atin.

Ang salita nati’y huad din sa iba
na may alfabeto at sariling letra,
na kaya nawala’y dinatnan ng sigwa
ang lunday sa lawa noong dakong una.

Joaquin’s translation:
=
Whenever a people truly love
the language given them from above,
lost freedom will they ever try
as birds yearn for the sky.

For language is a mandate sent
to each people, country and government;
and everyman 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 speech
of angels, Tagalog too is rich,
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 was lost when a storm brought down in woe
the barque on the lake long, long ago.

The last stanza of this poem is remarkable: note the reference to the Spanish conquest as a storm that wrought damage on the native culture, and led to, for example, the loss of the letters and alphabet of the indigenous language—a thesis that abounds in Rizal’s later scholarly work.

Nonetheless, a number of scholars have asserted that Rizal could not have authored Sa Aking Mga Kabata. The fly in the ointment is a crucial word in the poem. Kalayaan — in the sense in which it is used in the second stanza, and for that matter, in the Revolution of 1896—was not yet current in 1869!

Indeed, Rizal, by 1886, was not yet familiar with the word—as evidenced by his October 12 letter to Paciano:

Mi querido hermano: Allì te envoi alfin la traducciòn del Guillermo Tell de Schiller… No ignoro que està lleno de faltas que os encomiendo a tì y a mis cuñados el corregirlas: es una traducciòn casi el pie de la letra. El tagalo se me va olvidando un poco, como que no lo hablo con nadie….Me han faltado muchos vocablos, por ejemplo para la palabra Freiheit o sea libertad; no se puede usar siempre el tagalo kaligtàsan, porque este significa que antes estuvo en alguna prisiòn, esclavitud, etc. He encontrado en la traducciòn de “El amor patrio” el nombre malayà, kalayahan que usa Marcelo del Pilar: en el ùnico libro que tengo, El Florante, no he encontrado otro nombre equivalente. (Rizal-familia 1961, 256)

My dear brother,
I’m sending you at last the translation of Wilhelm Tell by Schiller… I’m aware of its many mistakes which 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 work Freiheit or liberty. The Tagalog word kaligtasan cannot be used, because this means that formerly he was in some prison, slavery, etc. I found in the translation of Amor Patrio the noun malayà, kalayahan that Marcelo H. del Pilar uses. In the only Tagalog book I have—Florante—I don’t find an equivalent noun. (Rizal-family 1964, 243)

To my knowledge, among the first to notice the discrepancy between the 12 October 1886 letter of Rizal to Paciano and the 1869 poem, Sa Aking Mga Kabata, are Monsignor Moises B. Andrade and Edgar S. Yanga (see Kalayaan: its birth and growth among the secular clergy of Bulacan, 1998) and Jaime B. Veneracion (personal communication). Nilo Ocampo had likewise noted this discrepancy in his recent book, May Gawa na Kaming Natapos Dini: Si Rizal at ang Wikang Tagalog 2002, 123-24.

The 25-year old Rizal eventually used malayà, kalayahan, and kalayaan (without the h)—55 times—in his Tagalog translation of William Tell [Guillermo Tell]. The play’s relevance to the Philippine situation becomes readily apparent when Philippines is substituted for Suisa/Schwyz (Ocampo 2002, 124). Consider some telling passages (ibid.):

Tell: Ang bahay ng kalayahan ay itinindig sa atin ng Diyos.
Stauffacher: Malaya ang taga-uisa mulang ang mundo ay mundo…
Stauffacher: Ngunit tayong tayong tunay na lahi ng matatandang taga Schwyz, ipinaglaban
nating lahi ang kalayaan natin.
William Furst: Ang nasa nati’y lipulin ang sinusumpang paglupig; ang matatandang kalayahan na minana sa ating magugulang ay ibig natin siyang palakarin…
Melchthal: …kaniyang palaguing ipinaglalaban ang katuiran at kalayaan

For a study on Rizal’s Tagalog translation of William Tell, see Ramon Guillermo’s dissertation, Das Erlöschen der Natur: European Revolutionary Discourse in nineteenth Century Tagalog Translation (Universitat Hamburg, 2005).

Thus, it is probable that Sa Aking Mga Kabata was a much later fabrication—concocted perhaps by a forger during the days of Commonwealth President Manuel Luis Quezon, when Tagalog was mandated, amidst opposition from non-Tagalogs such as Ilocanos and Bisayans, to serve as the basis for the construction of a Filipino national language.

But the argument against the authenticity of Sa Aking Mga Kabata overlooks a crucial fact: the poem had been copied by hand several times—and had been translated to Spanish and retranslated back to Tagalog (see Nick Joaquin, The Complete Poems and Plays of Rizal 1976, 265). Along the way, the term “kalayaan” might have been used/inserted by later copiers or re-translators. The only way to settle this is to get hold of the original copy—sadly, this is no longer possible. The only thing we have, by way of authentication, is the testimony of Rizal’s descendants—in particular Asuncion Lopez Bantug, Rizal’s great grandniece, who confirms that Rizal did write Sa Aking Mga Kabata (see Lolo Jose. An Intimate and Illustrated Portrait of Rizal, 2nd edition, Vibal Foundation and Intramuros Administration 2008, 19)

The testimony of a Rizal descendant, however, does not constitute 100% proof that the 8-year old Rizal did compose Sa Aking Mga Kabata. Indeed the poem could very well be a 20th century fabrication.

The likelihood that Sa Aking Mga Kabata was a much later fabrication does not, however, render it worthless. The value of the poem lies in the fact that it testifies to the influence of Rizal’s historical perspective on subsequent Filipino nationalist writers, and even forgers.

The lineaments of Rizal’s nationalist historical perspective may be traced from Junto Al Pasig, a play written by an 18-year old Rizal, to El Amor Patrio, written in 1882, which Bonifacio rendered in 1896 into his poem “Pag-Ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa” (popularized into a hauntingly beautiful song by Inang Laya), to Rizal’s 1890 annotations to Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, and, finally, to his 1896 untitled farewell poem (posthumously given the title Mi Ultimo Adios), now considered among the all-time greatest 1,000 poems in the Spanish Language (see Mil Mejores Poesias De La Lengua Castellana, edited by J. Bergua).

Remarkably, all of these are prefigured in Sa Aking Mga Kabata.

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