Rizal’s legendary ‘tsinelas’
When I was a child, I learned about six-year-old George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and owning up to the deed before his angry father, saying: “I cannot tell a lie.” Little George’s truthfulness came back to haunt his successors, US Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. In 1973, Nixon denied involvement in the Watergate break-ins; the subsequent scandal led to his resignation in August 1974. In 1998, Clinton lied about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. The Filipino cigar maker La Flor de la Isabela branded a cigar line the “Monica Special” and made international news.
I had to unlearn the story of George Washington and the cherry tree as an adult, after finding out that the story can be traced back to only one source, the 1806 biography by Mason Locke Weems. In the original, little George merely damaged the tree with a hatchet he received as a gift. Historians are spoilsports, more so when they debunk long-held beliefs: George Washington did not cut down a cherry tree.
After almost four decades of research, I now know that little Jose Rizal did not throw his tsinelas into the river. He did not invent champorado, or climb a tree to rescue a pet cat and return it to the crying owner. According to Manuel Xerez Burgos, nephew of the ill-fated Father Burgos, Rizal did retrieve a kite from the bell tower of the Manila Cathedral for a weeping child.
Rizal did not write “Sa aking mga kabata,” a Tagalog poem he is supposed to have composed at eight years old, from which is drawn the immortal line: “Ang hindi magmahal sa sariling wika, masahol pa sa hayop at malansang isda (One who does not treasure his own language is worse than a beast or a putrid fish).” A line that should be properly attributed when used on Filipino students annually in August for Buwan ng Wika.
Almost a decade since National Artist Virgilio S. Almario and I argued conclusively that Rizal did not write “Sa aking mga kabata,” some people still cling to the spurious “hayop at malansang isda” quote. It is so deeply ingrained in us because it forms part of the Linggo ng Wika celebration, set in 1955 by President Ramon Magsaysay to begin on Aug. 13 and end on Aug. 19, birthday of Manuel Luis Quezon, Father of the National Language. It is not well-known that Magsaysay moved the National Language commemoration from the “summer vacation” months to August, and that Fidel Ramos, in 1997, extended National Language Week into a month, giving us today’s Buwan ng Wika. Almost a century of drilling that quote into our heads made the spurious real.
Likewise, Rizal as the inventor of champorado has no historical basis. I first read it in a 1950s Philippine History textbook for children. Little Rizal was supposedly at the breakfast table and accidentally tipped a cup of chocolate into his rice and dried fish (sardinas secas or tuyo is referenced in his adolescent diary as one of his favorite breakfast options). To evade a scolding or spanking for his clumsiness, he reasoned out: “I did this on purpose; mix chocolate and rice to make champorado!”
Filipinos do not know that champurrado (with a double “r”) is a thick chocolate-based atole made from corn flour, very different in taste, consistency, and form from ours. It was something imported from Mexico during the Galleon Trade and indigenized into our own champurado. Should Mexicans raise hell about our appropriation of their culture?
The tsinelas story speaks about Rizal’s selflessness: Playing by the riverbank, one of Rizal’s slippers fell into the water and was carried off by the current. Having failed to retrieve it, and with one slipper now rendered useless, Rizal decided to throw in the other slipper so that someone downstream would find the pair and have a complete set. There is no historical basis for this story, and if it were true, Rizal was just being pilosopo to avoid punishment.
Finally, Rizal did not write or say: “Ang ’di lumingon sa pinanggalingan, ’di makararating sa paroroonan (He who does not know how to look back at his origin will not reach his destination).” What he did say, to underscore the importance of history, is: “In order to foretell the destiny of a nation, one has to first open the book of her past.”
What Rizal did say about moving on is not the amnesia that Marcos revisionism wants to blind us with. Rather, his version of #neveragain goes: “I enter the future, carrying a memory of the past.”
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