Finding salvation through the patron saints of nothing

Frank Cimatu
Randy Ribay’s 'Patron Saints of Nothing' – which looks at Duterte’s war on drugs from a Filipino-American teenager's point of view – is longlisted in the National Book Awards 2019 for Young People's Literature in the U.S.

From Mt. Cloud Bookshop's Facebook page

BAGUIO, Philippines – Patron Saints of Nothing (Penguin/Kokila) by Filipino-American Randy Ribay is one of 10 books longlisted in the National Book Awards (NBA) 2019 for Young People’s Literature. (READ: This author wrote a book about the ‘drug war’ for the young Fil-Am crowd)

It was an impressive list with Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson and The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander emerging as favorites. The others are Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata, Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds, Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby, 1919: The Year That Changed America by Martin W. Sandler, Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve, and Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable. 

The 5 finalists will be named on October 8.

Patron Saints of Nothing‘s cover art by Jor-Ros is already a winner. It has a Filipino boy doing “Pandango sa Ilaw” without the candles and glasses, with the book title on his t-shirt and the 8-rayed Philippine sun behind him. 

“As gripping as it is lyrical, Patron Saints of Nothing is a page-turning portrayal of the struggle to reconcile faith, family, and immigrant identity,” NBA said. 

A page-turner it is – I finished the more-than-300-page book in a day. 

Ribay, a high school teacher in the West Coast, dedicated his 3rd book to “the hyphenated,” meaning Filipino-Americans like the protagonist Jayson “Jay” Reguero, the youngest of 3 children of two nurses who take alternate shifts at work so one can stay at home to take care of their children. 

Reguero is not as driven as his older siblings and is satisfied at the start of the book to have been taken by the University of Michigan instead of the Ivy League schools so he can later shift and become a game developer. But the Worcester Philippine collection is there, I wanted to say. 

Jay has a few weeks before entering U of M, having just received his U of M Wolverines hoodie (which is more expensive than a one-month pay of a Bicol taxi driver, he will later realize) when his father gave him the news about his cousin Jun while he is playing computer games. 

“Jay,” he says.

I slide down a hill and draw my bow and arrow, triggering the slow-motion mode. I release two arrows in quick succession. Both hit the beast’s energy core, drawing heavy damage and narrowing its HP counter to a sliver.

“YES!” I say.

“Your Tito Maning called.” He pauses. “Jun is dead.”

My fingers slow, but I keep playing. I’m not sure I heard him right. “Wait – what?”

Dad clears his throat. “Your cousin Jun. He’s dead.”

Then Jay felt like he was hit by the two arrows – one of guilt and another of inquisitiveness. Jun was his only connection to the Philippines, where Jay was born but has since visited only twice. They have been writing to each other and Jun insisted on writing longhand. Jay felt guilty about not answering the last 5 letters of Jun and read the last one again upon learning of his death. Jun’s letters served as introductions to some of the chapters, reliving the best friend he wanted to help and seek justice for. 

His next day’s conversation with his mother (a White) shows us how Duterte’s drug war is being perceived by the hyphenated. 

“Duterte was elected back in 2016,” Mom explains. “One of those ‘law and order’ types. Said that if he were elected, he could eliminate the country’s crime in three to six months.”

“For real?” I ask.

She nods. “Blamed drugs. Said he had a plan to get rid of them, and once he did, there wouldn’t be any more crime.”

“And people believed that?”

“He won by a landslide.” She lets that sink in, and then goes on. “Once he was president, he ordered anyone addicted or selling to turn themselves in. If they didn’t, he encouraged the police – and the people – to arrest them…and to kill them if they resisted.”

“Execution without a warrant or a trial or anything?”

Mom nods.

“Isn’t that illegal?”

“The government determines what’s legal.”

I shake my head as I think of Jun dying because of some batshit-crazy government policy. “And they’ve actually been doing this?”

“You really haven’t read any articles about this online or learned about it in school at all?”

“How many people have died?” I ask instead of answering.

She shakes her head. “Some think over ten, maybe twenty, thousand. But the government says only a few thousand.”

Only.

“And Filipinos are still okay with this guy?”

She takes a deep breath. “Jay, it’s easy for us to pass judgment. But we don’t live there anymore, so we can’t grasp the extent to which drugs have affected the country. According to what I’ve read, most Filipinos believe it’s for the greater good. Harsh but necessary. To them, Duterte is someone finally willing to do what it takes to set things right.”

That night, Jay searched the internet about Duterte’s drug war and gravitated toward this website which coughed up all the news and heart-breaking photos of those killed by the drug war. 

He then received an email from someone who sent him the latest photo of Jun, with a goatee and several tattoos. 

Where did you get this??? I message, heart racing.

This is your cousin, no? Manuel Reguero?

Who are you?? I ask.

No response.

WHERE DID YOU GET THIS?

Manuel did not deserve to die, he replies. He did nothing wrong.

How do you know??? Who are you???

Several moments pass. And then: I was his friend. 

Jay also learned that Jun was the administrator of the website he was following. 

With a few weeks before entering college, Jay decided to go to the Philippines alone. And the fun begins.

This being a YA novel, we are being tour-guided by the Education of Jason Reguero. 

Randy Ribay wrote in his blog: “My first [novel] featured a Filipino American character as part of the main cast, and my second a half-Black, half-Filipino American character. My third takes a much closer approach to the personal, as it features a half-White, half-Filipino American character who travels to the Philippines. I’m extremely proud of my contributions to YA literature. Growing up, I had never read a single book for children or teens that even featured a Filipino American character, and now I can proudly say I’ve put three on the shelves, and that I’m part of the ever-growing number of Filipino American authors doing this work in children’s lit.”

Like Jason, Ribay was born in the Philippines and raised in the Midwest. Ribay first taught high school in the East Coast and is now based in San Francisco. 

Jason’s vocabulary of Filipino words when the book started can only be counted on his one hand. After the book, his Filipino can be counted on two hands. 

He does not expect to be translated every conversation within hearing range. He knows when he is being talked to and doesn’t care when he is being taken out of the conversation whether in Filipino, Bicolano, or Bisaya. 

“English is a language that lives in the middle of the mouth, but Tagalog is more of an open throat song that dances between the tip of the tongue and the teeth,” Jay thought. 

Which is to say he was able to learn about his country of birth not through words but feelings and intuition.

Jay followed the places where Jun went after he was banished by his family. He went to safehouses, houses of relatives, and even the slums. He even read the last books Jun read even as a bit of what Jay learned about the Philippines came from the airport magazine he read on his way to the Philippines. 

Because this is a YA book, Ribay, like the high school teacher that he is, taught his readers about the rituals around the balikbayan box, the curse of the Catholic faith, and the communion through karaoke.

Jay in his brief stay felt the helplessness of the Filipinos as they are caught in the crossfire of this war and he knew he has to get out the rut. 

The characters are not hackneyed. Even Tito Maning, the father of Jun who decided not to hold a funeral wake for his son and took him out of the displayed portraits, was not all evil. 

Tito Maning, though, idolizes Duterte and his heated conversations with Jay shows the familial gulf between children born here and there. The plot also is not as simple as we thought. 

And then this being a YA novel, it is brave for Ribay to tackle a polarizing issue back home. Even in the Philippines, only a few fiction and plays tackle the EJK. 

“The right to due process is so ingrained in me as an American that I’ve taken it for granted. Up until now, I’ve never fully understood that such a right is nothing but ink on paper, paper that can be shredded and tossed in the garbage, paper that can be ignored if people don’t demand its application. And it doesn’t even take some great evil to do that. The promise of safety is enough,” Jay said as he looked at the website of his cousin. 

Although this book is for Filipino-Americans and Americans, young adults here will also love how their country is being seen and that nothing is hopeless. 

Maybe like Jun and Jay, we are patron saints of nothing. But, in the book, you will see the stars in the dark skies. In the book, you will meet Filipinos who try to find sense in what’s happening. In the end, Jay even found an inkling of love to one of them – a young Filipina journalist, yay!

“Brilliant, honest, and equal parts heartbreaking and soul-healing. I’ll give this astounding book to all the teens and adults in my life. I suspect you will, too. I’d give it 50 stars if I could,” wrote Laurie Halse Anderson, whose Shout is also longlisted in the NBA. 

Never mind the NBA, this book has done enough to gain victory amid the guilt, pain, and lies we have been accustomed to. – Rappler.com