A Filipino-American Teen Immersed in Duterte’s Drug Crackdown
Like many American teens in their final months of high school, Jay’s mulling college choices, playing video games with buddies, and sleeping in on the weekends.
The tiny parameters of his existence suddenly break wide open one Saturday, when his father shares the news that his cousin in the Philippines is dead.
Seventeen-year-olds don’t just die, Jay thinks. Yes, his father explains, Jun had gotten into drugs. He ran away from home and police killed him because he was selling shabu, or meth.
Jay can’t believe it. Jun was the cousin he connected with most on his infrequent trips back to his birthplace. How could the same thoughtful boy with whom he’d corresponded for years suddenly have gone so awry?
Randy Ribay’s illuminating Patron Saints of Nothing follows Jay’s search for answers, though it proves increasingly hard for him to discern the truth. The hunt changes Jay, who realizes how simple his American life has been compared to his Filipino relatives’. And it also spotlights the cruel politics of the country under President Duterte, who rose to power on an anti-crime platform turned deadly.
Jay last saw his cousin seven years ago. The two played pickup games of soccer, unpacked their feelings about God, and traded impressions about life in the Philippines versus the U.S. For a long time after he returned to the States, they exchanged letters. Then, Jay got distracted.
“I have not received a reply from you in three months. In that time, I have sent you six letters counting this one,” Jun’s last letter reads. “I am thinking that maybe you do not want to do this anymore. If you do not reply, it is okay. I will leave you alone. But know that I would like it very much if you responded.”
Rereading the forgotten letter, Jay sinks into shame. So when his phone erupts with an anonymous photo and messages that raise more questions about Jun’s last few months, Jay persuades his parents to send him to visit his aunt and uncle in the Philippines.
From there, it would have been easy to make Patron Saints Of Nothing a straightforward whodunit gilded with Jay’s newfound awareness of his heritage. But Ribay resists that simplistic path. His characters take shape through their myriad ways of grappling with grief. Jay chafes against his stern uncle’s refusal to even mention his dead son, but Ribay doesn’t demonize Tito Maning the way Jay does.
Instead, he shows how Jay’s Tito believes that Duterte’s policies, however strict, will help the Filipino people: “Our country’s history is full of invading foreigners who thought they knew us better than we knew ourselves. And many of us believed them over and over,” Tito Maning admonishes Jay, who protests that he has read a few articles in the Western press about the brutality of Duterte’s rule.
“I am thinking they have said nothing about … (Duterte) reducing crime to its lowest rates ever so that the people finally feel safe walking around their own barangay at night?” his uncle continues.
Ribay dedicates Patron Saints of Nothing to “the hyphenated,” and it eloquently illustrates the challenges of balancing dual heritages. Jay can’t erase his Americanness. Yet his identity undeniably shifts as he absorbs more of life in the Philippines. It’s a transformative journey, and well worth coming along for the ride.
(Kokila/Penguin, June 18, 2019)