Patron Saints of Nothing: A Thought Essay

If you know me, you know I like to read. A lot. You also know that I generally give fairly succinct reviews about those books. Given that, I’ve begun keeping a diary of things I’ve read. Mostly this is to help organize my own thoughts. I’m not always good at expressing myself on paper or a keyboard. I’m pleased to say that already that diary has helped me.

Because of that, I’ve decided I want to start blogging weekly about what I’m reading. Maybe I’ll summarize everything or I’ll focus on one book, like this first one. Go grab a glass of Alamos Malbec or Hendrick’s on the rocks and enjoy my thoughts.

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

Synopsis

A powerful coming-of-age story about grief, guilt, and the risks a Filipino-American teenager takes to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder.

Jay Reguero plans to spend the last semester of his senior year playing video games before heading to the University of Michigan in the fall. But when he discovers that his Filipino cousin Jun was murdered as part of President Duterte’s war on drugs, and no one in the family wants to talk about what happened, Jay travels to the Philippines to find out the real story.

Hoping to uncover more about Jun and the events that led to his death, Jay is forced to reckon with the many sides of his cousin before he can face the whole horrible truth—and the part he played in it.

Synopsis copied from Book of the Month.

A View From Afar

I have so many complicated thoughts about this novel. Many stem from imagining my boyfriend Nico, a native Filipino, in this situation but a few also concern the inaction of the rest of the world. The narrative begs the question “Who’s responsibility?” Certainly, the drug “war” Duterte has instigated is nothing short of wholesale massacre. Indeed, it seems far too many innocents have been ensnared in the bloodshed.

Ribay’s use of 17-year-old Filipino American Jay Reguero gives a weight to the narrative that someone like me (30-something European American) could never bring. If I had told this story, it would come across as dispassionate and potentially birds-eye view. Having Jay as our guide working through his own difficulties of being Filipino American while trying to discover the truth of his cousin Jun’s death invites us in. He questions everything about himself in a way that I think all young people do when they are on the cusp of adulthood and change.

Ribay uses first person present tense in this novel. Generally, I very much dislike the use of this technique. I think that stems from seeing writers use it where it doesn’t fit. Here, it is perfect. Using the first-person present tense to tell this story allows the audience to discover as Jay discovers. Each piece of the puzzle brings us closer to the truth until finally we are left twisted about by that last, devastating puzzle piece. We are also privy to Jay’s stream-of-conscious musings, presenting questions and philosophical quandaries.

One of Jay’s ruminations is on how fragile our “rights” and “privileges” truly are. They exist as part of an agreed upon social contract, as nebulous as smoke in the air. Sure, they’ve been codified on paper and through court decisions but that’s fragile. All of that can be destroyed simply when people decide to no longer follow that social contract. The strength of our systems lies in the willingness of the majority to continue accepting them.

When Jay is supposedly visiting cultural sites but instead ice skating in a mall, Mia, a friend of Jun’s younger sister, admonishes him for judging something he’s never lived. It is easy to judge and condemn a system outside our own. We are not there and do not have to live it every day. It remains, however, that there is a significant amount of hypocrisy on the part of US citizens who do judge when we can barely force reforms in our systems. How many extrajudicial murders are swept under the rug here? I would guess that the numbers, or at least the ratios of justified to unjustified, closely match those in the Philippines.

I had to set this down for a bit when I reached Jun’s memorial and just sob. The pain of his family struck me. Never has that happened before. It felt good, cathartic, but frightening at the same time. In this moment, Duterte’s War Against Drugs became real to me as I imagined Nico’s face in place of Jun’s. Yeah. I sobbed hard.

When I finished reading, I wondered whether the US should be worried about Duterte’s “war.” A large of part of me, the isolationist, non-interventionist part that has tired of US meddling around the world, wants to say no. A small part thinks we should involve ourselves. I would like to be upfront about this: This is an incredibly US-centric position. If this war creates the conditions for Islamic terrorists to recruit those who would strike against the US, then we have right to be concerned. I hesitate, however, to think that means we should intervene and lend credence to cries of American Imperialism.


Some fiction causes us to want to know more, to understand better. I recently read Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits—I give the English title because that’s how I read it; my Spanish reading comprehension needs a bit of work—and I wanted to learn more about Chile and the Pinochet regime. I have not done that yet.

With Patron Saints of Nothing there is something different. More than likely this is because of my proximity to the issue. Nico is Filipino; he lives a five-hour drive from Davao City, where Duterte was mayor prior to being president. Davao is the murder capital of the Philippines. If I remember correctly, Duterte instituted a similar policy in Davao while he was mayor.

Beyond that, I want to know about his culture and his country. Duterte is now for him, though he does have less than a year in office still. Listening to Nico and gleaning what information I can from news articles, it seems likely that an ally will succeed the current president and the extant situation will continue for the foreseeable future.

I remember when I landed in Languindingan Airport that I had an anxiety, and it wasn’t from landing early. At least, not entirely. I walked into the waiting area and there were soldiers sitting around and joking, military rifles held casually or swung over a shoulder. What would they think of some white guy coming to a part of the Philippines that, as far as I can tell, not a whole lot of white people visit? Then there was the drive to Cagayan de Oro straight through a military checkpoint. Nico explained that military presence in Misamis Oriental previously existed in smaller form because of militant separatist movements but that since Duterte was elected it has grown to partake in the drug war.


In his afterword, Ribay supplies a list of further reading. I’ve copied it here.

The Drug Archive at http://Drugarchive.ph from the Ateneo School of Government at Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle Philippines, the University of the Philippines-Diliman, and the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism

The Impunity Series” from Rappler

Residents from 26 barangays file protection vs police” by Arianne Christian Tapao for VERA Files

The human rights consequences of the war on drugs in the Philippines” by Vanda Felbab-Brown for The Brookings Institution

They are slaughtering us like animals” by Daniel Berehula for The New York Times

Philippines secret death squads” by Kate Lamb for The Guardian

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