“It strikes me that I cannot claim this country’s serene coves and sun-soaked beaches without also claiming its poverty, its problems, its history. To say that any aspect of it is part of me is to say that all of it is part of me.”
Patron Saints of Nothing follows the story of Fil-Am teenager Jay whose cousin from the Philippines has become another casualty of the drug war. He will go back to his birthplace to investigate the truth behind his cousin’s murder.
The Philippine administration is at the helm of the “war on drugs” which resulted in systemic violence and extrajudicial killings of thousands of Filipino. If you’re unaware, a report from 2018 claimed the death toll of the drug war has climbed up to 20,000 people. Just imagine that number ballooned over the next two years. The characters in this book are fictional; however, the plot still rings true.
At the beginning of the novel Jay was talking about his cousin being murdered because of the drug war, and his American friend Seth knew more about what’s happening in the Philippines compared to him. He’s Filipino-American and the Philippines is his birthplace and he doesn’t even have the slightest gist of what’s been happening where he came from. That struck me because most Filipino Americans, particularly those who came from money, often disassociate themselves with their heritage. In Jay’s place, I don’t think he has internalized racism against his own people; it’s more about the environment he grew up in. There’s no vibrant Filipino community around him and there’s the lack of media representation; he never kept up with his own heritage until now.
The protagonist Jay will realize that he needs to shed his American tinted glasses and dissect everything not as a savior, but as a young man who needs to learn the history of his own people.
Patron Saints of Nothing didn’t try to paint Jay as a knight in shining armor. As a teenager with no connection, you can’t really fundamentally change the law – that would be unrealistic. However, you can try to understand the situation and use your voice to amplify the issue. Ribay weaves a story where readers could see the plight of Filipino who is most affected by the drug war through an outsider’s eyes.
Jay’s privilege has been challenged numerous times in the text. He has flaws like his instinct to defend his gender. I like that it wasn’t brushed under the rug and it was addressed. I also appreciate how the novel explains that while Jay is Filipino like everyone else in the country, he doesn’t actually live there. He doesn’t experience the same discrimination as the poor people that live in the slums – that after his vacation he will go back to his American suburban home.
Patron Saints of Nothing didn’t try to paint a “two-sided POV.” I’ve known and seen enough Filipinos that consider this human rights crisis as a way of God cleansing our society. When in reality this drug war has primarily targeted poor people; and disenfranchised communities. There’s no amount of feel-good justification will be enough to say people who sold drugs and use drugs deserve to die. There’s no amount of feel-good justification will be enough to kill innocent bystanders. There’s no amount of feel-good justification will be enough to rob people of their loved ones and family member.
If you want to educate yourself in this topic, I personally suggest starting with Patron Saints of Nothing. Ribay tackled this delicate hard-hitting issue with well-researched information; however, this novel shouldn’t be treated as the final destination of anyone’s research. Patron Saints of Nothing does a great job of starting a conversation through the eyes of a privileged Filipino American point of view, but there is so much left to explore.
I could write a long review tackling the intricacies of the plot forever and I don’t think it will ever be enough. Patron Saints of Nothing personally hit all the spots for me. My only comment is that the sub-plot romance didn’t really help the plot, I didn’t care for it.
This book made me cry, my heart hurt so much; and even if I’m not a Filipino, I like to believe I still would’ve cared for a nation that’s been brutalized over and over again.
Despite actually having the physical copy of Patron Saints of Nothing, I ended up listening to the audiobook which is read by Ramón de Ocampo. He does a spectacular job at differentiating the accent and cadence of each character’s voice. His narration makes the story even more gutting.
TW: for grief/mention of child trafficking and prostitution/sexual slavery.