62 pages 2 hours read

Randy Ribay

Patron Saints of Nothing

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


With the 2019 publication of his third novel Patron Saints of Nothing, Randy Ribay cemented his reputation as one of the new millennium’s most important and popular writers of young adult fiction. Ribay, a high school English teacher in San Francisco, was born in the Philippines but grew up in Michigan. His novels, coming-of-age stories praised for their hard-edged, street-hip lyricism, examine the implications of cultural identity and the problematic process of assimilation. In addition, Ribay’s adolescent characters—sensitive, introspective teens—face pressures from unchecked access to social media, the temptation to abuse drugs and alcohol, and complicated questions about sexual orientation.

In Saints, a high school senior named Jason Reguero, a Filipino American and a misfit drifting toward college, reclaims his cultural identity during a two-week trip to the Philippines for answers about the mysterious death of a cousin who Jason suspects became a victim of the government’s brutal drug crackdown. The book was praised for its unblinking realism. Ribay uses the backdrop of the conservative Catholic island nation to argue for the compassionate treatment of drug addicts as well as the civil rights of gays and lesbians. The book, shortlisted for the National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction, was awarded the Freeman Book Award, which is presented annually by an organization of Los Angeles educators to recognize the best achievement in young adult fiction depicting Asian culture. This study guide refers to the 2019 Penguin paperback edition.

Plot Summary

Jason Reguero, the novel’s first-person narrator, is just months from graduating high school. Jay, by his own admission, lacks the initiative and drive of his friends and older siblings. His father, a first-generation Filipino immigrant, believes in the promise of his adopted country and in the importance of hard work. Jay, not so much. His acceptance at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to study how to design video games does little to excite him. However, the news of the death of a cousin his age, Jun, who lives in the Philippines, disturbs Jay in ways he cannot explain. His parents tell him that Jun’s death was mixed up in the young boy’s drug addiction and that he was caught in the government’s ongoing draconian war on drug users. Jay doubts that. He met his cousin during a brief trip to the Philippines when he was 10, and the two exchanged letters for a while until Jay let the correspondence lapse. An anonymous message to Jay begs him to come to Philippines, hinting that Jun’s death was suspect. Jay convinces his parents to allow him to fly to the Philippines over his spring break, although he says it is more to explore his culture than to investigate his cousin’s death. He heads to the Philippines on a mission to clear Jun’s name.

Once in the Philippines, Jay is keenly aware his extended family sees him more as an American visitor than a member of the family. With the help of Jun’s sister Grace and his friend Mia, Jay is introduced to the complicated and dangerous world of the modern-day Philippines. In addition to visits to art and cultural history museums that tell the nation’s long and troubling narrative through more than five centuries of colonial occupation, Jay is taken to areas of Manila that show him the stark poverty and desperate living conditions of most Filipinos, even as the fortunate few live in opulent estates that border vermin-ridden ghettos. He learns the impact of the newly elected government of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose ultra-conservative platform included a popular promise to rid the streets of drug users. The program dispenses with due process, with those arrested for drug use summarily (and legally) executed. The death toll from the government’s crackdown is in the thousands. Jay’s introduction to Filipino culture, and his growing outrage, are complicated by the commanding and intimidating presence of his Uncle Maning, Jun’s father and a high-ranking officer in the government’s police division. Jay comes to suspect that Maning engineered his son’s arrest and execution.

The investigation into Jun’s death leads Jay to a deeper understanding of his native country. He sees for the first time the potential reach of social media to alert the world about conditions in the Philippines. Jay never flinches from his commitment to clear Jun’s name. What he learns, however, is far more complicated. The real world is not like video games, with easy villains and simple heroes, and Jun was not the carefree boy Jay thought he knew. Beneath his quizzical nature, breezy optimism, and charismatic charm, Jun was deeply conflicted. His abuse of drugs testified to his search for answers in a world that appeared hopelessly corrupt and bankrupt of possibility.

As Jay works through a series of clues about Jun’s death, he also learns the complex nature of Jun’s parents, who loved their troubled son in their own way but could not find adequate ways to help him, and who watched helplessly as their child self-destructed. Jay’s two-week trip turns out to be far from a simple murder mystery, as it teaches him about family, growing up, the importance of activism, and the danger of abandoning hope. Along the way, Jay reclaims what he never knew he was missing back in Michigan’s swanky white suburbs: pride in his identity as a Filipino.

When Jay returns to Michigan, he asks his father for permission to take a gap year before heading to Ann Arbor. He wants to return to the Philippines to work for a human rights foundation run by his aunts.

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