A Quest for Self: Unpacking the Patron Saints of Nothing

Reshma Ramkellawan-Arteaga, Ed.D, Feb 2024
A Quest for Self: Unpacking the Patron Saints of Nothing

Consider the most significant person in your life and envision how your connection would endure if unforeseen circumstances disrupted your lives. Now, magnify these reflections by contemplating the impact of that person’s demise on your overall sense of self. Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay delves into these intricate and painful questions, urging readers to scrutinize the complex interplay between self-definition and external perceptions. The Patron Saints of Nothing explores all of these questions in a beautiful and important text that asks us to think about the ways in which humanity is defined by ourselves and others.

In the narrative, Jay discovers the untimely passing of his cherished cousin, Jun. Jay is wracked with guilt as they had not spoken in several years and he realizes that he will no longer have the opportunity to ever speak to his cousin again. The circumstances surrounding Jun’s death remain shrouded in secrecy, linked to the heightened drug crackdown in Duarte’s Philippines. This revelation propels Jay into a poignant exploration of grief, unanswered queries, and a quest for understanding that takes him to the Philippines. There, he encounters a myriad of challenges, grappling with his American identity and feeling alienated due to his limited understanding of the language and cultural nuances in the Philippines. He begins to pull back the layers of thread, unraveling the mystery and complexity of his family’s dynamics and not finding an end in sight.

The novel resonates profoundly, particularly with individuals navigating hyphenated identities. Jay’s journey reflects the struggles of those molded by societal expectations, even in privileged spaces. While in the Philippines, Jay must confront that he does not know enough about his Filipino identity. He is othered in America because of his identity and in the Philippines, he is treated as a non-authentic Filipino because he does not speak language, nor does he fully understand the cultural or social dynamics of the nation. Despite the comforts afforded by his family’s immigration to the United States, Jay often experiences a sense of displacement. His quest for answers, triggered by his cousin’s death, becomes a transformative odyssey, unveiling not only the truth behind Jun’s fate but also a deeper understanding of Jay’s own identity and aspirations.

This beautifully written text transcends age barriers, capturing the hearts of both young adults and older readers, especially those grappling with hyphenated identities. Hyphenated identities refers to those who are typically first generation Americans or immigrants to a nation other than the one their family identifies with. We can also argue that hyphenated identities refer to the nuanced ways in which we construct our identity. Ribay explores the unconscious and conscious ways in which we are othered or placed into boxes due to a perception of what we “should” be. Jay’s journey allows us to witness his courage firsthand as he mends the trauma within his family and determines his own path. This journey for answers, primarily for the death of his beloved cousin, has resulted in a newfound understanding of himself, and what he seeks to be.

Educators are encouraged to incorporate “Patron Saint of Nothing” into their curriculum in the form of a whole class novel, as it provides a nuanced lens through which to explore global inequalities. The narrative’s parallels to real-world issues, such as the drug war and the criminalization of communities of color, offer valuable opportunities for discussions on systemic oppression and legislative practices. By examining topics such as the drug war, one can discern unsettling similarities in the systemic criminalization of communities of color for drug-related offenses. This parallels the failure to address the underlying mental health needs of individuals struggling with substance use. Moreover, the novel provides students with the chance to critically evaluate how legislation perpetuates oppressive practices, resulting in behaviors deemed undesirable but, in truth, are preventable. This offers a valuable opportunity for students to engage in discussions about the far-reaching impact of laws on marginalized communities, encouraging them to explore the root causes of societal issues and consider proactive solutions.

Readers will find themselves emotionally invested in Jay’s journey—a narrative that elicits laughter, tears, and a profound connection to the human experience. Through Jay’s healing journey, Patron Saint of Nothing invites us to reflect on our own paths of self-discovery and understanding, making it an enriching and thought-provoking literary experience.

Reshma Ramkellawan-Arteaga, Ed.D is a former English teacher, grade level leader and assistant principal with over 20 years of experience.. A proud Queens girl, she is currently an adjunct professor at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She also serves as the Chief Operating Officer of Equity Consulting Group. She can be reached at reshma@equityconsulting.org


Great post! Love how you’ve identified the personal and cultural and global connections possible with this text, as well as where / how to address it in one’s curriculum. Such a helpful blog post, and I’ll be sharing this both with my teachers as well as using it as a mentor text for a “literary review” with my students. Many thanks!
Michelle Bulla

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