Filipino American folklore and 7th grade bad luck merge in a new book
San Diego author Tracy Badua's debut middle-grade novel, "Freddie vs. the Family Curse" follows seventh grader Freddie Ruiz. Freddie has struggled his entire life with the uncanny ability to faceplant in front of classmates — if something can go wrong for Freddie, it usually will. He ascribes his bad luck to what his great-grandmother calls the "Ruiz Family Curse."
"The curse. Got to be the curse," Freddie narrates after a school project goes awry. "Like straight black hair and those little chicken-skin bumps on my upper arms, bad luck is in my genes."
Freddie lives in San Diego, with his parents and his great-grandmother Apong Rosing. Next door, his cousin Sharkey Mendoza is his only friend, a girl his same age who is his opposite when it comes to luck. She's popular, gets good grades, and never has to worry about the curse.
Freddie has mostly resigned himself to a life of poor fortune (and near-total risk aversion) until a rediscovered family heirloom gives him a little hope. It's an anting-anting, a coin-like amulet hung on a leather strap like a necklace.
Apong Rosing tells Freddie that in Filipino folklore, an anting-anting is said to bring good luck — something Freddie desperately craves.
A Filipino American backdrop
For writer Tracy Badua, so much of the story's foundation borrows from her own upbringing. From the foods common to her Filipino American upbringing to superstitions and folklore, and a multi-generational influence.
"I grew up in a household where I had my grandmothers stay with us for long periods of time, so it was nice to be able to kind of draw that into the story to show that," said Badua. "It was my parents, and it was me and my brother and then my grandmother hanging out with us and watching us and keeping us out of trouble. So that's something that I wanted to reflect in this book, because I knew not a lot of folks, at least where I grew up, had this kind of multi-generational aspect in their household. It was always like, 'I'm going to go visit grandmother,' as opposed to, 'oh, our grandmother lives with us.'"
Apong Rosing, in fact, is based upon her own grandmother and female relatives, and Badua said this stronger, older female character and companion for Freddie was one of her favorite characters to write. However, she adjusted the generation so that Apong Rosing would have been alive during World War II.
"Apologies to my grandmothers for kind of aging them up a little bit, but I had to get everything — the timing — right because I wanted to make sure that I reflected the time right for the Bataan Death March, which is a World War II event that is mentioned in the book," Badua said.
The superstitious Apong Rosing's promise of good luck with the anting-anting is short lived. The amulet contains the ghost of Ramon, Apong Rosing's older brother, who explains that not only does this bring bad luck instead, but Freddie now only has 13 days before he'll die, joining Ramon in the amulet.
A tragic history
Freddie and his cousin Sharkey set out to solve the mystery of the curse and save Freddie's life, despite Freddie's parents, who dismiss the superstition. Ultimately they have to track down one of Ramon's friends, another soldier in the Philippine Scouts, who was part of the Bataan Death March. It's something Badua wanted to make sure more kids understood.
"The Bataan Death March was like a 65 miles march by Filipino and American soldiers in World War II, from Bataan to trains that would take them to prison camps," Badua said. "This was inspired by the fact that my grandfathers did serve in the military back in World War II, and one of them actually was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. And it was one of those things that I didn't really maybe know of or realize the impact of until much later in life."
12-year-old (and local) comedy
While the tension of Freddie's impending doom and his hero's quest is compelling and exciting, Badua has written a supernatural page-turner that never feels too scary. The "spirits" in the book are somewhat vague and shadowy but Ramon and Freddie can sense their presence in advance, which takes the edge off the frights for readers.
Badua also piles plenty of humor into the story. Written for eight to 12 year olds, she said that it was fun to get herself into the mindset for younger comedy. While Freddie and Sharkey are trying to solve the mystery, they're also still seventh graders, dealing with pop quizzes, PE class, embarrassing underwear mishaps and more.
The book's San Diego setting was partly inspired by the "write what you know" mentality, but Badua had fun with it.
"The book actually starts out in the middle of a storm," Badua said, adding that it "sets up that feeling of, 'oh, there's something a little bit off here.'"
It's also a bit of a local joke.
Freddie needs glue for a school project, but every bottle is empty and his mother refuses to go to the store: "No way we're going out in this weather, Freddie. Other people don't know how to drive in the rain."
When Freddie is faced with even more obstacles and bad luck in trying to break the curse, he discovers as much about himself and the pride he has in his supposedly unlucky family — as he does the amulet.
Tracy Badua's "Freddie vs. the Family Curse" comes out Tuesday, May 3, 2022, and Badua will celebrate at 6 p.m. that evening with a discussion and signing event at Mysterious Galaxy.
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