Exploring the art of prose


Archipelagic by Elisabeth Vasquez Hein

Image is a color photograph of a wedding veil hanging by a window; title card for the new creative nonfiction essay, "Archipelagic," by Elisabeth Vasquez Hein.

In her essay “Archipelagic,” Elisabeth Vasquez Hein inspects letters and photographs shared between her parents in the 1970s, before her mother traveled from the Philippines to the United States to marry her father. Hein begins the essay by describing how the two came to know each other from thousands of miles away without having met in person. As the piece progresses, Hein shifts the focus to her relationship with her mother: “I am trying to see her as he did,” Hein writes. “I want to understand how he loved her when I have never known how.”

In her author’s note, Hein discusses how the essay’s structure was influenced by her experience as a photographer and how she came to string its disparate parts together “until they looked something like an island chain: an archipelago.” She varies both the perspective and stylistic approach to the material, leading to a rumination on forgiveness and a poem inspired by her interest in Baybayin, a writing system used in the precolonial Philippines. Still, Hein’s desire to better understand her mother lends the essay a sense of forward momentum. The result is a piece that gives readers the impression of a journey, a mind essaying toward revelation. Hein ultimately offers a sprawling study of identity and family history that is both exhaustively documented and refreshingly fragmented.  —CRAFT


Is your mom a mail-order bride? I was once asked by a classmate in fourth grade while we sat at our desks making fake nails out of Elmer’s glue squeezed into the hollow of our plastic rulers.

No, of course not! I changed the subject, adding more glue to my ruler and pretending to watch it dry.

My mother always told me she met my father through Friendship International. On a whim, after hearing about a friend of a friend who married a pen pal from Idaho, my mother signed up. The prospect of an international love hadn’t crossed her mind until she heard it happened to someone in the next town. In one fell swoop, my mother dashed off letters to men in Florida, Texas, Washington, and Canada, forever turning her back on all eligible bachelors in the 7,000+ islands of her own country. Her boyfriend, Expedito, had wanted her to elope, but she had changed her mind as soon as she packed her suitcase to sneak out of her parents’ home at age twenty-three. Years later my mother would tell me without sentiment that Expedito went missing after being conscripted into the Philippine Constabulary during the Marcos dictatorship.

In my father’s first letter to my mother, he used correspondence “code #20750 as instructed by Japan International.” He detailed his life in Washington living in a small town near the Puget Sound, his job as a newspaper editor on the Navy base, his eight years working for the US government in Taipei, his two young children, and how difficult it was raising them alone after his Taiwanese ex-wife had left for Las Vegas on vacation never to return. After my father and mother had exchanged a few dozen letters, he proposed to her by mail: I do ask you now to please give consideration to the question: Will you become my wife? It’s my wish to marry you this year in the early summer if such is possible. My mother’s reply arrived in a letter to my father two weeks later, bringing him “much happiness.”

In the 1970s, it was common for Filipino-to-American marriages to originate near the Clark and Subic military bases. American men were stationed in the Philippines, and Filipina women worked near the bases in bars and restaurants providing “services” to the servicemen. My mother always made sure to distinguish herself from this scene, emphasizing that my father had captivated her heart through words. The women who met their husbands in the flesh were a different kind of Filipina, impetuous and desperate.

My mother did not fall into that category, but she did find her path to America in the aftermath of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This legislation abolished quotas and opened doors to Asian immigrants, especially those with professional skills. But the act also responded to the clamoring of American servicemen wanting to bring home the brides they had met while serving in the armed forces in Asia post-World War II. In 1964, a State Department official said, “The need for a more humane policy towards Asian immigrants became apparent when an increasing number of our servicemen during and after the Second World War married girls of various Asian ancestries.” My parents’ union was perhaps an outcome of this new love-informed policy. Love, after all, was written on nearly every page sent between them through the mail.

My mother admits to having had a second thought after accepting my father’s proposal. What if he turned out to be a mean man? She risked her future with a single sheet of paper upon which she wrote yes. She tells me now she would have married whichever man came for her first. The news stories hadn’t come out yet about Filipina wives being beaten or killed by their American husbands. But if she had stayed in the Philippines, perhaps having eloped with Expedito, would she have risked having a future of indefinite terror under martial law?

I’ve always thought my father looks spooked in the photo of him and my mother on their wedding day. I’ve thought my mother looks tentatively happy, like she knows it will all work out, just not for a while. In photographs, I look for clues to their emotions, but see only the perfection of their youthful faces. I imagine they are elated in some hidden part of themselves, for the fairy tale they formed through letters might come true.

Sometimes I think there is nothing so unique about my parents’ union. Was it not like most early love—a gamble? On the precipice of their dreams’ fruition, my mother and father viewed each other from distant and protected heights. That year, there were hundreds of other unions just like theirs—Filipinas marrying Americans met through the mail. Through her white veil on her wedding day, did my mother see my father as more than a tall bearded white man who could save her from her archipelagic nation of little opportunity?

According to Wikipedia, a mail-order bride is “a woman who lists herself in catalogs and is selected by a man for marriage.” As a child, I would never have described my mother this way, nor would she have allowed me to do so. I knew she was not an item in a catalog. But I didn’t know how she was more than that either. All I could see was how she had left everything behind for the idea of a new self. She broke from her family of eight siblings, one whose early death left behind a sorrowful ghost in every corner of the house. What did my mother keep of her original constitution? She packed everything into the luggage limit of Trans World Airlines the way she had condensed herself into a 1 x 2-inch personal ad and prayed.

I was afraid if I had told my classmate that my mother was a mail-order bride, it might have meant my parents weren’t really in love. We all knew from movies and songs that true love is supposed to emerge out of passion, a whirlwind. Planned and premeditated love by mail might have meant my mother couldn’t truly love me or that I didn’t need to love her. If my mother was a mail-order bride, my father and siblings and I could have treated her like a piece of paper, writing onto it whatever we wanted it to say.

To center is to grow quiet, to create a vessel into which we harbor our hearts, to be filled by small things seeking homes, to sit and hold tight. “Until the Spanish appeared on the horizon, no nation-state existed, only a far-flung collection of islands untroubled by the notion of a center,” wrote Luis H. Francia in History of the Philippines. Troubled, I think of the medieval punishment of quartering humans, how limbs were pulled in separate directions from the center until each arm and leg was flung to belong to no one. What was this notion of a center? Whose center? Wouldn’t each far-flung island already contain its own center?

I am thinking about how to pull everything in, how to hold last night’s dream with the one from the night before, and the night before that. My dreams are like plasma, an unseen substance around cells. In these dreams, I am often in an airport rushing to board a plane to Manila, or I am racing the clock to pack a too-small suitcase. Sometimes I am emerging from the doors of an elevator, or ascending a staircase to an indefinite floor. When I dream, there is no center and there is no beginning or end either. My dreams can be islands—or oceans where inside, floating and drifting, are plankton and sources of food. I go there at night to be fed, and still, I wake up hungry.

We talk about centering ourselves, finding peace, anchoring and grounding. But these are notions that keep me from water. As Francia states, the original inhabitants of the Philippine archipelago “lived by or close to water, whether ocean, river, or lake—sources of abundant food.” That was how it was and still is, even if that water is contaminated, even if our surnames were changed to uphold the dream of the colonizers, even if ten percent of our population now lives in diaspora far from its original life-giving waters. I dream of water like it’s air, no borders. I can go anywhere. It is the world of me inside my mother’s womb, the first and last place I am not fearful.

A coconut-brown notebook cover displays a silver etching of the Golden Gate Bridge, which shimmers when held at a just-right angle. In black marker, my mother has written her name, Lina, and Important (Precios) Memo. On the back in silver font: Manufactured in the Philippines by Keng Hua Paper Products Co., Inc. Northern Hills, Malabon, Rizal.

Inside, black and blue ink fills the white in handwriting that curls, flourishes, and hooks under the lines of the ruled paper. These pages are the transcriptions of the letters my father wrote to my mother from March 1973 to July 1974.

The handwriting belongs to my mother and her younger brother, who alternated to diligently record each word, sentence, punctuation mark, and date found on weightless paper inside airmail envelopes postmarked in Tacoma, WA, USA. Perhaps it was a premonition that only the notebook, not the original letters, would travel with my mother to her new life on the other side of the Pacific. Because like almost everything in her childhood home, the letters would eventually be devoured by floods following a typhoon.

My father rarely spoke aloud of love, but in the dozens of letters he sent my mother, the word love appears over three hundred times. I wonder if his love for my mother was palpable to her when she ingested these letters from across the ocean seven to ten days after the feelings first surged. What time does love keep? If it is 11:00 p.m. in Washington State, and 3:00 p.m. the next day in the Philippines, plus one week later, can love vibrate at the same frequency?

In these letters I learn who my mother was through the eyes of a discerning, practical, albeit romantic man not yet my father. I am trying to see her as he did. I want to understand how he loved her when I have never known how.

My mother’s hair was jet-black, long, and layered in the 1970s. In photos she looks peaceful, like she has all the time in the world. These were the photos she had sent my father so he would know what his future wife looked like.

Among the photos my mother sent my father was one from a part-time job she had as a beauty counselor for Beautifont, the Avon of the Philippines. My mother’s face was the one the organization chose to demonstrate the beauty products. When my father saw a photo of my mother with short hair, he was surprised, saddened, and then relieved to learn it was just a wig. He responded in a letter: I cannot be lenient concerning your beautiful hair, which I beg you never to cut short. Though it is foolish for me to attach so much importance to such a wish, nevertheless I appreciate greatly the beauty of long hair and I value even more the demonstration of love which you will show by keeping it to please me.

I wonder, were these the lines of “perfect English” that charmed my mother?

By the time I was old enough to remember, my mother was attempting to rid herself of gray hairs by having me pluck them one by one from her head. But there was no end, and my fingers would tire. When I was in elementary school, she began to close herself in the bathroom to dye her hair black every few months. Soon after, the length a hassle, she cut and permed her hair despite my father’s wishes.

People always told me my hair was black when I was a child. I didn’t understand why they would say that when I knew it to be dark brown—a mixture of my mother’s and father’s hair colors. I knew for certain my hair couldn’t possibly be black because I was not one hundred percent Filipino. My brown hair was proof that I was American. But I soon learned that to be even part Asian was to be perceived in monochrome.

I think now about how my father perhaps held this perception of my mother. The photos she sent of herself were in black-and-white. There was no way to see the nuances of her dark hair. Dark could only equal one color. He assured her of his attraction to her: Lin, I cannot be interested in any American girls I see. I wish to be with a woman of your type of beauty, for I love black hair and eyes. I think so many years in the Orient has made me think that only black hair looks normal.

In my twenties, I fell in love with a bearded white man whom I believed saw me for who I was. I believed he was attracted to my whole being and not only my “exotic” look. I loved him for telling me on our first date that he could see rainbows in my hair. I trusted him because he had many half-Asian friends despite his all-white upbringing. I continued to love him even when he would tell me, But really, you’re basically white when it comes down to it.

I used to play with my mother’s chapped hands during Mass. Church was the only place her hands were at rest, and even then, they might be busy folding and unfolding the Sunday bulletin, or reaching into her worn leather pocketbook for bills to place in the collection basket. To entertain myself during the homily, I would examine the deep pink lines slicing across her knuckles, the raw skin that never healed from constant motion: sweeping, dusting, washing, chopping, counting rosary beads.

She worked at the Ship n’ Shore snack bar on base, alongside other recently arrived Filipinas who’d married Americans. They wore hairnets and brown polyester uniforms. They gossiped when it was slow. I remember sitting in a hard blue plastic chair waiting for my mother’s shift to end. She’d bring me deep-fried mushrooms and I’d eat off the crispy breading. A retired sailor named Homer would sit next to me and wait for his wife, Becky. He got his tattoos back when only sailors had them.

My mother’s hands stayed chapped long after she left that job. Even when she went back to school to get a teaching certificate to be recognized as a professional in her chosen career from the Philippines; to finally not have to come home smelling of oil and bleach rags every day; to be able to wear her jumpers and wedge heels, pointelle tops, and zip-up boots again. She had first succumbed to her future husband’s prediction in a letter to her that her career as a teacher in the Philippines was nearing an end while her career in teaching him the ways to love her best was nearing a beginning. He would try hard to see she never had regrets.

I have given my mother countless gifts of hand creams and moisturizers over the years. She would try them once or twice but most sat idly on her vanity near the Pond’s Cold Cream—the miracle product she claimed has kept her looking as young as the day she came to this country, proudly thwarting a probable life of destitution with her first love.

I did not know it until recently, but my mother always hoped to replenish the particular brand of lotion my father had picked out for her in a stateside department store and sent in a package during their courtship. Desert Rose was the scent of love, possibility, and freedom. A few years ago, I unknowingly chose a rose-scented cream for my mother in a small round plastic container with a pink lid. She keeps the now-empty container nearby to remind her of the original gift from my father, hoping she might find a way to fill the small round space with something just as fresh, demure, and promising.

I have long eschewed the traits I have in common with my mother. But upon reading the letters my father wrote her, I want to claim an inheritance that may be more idyllic than veritable. When my mother agreed to uproot her life and marry him, my father wrote: You must have an adventurous and romantic soul to be able to make this great change in your life. I can only admire you for such courage and I feel warmed by your great trust in me. You are one who values love highly, and therefore cannot treat it lightly. You are such a valuable and rare person. 

How I long to be seen that way—as a courageous person led by love.

When I think of my mother, I cannot love her like my father did. The words he used in his letters to her—sweet, goodness, miracle, wisdom, sparkle like the full moon—do not come to mind. I think instead of words like stubborn, anxious, fearful, overbearing, strict, frenzied, pious, explosive, industrious, bossy, and conditional. Are all of these traits my inheritance?

I remember my mother’s angry face, her stern and perpetual frown. She spoke to me in fiery admonitions. When she would fix my hair after I bathed, she would comb out the tangles with jerks that stung my scalp. The pain told me I had done something wrong, but I could not refuse the attention. Only when I was sick did I invite my mother’s rare tenderness as she fed me baby aspirin and put Vicks VapoRub on my chest.

I wonder if I still hold it against her that she hit me routinely, and if I will forever wish she had filled the space between us with a gentler kind of love. How strange it would be to experience my mother as warm, welcoming, curious, or in repose. If I remember hard enough, I know there were moments when she delighted in a loaf of bread rising beneath a damp towel, or an unexpected refund check in the mail. She used to buy lottery tickets at the gas station and let me scratch off the pewter film to reveal the numbers. She used to let me add the flour and sugar to the bowl of her prized KitchenAid mixer.

I know it is my work in this lifetime to forgive my mother. But forgiveness was a word I heard only in church, not a word we used at home. I am not practiced in forgiveness. It is another F-word, like family, failure, faith, fault, foreign, Filipino—words I’ve long felt awkward speaking aloud. To forgive is to open, letting your petals widen to the sun. It is to look something in the eye and in turn soften your own eyes. Why I can’t relent this way, I don’t know.

Forgiveness implies that there was something someone did that hurt you, and you can hope that they won’t do that thing again. My mother, I know, will never hit me again. She will not hit my daughter. She doesn’t keep a switch on the kitchen counter anymore. But yesterday she was coaxing my daughter to the magnets on the refrigerator, trying to teach her the English alphabet. And there on the fridge, I saw the words my mother had made of the colorful letters: mama, papa, wig, hit.

At a conference for Filipino Americans, I am learning about Baybayin, a precolonial system used to write poetry, incantations, and letters across the Philippine archipelago. Baybayin is a syllabic alphabet containing fourteen consonant-vowel combinations, such as ba, da, ga and so on. As I listen to the presenter, I wonder what my mother knows of this alphabet, if it was taught in school when she was a child in the first decade of Philippine independence.

I think, maybe if we both learn it, Baybayin could be the beginning of a shared consciousness between us. Script, syllables, symbols, sounds, skeleton, and skin of mother and daughter.

I think maybe I am reading too much into it.

Maybe it is all I have.

Baby is what my mother called me, until I had my own. She told me

Danger lurked everywhere but home. Yet I wanted to

Gallivant around the world seeking something more. Because

Half-Filipino was never Filipino enough. I know that

Kanin means rice in Tagalog, but really it’s everything. My mother called me

Lazy behind my back to my father. I began collecting

Maps at a young age. I longed for another


Ngayon means now, but since I can’t pronounce it right, I have no present, only

Past, and parents who passed on skin ailments,

Rashes and a propensity to scar, or

Say with my skin what my tongue will not.

Tamed into silence and self-doubt, pretending

Water was kinder than I knew it to be. It delivered the

Yawl to the islands that made my mother long to leave.

When I am near my mother, I listen for deep wisdom, for something to arise from her unconditioned, preverbal core. I want to know who she is beneath the American and Spanish guideposts she has followed all her life. Who was my mother before she learned to pray the Our Father, before the United States dropped their surplus processed meat and cheese and canned milk on the islands, before she decorated her high school notebooks with Elvis Presley’s name, before she collected porcelain dolls in elegant poses?

Once when my mother brought me to where she grew up in the Bicol Region of the Philippines, she made sure we stopped on the way from the airport to get the best pinangat, a hefty pouch of smoked fish wrapped in layers of gabi leaves and cooked in coconut milk. She was proud to tell me we couldn’t find this specialty anywhere in the United States. She told me how the gabi plant is better known in other parts of the world for its roots, but to her it is the leaves that have the most value. When I ate pinangat that first time, learning what ingredients made it whole, I could feel how my mother was at home, our differences melting like the shreds of gabi leaves into the fat of the coconut and the fish.

I would not have been able to receive it then, but I wish my mother could have listed for me the ingredients of who I am the way she recited the recipe for pinangat. I wish she could have told me: You are Bicolana. This is what you are made of. All parts of you are valuable.


ELISABETH VASQUEZ HEIN is a mixed-race, second-generation Filipina-American writer, photographic artist, and mother based in Seattle, Washington. Influenced by her upbringing in disparate geographies, her work explores displacement, in-betweenness, and belonging. As the daughter of an immigrant, she seeks to understand her roots in the context of diaspora and colonization. She is a graduate of the Certificate in Fine Art Photography program at Photographic Center Northwest, where she exhibited her thesis project “In Skin and Spirit | Sa Balat at Espiritu.” She holds a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of New Mexico. Elisabeth’s community work has focused on education, language, and marginalized populations in Washington, Texas, Chile, and Peru. “Archipelagic” is her first published writing, with forthcoming work to be featured in the Pinch. Find her on Instagram @fuzzybrowngirl.


Featured image by Blair Roberts Castagnetta, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

This essay began as unlinked vignettes in the wake of my father’s death. To grieve, I had been reading through the letters he had written to my mother when they were pen pals in 1973–1974. As I read the letters, intending to learn more about my father, a window opened to my mother’s life before she was my mother. My father was gone, and my mother appeared to me in new ways.

(Re)acquainting myself with my mother by remembering my father was like taking the scenic route on which, for most of the drive, I was not concerned with a destination. Memories came at me in fragments and dreams. I followed my curiosity about who my mother is and was, especially now that I am a mother myself. I realized that 40+ years of being a daughter doesn’t make one an authority on one’s parents. With each vignette, I interrogated my memory and checked it against the proof—the letters, the photographs, my mother’s stories, scholarly articles.

Writing this piece allowed me to fuse my own impressions of my mother with what I was learning from my father’s letters. Over the months it took to chisel the essay into shape, I would occasionally call my mother to ask her for a clarifying detail (What was the name of your ex-boyfriend? What did you know about America before you married Dad?),thereby weaving her voice into the stories. What resulted were collaborative portraits of my mother, and proofs of love in my family’s history.

My background in photography compels me to see how writing can also be a visual art, mirroring the physical form of experience. As this essay came to me in parts, I strung them together until they looked something like an island chain: an archipelago. While each island maintains its unique qualities and histories, together they can exist as one entity. The vignettes of this essay surfaced the way I imagine the islands of the Philippines did—through undersea volcanic eruptions, each a tiny birth, emerging side by side into a whole.

Being mixed race, I am always seeking ways to piece together my parts—my mother’s narrative and my father’s—and the geographic inheritance they dealt me. In searching for completion, I have to be okay with including the holes, the things I cannot know. I have to accept that the holes are actually ocean. The deep unknown. What else defines an archipelago if not the propinquity of parts, and the spaces in between?


ELISABETH VASQUEZ HEIN is a mixed-race, second-generation Filipina-American writer, photographic artist, and mother based in Seattle, Washington. Influenced by her upbringing in disparate geographies, her work explores displacement, in-betweenness, and belonging. As the daughter of an immigrant, she seeks to understand her roots in the context of diaspora and colonization. She is a graduate of the Certificate in Fine Art Photography program at Photographic Center Northwest, where she exhibited her thesis project “In Skin and Spirit | Sa Balat at Espiritu.” She holds a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of New Mexico. Elisabeth’s community work has focused on education, language, and marginalized populations in Washington, Texas, Chile, and Peru. “Archipelagic” is her first published writing, with forthcoming work to be featured in the Pinch. Find her on Instagram @fuzzybrowngirl.