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Fibers of Being

A #VQRTrueStory Essay

ISSUE:  Winter 2023



Late January, and I’m dreading the long, dark days of a New England winter. A polar vortex is in the forecast. Four years since my last visit to Manila; I miss the touch of home.

Months earlier, I’d noticed a wicker lampshade at T. J. Maxx, then a metal sculpture of a rooster at Goodwill. Even before I checked their tags I felt what we Filipinos call lukso ng dugo or “a leap of the blood”—a sudden, intuitive sense of connection to someone or something otherwise unfamiliar. Sure enough: made in the philippines.

Later, I find myself clicking through images of finely woven handkerchiefs and intricately patterned abaca cloth on a museum website. Abaca fibers come from Musa textilis, a plant primarily cultivated in the Philippines. At home, I was spoiled by ready access to the scratchy material: the slippers my mother brought from her hometown; the beige Barong Tagalog shirt she convinced me to wear to my elementary-school graduation; the striped handbag I gifted her after a summer trip. Here in Boston, samples of abaca fiber, rope, and cloth are largely locked in the confines of cultural institutions. But its trace lingers nearby in remnants of “ropewalk” factories that once specialized in manufacturing abaca ropes for US warships.

In 1823, Lt. John White chronicled his expedition to Cochin China, now Vietnam. The voyage included a stay in the Philippines, then a Spanish colony. White listed local agricultural products, taking particular interest in “avaca hemp”—“The bark of a species of palm tree, from which cordage of a superior quality is made.”

White’s ship carried a few bales of abaca back to its home port in Salem, Massachusetts. Four years later, the US Navy ordered 276 tons, about 2,000 bales, of the fiber. In 1924, close to 830,000 bales went from the Philippines to the US. My grandfather, a poor farmer born in 1909, soon joined the abaca trade to feed his growing family.

One Saturday, at the museum of the Plymouth Cordage Company, one of the Navy’s former rope suppliers, I learn that manufacturers called abaca rope “Manila,” the fibers’ port of departure—my hometown—appropriated and reduced to a label.



My mother tells me that Pay, her father, harvested abaca from the family’s patch of land. I imagine him trudging down the footpath behind their hut after fishing at sunrise. My grandmother might be tending to her eleven children or by the stove outside, the smell of burnt wood wafting to Pay as he ventures out where tall grass gives way to coconut and pili nut trees. Once he finds mature abaca, he hacks at it with his bolo until it falls.

On YouTube, a Filipino farmer demonstrates how Pay would have processed abaca. He pries off its alternating protective sheaths and sheets. Discarding the sheaths, he secures the sheets with a long knife and draws them through the serrations with brute force, separating the fibers from the pulp. After they dry, he gathers them and pushes them onto a comb-like hackle with steel teeth. Swiftly and repeatedly, he pulls them through, untangling fibers and stripping impurities. I send the video to my mother. “He did all of that,” she says. “It was hard, wasn’t it?”

“Ay wow,” I reply with a crying emoji.

Perhaps Pay loaded his few bales onto a cart to reach the road, then hoisted them onto a bus headed to market, where he sold them to Chinese merchants, who transported the fibers to Manila for wholesale export. A relative brought the meager profit to my mother. 

Access to US Navy archives is fraught with obstacles. I can’t tell which warships with riggings of Philippine abaca reached Manila, much less trace where those plants were grown or who harvested them. 

But a US Navy website indexes warships, including dozens that have sailed to the Philippines. Maybe Philippine fibers rigged the USS Raleigh, which possibly fired the first shot in the mock Spanish-American Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. Perhaps they outfitted the USS Olympia, George Dewey’s flagship. The tugboat USS Wompatuck, lost to the Japanese or scuttled, could have pulled ships with abaca rope. Abaca could have gone down with the USS Rochester, sunk in Subic Bay as an artificial reef. Or Manila ropes could have bedecked the USS Helena, which brought American troops to Jolo. It could have been on any of the other ships the website lists. It could have been on all of them.



Even if a fiber, yarn, or strand of abaca rope breaks, its alternating twists protect against unraveling, sustaining the rope’s purpose: to tug, to bind. In my grandfather’s hands, abaca provided for his family. In the hands of sailors, the ropes hoisted sails across the ocean and secured anchors dredging the seabed. Abaca, extracted by the US from the Philippines, was the material that helped steer America’s ships to dismantle Spanish and Japanese empires, only to establish their own.

In late February, after my visit to the Plymouth Cordage Company, I go to the Boston Navy Yard. Near the Visitor Center is a stone building next to the Route 1 overpass. I walk the length of the building along a parallel path outside, just as ropemakers did decades ago. On a sign above a doorway, I can still make out words in mottled white paint: rope walk bldg 58.

From inside the Visitor Center, I catch a glimpse of the USS Constitution’s furled sails and soaring masts. Later I’ll walk her decks, size up the cannons, peek into the sleeping quarters—a glimpse of the life of a nineteenth-century sailor. But for now, I scan the display cases lined with lengths of rope labeled manila. I step back to take in the assembly of artifacts and reckon with the distance that separates us—the ropes and me—from our origins. 

Short ropes that bear no label cordon off other artifacts. They aren’t part of the exhibit, but simply serve their purpose. Perhaps they too originated as fibers rooted in my land, hewn from a trunk, and carried away on a ship. I run my fingers along one of them, feeling its spirals and striations. Inside of me, something leaps. I give the rope a tight squeeze, then let it go.

These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.


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