Love is a many-splendored thing, or so the song lyrics go. Gabriela Mistral was an educator, intellectual, poet, diplomat, and defender of those mistreated by society,. Her poetry spoke volumes about the complexities of love and death and of all the human emotions in between. She was the first Latin American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Lucila de María del Perpetuo Socorro Godoy Alcayaga, AKA Gabriela Mistral, was born in Vicuña, Chile, in 1889. Vicuña is in the Elqui Valley, a deep and narrow valley of farming land in the Chilean Andes Mountains north of Santiago.
Juan Jerónimo Godoy Villanueva, her father, was a schoolteacher. He wrote poems for his daughter and sang them to her, accompanying himself with his guitar. His penchant for adventure and the “easy life” led him to abandon the family when Lucila was three. After that, he visited on rare occasions, then disappeared for good.
Her seamstress mother, Petronila Alcayaga, and her sister, Emelina Molina, her elder by fifteen years, raised Lucila. They moved to a nearby village, Monte Grande. Her grandmother introduced her to the poems, the Psalms of David from the Bible, which fostered a lifelong love of literature and poetry. She had a happy and loving, if poverty-stricken, childhood in Monte Grande.
Nine-year-old Lucila attended a rural primary school. At age eleven, Lucila went to back to Vicuña to attend the only secondary school in the region. Life in Vicuña was difficult. Teachers accused her of stealing school supplies. They thought she wrote like a troublemaker and a non-Christian. Since teachers were required to have Christian values, they denied Lucila admission to the Normal School in La Serena for further education. These accusations had a profound and lasting effect on her.
Between that rejection and her mother’s illness, she stopped attending school. She was determined to succeed despite being denied a formal education and her sister, Emelina, homeschooled her.
The rural area was desperate for teachers and at fourteen, she got a job as a teacher’s aide. At fifteen, she began teaching secondary school classes. She channeled her experiences and feelings about life, justice, and fairness into her writing. She submitted those articles to area newspapers.
Some of the local newspapers published her poems that year, Ensoñaciones (“Dreams”), Carta Íntima (“Intimate Letter”), and Junto al Mar (“By the Sea”). Afraid her poetry would get her fired from teaching, she used different pseudonyms and variations of her name.
One of her first published articles was printed in 1906. “La instrucción de la mujer,” was about the limits imposed on women’s education. Lucila was seventeen.
That year, Lucila taught at La Serena, a coastal city in northern Chile. There she met and fell in love with a young railway worker, Romelio Ureta. Tragically, he killed himself in 1909.
Not long after Ureta’s death, she fell in love again. But it didn’t last. Her second love married someone else.
She never married.
She explored her feelings about life and love and death in her writings. After June 1908, she used the pseudonym Gabriela Mistral. She constructed the pseudonym from the names of two of her favorite poets, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral, or, as a combination of the Archangel Gabriel and the mistral wind of Provence.
Gabriela studied hard. In 1910, she passed the required examination and got her teaching certificate.
Gabriela taught grammar and history and continued writing. She taught in Traiguén, a small farming town in the southern region of Araucanía, then in the coastal city Antofagasta, in the northern region. And she taught in Los Andes, in the Aconcagua Valley at the foothills of the Andes Mountains.
In 1913, she sent a short story and some poems to Nicaraguan Rubén Darío’s literary magazine, Elegancias, in Paris. They were her first publications outside of her native country.
It was around this time she met Pedro Aguirre Cerda, an influential politician and educator who later became president of Chile.
The Floral Games Prize
Her series of poems, Sonetos de la muerte (Sonnets of Death) won the literary contest, Floral Games of Santiago on December 22, 1914. The prize and the publication of her poems in February 1915 launched Gabriela and her writing to national fame.
As the secretary of education in 1918, Cerda appointed her principal of the Liceo de Niñas (High School for Girls). The school was in Punta Arenas, a large town of foreign immigrants in the southernmost Chilean port in the Strait of Magellan. Gabriela charged with reorganizing the educational institution there.
It was a land of long winter nights, and persistent winds separated from family and friends. As always, her concern for the needs of the poor and disenfranchised came before any personal gain. She organized evening classes for workers who had no other means of educating themselves.
Here she wrote a series of three poems of torment and despair, “Passages de la Patagonia” (Patagonian Landscapes).
Chilean Indian Territory
Two years later, they transferred her to Liceo de Niñas in Temuco, the major city in the heart of the Chilean Indian territory. Gabriela wrote a poem, “Poemas de la madre más triste” (Poems of the Saddest Mother), inspired by the humble and destitute Indians who endured abusive treatment there.
Gabriela’s experiences at these schools gave her direct knowledge of the national education system, the geography of her country, and of the Chilean people. In 1921, she reached her highest position in the country’s educational system as principal of Liceo de Niñas number 6 in the Chilean capital, Santiago.
We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer “Tomorrow,” his name is today. Su Nombre es Hoy (His Name is Today)Gabriela Mistral
A Year of Decision and Change
In 1922, Gabriela left her career as an educator and began a period of “self-exile.”
That year, the Universidad de Chile (The Chilean National University) granted Gabriela the professional title of teacher of Spanish.
This was also the year she published her first book, Desolación. Desolación is a collection of poems exploring motherhood, religion, nature, morality, love for children, and her personal sorrows. The book, often called her greatest collection, solidified her international reputation.
She gave lectures and readings and toured Cuba and Mexico. The first of many visits to many countries over the years.
When asked why she wrote, Gabriela replied,
I write poetry because I can’t disobey the impulse; it would be like blocking a spring that surges up in my throat. For a long time, I’ve been the servant of the song that comes, that appears and can’t be buried away.
How to seal myself up now? … It no longer matters to me who receives what I submit. What I carry out is, in that respect, greater and deeper than I, I am merely the channel.”From the Literary Ladies Guide
Fame, Travel, and Diplomacy
Gabriela lived in Mexico for a time and helped rebuild the education system after the Mexican Revolution.
She published her second book in 1924. Ternura (Tenderness) is a collection of poems exploring the theme of childhood.
She also began a new career as a diplomat for the Chilean government. In 1925, Gabriela became the secretary of the Latin American section in the League of Nations in Paris. To make ends meet, she continued to travel and teach. She taught classes at various colleges, including Columbia University, Barnard College, and Middlebury College.
Later that year, she received her retirement from the government. She returned to Chile and depended on this pension.
By 1929, Gabriela was living in the small village of Bedarrides, France, when a half-brother she didn’t know existed appeared. Son of the father who had abandoned her, he brought his four-year-old son, Juan Miguel Godoy Mendoza. The boy’s Catalan mother had died. Her half-brother left the boy with Gabriela and disappeared. She had a family at last.
A few months later, Gabriela received word that her mother, whom she hadn’t seen in four years, had died. Gabriela wrote a series of eight poems expressing her bereavement, “Muerte de mi madre” (Death of My Mother).
In 1930, the government suspended her retirement benefits, leaving her with little income.
In 1932, the Chilean government gave Gabriela a consular position in Naples. However, Mussolini’s government refused to recognize her because of her opposition to fascism.
In 1933, she taught at Puerto Rico’s University in Río Piedras. The university gave her a doctorate in Honoris Causa, her first.
In June she took a consular position in Madrid. Unfortunately, she expressed some critical opinions of Spain in private and they forced her to leave the country in 1936.
She became an ambassador-at-large for Latin American Culture. She represented Chile as an honorary consul in Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the United States before and during World War II. Her consular duties were mostly unpaid.
Tala, her book of poems about maternity and childhood, was published in 1938.
Fearing her nephew would get involved in the fascist movement, Gabriela took Mistral general consular post in Rio de Janeiro.
They lived for a while in Niteroi, then moved to Petropolis in 1941. There she frequently visited with her friends and neighbors, the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig and his wife. But the couple’s growing despair over the situation in Europe led to their double suicides.
Then on August 31, 1943, her nephew and adopted son, Juan Miguel, died of arsenic poisoning, later ruled a suicide.
She never accepted that ruling.
In 1944, she was diagnosed with diabetes.
The Nobel Prize
She was in Brazil when she heard on the radio that they had awarded her the Nobel Prize. On November 15, 1945, she became the first Latin American and the fifth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.
Writings and Later Life
Also in 1945, she published a new edition of Ternura with the addition of the children’s poems from Tala. In 1946 she published a new, shorter (minus the children’s poems), more brooding edition of Tala.
In 1946, she left Brazil for Los Angeles. With the money from the Nobel Prize, she bought a home in Santa Barbara. After almost two years in California, she accepted the invitation of the Mexican president to establish her home there. But heart problems made it impossible for her to live in high-altitude cities, so she settled in Veracruz but didn’t stay long. She returned to the US.
Chilean National Prize
In 1951, Gabriela received the Chilean National Prize in Literature but did not return to her native country.
She actively fulfilled the role of Chilean consul in Naples. However, by 1953, she returned to the United States because of her health. This time she moved to Roslyn Harbor, Long Island. There she served as Chilean representative to the United Nations and was an active member of the Subcommittee on the Status of Women.
She made regular contributions to newspapers, and worked on the long narrative, never completed poem, Poems de Chile, and her last book of poems, Lagar. In Lagar, she examines the mysteries of human existence: mourning, war, nature, religion, and her view of herself.
In late 1956, they diagnosed Gabriela with terminal pancreatic cancer. She died in the early hours of January 10, 1957, in a hospital in Hempstead, Long Island. They held her funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
A military aircraft flew her body to Santiago, where she received the funeral honors of a national hero. Thousands of Chileans mourned her death. They put her remains to rest in a simple tomb in the village of her childhood, Monte Grande. Many people who have found her poetry to be filled with the strength of a spiritual life dominated by love for all creation, pilgrimage to her tomb.
Throughout her life, Gabriela’s primary concern was the future of Latin America and its cultures, particularly those of native groups. The contributions she made to Latin American educational systems was significant and lasting. She wrote approximately 800 articles in newspapers and magazines across the world often about the poor and disadvantaged. Her poetry is still read and study with critical acclaim today.
According to Santiago Daydí-Tolson, University of Texas at San Antonio, her poetic work conveys “musicality and harshness, spiritual inquietudes and concrete images, hope and despair.” It’s an intense monologue that might be “a song, a prayer, a story or a musing.”
Changing the Story
The military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet appropriated Gabriela Mistral’s image as a symbol of “submission to authority” and “social order” in the 1970s and 1980s.
After Gabriela’s death, there were some who claimed Gabriela was a lesbian because of a long term relationship with Doris Dana. Copies of correspondence between the two said to be proof were published. The much younger Doris Dana always denied their relationship was romantic and that she was a lesbian.
In Her Memory
The Gabriela Mistral Inter-American Prize for Culture was established in 1979. The Organization of American States took over administering the selection of recipients in 1984, but there have been no recipients named since 2000.
Th Gabriela Mistral Order of Merit, established by Chile, goes to writers, artists and scholars.
Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, announced the formation of the Gabriela Mistral Foundation in 2007. This New York-based foundation is to carry on the legacy of the poet by funding programs that aid poor children and the elderly.
There are monuments to Gabriela throughout Chile. Homenaje a Gabriela Mistral in Santiago is a thirty-three-ft wide, eighteen-ft tall ceramic piece by Chilean artist, Fernando Daza in 1970.
On 7 April 2015, Google commemorated Gabriela Mistral’s 126th birthday, honoring the Chilean poet and educator with a special doodle.
Selections of her poetry have been translated into English by the American writer Langston Hughes (1957; reissued 1972), by Mistral’s secretary and companion Doris Dana (1957; reissued 1971), by American writer Ursula K. Le Guin (2003), and by Paul Burns and Salvador Ortiz-Carboneres (2005). A Gabriela Mistral Reader (1993; reissued in 1997) was translated by Maria Giachetti and edited by Marjorie Agosín. Selected Prose and Prose-Poems (2002) was translated by Stephen Tapscott.
Had you heard of Gabriela Mistral before reading this article?
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