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Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957)

Chilean educator, cultural minister, diplomat, and poet, first Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1945).







Chilean educator, cultural minister, diplomat, and poet, first Latin American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1945). In her acceptance speech Mistral said: "At this moment, by an undeserved stroke of fortune, I am the direct voice of the poets of my race and the indirect voice for the noble Spanish and Portuguese tongues. Both rejoice to have been invited to this festival of Nordic life with its tradition of centuries of folklore and poetry." Mistral's reputation as poet was established when she won in 1914 Chilean prize for SONETOS DE LA MUERTE (Sonnets of Death), love poems in memory of the dead. Much of her poetry is simple and direct in language, but full of warmth and emotion, as in 'La Manca', which comes near to nursery rhyme:

Que mi dedito lo cogió una almeja
y que la almeja se cayó en la arena
y que la arena se tragó el mar.
Y que del mar le pescó un ballenero
y el ballenero illegó a Gibraltar:
y que en Gibraltar cantan pescadores
'Novedad de tierra sacamos del mar,
novedad de un dedito niña,
La que esté manca lo venga a buscar'

Central themes in Mistral's poems are love, mother's love, sterility, nature, sorrow and recovery. In a small strawberry she could see a symbol of the fragility of life and loving care: "No maguellers a la tierra / no aprietes a la olorosa, / Por el amor de ella abájate, / huéla y dale la boca." (Do not trample the earth, do not crush the sweet-smelling fruit. For love of it, bend down, smell it and give it your mouth.) Painful personal memories, like the suicide of her lover Romelio Ureta in 1909, left deep marks on her writings. Several of Mistral's early poems were written for him. Ureta had shot himself after he was found guilty of embezzlement. In the metaphysical poems of TALA (1938) and LAGAR (1954) Mistral suggested that life is a mysterious pilgrimage leading to death, a final liberation from the world. But the poet is also a medium of his of her own time. "What the soul is to the body, so is the artist to his people," she once stated, and these words were also inscribed on her tomb.

Gabriela Mistral was born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga in the high Andean village of Vicuña. Both of her parents came from familes of mixed Basque and Indian heritage. Her father, who was a teacher, abandoned the family when she was three years old. Before he left, he made a garden for his daughter. There Gabriela discussed with flowers and birds.

Mistral attended rural primary school and Vicuña state secondary school (1898-1901). At the age of sixteen she began to support herself and her mother by working as a teacher's aide. Mistral's meteoric advancement as a teacher and educator was owed to her extensive publications, which were directed at a diverse audience of schoolteachers, administrators, children and fellow poets. Her first texts were published in the newspapers La Voz de Elqui and Diario Radical de Coquimbo in 1905. She used the pen name Gabriela Mistral – taking it from the French poet Frédéric Mistral and the Italian writer Gabriele d'Annunzio – only for her poetry.

In the year following Romelio Ureta's death, Mistral passed an examination at the Santiago Normal School. She worked from 1906 to 1922 as a teacher in several schools (La Serena, Barrancas, Traiguen, Antofagasta, Los Andes, Punta Arenas, Temuco, Santiago). In Temuco, Mistral met the sixteen years old Pablo Neruda, introducing him to the work of European poets. Neruda was too timid to show her his works.

Mistral became in 1921 the principal of Santiago High School, Chile's most prestigious secondary school for girls. This appointment earned her more than few enemies. In 1922 she published her second collection of poems under the title DESOLACIÓN, which gained an immediate international acclaim. Its main themes were Christian faith and death – she promises that, after the death "sunny land" will emerge from decay. In the final sonnet the poet expresses faith in a forgiving God. Many of the poems in TERNURA (1924) deal with childhood. In the 1930s Francisco Donoso, a Chilean author and priest, wrote that "almost all of Gabriela Mistral's poems have the accent of a prayer".

Soon after Mistral had assumed her post in Santiago, she was invited to work in Mexico on a plan for the reform of schools and libraries. In the following years she returned to Chile for only two brief visits, in 1938 and 1954. From Mexico she went to the Unites States and Europe. Between the years 1925 and 1934, Mistral lived primarily in France and Italy, and worked for the League for Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations. During this period she write fifty or more newspaper and magazine articles a year. Her friends included among others Mme. Curie and Henri Bergson.

Mistral was in 1930 a visiting professor at Barnard College, New York City, and Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1933 she entered the Chilean Foreign Service and was appointed by the Chilean government as a kind of ambassador-at-large for Latin American Culture. Later Mistral represented Chile as honorary consul in Brazil, Spain, Portugal and the U.S. During WW II she became in Brazil friends with the Austrian-born writer Stefan Zweig and his wife; they committed suicide in Rio De Janeiro in 1942. The tragedy continued when Mistral's nephew Juan Miguel killed himself.

"She differs from other women poets of her time, often painfully self-centered and extremely conscious of their 'feminity,' in that she seldom mentions herself unless it is to tell us of her plainness. In her poems, as in her life, she is the arch enemy of vanitas." (Margaret Bates in her introduction to Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, 1971)

Before and after the war Mistral was associated with a number of American universities. She also served as the Chilean consul in Los Angeles and in Italy. Eventually poor health forced her to retire to her home in New York. Throughout the last ten years of her life Mistral worked with POEMA DE CHILE (1967), in which she returned to the agrarian Chile of her childhood. She died of cancer on January 10, 1957, at the age of sixty-seven. The American poet Langston Hughes translated a selection of her verses that was published just after she died. "Gabriela Mistral Prize" was created in 1979. In the late 1990s CEPCIDI, an OAS organization, assumed responsibility for the establishing the rules of procedure for awarding the Prize. The Peruvian poet Antonio Cisneros received in 2000 the "Gabriela Mistral" Inter-American Prize for Culture. In 2001 the British rock singer Sting was given Gabriela Mistral medal. In his song, 'They Dance Alone' from the 1980s, the lyrics went: "Why are these women here, dancing on their own? / Why is there this sadness in their eyes? / Why are the soldiers here, their faces fixed like stone? / I can't see what it is that they despise." The song written as a tribute to the mothers of those who disappeared under the rule of Chile's former military leader, General Augusto Pinochet.

"Dios Padre sus miles de mundos
mece sin ruido.
Sintiendosu mano en la sombra
mezo a mi niño."
(from 'Meciendo')

Mistral never married but she adopted a child who later died. Longing for physical maternity is seen in her cradle songs and poems of mothers. Religiosity marked also Mistral verse – she joined the lay order of the Franciscans and published such poems as 'Motivos de San Francisco' and 'Elogios de las cosas de la tierra', which combined spiritual and material values. In 2001 Mistral's sexual inclinations arose fierce debate in Chile. Yuri Labarca's film, La Pasajera, written by Francisco Casas, dealt with her relationship to Doris Dana, her American secretary. Mistral's devoted readers considered the film outrageous and said that her true, traditional views of life and love were present in her works. However, an independent woman, Mistral has also been presented as a feminist icon. The absence of male friendship and her life as an unmarried woman has contributed to her image of a defender of all racial minorities and "the mixed-race mother of the nation".


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