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Mistral, Gabriela (1889–1957)

Mistral, Gabriela (1889–1957)

Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet who was also a noted educator, humanist and social reformer. Name variations: Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. Pronunciation: Gahb-ree-A-la Mee-STRAHL. Born Lucila Godoy Alcavaga on April 7, 1889, in Vicuña, in the northern province of Coquimbo, Chile; died on January 10, 1957, in Hempstead, New York, of pancreatic cancer; daughter of Jerónimo Godoy Villanueva (a poet, teacher and minstrel) and Petronila Alcayaga Rojas; awardedteaching certificate from Escuela Normal N°-1 in Santiago, 1910; never married; no children.

Suicide of her boyfriend (1909) had determining effect on her life; won major poetry prize (1914); invited to Mexico to participate in educational reform (1922); attached to the Committee of Arts and Letters of the League of Nations (1926–29); made life consul by the Chilean government (1935); won Nobel Prize for Literature (1945); made triumphal return to Chile (1954).

Selected works—poetry:

Desolación (Desolation, 1922); Ternura (Tenderness, 1924); Tala (Felling, 1938); Lagar (Wine Press, 1954).

A tumultuous and prolonged ovation in the Swedish concert hall announced the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in December 1945. For the fifth time, the award went to a woman, and for the first time to a Latin American writer. Gabriela Mistral's warm humanism and heightened sense of spirituality represented a profound departure from a war-torn world. When she accepted the diploma and medallion from the hands of King Gustav V of Sweden, the event marked not only her own deserved triumph but also that of Latin American letters, long neglected by the Academy. The improbable, that a timid and lonely child from the Valley of Elqui in Chile would ultimately win such a prize, had proven plausible. It had been a difficult journey.

She carried the human substance of America, at once magical and Biblical, in her spirit and her very bones.

—Germán Arciniegas

That journey began early in the morning of April 7, 1889, in a house on Calle Maipú in Vicuña, a small town in northern Coquimbo Province, when Petronila Alcayaga Rojas gave birth to a baby daughter. Baptized Lucila, she spent her early years a modest home that included Mistral's father Jerónimo Godoy, who was a teacher, poet and minstrel, her mother Petronila, and a half-sister Emelina. Jerónimo had a reputation as a bit of a bohemian, and his marriage was under constant stress. When Lucila Godoy Alcayaga was three, her father abandoned the family to make his fortune and never returned.

Although some biographers speak in general terms of a happy childhood for Mistral, this was not apparently the case. Efrain Szmulewicz notes that because the young Lucila resembled her departed father, her half-sister and especially her mother treated her coldly. Her isolation became more pronounced when the family moved to the small village of Monte Grande. Apparently she had few if any playmates, no friends, and a mother who gave her no comfort. Accordingly Mistral, who was often left alone, grew to love the wild nature that surrounded Monte Grande which opened the door to her vivid imagination. Nature and its objects became her friends and may well have accounted for the primitive naturalism that would characterize much of her later work.

In primary school, Mistral had a reputation for being "distracted" and a "sentimental dreamer." Other students treated her coolly and on at least one occasion made her the scapegoat for a theft which she did not commit. Frequently, she would lapse into a pensive and melancholic silence which some biographers have attributed to the absence of her father. She tended to contrast her thoughts and dreams with the reality around her, a trait which informed her later writing.

El Coquimbo, a modest publication in Villa la Serena, published Mistral's first verses in 1903–04 when she was just 14 years old. Because of her timidity and isolation at school she was filled with self-doubt and used a series of revealing pseudonyms—Alguien (Someone), Alma (Soul), or Soledad (Alone). The publisher of the journal, Bernardo Ossandón, was of great comfort to Mistral and soon both her verse and prose began to be noticed. Her path-breaking prose in another periodical, La Voz de Elqui, brought her to the attention of educators who in 1905 enrolled her in a specialized institute where she could begin teacher training.

While she was an aide in the school of La Cantera, Mistral met the first love of her life, a young railroad worker named Romelio Ureta. Many versions of Mistral's affair with Ureta exist but all agree that the relationship and his suicide in 1909 were the wellspring of some of the most powerful and sad poems of love in the Spanish language. News of his death prompted Mistral to seek solace in her poetry, and she dedicated her life to the education of children.

In 1910, Mistral finally completed all of the requirements needed to be certified as a teacher and held a variety of positions in several secondary schools in different parts of Chile. Her poetry and prose became increasingly freed from the strictures of her early models, notably the modernistic style of the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío and the Colombian José María Vargas Vila, and she developed a fresh style of her own. By 1911, her writing was regularly featured in the Chilean press and was also published in other Latin American countries.

A watershed in the emergence of her reputation occurred in 1914 when Mistral submitted

three "Sonnets of Death" for consideration in a Santiago poetry contest called the Juegos de Florales. The sonnets created a sensation and produced her first triumph. Based on her feelings and emotional turmoil following the suicide of Romelio Ureta, the sonnets won her first prize, a laurel crown, and gold medal. A now widely known and respected poet, Lucila Godoy Alcayaga began to use the pseudonym Gabriela Mistral. Biographers disagree about the roots of the pseudonym. Some claim that Gabriela was chosen because of her admiration of the Italian poet Gabriele D'Anunzio; others say that it was due to her fondness for the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and several claim the name derived from the Archangel Gabriel, the bringer of good news. There is similar disagreement about her choice of Mistral. While some claim the name honors Fédérico Mistral, the poet from Provençe, others assert that the name is taken from the French wind called the mistral. A clue may lie in one of Gabriela Mistral's own poems, "La Granjera" (The Woman Granger), where she writes of the "Wind and Archangel whose name she bears." Most convincing, however, is the explanation of biographer Marta Elena Samatan who agrees that Mistral derives from the wind but also suggests that Gabriela was the name of one of Lucila's childhood dolls and a favorite name.

In Chile's southernmost city, Punta Arenas, the wind is a constant feature and it was here, in 1918, that Mistral became director and professor of language at the Liceo de Niñas (Girls' School). The bleak, windswept Patagonian landscape would find a place in her poetry. Mistral spent two years in Punta Arenas and, in commemoration of her sojourn, the sculptor Laura Rodig cast a statue in bronze. When Mistral's students heard this, according to Szmulewicz, they pressed Rodig for a copy for their school. "Bring me two tons of bronze and I'll do it," she jokingly told them. Two days later, Rodig was questioned by the police, who accused her of inciting the students to theft. Apparently, all the professionals in Punta Arenas had lost their nameplates. Such was the fervor and loyalty Mistral stirred among her students.

Even though Mistral had not published a single book of verse, she was well known in Latin America as a poet of profound depth and expression. She was director of Liceo N°-6 in Santiago when, in 1922, she was sought out by José Vasconcelos, Mexico's celebrated secretary of education. Mistral had corresponded with Vasconcelos over issues of educational reform in Mexico, and, after a visit to Brazil, he returned home via Chile. Following an interview in Santiago, Vasconcelos invited a willing Mistral to come to Mexico to help in the reform, development, and restructuring of the country's public schools and libraries.

Close to her home in Villa Obregón, near Mexico City, Mistral inaugurated the school "Gabriela Mistral" for young women. In addition to duties associated with educational reform, she also internalized the plight of Mexico's rural masses, most of whom were indigenous. It was in Mexico that Mistral refined her sense of identity; she was not only Chilean, but also American; she was not only of Basque heritage, but also indigenous American. As she wrote in the poem "Niño Mexicano" (Mexican Boy), he nourished her with the "balsam of the Mayas from whom I was exiled."

Meanwhile, in New York, Federico Onís, through the auspices of the Spanish Institute, scoured the periodicals and newspapers of Latin America in an attempt to assemble from scattered bits and pieces a cohesive collection of Mistral's poetry. The result was the publication of Desolación in 1922. Critical acclaim followed. The collection was heralded as a departure from modernism and foreign influences. An individualism free from adornment and flourish flowed forth that set Gabriela Mistral apart from her contemporaries. Her poetry was simple, yet profound. Strongly present are maternal overtones as evidenced in Mistral's love of children and the teaching profession; apparent, too, is her love of nature. There are also despair and pessimism, violent language and confrontation with death, but these are somewhat tempered with an abiding Christian faith. That faith, in 1922, was still uncertain. Death remained an enemy.

Mistral reached the apex of her teaching career in 1923 when she was named "Teacher of the Nation" by the Chilean government. In the following year, a new collection of poems entitled Ternura (Tenderness) were directed toward children. Many were set to music. Death continued as an undercurrent and critic Catherine Vera noted that many verses described the "precariousness of a young child's life in which death is as near as sleep." Retirement from teaching in 1925 was accompanied, according to Szmulewicz, by a period of religious crisis and the emergence of a mysticism that portrayed death as a form of liberation and union with the larger universe.

From the mid-1920s and for most of the rest her life, Gabriela Mistral traveled widely. Working closely with the League of Nations, she collaborated with the organization's Committee of Arts and Letters and with the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation. While in Europe, she was riveted by the war being waged by U.S. marines against the guerrillas of Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua. Sandino himself had written to her in 1927 and explained the origins of his armed resistance to the United States. Mistral contributed an article sympathetic to Sandino's cause to Repertorio Americano, a Costa Rican newspaper. Historian Neill Macaulay wrote that Mistral was obsessed with the "spectacular concept of a clash of races," and she urged the formation of a Hispanic League to fight in Nicaragua. After the bloody Battle of Ocotal and alleged marine atrocities, Mistral proclaimed Rubén Darío and Sandino "the glory of Nicaragua." Other prose pieces praised Sandino's "crazy little army" and eulogized him after his assassination.

As a Latin American, Gabriela Mistral was frustrated by U.S. policy toward the region which seemed to reflect, in the words of Margot Arce de Vazquez , an "almost complete ignorance of Hispanic spirit, culture, customs, and idiosyncracies." Many of her prose pieces that appeared scattered in Latin American newspapers focused on the issue of Pan Americanism and, although she was sharply critical of the United States, Mistral nevertheless hoped for an eventual understanding between the two Americas. In 1931, she traveled to the United States and was given the opportunity to lecture at Barnard, Vassar, and Middlebury colleges; a year later, she taught at the University of Puerto Rico. Pan American Magazine in April 1932 published her "Message to American Youth" in which she declared: "We of North and South America have accepted with our heritage of geographic unity a certain common destiny which should find a three-fold fulfillment on our continent in an adequate standard of living, perfect democracy, and ample liberty."

Many Latin American nations subsidize their writers and artists by giving them diplomatic posts. Chile made Gabriela Mistral consul to Naples in 1932, to Madrid in 1933, and a life consul in 1935. In the latter capacity, her consulship was portable, i.e., she was consul wherever she happened to be at the time. As war clouds began to gather over Europe, and Fascism and Nazism became entrenched, Gabriela Mistral reached the height of her creative powers.

The publication of Tala (The Felling) in 1938 revealed the mature poet. Critic Sidonia Carmen Rosenbaum noted in 1945 that Mistral's motifs became more varied and were spiritually rich. Her maternity now embraced everything with great depth; her Americanism erased boundaries and embodied a Western Hemisphere idea of unity in diversity. Landscapes, people, history and destiny—and an abiding faith in social justice—spill across its pages. Tala also attacked political authoritarianism and the proceeds of the book were dedicated to Basque orphans of the Spanish Civil War, a gesture which reportedly raised the ire of Francisco Franco, the Fascist victor in the war. Mistral's Christian underpinnings are clear and reflect her philosophy. "I am a Christian, a thorough democrat," she once said. "I believe that Christianity, in its most profound social sense, can save the world's peoples."

When World War II broke out, Mistral moved from Nice to Brazil, where she became the Chilean consul in Petrópolis. Writing in the publication Free World early in 1943, she again addressed the issue of inter-American unity. Racial prejudice, "that great paganistic and collective evil …, the idolatry of the skin, exists both within and between the Americas," she wrote. North American cultural arrogance was also a factor, for the average citizen of the United States did "not believe that the average man in Latin America has a cultural rank equal to his own." Looking toward a better future, Mistral concluded: "I write as a prophet when I say that the century of the common man will be built in the Americas only on common ground in education, regardless of race, creed, or language."

Sorrow again visited Mistral in Petrópolis with the death by suicide in 1943 of her nephew Juan Miguel Godoy, affectionately called Yin Yin, whom she had virtually adopted as a son. This was devastating, especially as it came so close in time to the suicide of another good friend, the writer Stefan Zweig. But good news arrived in Brazil in 1945 when Mistral was informed that she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. After receiving her honor in Stockholm, she traveled to New York where she served on the United Nations Subcommittee on the Status of Women. According to The New York Times, she resigned because she found the organization too militant. Other accounts claim that she disagreed with the goals of the subcommittee, which sought special protective legislation for women to achieve equality with men. In her words, special legislation "does not equalize. It lowers women. Common legislation raises womanhood's standards, it gives equality."

In the closing years of her life, Mistral continued to travel widely and returned for one last triumphal trip to her homeland of Chile in 1954. Lagar (The Winepress), which continued the themes and motifs of her earlier work, appeared in the same year. It was also in 1954 that she was asked to contribute a paper to Columbia University's Bicentennial Conference on "Responsible Freedom in the Americas." Mistral focused on education and targeted xenophobia:

A hatred, stark or veiled, muted or blatant, silently undermines and blights the life of certain nations. It is among the most serious defects that affect the world, a deep-seated, persistent malady. In village or city, in institutions which hold themselves great or illustrious, one often sees, and all too plain, what they proudly call racial or national pride, which is a survival from a bygone epoch that has not been wholly effaced. It is xenophobia….

Hatred of the foreigner becomes a patriotic virtue in some countries….

For Mistral, education was the key to eradicating the evils of xenophobic nationalism.

Gabriela Mistral died on January 10, 1957, at Hempstead General Hospital on Long Island of pancreatic cancer. Her remains were carried by air to Chile where ultimately, in accordance with her wishes, she was interred in Monte Grande.

sources:

Arce de Vazquez, Margot. Gabriela Mistral: The Poet and Her Work. Trans. by Helene Masslo Anderson. NY: New York University Press, 1964.

Figueira, Gastón. De la vida y la obra de Gabriela Mistral. Montevideo: Talleres Gráficos Gaceta Comercial, 1959.

Mistral, Gabriela. "Image and Word in Education," in Angel del Río, ed., Responsible Freedom in the Americas. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955, pp. 84–91.

Rubilar, Guillermo. Gabriela, Maestra y Poetisa Rediviva; Pablo, Poeta de los Cuatro Puntos Cardinales. Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Juan Firula, 1972.

Samatan, Marta Elena. Gabriela Mistral: Campesina del Valle de Elqui. Buenos Aires: Instituto Amigos del Libro Argentino, 1969.

——. Los Dias y los Años de Gabriela Mistral. Puebla, Mexico: Editorial José M. Cajica, Jr., 1973.

Szmulewicz, Efrain. Gabriela Mistral: Biografía Emótiva. 6th ed. Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Rumbos, 1988.

suggested reading:

Dana, Doris, trans. and ed. Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.

Paul B. Goodwin , Jr. , Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut

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