Gabriela Mistral (April 7, 1889 – January 10, 1957) was the pseudonym of Lucila de Maria del Perpetuo Socorro Godoy Alcayaga, a Chilean poet, educator, diplomat and feminist who was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1945. Some central themes in her poems are nature, betrayal, love, a mother’s love, sorrow and recovery, travel, and Latin American identity as formed from a mixture of Indian and European influences.
Mistral was born in Vicuña, Chile, but was raised in the small Andean village of Montegrande, where she attended the primary taught by her older sister, Emelina Molina.
She respected her sister greatly. Her father, Juan Gerónimo Godoy Villanueva, was also a schoolteacher. He abandoned the family when she was three years old, and died, long since estranged from the family, in 1911. Throughout her early years she was never far from poverty. At age 42, she began to support herself and her mother, Petronila Alcayaga, a seamstress, by working as a teacher’s aide in the seaside town of Compania Baja, near La Serena, Chile.
In 1904 Mistral published some early poems, such as Ensoñaciones, Carta Íntima (“Intimate Letter”) and Junto al Mar, in the local newspaper El Coquimbo: Diario Radical, and La Voz de Elqui using various pseudonyms.
Perhaps as early as 1900, while living with her sister and mother in the Valle de Elqui, or as late as 1906, while working as a teacher, Mistral met Romelio Ureta, a railway worker, who killed himself in 1909. The profound effects of death were already in the poet’s work; writing about his suicide led the poet to consider death and life more broadly than previous generations of Latin American poets. While Mistral had passionate friendships with various men and women, and these impacted her writings, she was secretive about her emotional life.
An important moment of formal recognition came on December 12, 1914, when Mistral was awarded first prize in a national literary contest Juegos Florales in Santiago, with the work Sonetos de la Muerte (Sonnets of Death). She had been using the pen name Gabriela Mistral since 1909 for much of her writing. After winning the Juegos Florales she rarely used her given name of Lucila Godoy for her publications. She formed her pseudonymn from the two of her favorite poets, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral or, as another story has it, from a composite of the Archangel Gabriel and the Mistral wind of Provence.
Career as an Educator
Mistral’s meteoric rise in Chile’s national school system plays out against the complex politics of Chile in the first two decades of the 20th century. In her adolescence, the need for teachers was so great, and the number of trained teachers was so small, especially in the rural areas, that anyone who was willing could find work as a teacher. Access to good schools was difficult, however, and the young woman lacked the social connections that she would need for entry to Normal School: she was turned down, without explanation, in 1907. Although her formal education had ended by 1900, she was able to get work as a teacher thanks to her older sister, Emelina, who had likewise begun as a teacher’s aide, and was responsible for much of the poet’s early education. The poet was able to rise from one post to another because of her publications in local and soon, national newspapers and magazines. Her willingness to move was also a factor.
Between the years 1906 and 1912 she had taught, successively, in three schools near La Serena, Chile, in Barrancas then Traiguen, Chile in 1910, in Antofagasta, in the desert north, in 1911, and then in Los Andes, Chile, where she stayed for four years and often visited Santiago. In 1918 Pedro Aguirre Cerda, a future President of Chile, appointed her to direct a high school in Punta Arenas, Chile. She moved on to Temuco in 1920, then to Santiago, where in 1921, she defeated another, more politically-connected candidate, to be named director of the newest and most prestigious girls’ school in Chile.
Controversies over the nomination of Gabriela Mistral to the highly coveted post in Santiago were among the factors that made her decide to accept an invitation to work in Mexico in 1922, with that country’s Minister of Education, Jose Vasconcelos. He had her join in the nation’s plan to reform libraries and schools, to start a national education system. That year she published Desolacion in New York, which won her international acclaim. A year later she published Lecturas para Mujeres (Readings for Women), a text in prose and verse that celebrates motherhood, childhood education, and nationalism. Following almost two years in Mexico she traveled from Laredo, Texas to Washington D.C., where she addressed the Pan American Union, went on to New York, then toured Europe: in Spain, she published Ternura (Tenderness) in Madrid, a collection of lullabies and rondas written primarily for children but often focused on the female body. In early 1925 she returned to Chile, where she formally retired from the nation’s education system, and received a pension. It wasn’t a moment too soon: the legislature had just agreed to the demands of the teachers union that only university-trained teachers should be given posts in the schools. She would eventually receive the academic title of Spanish Professor from the University of Chile, although her formal education ended before she was 12 years old.
Mistral’s international stature made it highly unlikely that she would remain in Chile. In mid-1925 she was invited to represent Latin America in the newly-formed [Institute for Intellectual Cooperation] of the League of Nations. With her relocation to France she was effectively an exile for the rest of her life. She made a living, at first, from journalism and then giving lectures in the United States and in Latin America, including Puerto Rico. She variously toured the Caribbean. Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, among other places.
Mistral lived primarily in France and Italy between 1925 and 1933. During these years she worked for the League for Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations. She also taught at Barnard College of Columbia University, Vassar College and the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras.
Like many Latin American artists and intellectuals, Mistral served as a consul from 1932 until her death, working in Naples, Madrid, Lisbon, Nice, Petrópolis, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Veracruz, Mexico, Rapallo and Naples, Italy, and New York. As consul in Madrid, she had occasional professional interactions with another Chilean consul and Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda, and she was among the earlier writers to recognize the importance and originality of his work, which she had known while he was a teenager, and she as school director in his home town of Temuco. As Neruda, Gabriela Mistral became a supporter of the Popular Front which led to the election of the Radical Pedro Aguirre Cerda in 1938. She published hundreds of articles in magazines and newspapers throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Among her confidantes were Eduardo Santos, President of Colombia, all of the elected Presidents of Chile from 1922 to her death in 1957, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Tala appeared in 1938, published in Buenos Aires with the help of longtime friend and correspondent Victoria Ocampo. The proceeds for the sale were devoted to children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War. This volume includes many poems celebrating the customs and folklore of Latin America as well as Mediterranean Europe. Mistral uniquely fuses these locales and concerns, a reflection of her identification as “una india vasca,” her European Basque-Indigenous Amerindian background.
In August 14, 1943 Mistral’s 17-year-old nephew Juan Miguel killed himself. The grief of this death, as well as her responses to tensions of the Cold War in Europe and the Americas, are the subject of the last volume of poetry published in her lifetime, Lagar, which appeared in 1954. A final volume of poetry, Poema de Chile, was edited posthumously by her friend Doris Dana, and published in 1967. Poema de Chile describes the poet’s return to Chile after death, in the company of an Indian boy from the Atacama desert, and an Andean deer, the huemul.
In November 15, 1945, Mistral became the first Latin American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. She received the award in person from King Gustav of Sweden on December 10, 1945. In 1947 she received a doctor honoris causa from Mills College, Oakland, California. In 1951 she was awarded the long overdue National Literature Prize in Chile.
Gabriela Mistral with Master Santiago Martínez Delgado at Columbia University in NY, probably October of 1930.Poor health eventually slowed Mistral’s traveling. During the last years of her life she made her home in Hempstead, New York, where she died from cancer of the pancreas on January 10, 1957, aged 67. Her remains were returned to Chile nine days later. The Chilean government declared three days of national mourning, and hundreds of thousands of Chileans came to pay her their respects.
Some of Mistral’s best known poems include: Piececitos de Niño, Balada, Todas Íbamos a ser Reinas, La Oración de la Maestra, El Ángel Guardián, Decálogo del Artista and La Flor del Aire.