Gabriela Mistal’s poetry, deeply rooted in her Chilean identity, was universal in its understanding and appeal. Her influence on the language of love, heartbreak, joy, and pain, transcends cultural barriers. Mistral was the first Latin American writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Born Lucile Godoy Alcayaga in Vicuña, Chile, on April 7, 1889, she was raised in the Andean village of Monte Grande. Her father, a schoolteacher, abandoned the family when she was three years old. Mistral attended a primary school run by her sister Emelina Molina, who was an educator. Money was constantly lacking, and by the age of 15, Mistral was working as a teacher’s aide in a seaside town to support her mother, Petronila Alcayaga, who was a seamstress.
Before she was known as a poet, Mistral was nationally recognized as an innovative, even controversial educator. She drew the attention of Minister of Education Pedro Aguirre Cerdo, the future president of Chile, after she had a story and some poetry published in a Paris literary magazine. He named her the principal of Liceo de Niñas (High School for Girls.) Mistral wrote while also arranging social outreach initiatives like organizing classes for the poor and evening classes for laborers.
Mistral first published poetry in 1904, under different pen names and variations of her given name. Upon being transferred to a school in Chilean Indigenous territory, Mistral witnessed the mistreatment of its population, and wrote "Poemas de la madre más triste" (“Poems of the Saddest Mother”.) An article Mistral published while teaching, “La instrucción de la mujer,” (“The Education of Women''), explored the restrictions imposed on women’s education. Much of her oeuvre would address the emotional, social, and economic vulnerabilities of women in a patriarchal society.
Early writings were featured in local newspapers. These works apparently expressed such misery that readers reportedly wrote the newspapers, expressing concern about Mistral’s mental state. In 1906, she met and fell in love with Romelio Ureta. In 1909, he killed himself. This tragedy became part of the tapestry of her work, weaving its way into recurring themes and explorations. Mistral’s melancholic musings about love and her mistrust of marriage gained notice.
She took her pen name from her two favorite poets, Gabriela D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral. Processing her pain through writing, the result of this emotional labor was Sonetos de la muerte (Sonnets of Death). The examination of life and death is a refrain in her writing. Mistral probed the longing for a person who has died. A translated excerpt reads “From the cold niche where they put you/I will lower you to the humble and sunny earth./They did not know I would fall asleep on it,/and that we would dream together on the same pillow.” This loneliness was a theme she revisited in other poetry. Published in 1914, it won first place in Juegos Florales, a national literary contest in Chile. Many Chilean scholars consider this collection to be the beginning of modern Chilean poetry.
Mistral grew more interested in spiritual and religious writings through her association with the Chilean Theosophical Society. She continued to work as an educator as her writing became more popular. She moved often, working as an administrator at different girls schools, among them a prestigious new girls school in Santiago. While there, she published poems, articles, and educational compositions.
A controversial figure because of her writing, her appointments and promotions were scrutinized by the public. She accepted an invitation to work in Mexico with Minister of Education José Vasconcelos; Mistral was a member of a team who, while striving to create a public education system, reformed schools and libraries. She is credited with helping develop public school models in both Chile and Mexico.
Her efforts in academics and literature as well as her public speaking engagements brought Mistral international acclaim. Mistral’s book of poetry, Desolación, was published by Carranza and Company in New York City in 1922. This was the beginning of an ongoing and fruitful association with the state. The volume was released with the assistance from the Director of the Hispanic Institute of New York, Frederico de Onís. A Spanish writer and literary critic, Onís championed her writing.
In Desolación (Desolation), Mistral explored motherhood, religion, love of children, morality, and other topics. The book solidified her literary reputation. “Sonetos de la muerta” is featured in it; many of the poems were written a decade prior to publication. Infused with strains of a bitter lament, the poetry reflects Mistral’s sadness and despair. A slightly expanded version was published in 1923, but it was not fully translated into English until 2014.
Lecturas para mujeres (Readings for Women) was published the following year. Edited by Mistral, the anthology of prose and poetry features selections from classic and modern writers. She contributed 19 pieces to the text. The collection explores the Americanist perspective that took hold as a result of the Mexican Revolution.
Traveling from Mexico, Mistral visited Texas, Washington, D.C., and New York. She then embarked on a European tour; her book, Ternura (Tenderness), was published in Madrid and examined aspects of childhood. Briefly returning to Chile to officially retire from her job in education, Mistral collected her pension and went to Europe, where she lived for a couple of years. Chosen as Chile’s cultural representative to the League of Nations, Mistral maintained that position until she was appointed consul for life in 1935. During this period, she held a visiting professorship at Barnard College and taught at Middlebury College, Vassar College, and the University of Puerto Rico.
Tala (Felling), published in 1938, was Mistral’s next volume of poetry. It contains poems that address the death of her mother, compositions that identify and embrace the beauty of the world, and reflections on the hopes of the heart. It contains examples of her children’s poetry, a genre that Mistral enjoyed. Proceeds of the work went to displaced children and orphans of the Spanish American War.
In addition to the collections and anthologies, Mistral kept producing articles and essays. Notable figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Pablo Neruda were fans of Mistral’s writing. Mistral met Neruda when he was still a student and she was a school director in Chile. She personally supported and encouraged him.
The death by suicide of her 17 year old nephew Juan Miguel Godoy, to whom she was very close, devastated Mistral. This death followed the suicides of Jewish friends, writer Stefan Zwieg and his wife, who reportedly ended their lives in response to the rise of Nazism. She once again expressed her grief through her writing. This outpouring contributed to the last volume of poetry published in her lifetime, Lagar (Winery), which was released in 1954.
Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945 “for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world,” Mistral was the first Latin American writer to receive the honor. Six years later, she received the National Literature Prize in Chile. It was the last time she would visit her home country.
Having traveled extensively and lived in different European countries and parts of the United States, Mistral’s final home was on Long Island. She settled in Roslyn Harbor and served as Chilean representative to the United Nations, where she was an active participant in the “Subcommittee on the Status of Women.” Mistral began writing a long form narrative poem, Poema de Chile (Poem of Chile.)
Although unfinished, it has the cadence of a lullaby and continues in the tradition of children’s poetry. At times, Mistral adapts a maternal tone as evidenced in this translated excerpt: “We are walking together/Thus, like brothers in a story,/Yours is the shadow of a boy,/Mine barely resembles the shadow of a fern.” At another point, Mistral envisions herself a ghost returning to Chile for one final visit before meeting her creator.
On January 10, 1957, Mistral died of pancreatic cancer in a Hempstead hospital. Grieved across the world, Chilean president Carlos Ibañez declared three days of national mourning. The United Nations honored her, with more than 20 delegations including the United States, paying tribute. Mistral’s literary legacy is unrestrained by language barrier or time; the emotions she conveyed and the connections she forged are borderless.