- Category: March 2010
- Published: Tuesday, 02 March 2010 01:00
Gabriela Mistral (April 7, 1889 — January 10, 1957) was the pseudonym of Lucila de María 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 Native American and European influences. Gabriela Mistral was of Basque and Amerindian descent.
Mistral was born in Vicuña, Chile, but was raised in the small Andean village of Montegrande, where she attended the Primary school 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 before 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. By age fifteen, she was supporting herself and her mother, Petronila Alcayaga, a seamstress, by working as a teacher's aide in the seaside town of Compañia 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 a range of pseudonyms and variations on her civil name.
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 22, 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 June 1908 for much of her writing. After winning the Juegos Florales she infrequently used her given name of Lucila Godoy for her publications. She formed her pseudonym 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
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 in early 1926 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 1926 and 1932. During these years she worked for the League for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, attending conferences of women and educators throughout Europe and occasionally in the Americas. She held a visiting professorship at Barnard College of Columbia University in 1930-1931, worked briefly at Middlebury College and Vassar College in 1931, and was warmly received at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, where she variously gave conferences or wrote, in 1931, 1932, and 1933.
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, Rapallo and Naples, 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 was school director in his hometown of Temuco. Along with Neruda, Gabriela Mistral became a supporter of the Popular Front which led to the election of her long-time friend and patron, the Radical Pedro Aguirre Cerda in 1938.
She published hundreds of articles in magazines and newspapers throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Among her confidants were Eduardo Santos, President of Colombia, all of the elected Presidents of Chile from 1922 to her death in 1957, Eduardo Frei Montalva, Chilean elected president in 1964 and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The poet's second major volume of poetry, 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 mestiza de vasco," her European Basque-Indigenous Amerindian background.
On August 14, 1943, Mistral's 17-year-old son, Juan Miguel Godoy, killed himself. The grief of this death, as well as her responses to tensions of World War II and then the Cold War in Europe and the Americas, are all reflected in the last volume of poetry published in her lifetime, Lagar, which appeared in a truncated form 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. This collection of poetry anticipates the interests in objective description and re-vision of the epic tradition just then becoming evident among poets of the Americas, all of whom Mistral read carefully.
In November 15, 1945, Mistral became the first Latin American, and fifth 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 National Literature Prize in Chile.
Poor health somewhat slowed Mistral's traveling. During the last years of her life she made her home in the town of Roslyn, New York; in early January 1957 she transferred to Hempstead, New York, where she died from pancreatic cancer 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.