Gabriela Mistral was born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, the child of Chilean parents of Spanish heritage, probably mixed with Indian ancestry. She was said to be part Basque, owing to her mother’s last name, and part Jewish, only because her paternal grandmother possessed a Bible and schooled the eager child in its verses. The poet accepted this presumed inheritance, attributing to herself the energy of the Basque, the tenacity of the Jew, and the melancholy of the Indian. When she was three years old, her father left home and never returned. The task of rearing Mistral was shared by her mother and her half sister, Emelina. Both women were teachers and provided the child with primary instruction and a thirst for additional knowledge. Timid and reserved, the young girl had few friends. During her last year of primary instruction, she was falsely accused of wasting classroom materials. Unable to defend herself against this accusation and further victimized when classmates threw stones at her, she was sent home and was taught by Emelina. This first encounter with injustice and human cruelty left a profound impression on the future poet, who became determined to speak out for the rights of the defenseless, the humble, and the poor.
The family moved to La Serena on Chile’s coast in 1901. Three years later, the fourteen-year-old Mistral’s prose began to appear in local periodicals. These writings seemed somewhat revolutionary in a provincial town and probably accounted for the poet’s admission to, and then expulsion from, the normal...
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