Gabriela Mistral

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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 school. Undeterred, the family continued tutoring her while she finished her studies. In 1905, she began to work as a teacher’s assistant. For the next five years, she taught in the primary grades, while nurturing her early work as a writer. This initial poetry possessed a melancholy flavor in tune with poets with whom she was familiar. Certified as an educator in 1910, she began a career as a high school teacher that took her throughout her native country. All during her life, she would characterize herself as a simple rural teacher, and she liked to be remembered as such, more than as a diplomat or a poet. She taught for more than twenty years, assuming the role of spiritual guide for many who approached her. Near the end of her career as an educator, Chile named her Teacher of the Nation. A good portion of her literary work, which has an educational motive, is directed toward young people. Behind the writer is the teacher who desires to encourage moral and spiritual awareness and aesthetic sensitivity.

With the publication of her first book in 1922, the poet’s literary name, Gabriela Mistral, definitively replaced her birth name. The name Gabriela was chosen for the archangel Gabriel, one who brings good tidings, and Mistral was chosen for the dry wind that blows in the Mediterranean area of Provence. Also in 1922, Mistral left Chile for Mexico, where she had been invited by José Vasconcelos, secretary of education in Mexico, to participate in a national program of educational reform. Intending at first to stay for six months, she remained in Mexico for two years. This sabbatical began a lifetime of travel during which the poet occupied diplomatic posts, represented her country in international and cultural gatherings, and participated in numerous intellectual endeavors.

In 1932, Mistral became a member of the consular corps of the Chilean government, fulfilling various diplomatic assignments in Spain, Portugal, France, Brazil, and the United States. At the same time, she continued a life of writing and intellectual pursuits. She taught Latin American literature at the University of Puerto Rico and at several institutions in the United States. In 1953, she became the Chilean delegate to the United Nations, where she served until poor health forced her to retire.

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