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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Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, whose pen name was Gabriela Mistral (mee-STRAHL), was born on April 7, 1889, in Vicuña, a small village in the remote mountain region of northern Chile. Although her father abandoned the family when Mistral was three, he left her a double legacy. He was the village schoolteacher, and he occasionally wrote verses. By the time she was fifteen, Mistral was teaching in the rural schools of the region and publishing poems in the local newspapers. The most important and enduring legacy she received was the rugged, wild landscape in which she played and worked. In the early years it became a part of her being, and the rhythms and images of its life were to inform all of her poetry.
Before she was twenty-one Mistral had endured the one great love affair of her life, a passionate relationship with a young railroad worker, Romelio Ureta, that ended in a bitter separation. When, after several years of estrangement, Ureta took his own life, Mistral was overwhelmed with grief and guilt. Out of these conflicting and painful emotions she composed three of her most famous poems, “Sonetos de la muerte” (1914; sonnets of death).
Her first volume of poetry, Desolación (1922; desolation), was published in New York at the urging of a group of American high school Spanish teachers who wanted Mistral to make available more of her poetry. The frank physical descriptions in the love poems in the book shocked conservative...
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In a century marked by rapid and radical innovation and enervated by doubt, isolation, and fear, Gabriela Mistral stands out as a remarkable paradox. While other poets experimented with new styles and succeeded only in confusing and alienating their readers, Mistral combined the new with the traditional to create a poetry read and appreciated by a large and diverse audience. In an era in which artists seemed cut off from the social and political realities of their world, Mistral devoted her life and her art to humanitarian service. She attained the position of the genuinely engaged artist that her more radical contemporaries frequently wrote about but seldom achieved. This was possible because her poetry grew directly out of the principles that guided her life.