Gabriela Mistral 1889-1957
(Born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga) Chilean poet, educator, and diplomat.
During the first half of the twentieth century, throughout Latin America, Mistral achieved iconic status as mystic, mother, and teacher. She fashioned a poetry that expresses a betrayed and abandoned woman's angry longing for love and children. Mistral was dedicated to restoring meaning and identity to the economically and politically oppressed. Her vision of the anguish, the need, of a South American people pillaged and impoverished—spiritually as well as materially—by European exploitation and denigration was balanced by hope achieved through the Christian assumption of self-sacrifice in the service of liberating others from ignorance and suffering.
Of Spanish, Basque, and Indian descent, Mistral was born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga on April 7, 1889, to an educated but poor family in Chile. In 1891, when she was two years old, her father, a schoolteacher and poet, abandoned the family, to return ten years later. At fifteen, Lucila began to teach school. During the next decade, she went from being an elementary school teacher to a secondary school professor to an inspector general of schools to principal of the Liceo de Senoritas from 1910 to 1922. In 1922, she served as an advisor on rural education to the Mexican Minister of Education. She also was a visiting professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, Barnard College in Manhattan, and the University of Puerto Rico. Following heartbreak, and the suicide of her beloved in the early 1900s, she began composing a series of melancholy “Sonetos de la muerte” (“Sonnets on Death”), which she entered in a Santiago writing contest in 1914 under the pseudonym Gabriela Mistral. She won the contest and national fame, and her celebrity spread quickly throughout the Americas. The cost of her first book, published in the United States in Spanish, was defrayed by a group of Spanish teachers who heard her poetry read at Columbia University. The concern in her verse for outcasts, downtrodden and impoverished people, and her active support of children, exemplified by her donation of the profits from her poetry to Basque orphans of the Spanish Civil War, brought her a reputation for humanitarianism and saintliness. She served as the Chilean delegate to the League of Nations, the Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, and the United Nations, and as consul for Chile to Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and the United States. In 1945, the Swedish Academy awarded her the Nobel Prize for Literature. She died of cancer in the United States in 1957.
In each of her four volumes of poetry Desolation, Tenderness, Felling, and Wine Press, Mistral's work reflects a melancholy acceptance of the suffering life entails, and of the sacrifice required to alleviate that pain. Her works also show a transition from romantic, expressionist self-involvement with internal anguish and despair to a teacher's and a stateswoman's efforts to inspire in her readers curiosity and knowledge about the natural world, love for its beauty, communion with the spirit, and humane concern for each other.
The success of Mistral's poetry was immediate when the “Sonetos del muerte” won the Juegos Florales laurel crown and gold medal from the city of Santiago, Chile. In 1922, Desolacion was published in New York. American poet, Langston Hughes, in the preface to his translation of some of her poems, calls her language “simple and direct.” H. J. Gullberg, when awarding Mistral the Nobel Prze for Literature, said, “... this poet offers us her potion, which has the savor of earth and which quenches the thirst of the heart.” However, critics usually interpret Mistral's poetry as a direct expression of a personality they conceive to be similar to that of the Virgin Mary, and, in most critical discussions of her poetry, that personality is as much the subject of admiration and even devotion as the work itself.