Our woman hero of April is Gabriela Mistral! She was a Chilean poet-diplomat, educator and humanist. In 1945 she became the first Latin American author to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, “for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world”. 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. Her portrait also appears on the 5,000 Chilean peso bank note.
Gabriela Mistral was the pseudonym of Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. She was born in Vicuña, Chile, on 7 April 1889, but was raised in the small Andean village of Montegrande. 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.
Although her formal education had ended by when she was 12 years old, Mistral was able to get work as a teacher. Between the years 1906 and 1912 she had taught, successively, in three schools near La Serena, then in Barrancas, then Traiguén in 1910, and in Antofagasta in the desert north, in 1911. By 1912 she had moved to work in a liceo, or high school, in Los Andes, where she stayed for six years and often visited Santiago. In 1918 Pedro Aguirre Cerda, then Minister of Education and a future president of Chile, promoted her appointment to direct a liceo in Punta Arenas.
In 1906, Mistral met Romelio Ureta, her first love, who killed himself in 1909. Shortly after, her second love married someone else. This heartbreak was reflected in her early poetry and earned Mistral her first recognized literary work in 1914 with Sonnets on Death (Sonnets de la muerte). Mistral was awarded first prize in a national literary contest Juegos Florales in the Chilean capital, Santiago.
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 names of 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.
In 1922, Mistral released her first book, Desolation (Desolacion), with the help of the Director of Hispanic Institute of New York, Federico de Onis. It was a collection of poems that encompassed motherhood, religion, nature, morality and love of children. Her personal sorrow was present in the poems and her International reputation was established. In 1924, she released her second book, Tenderness (Ternura), a collection of lullabies and rondas written for an audience of children, parents, and other poets. In early 1925 she returned to Chile, where she formally retired from the nation’s education system, and received a pension.
Mistral 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 14 August 1943, Mistral’s 17-year-old nephew, Juan Miguel Godoy, killed himself. Mistral considered Juan Miguel as a son. 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.
During the last years of her life Mistral 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 10 January 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 mourners came to pay her their respects.
Gabriela Mistral inspires us that the hardship and sadness of life can be turned into something. We do not need to be drowned in them. Instead, we can create something wonderful and beautiful out of them!
Need other kinds of inspiration? Just check Adorageek’s other posts!