Gabriela Mistral, Latin American Nobel Prize Winner
By Skyler Gomez | On February 11, 2019 | Updated August 29, 2023 | Comments (1)
Gabriela Mistral, born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga (April 7, 1889 – January 10, 1957), was a Chilean poet, educator, diplomat, and feminist best known for being the first Latin American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
She was awarded the prize “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.”
In the Introduction to A Queer Mother for the Nation: The State and Gabriela Mistral (2002), Licia Fiol-Matta encapsulates the writer’s unique persona:
“Who could have imagined that Lucila Godoy Alcayaga would become one of the central architects of Latin American Nationalism in the twentieth century — or would be the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1945 … Called a ‘walking educational mission’ by the Chilean critic Fernando Alegria … Mistral possessed fame and personal charisma as striking and affecting in public as they were in private.
Although Mistral became the living embodiment of the race/sex/gender politics at the heart of Latin Americanism, after he death in 1957 her stature and work were neglected, obscured, and virtually forgotten.
… For years, Gabriela Mistral’s place in the Latin American literary canon was justified only by her status as national schoolteacher-mother.”
Early years and education
Born in Vicuña, Chile and raised in the small Andean village of Montegrande, her family was rather poor. Her father, Juan Gerónimo Godoy Villanueva, abandoned the family less than three years after she was born. Though he abandoned them and left her mother to support the family, he did pass down his gift for teaching.
At nine years of age, Mistral attended a primary school taught by her older sister, Emelina Molina, but only attended for three years. By age fifteen years, she took on the responsibility of supporting herself and her sick mother, Petronila Alcayaga, as a teacher’s aide.
She began writing poetry during her time as an educator, and started using her pen name, Gabriela Mistral. Some of her poems were published in local and national magazines and newspapers while still in her mid-teens.
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Poetry as a way to heal
At seventeen, Mistral met a young railway worker named Romeo Ureta and fell in love. Sadly, he committed suicide. The only item found in his possession was a postcard from Mistral.
This horrific moment is one that would scar her for the rest of her life. More tragedy was to come when a nephew of hers also committed suicide. As a result, Mistral started writing poetry that characterized her painful emotions.
The sad death of her lover influenced her to write “Sonetos de la Muerte,” three of which would be published and would earn her a national prize for poetry in 1914.
Teaching career and recognition
After Mistral established a poetic reputation and received her diploma in 1912, she got a teaching position at a secondary school near Santiago. Eventually, in 1918 she became head of a secondary school for girls in Punta Arenas, which later inspired a series of poems, Paisajes de Patagonia (Patagonian Landscapes).
Growing up around poverty, she was sympathetic to the plight of the poor, and was eager to help when it came to education. In 1922, she accepted the invitation of Jose Vasconcelos, the Mexican minister of education, to create educational programs for the poor in Mexico. As part of this effort, she brought mobile libraries into rural areas to make literature accessible to more people.
Mistral rarely took a break, delving into editing her book, Readings for Women, and traveled to other countries to study their teaching methods. All her hard work rightfully earned her the title “Teacher of the Nation” in 1923 by the Chilean government.
Once again, quoting Margot Arce de Vazquez:
“For Mistral, teaching was a calling to which she gave all her enthusiasm, freedom, and a creative spirit that abhorred routine.
A large proportion of her literary work, both prose and poetry, had an educational purpose; it was intended for the classroom and was written with a view to awakening and forming within the child a moral and religious conscience and an aesthetic sensitivity. In the classroom she was a severe taskmaster, exacting hard work and strict discipline.”
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The Early Poetry of Gabriela Mistral (Lucila Godoy Alcayaga)
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Desolación was Gabriela’s first collection of poems, published in 1922. It was, in retrospect, a major event in Latin American literature. In Gabriela Mistral: The Poet and Her Work (1964), Margot Arce de Vazquez writes:
“The new voice immediately reveals its originality as it stands out above the chorus of other feminine voices … Passion, strength, the strange mixture of tenderness and harshness, of delicacy and coarseness, give this voice a unique accent. Her words exercise an irresistible fascination on the reader, leaving in the mouth a bitter aftertaste of blood.
After the publication of Desolación, Gabriela’s fame grew rapidly; a legend began to weave itself around her.
Desolación consists of a body of seventy-three poems, grouped under the headings “Vida” (Life), “Escuela” (School), “Infantiles” (Children), “Dolor” (Sorrow), and “Naturaleza” (Nature), a collection of poetic and poematic prose writings and four cradle songs.”
Rise to fame and the Nobel Prize
As Mistral rose to fame, she was asked to attend numerous conferences and give speeches. She eventually became Chile’s representative abroad for nearly twenty years, attending the League of Nations, United Nations, and other international bodies.
After much traveling, Mistral decided she would settle down so she became a college professor. She taught classes at Middlebury and Barnard colleges and the University of Puerto Rico.
She became an icon for the Latin community in 1945 when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first Latin American of any gender to receive the honor.
Published poetry collections
Gabriela Mistral’s body of work includes six collections of her poetry (four of which were published in her lifetime) in addition to several volumes of letters and prose. As mentioned earlier, her first book, Desolación, was published in 1922 in New York City. It gained her an almost instant audience. This was followed by Ternura (Tenderness), published in 1924 in Spain.
Tala (Felling), published in 1938, is considered her most important book, at least on a par with Desolación. Mistral reissued it in 1947, taking out all the children’s poems.
The last book published in her lifetime was Lagar (Wine Press), published in Chile in 1954.
The two posthumous collections were Poema de Chile (Poem of Chile), 1967, and Lagar II (Wine Press II), 1991, both published in Santiago, Chile.
Mistral also wrote copious amounts of prose pieces, though few were collected for publication.
Themes in Gabriela Mistral’s poetry
Many of Mistral’s poems are written with intense emotion and direct language influenced by the modernist movement. Reoccurring themes include love, deceit, sorrow, nature, travel, and love for children.
Some of the themes carried through her work were those she explored from the time of her first collection, Desolación, which included, according to Arce de Vazquez:
” … The ideal teacher, the artist and artistic creation, motherhood and children, living beings and materials, the ecstasy of love, the passion of Christ, death, beauty, and the eternal.”
All of these emotions create a constant internal battle that she can only express it through poetry. Her lyrical voices represent various aspects of her own personality that readers can interpret as autobiographical voices of a woman who has been hurt and betrayed numerous times. Read a selection of her poems in both English and Spanish.
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Involvement in international diplomacy
In 1946, the United Nations asked Mistral to create the first worldwide appeal for funds for poor children, which is when UNICEF came to be. However, her involvement in international diplomacy began much earlier. From A Queer Mother for the Nation by Licia Fiol-Matta:
“Mistral’s career is closely linked to the League of Nations, with which she was affiliated from 1926. After the League’s demise, Mistral joined the United Nations in various official capacities. She may have been one of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Her friendships and acquaintances with world personalities included Dag Hammarskjöld, Thomas Mann, Henri Bergson, and almost certainly Eleanor Roosevelt, among many others.
Many of these contacts began with her work in the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, the precursor to UNESCO, between 1926 and 1934.”
Awards and Honors
In 1914, Mistral won a national prize in poetry for Sonetos de la muerte. She created this collection of poems as a reflection of her deep sadness after her first lover committed suicide.
In 1923, Mistral was awarded the title of “Teacher of the Nation” by the Chilean government after studying different methods of teaching all over the world. She also assisted in educating the poor by providing them with books through mobile libraries.
In 1945, Mistral was the first Latinx writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she accepted on behalf of Latin America.
Summing up the life and work of Gabriela Mistral
Arce de Vazquez summed up the life and work of this remarkable poet beautifully:
“This was the kind of woman she was: attentive to the present, dominated by the conscience of her deeds and of the course that history takes, incapable of refusing the claims of those who suffer from hunger or thirst for justice and love.
If we read her work carefully, we will find embodied there the same concepts and attitudes, and it would almost be impossible to distinguish between art and life or to say if there is more authentic poetry in her verses that in her acts.
Everything she did, said, and wrote was in some way saturated with that poetic air, revealing the marvelous, if somewhat delicate balance between the ‘is’ and the ‘should be.'”
Gabriela Mistral died in 1957 at age sixty-seven in Hempstead, New York. Her body was laid to rest back in the small Andean village of Montegrande. Her poetry continues to be translated and studied internationally.
More about Gabriela Mistral
On this site
- 8 Fascinating Facts About Gabriela Mistral, Latina Nobel Prize Winner
- 9 Poems by Gabriela Mistral on Life, Love, and Death
- Endearing Quotes by Gabriela Mistral
- The Poetry of Gabriela Mistral: A Brief Overview and Analysis
- The Early Poetry of Gabriela Mistral (Lucila Godoy Alcayaga)
- Sonetos de la Muerte (“Sonnets of Death”) – 1914
- Desolación (“Despair”), including “Decalogo del artista” – 1922
- Lecturas para Mujeres (“Readings for Women”) – 1923
- Ternura: canciones de niños – 1924
- Nubes Blancas y Breve Descripción de Chile – 1934
- Tala (“Harvesting”) -1938
- Antología: Selección de Gabriela Mistral – 1941
- Los sonetos de la muerte y otros poemas elegíacos – 1952
- Lagar – 1954
- Recados: Contando a Chile – 1957
- Poesías completas – 1958
- Poema de Chile (“Poem of Chile”) -1967
- Lagar II – 1992
- Gabriela Mistral: The Poet and Her Work by Margot Arce de Vazquez
- A Queer Mother for the Nation by Licia Fiol – Matta (2002)
- Gabriela Mistral’s Struggle with God and Man by Martin C. Taylor (2012)
- Gabriela Mistral Foundation
- Distinguished Women
- Discussion of Gabriela Mistral’s works on Goodreads
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Skyler Isabella Gomez is a 2019 SUNY New Paltz graduate with a degree in Public Relations and a minor in Black Studies. Her passions include connecting with her Latin roots by researching and writing about legendary Latina authors.
All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.