Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, was a Chile poet, educator, diplomat, and feminist who was the first Latin American to win the Female Nobel Prize Laureates , in 1945.
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Early Life and Education
Mistral was born in Vicuña, Chile, but was raised in the small Andean village of Montegrande, where she attended the primary school in which her older sister, Emelina Molina, was a teacher. Of a poor socio-economic background, she was supporting by age fifteen both herself and her mother through her work as a teacher’s aide in the seaside town of Compania Baja, Chile.
She began to write poetry as a village schoolteacher after a passionate romance with a railway employee who committed suicide. In 1904 Mistral published some early poems, such as Ensoñaciones, Carta Íntima (“Intimate Letter”) and Junto al Mar, in the local newspaper El Coquimbo, Diario Radical, and La Voz de Elqui using a range of pseudonyms and variations on her civil name. She taught elementary and secondary school for many years until her poetry made her famous. In 1914, Mistral was awarded the first prize in a national literary contest in Santiago, with the work Sonetos de la Muerte (Sonnets of Death). She had been using the pen name Gabriela Mistral since June 1908 for much of her writing.
She started to get published in New York in the early 1920s and her international reputation as a poet grew. She travelled to Mexico, Texas, Washington and Europe lecturing and giving readings. The love poems in memory of the dead, Sonetos de la muerte (1914), made her famous throughout Latin America. Her first great collection of poems, Desolación [Despair], was not published until 1922. In 1924 Ternura [Tenderness] appeared, a volume of poetry dominated by the theme of childhood. This same theme, linked with maternity, also plays a significant role in Tala, a poetry collection published in 1938. Her complete poetry was published in 1958.
Teaching Career and Political Activism
Mistral was able to make a career in the education sector because of a lack of trained teachers, and willing to work in rural areas. Between 1906 and 1912 she taught in three schools. By 1912 she had moved to work in a Liceo, or high school, where she stayed for six years and often visited Santiago. In 1918, the then Minister of Education, and future President of Chile, appointed her to direct a Liceo. In 1921, she defeated a candidate connected with the Radical Party, Josefina Dey del Castillo, to be named director of Santiago’s Liceo, the newest and most prestigious girls’ school in Chile. The President had her join in the nation’s plan to reform libraries and schools within the project of starting a national education system.
She played an important role in the educational systems of Mexico and Chile and was active in cultural committees of the League of Nations. She also was a Chilean consul in Naples, Madrid, and Lisbon. She held honorary degrees from the Universities of Florence and Guatemala and was an honorary member of various cultural societies in Chile as well as in the United States, Spain, and Cuba. She taught Spanish Literature in the United States at Columbia University, Middlebury College, Vassar College, and at the University of Puerto Rico. As consul in Madrid, she had occasional professional interactions with another Chilean consul and Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda, and she was among the earliest writers to recognize the importance and originality of his work. Along with Neruda, Gabriela Mistral became a supporter of the Popular Front which led to the election of her long-time friend and patron, the Radical Pedro Aguirre Cerda in 1938.
She died in New York of pancreatic cancer on January 10, 1947.
- Euskonews.com, written by Palmira Oyanguren
- “School Histories: the Stories Behind the Names.” Houston Independent School District. Retrieved on September 24, 2008.