Rediscovering Gabriela Mistral: A New Trove of the Poet's Papers Promises to Give Researchers Fresh Insights into Latin America's First Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature

By Montesinos, Elisa | Americas (English Edition), January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Rediscovering Gabriela Mistral: A New Trove of the Poet's Papers Promises to Give Researchers Fresh Insights into Latin America's First Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature


Montesinos, Elisa, Americas (English Edition)


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After remaining stashed away in the United States for half a century, newly uncovered documents of the poet Gabriela Mistral--120 boxes of them--have now reached their final destination in Chile, where they will one day be made available to readers. Her correspondence with such intellectuals and political figures as Jacques Maritain, Thomas Mama, Ezra Pound, Victoria Ocampo, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jose Vasconcelos, Alfonso Reyes, Aldous Huxley, Eduardo Fret Montalva, and Pablo Neruda is nearly as endless as the list of unpublished poems, personal notebooks, and photographs that are only now beginning to come to light.

My little box / from Olinala / is rosewood / and jacaranda / When suddenly I / open it, it exudes / a Queen-of-Sheba / fragrance /

She was born Lucila de Maria del Perpetuo Socorro Oodoy Alcayaga in 1889. Her father, a professor who had a knack for making up folk songs, left home and kept on going, after having written her lovely infant lullabies that left their mark. The daughter would later write popular poetry that at the same time was filled with coded messages.

Children from all over Latin America sing her round dances, and hundreds of schools in the hemisphere bear her name. Her poems led her to become the first Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and of course the first Hispanic woman to achieve that distinction, even though she had never finished her schooling. The Chilean poet, educator, and diplomat was largely self-taught. She studied with her sister, a rural schoolteacher, and read borrowed books, first in her native Valley of Elqui, in northern Chile, and later in the city of La Serena.

"Her life was worthy of a fairy tale," writes Marta Elena Samatan, one of her biographers, in Los dias y los anos de Gabriela Mistral (Mexico, 1973). The fairy tale was certainly not without its stigmas.

Oh tropical / whiff of cloves, / mahogany / and copal! / I place it here, / I leave it there, / it comes and goes / through corridors. /

Lucila was fourteen years old when it was recommended to her mother than she be taken out of school, as she was not destined to go far--better that she should devote herself to domestic pursuits. Which is precisely what she never did. The precocious writer began to be published in regional newspapers, signing her pieces Soledad (Solitude), Alma (Soul), Alguien (Somebody). Her writings sounded revolutionary and closed the doors to the Normal School; a chaplain-professor demanded that they rescind her admission, because she could become a "caudillo" of the female students.

She had no choice but to begin to teach without a degree. Her years of service received recognition, and she eventually became a principal in various high schools for girls. "The loss does not hurt me today," Mistral would write much later, "but all the teachers and professors who would deny me salt and water during the twenty years I was teaching in Chile--and I've made a note of them--know very well how much it cost me to undertake a teaching career without that piece of paper, the diploma, and that signature."

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It boils / from Grecian frets / like a land of / figwood, deer / and quail, / Volcanoes / with great apertures / and the Indian / swaying in the wind / like corn. /

Her fame as an educator began to grow. The Mexican government invited her to work on educational reform. She created schools for indigenous children, published school textbooks, wrote tirelessly. She saw the hemisphere through different eyes and became an "Americanist."

From Mexico, she began to travel the world as a diplomat and guest lecturer at universities and conferences. She worked in Europe for the League of Nations, a prior intent to the United Nations that collapsed with the onset of World War II.

Mistral was a celebrity, but her survival carried a cost. …

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