Gabriela Mistral: Voice of the People

Becca Anderson (author of The Book of Awesome Women Writers) looks at Gabriela Mistral’s life, a woman who wrotemany volumes of poetry.

A poor, rural schoolteacher of mixed race, Gabriela Mistral went on to become the first Latin American woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. She was born in the Chilean village of Montegrande in 1889. Her mother, Petronila Alcayaga, was a teacher of Basque descent, and her father, Jeronimo Villanueva, also a teacher, was a poet of Indian and Jewish birth. Jeronimo was overly fond of wine and not quite so attached to his duties as a breadwinner and father; he deserted the family when Gabriela was three. As a schoolgirl, Gabriela discovered her call to poetry and tapped into her own stubborn independence, switching her birth name, Lucila, for her choice, Gabriela. As an adult, she also chose a fitting surname, Mistral, hinting at a fragrant Mediterranean wind.

Her first love was a hopelessly romantic railroad worker who killed himself when the relationship faltered after two years. Her first book of poetry, Sonetas de la Muerta (Sonnets of Death), was written as a result of her sadness, guilt, and pain over the death of this man. In 1914, she received Chile’s top prize for poetry.

In the ‘20s and ‘30s, she wrote many volumes of poetry, including Desolación (Desolation)Ternura (Tenderness)QuestionsTala, and a mixed-media anthology, Readings for Women. In addition to writing and teaching, Mistral felt a special sympathy for women and children and worked to help victims of World Wars I and II. She made social strides as an educator as well. She initiated programs for schooling the poor, founded a mobile library system, and traveled the world, gleaning whatever information she could to improve Chile’s education system. In 1923, she was named “Teacher of the Nation.” She became an international envoy and ambassador for her country off and on for twenty years, eventually serving in the League of Nations and the United Nations.

In the late 1920s, a military government seized power in Chile and offered Mistral an ambassadorship to all the nations of Central America. Mistral refused to work for the military state and made a scathing public denouncement of the government machine. Her pension was revoked, and Mistral had to support herself, her mother, and her sister through her writing. She lived in exile for a while in France, eventually moving to the United States, where she taught at the University of Puerto Rico and at Middlebury and Barnard Colleges.

In 1945 she received the Nobel Prize. Upon accepting the revered award, Gabriela Mistral, in her plain black velvet, made a sharp contrast with Sweden’s dashing King Gustav. Pointedly, she didn’t accept the prize for herself, but on behalf of “the poets of my race.” Mistral died in 1957 and was mourned by her native Chile, where she was revered as a national treasure. She was the “people’s poet,” giving voice to the humble people to whom she belonged—the Indians, mestizos, and campesinos—and scorning rampant elitism and attempts to create a racial hierarchy in Europe and in her beloved Chile.

I consider myself to be among the children of that twisted thing that is called a racial experience, or better, a racial violence.

Gabriela Mistral

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

The Book of awesome women writers

Medieval Mystics, Pioneering Poets, Fierce Feminists and First Ladies of Literature (Feminist Book, Gift for Women, Gift for Writers)

This one-of-a-kind tome takes a tour with Sylvia Beach and other booksellers as well as librarians, editors, writers, bibliophiles, and celebrated book clubs. Join women’s studies scholar Anders as she takes you on a ribald ride through the pages of history. Chapter titles include “Prolific Pens” (including Joyce Carol Oates, author of over 100 books), “Mystics, Memoirists and Madwomen”, “Salons and Neosalons”, “Ink in Their Veins” (literary dynasties), and the titillating “Banned, Blacklisted, and Arrested.”

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