Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

Biography of Gabriela Mistral, Chilean poet. In 1945, the Swedish Academy of Literature awarded the Nobel Prize to Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, a Chilean teacher (literary pseudonym: Gabriela Mistral) who, in addition to exercising her pedagogical functions, wrote poems.

The representative of the Academy said that the motivation to present her with this distinction was “her lyrical work that, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of idealistic aspirations throughout the Latin American world“.

As an aperitif, I transcribe two poems from her numerous production:

Little pieces of child Fleece of my meat
blue with cold that I wove in my gut
How they see you and don’t cover you, cold fleecy
OMG! fall asleep attached to me.

Wounded little feet The partridge sleeps in the clover
Through the pebbles all listening to him beat
outraged from snow do not be disturbed by my breath
and sludge! fall asleep attached to me.

The blind man ignores the trembling little herb
that where you pass amazed to live,
a flower of living light do not let go of my chest
you leave; fall asleep attached to me!

 That where you put I who have lost everything
the bleeding seedling now tremble even when sleeping.
the tuberose is born more Do not slip from my arm
fragrant. fall asleep attached to me!

Little pieces of child,
two suffering jewels,
How they pass without seeing you
the people!

Early life of this remarkable poet

Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, or Gabriela Mistral, was born on April 7, 1889, in Vicuña, a small city in northern Chile.

A few days after her birth, her parents (Juan Godoy, a teacher of Diaguita descent; and her mother, Petronila Alcayaga, of Basque descent) went to live in Pisco Elqui, a city in the province of Coquimbo.

Pisco Elqui
Pisco Elqui where Gabriela Mistral lived in her childhood. Credit: Carlos Teixidor Cadenas

Her father left home when she was approximately three years old. Gabriela Mistral always wanted him and always defended him.

On one occasion, shuffling papers, she found some of her verses; They seemed very beautiful to her and aroused her poetic passion.

At the young age of 15, she began working as a teaching assistant in a school in La Serena, a city near Vicuña.

In that year she began to send contributions to the La Serena and Coquimbo newspapers.

She also began writing in Vicuña’s, called “La voz de Elqui”. In her press articles she advocated for compulsory primary education, harshly criticizing the political world.

In those years, an important sector of the Chilean people was going through great socio-economic problems and the young Lucila Godoy was no stranger to that problem.

Her own sentimental problems are reflected in two of her poems published in one of those newspapers: “Tristeza” and “Rimas“.

La Serena
La Serena city where Gabriela Mistral worked. Credit: web W. Griem

Beginnings as a Chilean teacher

In 1908, she worked as a teacher in two other towns in the north: La Cantera and Los Cerrillos.

When she was young, she could not study as a teacher, since she had no money to pay for her studies and needed to work to subsist. Everything she learned was due to her great intelligence and iron will.

Later, in 1910, she validated her knowledge and experience before the Santiago Normal School and obtained the official title of “State Teacher”. Therefore, she was able to teach, even at the secondary level.

The examiners undoubtedly took this unusual step because they appreciated extraordinary powers.

However, this later cost her the animosity of some of her colleagues, since she received the title without having studied at the Pedagogical Institute of the University of Chile.

Jobs as State Professor in Chile

Immediately, at 21, she began working as a teacher at the Liceo de Niñas de Traiguén, a town in the Araucanía Region.

She held functions as interim teacher of Labor, Drawing, Hygiene and Home Economics.

There, in the south of Chile, she began an 11-year period dedicated to teaching and toured the country from north to south: Antofagasta, Los Andes, Santiago, Temuco and Punta Arenas.

Its exceptional value recognized in Mexico

Her professional worth was demonstrated when she was later hired by the Government of Mexico to lay the foundations for a new educational system in that country.

The model that she helped design remained in its essence for many years, only with some updating reforms.

It is a pity that the great pedagogue María Montessori could never coincide.

Araucanía region where Gabriela Mistral was a teacher. Credit: Daniel P. Gauer

The beginnings of her poetic activities

In the same year of 1910, Lucila Godoy began to write her famous “Sonnets of Death“.

She had decided to jump from prose to poetry, thinking that her father’s lyrical streak worked in her too.

She wrote poetry as a second job that started what she called “the party of my life“.

This second profession was wonderfully rewarding for her and beneficial to those who have since enjoyed her genius as a poet.

On December 12, 1914, she obtained first prize in the literature contest of the Floral Games, organized by the FECh (Federation of Students of Chile).

The notable Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral

She had entered the contest with her “Sonnets of Death“, under the pseudonym “Gabriela Mistral”.

She chose this name in homage to two of her favorite poets: Gabriele D’Annunzio and Fréderic Mistral. Since then, she has always written under the pseudonym Gabriela Mistral.

In 1917, Julio Molina Núñez and Juan Agustín Araya published one of the most important poetic anthologies in Chile, “Lyrical Forest“.

This anthology mentions Lucila Godoy as one of the great Chilean poetesses. It was one of the last times her real name appeared.

The fact of having lived from Antofagasta, in the extreme north, to Punta Arenas, in the extreme south, allowed her to know her homeland very well and acquire a rich and varied experience as a pedagogue.

Elqui’s teacher did not bear the polar cold well and despite her emotional attachment to Temuco and Punta Arenas, she soon managed to move to Santiago, where she won the position of Director of the prestigious Liceo 6 de Niñas.

Antofagasta, Chile where Gabriela Mistral taught. Credit: Bachelot Pierre J.P.

Her career as a poet had already been launched with force. In 1922 the Institute of Spain in New York published “Desolation“, considered her first masterpiece.

Most of the poems that make up this book had been written ten years ago, while residing in the town of Coquimbo.

International activities of this great poet

On June 23, 1922, she traveled to Mexico, invited by the then Minister of Education José Vasconcelos. There she remained for almost two years, working with the most prominent intellectuals in the Spanish-speaking world at the time.

In addition, as a prominent educator, she visited the United States and Europe, studying the schools and educational methods of these countries.

She was a visiting professor at the universities of Barnard, Middlebury, Santo Domingo, Cuba, Puerto Rico and other countries in Central America.

Gabriela Mistral
Gabriela Mistral in 1923. Credit: Wikimedia. Marcelo Fuentes

In 1923, in Mexico her book “Reading for Women” was published. The second edition of “Desolación” was published in Chile (with a circulation of 20,000 copies). In Spain, an “Anthology of the best poetry” was published, with a foreword by Manuel de Montoliú.

Cibeles Madrid
Plaza Cibeles in Madrid. In the background, the Palacio de Linares, headquarters of the Casa de América. Credit: Wikimedia. Mr.Tickle

The following year, also in Madrid, she published “Ternura”, a book in which she experimented with a novel “school poetry”.

Gabriela Mistral renewed traditional genres of children’s poetry (lullabies, rounds, and lullabies) from an austere and highly refined poetics.

In 1926, she returned to Chile. But the political situation in the country was so tense that she decided to seek the possibility of going abroad again.

She was already internationally renowned as a poet and as an expert on educational issues. Therefore, she easily found a job as Secretary of one of the sections of the League of Nations.

Shortly thereafter, she served as the Secretary of the Institute for International Cooperation of the League of Nations in Geneva.

In the old continent, she continued to exercise her second job, that of writing what flowed from her fertile heart. She published a book titled “Tala“. She dedicated it to Petronila Alcayaga, her mother, who died in 1929.

The Chilean government elects her cultural ambassador

From 1933, and for a period of twenty years, Gabriela Mistral worked as Consul of Chile in cities in Europe and America.

Her poetry became famous and was translated into English, French, Italian, German, and Swedish.

Since 1941, Gabriela Mistral has been as Consul of Chile in the city of Petrópolis, Brazil.

In 1945, the Swedish Academy awarded her the Nobel Prize for Literature. The motivation to present her with this distinction was “her lyrical work that, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world“.

On December 10, 1945, in her speech to receive the Prize, she pronounced the following words: “For a chance that surpasses me, I am at this time the direct voice of poets of my race and the indirect voice of the most noble Spanish languages and Portuguese.

Both are happy to have been invited to live together in Nordic life, all of them assisted by their ancient folklore and poetry”.

Gabriela Mistral
Gabriela Mistral when she was in El Salvador. Credit: web elsalvador

Gabriela Mistral’s return to the United States

Later that year, she returned to the United States for the fourth time, then as Consul of Chile in Los Angeles.

With the money received from the Nobel Prize, she bought a house in Santa Barbara. It was there that the following year she wrote much of the book of poems entitled “Winery I“.

In many of her poems from those years, the trace of sadness caused in her soul by the Second World War is noted.

In 1953, she was named Consul of Chile in New York. There she maintained a close friendship with the writer Doris Dana, whom she had met in 1946, and who was her official spokesperson and executor.

Honors to Gabriela Mistral in Chile

In 1954, Gabriela Mistral was received with honors in Santiago, invited by the President of Chile, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo.

Doris Dana, who stepped on Chilean soil for the first time, accompanied her. In Santiago it had been declared a public holiday and upon arrival the authorities of the capital awaited her.

They took her in a discovered car, escorted by police patrols, followed by horseback fighters and school groups from different schools.

In her path people threw flowers at her; and, on the way, the procession crossed a triumphal arch made with fresh flowers. Above the arch, one of her verses could be read: “The good sower sows singing“.

In the afternoon, she was received at the La Moneda presidential palace by President Carlos Ibáñez.

The following day, she was honored with the title of Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Chile.

Back in the United States, Gabriela Mistral settled on Long Island, in Doris Dana’s family mansion, on the outskirts of the city. (She had sold her property in California).

Last years of this remarkable poet

In those years, Doris Dana, aware that Gabriela Mistral’s life was coming to an end, began to keep a careful record of every conversation she had with her friend.

In addition, she accumulated a total of 250 letters and thousands of literary essays, which today constitute the most important legacy of this extraordinary woman who was born poor in a small town in a great country.

Gabriela Mistral suffered from diabetes and had heart problems.

On January 10, 1957, at the age of 67, she died at Hempstead Hospital in New York City from pancreatic cancer.

Her remains arrived in Chile on January 19, 1957 and were kept in the Central House of the University of Chile.

Later they were buried, as was her wish, in Montegrande, the town of the Elqui Valley where she spent the best years of their childhood.

Doris Dana remained as executor of Gabriela Mistral’s work and avoided sending it to Chile until the poet was recognized as befitting her world fame.

Doris Dana received an invitation from the government of President Ricardo Lagos Escobar (2000-2006), to bring Gabriela Mistral’s work to Chile. She gently declined the invitation.

Later, in December 2007, Doris Atkinson (niece of Doris Dana) donated the literary legacy of Gabriela Mistral to the Chilean Government.

There are more than 40,000 documents, currently kept in the archives of the National Library of Chile. The compilation, transcription and classification work was carried out by the Chilean humanist, D. Luis Vargas.

In her will, Gabriela Mistral stipulated that the money obtained from the sales of her books in South America, should be destined to the poor children of Montegrande; and that the proceeds from sales in other parts of the world, to Doris Dana and Palma Guillén. The latter renounced that inheritance for the benefit of the poor children of Chile.

Over the years, tributes to this distinguished woman have multiplied: cultural centers, museums, libraries, universities and literary awards with her name.

Almost half a century later, another illustrious Chilean woman, Adriana Valdés Budget, has also been recognized as a notable writer.

The publications of her works are numerous. For example: “Political Writings“, 1994; “Complete Poems“, 2001; “Blessed is my language“, 2002; “Prose reunited“, 2002.

Virtually all major cities in Chile have a street, plaza or avenue named after her with her literary name: Gabriela Mistral.

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