Gabriela Mistral

Who she was and what she did for education.

Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world.
—Nelson Mandela (1918–2013)

Education is no doubt the foundation of any healthy society. When it is lacking or substandard in quality, all sorts of misery may arise, from poverty and disease to outright delinquency and destructive (or even self-destructive) behavior. The daily news from all around this troubled world often appalls and frightens us: such atrocious and disgraceful behavior generates a vicious cycle that serves to stir up even greater depravity. It is my contention that most, if not all, of these barbarities could be prevented if more people were provided the opportunity for a well-rounded, thoughtfully conceived education [1].

Gabriela Mistral, beyond her literary and political activities, was a born teacher, and we owe her much for this. The objective of this article is to highlight this aspect of her life and show how her generous and loving spirit brought light to so many.

A Brief Biography

Gabriela Mistral in her later years [2].

Gabriela Mistral in her later years [2].

Gabriela Mistral was actually the literary pseudonym used by Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, who was born in Vicuña (a small town 532-km north of Santiago, Chile) in 1889 and passed away in New York City in 1957 at the age of 68. As a poet and educator, she resonated with the European avant-garde of the time.

The avant-garde were (and are) people whose works are experimental, radical, or unorthodox with respect to art, culture, or society at large. Avante-garde works are often characterized by nontraditional esthetic innovation that is greeted by initial rejection. Their creators push the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or status quo, primarily in the cultural realm. It is considered by some to be a hallmark of modernism, which is itself a philosophical movement that arose from the cataclysmic transformations in Western society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Having a pedagogical ancestry, as her father was a schoolteacher, Mistral decided at 16 to also devote herself to teaching, working as a high school instructor and later as a principal. As a poet, she made her debut at the age of 15 during the Chilean Floral Games (Juegos Florales) in 1914 with Sonetos de la Muerte (Death Sonnets), inspired by her deep pain following the suicide of her fiancé, Romelio Ureta, whom she had met in 1906. At that time, she was already signing her work as “Gabriela Mistral,” a name inspired by two admired authors, the Italian Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938) and Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914) from the Provence region of southern France.

In 1922, Mistral traveled to Mexico at the request of its government to collaborate in an educational reform movement. There, she founded the school that now carries her name and contributed to the organization of several public libraries. In addition, she composed children’s poems, specially solicited by the Mexican minister of education, and didactic texts, such as the 1923 Lecturas para Mujeres (Readings for Women).

Thereafter, she went to Europe and the United States, and, in 1926, she became secretary of the League of Nations’ International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation. Simultaneously and on a regular basis, she contributed to a Colombian magazine, El Tiempo (The Time). [These articles were posthumously collected in Recados: Contando a Chile (Messages: Tellings About Chile) in 1957.] Mistral also represented Chile at a university congress in Madrid and gave a series of talks in the United States in 1930 on North American cultural development. In 1945, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Her Work

Mistral’s early poetry displayed a modernist tendency, which slowly changed into a more personal style, with simple, colloquial language full of symbolism and folk images. She touched on subjects such as suffering or frustrated maternity, as well as on religious and social uncertainties concerned with Christian and socialist ideology. The latter brought her often-bitter criticism.

Mistral was a self-declared socialist, revealing her ideas in an interview with Alfonso Calderón Moreno, who himself was a Mexican activist murdered in a terrorist attack at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla on 1 May 1973. Moreno was a teacher at the Emiliano Zapata school and a member of the Mexican Communist Party.

A book of Mistral’s poetry was published in 1977 under the title Poetic Anthology of Gabriela Mistral. In it, she clearly states, “I am a socialist, of a particular socialism, it is true, one which deals only with gaining what one eats and feels as a comrade of those who are exploited.”

We can recognize Mistral’s anarchical influence in her correspondence with the Chilean Creole poet Manuel Magallanes Moure (1878–1924). In addition, she accepted ideas from the brothers Reclus, well-known anarchists of the 19th century. Her writings were not abundant, with one portion devoted to children (remember, she was a rural teacher for 15 years). Nonetheless, her true personality reveals itself, sincere and moving, in tender verses that are almost painfully intimate. Throughout her literary career, Mistral’s works reflect different stages of maturity, starting with Desolación (Desolation, or Bleakness, Mexico, 1922), in which sentiment predominates, along with a decidedly religious character that may seem surprising to some readers in light of her political ideas. In these verses, love is reaffirmed as the central human virtue, especially in a lullaby found in the final section.

As noted previously, in Mexico, she published her Lecturas para Mujeres, a selection of prose and verse by different authors, including texts of her own, aimed at school use. Compositions for children became the core material of a second book, Ternura (Tenderness, 1924). With most of the pieces written in a lyrical style inspired by nature, the volume was dedicated to her mother and sisters. The adult reader immediately recognizes the pain experienced by the loss of one’s childhood.

With Tala (Logging, 1938), Mistral introduced a neorealist theme, addressing indigenous values and fundamental world issues. This book contains 64 poems, showing a formal and definitive evolution but exhibiting hints of humor as well. The last poetic collection published during her lifetime, Lagar (Winery, 1954), is replete with echoes of death, sadness, loss, and a sense of her own end, culminating in Christian resignation and acceptance. Posthumously, Poema de Chile (Chile’s Poem) appeared in 1967 and, later, Poesías Completas (Complete Poems) in 1970, in addition to other publications in which she examined multiple subjects, such as the conditions of women in Latin America. Her educational essays were compiled in a 1982 book titled Magisterio y Niño (Schoolteaching and the Child).

Women in the Past and Today

Women have been mistreated and abused for endless centuries, deemed secondary objects without rights or personality. The influential philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer forthrightly and unabashedly stated this [3], and the 19th and 20th centuries failed to bring about significant improvements.

Those who challenged the status quo suffered ostracism and slander. Alfonsina Storni (1892–1938), an unforgettable Argentine poetic icon, is a painful postmodernist individual example, as are societies such as those of the coffee-producing regions of Brazil (say, the Bahia area). Gabriela, Cravo e Canela, written by Jorge Amado (1912–2001), clearly describes the state of affairs in this respect, where even a femicide is taken lightly by society. Unfortunately, such misconduct has worsened and become a sad, cruel, and almost daily spectacle, far from the lifestyle goals and philosophy of Gabriela Mistral [4].

Conclusions

According to Mistral’s wishes, her body was interred in Montegrande, Chile, where she had spent her infant years. From her mausoleum, we experience an ample view of a beautiful valley, as wide as the spirit that always led her. She left a few unpublished works and a lot to remember and learn from.

References

  1. M. E. Valentinuzzi, “Hacia una sociedad equitativa: Influencia de la ciencia y la tecnología (Toward an equitable society: Influence of science and technology),” Revista Argentina de Bioingeniería, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 27–33, 2017.
  2. A. Basulto. (2016, Sept. 9). Personajes históricos y su no tan difundido socialismo (Historic characters and their not too known socialism). [Online].
  3. A. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Will und Vorstellung), E.F.J. Payne, trans. Indian Hills, CO: The Falcon’s Wing Press, 1958.
  4. M. E. Valentinuzzi, “Three outstanding women in science,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 8, no. 5, pp. 54–64, 2017.