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Mistral, Gabriela (1889-1957)  

Born Lucila Alcayaga on April 6, 1889, in Vicuña, Chile, the poet, journalist, educator, diplomat, and feminist Gabriela Mistral became the first Latin American Nobel laureate. In her poems and essays, she celebrated women and motherhood in terms that are frequently .

As a young woman, she published Sonnets on Death (Sonetos de la muerte), which won first prize in the Santiago literary contest Juegos Florales in 1914. Almost ten years earlier, the largely self-taught Mistral had begun teaching elementary school at the age of fifteen in La Compañía, a rural mining and agricultural region north of Santiago.

Her career in education, along with her essays on female friendship published in provincial newspapers, soon led to her involvement with the Liceo de Niñas, a state-sponsored school for girls. In 1917, fifty-five of her prose poems, parables, and didactic verses appeared in a series of school texts that were distributed throughout Chile and Latin America. Mistral became a spokeswoman for female education and artistic expression, and eventually developed a populist image as the "saintly schoolteacher" of Latin America.

At the invitation of Mexican intellectual and educator José Vasconceles in 1922, Mistral accompanied her secretary and longtime companion, sculptor Laura Rodig, to postrevolutionary Mexico to help reconstruct the educational infrastructure by developing a primary-school curriculum for girls.

Two important developments occurred for her while in Mexico. She came to the attention of Federico de Onís, a hispanicist at Columbia University, who asked her to collect and publish her poems. The ensuing Desolation (Desolación [1922]) won Mistral international acclaim. Before leaving Mexico under a cloud of controversy (caused by the naming of a rural school after her), Mistral also published Readings for Women (Lecturas para mujeres [1923]), a text in prose and verse that celebrates motherhood, childhood education, and nationalism.

Mistral's reputation as the moral den mother of Latin America grew steadily as her lectures, essays, and poems continued to focus on female friendship, idealized maternity, and women's education. Her international stature led to lectures first in the United States and then in Europe, where she published Tenderness (Ternura [1925]) in Madrid, a collection of lullabies and rondas written primarily for children but often focused on the female body.

Becoming a member of the Cuerpo Consular of the Chilean government in 1932, Mistral was given a consular post that allowed her to choose her own residence. She began her diplomatic mission in Naples and Madrid, but in ensuing years worked in Brazil (Petrópolis), Nice, and Los Angeles. Tree Fall (Tala) appeared in 1938, published in Buenos Aires with the help of longtime friend and correspondent Victoria Ocampo.

As peripatetic ambassador-at-large, the unmarried and childless Mistral traveled throughout Europe and the Americas, dressed in her trademark black velvet frock, cultivating her persona of rustic Latin American schoolmarm, and champion of a brand of feminism that mixed motherhood and literacy. In private, this tireless intellectual chain-smoked and drank scotch, while telling jokes to her female companions.

Mistral won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1945, and published Wine Press (Lagar) in 1954. By the time she died in 1957 in Long Island, where she had retired, she had become a celebrity whose profile was stamped on banknotes and painted on public murals in her native Chile. Published posthumously, her final collection, Poems of Chile (Poema de Chile [1967]), revived the simplicity of style that marks Mistral as the poet of Latin American schoolchildren.

Mistral's collaboration in creating her persona as sanctified champion of heterosexual motherhood and childrearing has recently come under scrutiny by feminist scholars, who emphasize her women-based life and writing. Whereas one scholar has called Mistral's lesbianism an "open secret," others have cautioned that the "smoking vibrator"--definitive documentary evidence of same-sex relations--has not yet been discovered.

Mistral's voluminous correspondence with Victoria Ocampo evidences a passion reminiscent of Woolf, while her almost erotic fascination with the pregnant female is memorialized in poems like "Sister" in Desolación. In her reading of Mistral's "Electra in the Mist" ("Electra en la niebla"), Sylvia Molloy demonstrates how the poet pointedly revises Greek mythology, making Electra rather than Orestes responsible for Clytemnestra's death.

Elizabeth Marchant, unearthing an early prose work by Mistral that expresses a strong aversion to marriage, questions her reputation as champion of traditional gender roles, which a zealously patriarchal critical heritage has maintained. can be found in the series "Crazy Women" ("Locas Mujeres") in Lagar and in the lyric "A Charge to Blanca" ("Encargo a Blanca"), in a series entitled "Delirium" ("Desvario"). Mistral's fascination with a world of women created by women provides a foundation for future scholarship.

David Wilson
Casey Charles


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Gabriela Mistral (left) with Colombian artist, scholar, and writer Santiago Martinez in 1930.
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Fiol-Matta, Licia. "The 'Schoolteacher of America': Gender, Sexuality, and Nation in Gabriela Mistral." Entiendes? Queer Readings, Hispanic Writings. Emilie L. Bergmann and Paul Julian Smith, eds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995. 201-229.

Horan, Elizabeth Rosa. "Mistral, Gabriela." Latin American Writers on Gay and Lesbian Themes: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. David William Foster, ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. 221-235.

Marchant, Elizabeth A. "Nation and Motherhood in Gabriela Mistral." Critical Acts: Latin American Women and Cultural Criticism. Gainsville. University of Florida Press, 1999. 80-106.

Meyer, Doris. "La Correspondencia entre Gabriela Mistral y Victoria Ocampo: Reflexiones sobre la Identidad Americana." Gabriela Mistral: Número Especial: Taller de Letras. Santiago, Chile: Universidad Católica, 1996. 87-100.

Molloy, Sylvia. "Female Textual Identities: The Strategies of Self-Figuration." Women's Writing in Latin America: An Anthology. Sara Castro-Klarén, Sylvia Molloy, and Beatriz Sarlo, eds. Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1991. 107-124.

Teitelboim, Volodia. Gabriela Mistral: Publica y Secreta. Santiago, Chile: Ediciones BAT, 1991.


    Citation Information
    Author: Wilson, David ; Charles, Casey  
    Entry Title: Mistral, Gabriela  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 12, 2007  
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    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  


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