How Gabriela Mistral Proved That Poetry And Advocacy Can Collide

Welcome back to our series ‘Poetry’s Pioneering Women’! Today we will be taking a look at Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral whose lyrical style and profound writing helped her become one of Chile’s most influential poets.

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Mistral’s History

Gabriela Mistral was born as Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga in Vicuña, Chile in 1889. Rumor has it that her pseudonym was created as a combination of her two favorite poets: Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral. Gabriela Mistral was born into a creative and spiritual family and soon began writing poetry herself. Mistral spent a lot of time working as a schoolteacher and advocating for education. Some experiences that inspired her writings were troubles in academia and the death of her first lover. While working in education, Mistral submitted some articles to various newspapers. One of these articles was “La Instrucción De La Mujer” which advocated for women’s access to education. 

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A few years later, Mistral had some of her writing published in the French magazine Elegancias. Over the next few years, Mistral served as the principal in many Chilean schools. Her work in different communities inspired much of her writing such as the poem collection “Paisajes de la Patagonia”, which spoke of her time being separated from her family due to work. Her time working near a native Indian population inspired the poem “Poemas De La Madre Más Triste”

In 1922, Mistral published her first book Desolación. Desolación is a book of poems that explores morality, motherhood, love, and religion. Throughout this period of her life, Mistral continued to write and travel the world to share her work. In 1925, Mistral became the secretary of the Latin American section in the League of Nations in Paris. Mistral taught Spanish literature at multiple prestigious institutions such as Columbia University, Barnard College, and Vassar College. Mistral was also the first Latin American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She spent the last few years of her life in New York City battling pancreatic cancer. In 1957, Mistral passed away at the age of 1957.

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Style & Significance

Gabriela Mistral’s writing was often characterized by its lyrical style, strong emotion, and themes of love, nature, and youth. These impactful qualities help her win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. Additionally, her writing often touched upon important social issues of the time such as gender in society and the fair treatment of educators. 

Mistral’s impact lies largely in the topics which she wrote about. Her writings about women and motherhood are often argued as feminist. This is not far-fetched, considering Mistral was a self-declared socialist. For example, in her poem “Mujer Fuerte” (which translates to “The Strong Woman”, in English), Mistral describes a figure that resembles the Virgin Mary as goddess-like. In doing so, Mistral expands what her idea of motherhood and femininity means and extends these concepts as things that all people can be a part of.

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In addition to her focus on womanhood, much of Mistral’s poetry can be seen as both a contribution and a response to the modernist movement. The modernist movement in poetry strived to move away from the poet’s own experiences and focus on statements that could apply to the world as a whole. The power that human beings had to influence and change their environment was also often discussed in modernist literature and poetry. The modernist period in poetry did not last very long and was not always received super well, but it is still an interesting movement nonetheless. Other famous poets that are known for modernism are T.S Elliot and Ezra Pound.

The Book That Changed It All

Additionally, it has been rumored for a long time that Mistral was in a romantic relationship with another woman: Doris Dana. In the early 2000s, a compilation of letters from Mistral to Dana was published and eventually republished in English translation. These letters confirm the relationship and give insight into Mistral’s values. The letters imply that Mistral held fluid ideologies of gender and other social issues. This book was a huge addition to Mistral’s collection of work, as it helped to clarify her earlier works and solidify her personal views. Before this publication, it could be argued that she was a social advocate, but now there was documented credibility and lived experience of LGBTQ and women’s issues for Gabriela Mistral.

A Children’s Song

Mistral also cemented her legacy by writing and publishing many poems meant for children. Her book Tenura includes many of these poems, lullabies, and songs. One of Mistral’s famous works is “Dame La Mano”. The poem was originally published in her book Desolación and was later adapted into a children’s song. Below is the poem “Dame La Mano” in its original Spanish and a rough English translation:

‘Dame La Mano’ By Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral is still celebrated today. Many of her children’s songs are taught in early education and her writing continues to be studied and celebrated for its political undertones. Mistral has many accolades in her memory including the Gabriela Mistral Foundation, which was announced by Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet in 2007. She is also the face of the Chilean 5000 pesos. Many Chilean sites also celebrate Mistral through murals, statues, and educational opportunities. 

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Mistral is certainly not the only figure to point out societal issues in her writing. However, through her unique style and ability to connect with so many different people, Mistral is surely one of poetry’s pioneering women. 

To read more of our ‘Poetry’s Pioneering Women’ series, click here!

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