Gabriela Mistral

Chilean Nobel Prize of Literature Winner

Chile is incredibly proud to have Latin America's first Noble Prize winner in literature Gabriela Mistral as one of its daughters.

Gabriela and her family were abandoned by her father when she was just a little girl. Her sister supported the family by teaching in a small school where they lived. Her mother was a seamstress. At age 14 she also began as a teacher's assistant teaching working to read by night.

She fell in love with a railway worker named Romelio Ureta when she was very young. He committed suicide at a very young age with her name written on a card in his pocket. Mistral never fully recovered from his loss, and remained devoted to her beloved her entire life. Although she never married and had children of her own she is commonly referred to as "La Madre de América" (The Mother of America) as she dedicated all of her energy to the children of Chile, and later the world.

She continued with her career in teaching for most of her life. She also remarkably taught Chile's second Noble Prize winner, Pablo Neruda when he was only 10 years old.

Gabriel Mistral was born Lucila de María de Perpetua Socorro Dodoy Alcayata. She was very timed about publishing her poetry from the beginning and used many aliases such as Soledad (Solitude) and Alma (Soul). She was so shy to accept public recognition that she even had a friend receiving her first literary award as a surrogate while she sat in the audience. Later she took on the pen name Gabriela Mistral as a combination of names of two of her favorite authors.

The sensitive poetry that she wrote was not a reflection of her own public character, as she has always been seen as a distant austere figure, whose life appears somewhat boring when compared to Neruda's adventures. Her work is marked heavily by her desire to be a mother, and to bring comfort into a melancholy world. She also tackles the concept of death and dying in a way that for the first time allowed many people to discuss the topic openly. Her personal losses were the source of her collections Los Sonetos de la Muerte (Sonnets of Death), Desolación (Desolation), and Ternura (Tenderness). Mistral also wrote about the nature of her beloved Chile, especially about where she spent her childhood in Valle del Elqui. For example, one of her poems compares the ocean tides coming in and out with the soothing caresses of a mother to her baby. The poem is filled with blue and grey images reflecting the sadness she feels to never have had the opportunity to be a mother herself. Much of her work has a mystical slant to it, and in general is considered difficult to translate, for the devices of poetry that she uses and her manipulation of the language.

Her poetry immediately gained international acclaim, thus the Chilean government offered her the position as consul, giving her the time to focus on her poetry. She spent many years in the United States and taught at Vassar College and Columbia University. While Mistral could consider each of the Presidents of Chile to be personal friends, she was never known to have radical or controversial politics.

Even though she was never able to have her own children, she did play the role of surrogate mother to her nephew "Yin-Yin". She took care of him from the time he was less than a year old until at age 17 he committed suicide while they were in Brazil. Mistral was a consul for Chile there at the time.

She died at the age of 67 on 10 January 1957, from cancer of the pancreas. Ten years after receiving the Noble Prize, Mistral passed away in New York, but days later her body was taken back to Montegrande in the Valle del Elqui. Without any heirs, she decided to give all the proceeds of her works to the children of Montegrande.

There is a museum dedicated to her life and works in Vicuña (Av Gabriela Mistral four blocks from the Plaza de Armas). It contains many photographs and personal objects belonging to her, including her treasured writing desk.

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Last Updated: 14 March 2014
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