Biography of Gabriela Mistral, Chilean Poet and Nobel Prize Winner

Chilean writer Gabriela Mistral
Chilean writer Gabriela Mistral, en route to Chile arrives at La Guardia AIrport, New York 10 March 1946, when returning from London where she received the Literature Nobel Award.

 AFP / Getty Image

Gabriela Mistral was a Chilean poet and the first Latin American (man or woman) to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1945. Many of her poems appear to have been at least somewhat autobiographical, responding to the circumstances of her life. She spent a good part of her life in diplomatic roles in Europe, Brazil, and the United States. Mistral is remembered as a strong advocate for women's and children's rights and for equal access to education.

Fast Facts: Gabriela Mistral

  • Also Known As: Lucila Godoy Alcayaga (given name)
  • Known For: Chilean poet and first Latin American Nobel Prize winner
  • Born: April 7, 1889 in Vicuña, Chile
  • Parents: Juan Gerónimo Godoy Villanueva, Petronila Alcayaga Rojas
  • Died: January 10, 1957 in Hempstead, New York
  • Education: University of Chile
  • Selected Works: "Sonnets of Death," "Despair," "Tenderness: Songs for Children," "Tala," "Lagar," "Poem of Chile"
  • Awards and Honors: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1945; Chilean National Prize in Literature, 1951
  • Notable Quote: "Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow,’ his name is today.”

Early Life and Education

Gabriela Mistral was born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga in the small town of Vicuña in the Chilean Andes. She was raised by her mother, Petronila Alcayaga Rojas, and sister Emelina, who was 15 years older. Her father, Juan Gerónimo Godoy Villanueva, had abandoned the family when Lucila was three. Although Mistral rarely saw him, he had an outsized influence on her, particularly in his penchant for writing poetry.

Mistral was also surrounded by nature as a child, which made its way into her poetry. Santiago Daydí-Tolson, a Chilean scholar who wrote a book on Mistral, states, "In Poema de Chile she affirms that the language and imagination of that world of the past and of the countryside always inspired her own choice of vocabulary, images, rhythms, and rhymes." In fact, when she had to leave her small village to be able to continue her studies in Vicuña at the age of 11, she claimed she would never be happy again. According to Daydí-Tolson, "This sense of having been exiled from an ideal place and time characterizes much of Mistral's worldview and helps explain her pervasive sadness and her obsessive search for love and transcendence."

By the time she was a teenager, Mistral was sending in contributions to local newspapers. She began to work as a teacher's aide to support herself and her family, but continued to write. In 1906, at the age of 17, she wrote "The education of women," advocating for equal educational opportunities for women. However, she herself had to leave formal schooling; she was able to gain her teaching certificate in 1910 by studying on her own.

Early Career

  • Sonetos de la Muerte (1914)
  • Patagonian Landscapes (1918)

As a teacher, Mistral was sent to different regions of Chile and learned about the geographical diversity of her country. She also began sending poems to influential Latin American writers, and was first published outside of Chile in 1913. It was at this point that she adopted the Mistral pseudonym, as she didn't want her poetry associated with her career as an educator. In 1914, she won a prize for her Sonnets of Death, three poems about a lost love. Most critics believe the poems relate to the suicide of her friend Romelio Ureta and consider Mistral's poetry to be largely autobiographical: "Mistral was seen as the abandoned woman who had been denied the joy of motherhood and found consolation as an educator in caring for the children of other women, an image she confirmed in her writing, as in the poem El niño solo (The Lonely Child)." More recent scholarship suggests that a possible reason why Mistral remained childless was because she was a closeted lesbian.

In 1918, Mistral was promoted to principal of a high school for girls in Punta Arenas in southern Chile, a remote location that cut her off from family and friends. The experience inspired her three-poem collection Patagonian Landscapes, which reflected her sense of despair at being so isolated. Despite her loneliness, she went above and beyond her duties as a principal to organize evening classes for workers who didn't have the financial means to educate themselves.

Education Museum named after Gabriela Mistral
Education Museum Santiago de Chile.  Leonardo Ampuero / Getty Images

Two years later, she was sent to a new post in Temuco, where she met a teenage Pablo Neruda, whom she encouraged to pursue his literary aspirations. She also came into contact with Chilean indigenous populations and learned about their marginalization, and this was incorporated into her poetry. In 1921, she was appointed to a prestigious post as principal of a high school in the capital, Santiago. However, it was to be a short-lived position.

Mistral's Many Travels and Posts

  • Desolación (Despair, 1922)
  • Lecturas para mujeres (Readings for Women, 1923)
  • Ternura: canciones de niños (Tenderness: Songs for Children, 1924)
  • Muerte de mi madre (Death of my Mother, 1929)
  • Tala (Harvesting, 1938)

The year 1922 marked a decisive period for Mistral. She published her first book, Despair, a collection of the poems she had published in various venues. She traveled to Cuba and Mexico to give readings and talks, settling in Mexico and assisting in rural education campaigns. In 1924, Mistral left Mexico to travel to the U.S. and Europe, and her second book of poems, Tenderness: Songs for Children, was published. She saw this second book as making up for the darkness and bitterness of her first book. Before Mistral returned to Chile in 1925, she made stops in other South American countries. By then, she had become an admired poet throughout Latin America.

The following year, Mistral left Chile again for Paris, this time as secretary of the Latin American section in the League of Nations. She was in charge of the Section of Latin American Letters, and thus came to know all the writers and intellectuals residing in Paris at the time. Mistral took in a nephew who had been abandoned by her half-brother in 1929. A few months later, Mistral learned of her mother's death, and wrote an eight-poem series entitled Death of My Mother.

In 1930, Mistral lost the pension that had been provided to her by the Chilean government, and was forced to do more journalistic writing. She wrote for a wide range of Spanish-language papers, including: The Nation (Buenos Aires), The Times (Bogotá), American Repertoire (San José, Costa Rica), and The Mercury (Santiago). She also accepted an invitation to teach at Columbia University and Middlebury College.

In 1932, the Chilean government gave her a consular position in Naples, but Benito Mussolini's government did not allow her to occupy the position due to her explicit opposition to fascism. She ended up taking a consular position in Madrid in 1933, but was forced to leave in 1936 because of critical statements she made about Spain. Her next stop was Lisbon.

Gabriela Mistral, 1940
Gabriela Mistral, 1940. Historical / Getty Images

In 1938, her third book of poems, Tala, was published. As war came to Europe, Mistral took a post in Rio de Janeiro. It was in Brazil, in 1943, that her nephew died of arsenic poisoning, which devastated Mistral: "From that date onward she lived in constant bereavement, unable to find joy in life because of her loss." The authorities ruled the death a suicide, but Mistral refused to accept this explanation, insisting he had been killed by envious Brazilian schoolmates.

Nobel Prize and Later Years

  • Los sonetos de la muerte y otros poemas elegíacos (1952)
  • Lagar (1954)
  • Recados: Contando a Chile (1957)
  • Poesías completas (1958)
  • Poema de Chile (Poem of Chile, 1967)

Mistral was in Brazil when she learned she'd been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. She was the first Latin American (man or woman) to win a Nobel Prize. Although she was still miserable about the loss of her nephew, she traveled to Sweden to receive the prize.

Gabriela Mistral receiving the Nobel Prize
Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), Chilean poet, receiving Nobel Prize from King Christian X of Denmark. Bettmann / Getty Images 

Mistral left Brazil for southern California in 1946 and was able to buy a house in Santa Barbara with the Nobel Prize money. However, ever restless, Mistral left for Mexico in 1948 and took a position as a consul in Veracruz. She didn't stay in Mexico long, returning to the U.S. and then traveling to Italy. She worked at the Chilean consulate in Naples during the early 1950s, but returned to the U.S. in 1953 due to failing health. She settled on Long Island for the remaining years of her life. During that time, she was the Chilean representative to the United Nations and an active member of the Subcommittee on the Status of Women.

One of Mistral's last projects was Poem of Chile, which was published posthumously (and in an incomplete version) in 1967. Daydí-Tolson writes, "Inspired by her nostalgic memories of the land of her youth that had become idealized in the long years of self-imposed exile, Mistral tries in this poem to conciliate her regret for having lived half of her life away from her country with her desire to transcend all human needs and find final rest and happiness in death and eternal life."

Death and Legacy

In 1956, Mistral was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. She died just a few weeks later, on January 10, 1957. Her remains were flown by military plane to Santiago and buried in her hometown village.

Mistral is remembered as a pioneering Latin American poet and a strong advocate for women's and children's rights and equal access to education. Her poems have been translated into English by major writers like Langston Hughes and Ursula Le Guin. In Chile, Mistral is referred to as the "mother of the nation."

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