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Gabriela Mistral Biography | Poet

Photo of Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral was the pseudonym of Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, who was a Chilean diplomat and poet of mixed heritage, a feminist and an educator. She was born on April 7, 1889 in Vicuna, Chile to Petronila, a seamstress and Jeronimo Godoy Alcayaga Villanueva, a school teacher. She had an older sister named Emilina Molina. She was the first Latina to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945 and also received the National Prize for Literature earlier in her life from her own country.

Early Life, Love and Loss

When Gabriela was three years old, her father abandoned the family leaving her ailing mother to care for the children. He later died before ever returning to the home. She started working early as a teacher's assistant at the young age of 15 to assist supporting the household. A year later she met Romeo Ureta, a railroad worker and fell in love with him. Sadly, he committed suicide at an early age causing a terrible emotional reaction in her. She dealt with this pain and sadness through her writing and focused on the ideas of death and life, sadness, faith and love. She was a Catholic woman and many of her pieces reflected her beliefs in the afterlife.

Career as a Teacher

Gabriela lived and worked in some of the poorest and most rural of areas. Because the need for teachers was so great, she was able to find gainful employment. She also traveled and relocated often in order to obtain better positions. She had been turned down for the Normal School, but continued her unwavering path writing and teaching. She later traveled to Mexico, Texas, New York and onto the European continent. Her genius and brilliance were well revered and in 1923, the University of Chile pronounced her as a Spanish Professor.

Politics and Exile

Mistral spent the majority of her adult years in exile living abroad in Italy, France and at times in New York. She was seen in some respects as a threat as well as a visionary. Many wonderful artists and writers have received similar treatment during this era. She was a strong activist and leader in many ways.

She worked for the League of Intellectual Cooperation. She also served as consul from 1932 until she passed. She had many strong political connections and confided in many important politicians including Eduardo Santos, President of Colombia, Eleanor Roosevelt and the many presidents of Chile throughout the whole of her adult life.

Famous Works

In 1914, she wrote "Sonets De la Muerte", "Sonnets of Death", and received the first prize of a literary contest. She never stopped writing and she wrote hundreds of poems, articles and educational papers. She was often in the midst of controversy, but her work was well loved. In 1938, a book of poetry, "Tala" was published in Buenos Aires. She donated the proceeds to the orphans of the Spanish Civil War.

More Loss

August 14, 1943, Mistral's nephew, Juan Miguel Godoy, killed himself. She had seen him as a son and this loss inspired deep religious and emotional poetry and writing. In her life, she had to work hard, through much emotional turmoil, and at a level of poverty most of the time. She experienced much death, but this loss hit her very hard. The world was at war and she had to endure personal turmoil as well. She compiled a last volume of poetry, "Lagar", which was a collection of works that reflected her insights into WWII, the Cold War and her personal struggles with losing her Juan.

High Achievements

In 1945, she received the Noble Prize and accepted it from the King Gustav of Sweden. In 1947, she received her Honorary Doctorate from Mills College in Oakland, California and in 1951 she won the National Literature Prize in Chile.

Death and Legacy

As her health declined, she retired to Hempstead, New York and died from pancreatic cancer on January 10, 1957 at 67. Upon the return of her remains to Chile, the president announced three days of mourning. She touched many people in her life as a writer, teacher and political leader. She had taught internationally and given talks and conferences on three continents. "Poema De Chile" was published posthumously by her friend Doris Dana. This work reflected her desire to embrace the epic traditional style of the Americas. 

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