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Professor and poetess

Gabriel Mistral is one of Chile and South America’s most famous poets. She is considered a leading figure of women’s international poetry as well as the first Latin American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945. Gabriela Mistral was the pseudonym of Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga. She was born in Vicuna. Her father, Juan Gerónimo Godoy Villanueva, was a schoolteacher and her mother, Petronila Alcayaga, a seamstress. Shortly after she was born, the whole family moved to Pisco Elqui. Three years later, her father abandoned the family and she and her mother settled in a small town of the Elqui Valley, Montegrande, where her half-sister, Emelina Molina, was living.

The influence of her sister was decisive over her decision to become a teacher, aiming her pedagogical approach towards child development and protection. She began her career very young. At age 15, in 1904, she was already hired as an assistant professor at the Escuela de la Compañia Baja. Her getting into the Escuela Normal de Preceptoras in La Serena was compromised because some of her poems were considered “pagan” and “liberals” in a very conservative environment.

The suicide of her lover, a railway worker named Romelio Ureta, for unknown reasons affected her deeply and had a profound influence on her works.

Between the years 1906 and 1912 she had taught, successively, in three schools near La Serena, then in Barrancas, then Traiguén in 1910, and in Antofagasta in the desert north, in 1911. In 1918, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, then Minister of Education, and a future president of Chile, promoted her appointment to direct a liceo in Punta Arenas. She moved on to Temuco in 1920, where she met the young Neftali Reyes Basoalto (Pablo Neruda).

She developed her poetry while she was teaching. She published some early poems, such as Ensoñaciones ("Dreams"), Carta Íntima ("Intimate Letter") and Junto al Mar ("By the Sea"), in the local newspaper El Coquimbo: Diario Radical, and La Voz de Elqui using a range of pseudonyms and variations on her civil name.

An important moment of formal recognition came on December 22, 1914, when Mistral was awarded first prize in a national literary contest Juegos Florales in Santiago (the capital of Chile), with the work Sonetos de la Muerte (Sonnets of Death). She had been using the pen name Gabriela Mistral since June 1908 for much of her writing.

She accepted an invitation to work in Mexico in 1922, from that country's Minister of Education, José Vasconcelos. He had her join in the nation's plan to reform libraries and schools, to start a national education system. That year she published Desolación in New York, which further promoted the international acclaim she had already been receiving thanks to her journalism and public speaking. A year later she published Lecturas para Mujeres (Readings for Women), a text in prose and verse that celebrates Latin America from the broad, Americanist perspective developed in the wake of the Mexican Revolution.

Mistral's international stature made it highly unlikely that she would remain in Chile. In mid-1925 she was invited to represent Latin America in the newly formed Institute for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. With her relocation to France in early 1926 she was effectively in exile for the rest of her life. She made a living, at first, from journalism and then giving lectures in the United States and in Latin America, including Puerto Rico. She variously toured the Caribbean, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, among other places.

Mistral lived primarily in France and Italy between 1926 and 1932. During these years she worked for the League for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, attending conferences of women and educators throughout Europe and occasionally in the Americas. She held a visiting professorship at Barnard College of Columbia University in 1930–1931, worked briefly at Middlebury College and Vassar College in 1931, and was warmly received at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, where she variously gave conferences or wrote, in 1931, 1932, and 1933.

At the end of the 30’, literary circles from different countries started encouraging Mistral’s candidature for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The president Pedro Aguirre Cerda and the Ecuadorian writer Velasco Adelaide Galdos supported her as well, and translated some of her work.

On November 15, 1945, Mistral became the first Latin American, and fifth woman, to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1951 she was awarded the National Literature Prize in Chile.

Poor health somewhat slowed Mistral's traveling. During the last years of her life she made her home in the town of Roslyn, New York; in early January 1957 she transferred to Hempstead, New York, where she died from pancreatic cancer on January 10, 1957, aged 67. Her remains were returned to Chile nine days later. The Chilean government declared three days of national mourning, and hundreds of thousands of Chileans came to pay her their respects.

Her lyric poetry, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world. Some central themes in her poems are nature, betrayal, love, a mother's love, sorrow and recovery, travel, and Latin American identity as formed from a mixture of Native American and European influences.

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