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Tribute to Gariela Mistral

March 23, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

More than ten years ago, when my thesis advisor asked me to translate some of Gabriela Mistral's poetry, I had never heard of her. But I am ever so grateful because Mistral's writings have had a profound impact on my life. Growing up in rural Chile, Mistral was mostly self-taught. She then became a schoolteacher in her late teens. Having served a small community, Mistral began publishing and eventually left Chile and moved around the world as educator, ambassador and human rights advocate. Her mestiza background as well as her understanding of children and poverty made her an incredibly powerful voice. She also wrote with precision. In 1945, she became the first Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the fifth female. And yet, she is seldom read or heard of in English. I understand that we have an astounding amount of quality contemporary literature being produced, and yet, I firmly believe that there are voices from the past who should not be lost. In my mind, Mistral has been marginalized for two reasons. First, I feel that being female affects her reception. Second, she left Chile and never really returned. I think that being a female poet in the beginning of the 20th century, coupled with the fact that she was continually moving, negatively affected her posterity.

In 2003, Ursula Le Guin published a selection of Mistral's poetry. In the introduction, Le Guin wrote, “I do want to talk about her [Mistral's] current obscurity, for she was a famous poet in her lifetime. One would expect a Nobel Prize winner to be well represented in English.... It is not a problem of language, or a North-South problem. Mistral's work is only partly accessible even in Chile. Her roving life left her works curiously dispersed. The four books of poetry published during her lifetime came out in New York, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile.... The problem of Mistral's reputation also has something to do with, alas, gender. Having been adulated as a poetess, she is not read as a poet.” In other words, we cannot celebrate her works with equal fervor to, say, a poet like Neruda, who has become known as the “people's poet”. It's not a contest between one poet or another, but I would argue that both have added great value to society. Mistral's contributions include voices for children and poor that were unheard before her poems. She also discussed indigenous issues. She interacted on a diplomatic level as well as a literary level. Since she is one of Neruda's teachers, I would argue that she is the first “people's poet”.

Mistral vividly discusses nature, youth, age and loss. She adeptly responds to a wide variety of crises, and in multiple languages. Considering that her formal education ended at age twelve, she never ceased to educate herself. An ability to educate oneself combines external and internal resources. In other words, Mistral was able to take advantage of the flourishing culture within Chile, but also proves that she had an incredibly able mind. She read literally everything that she could. Additionally, she traveled as much as possible, gaining experience and insight from each position. I sincerely hope that we continue to honor voices like these, regardless of gender. Voices who reflect humanity, empathy and power. In celebration of her voice and her ethics, here are a few lines as translated by Ursula Le Guin from Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, (2003).

From "El Reparto" ("Sharing Out")

If a woman born blind

were here by me

I'd say to her softly, softly,

in a voice full of dust,

– Sister, take my eyes. ...

 

And take my knees, too,

if yours have been

shackled and stiffened

by the snow and cold. ...

 

If I can end used up,

shared out like a loaf,

scattered south and north,

I'll never be one again.

 

I'll be disburdened

in a pruning of branches

that fall away, dropping

from me as from a tree.

 

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