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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King's Speech

January 13, 2017

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

U2 performing MLK

 Common, “A Dream”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most vocal and prolific proponents of a path to peace through nonviolence. He fought with words and love and forgiveness, instead of fear and anger. He responded to death threats, violence and hatred with patience and understanding. Though Martin Luther King, Jr. sought for equality during the civil rights movement, his words transcend any single movement. For example, he defines peace as “not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” For quotes such as this as well as his many other great words and actions, our government dedicates the third Monday of January in reverence of peace and justice.

The concept of justice is difficult, layered by changes with each government and culture. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists justice as “the quality of being just, impartial or fair” or “conformity to truth, fact or reason”. Whether you believe in Plato's harmonious civil society, or John Locke's natural law, there is no denying the great impact that a contemporary understanding of justice has upon society. Justice is, in fact, a foundational feature of society, whether we notice it in our daily lives or not.

In the Proclamation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Ronald Reagan said, “He [King] wanted 'to transform the jangling discords of our Nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.'” And so, in a seemingly literal response, Martin Luther King's words have been incorporated into many styles of music, fiction and art. Yet, his most quoted speech (“I Have a dream”), only grants the barest essence of his life's work. His words have traveled the world, through all genres and arts.

Society depends upon and changes with the way we understand “justice”. King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech offers a fantastic opportunity to listen to the accumulation of his teachings, presented in his own words and style. No matter what medium delivers his words to us, there is no doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words have affected our cultural understanding of justice. To set aside a day for the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., therefore, is also a proclamation for peace. I encourage you to spend five minutes of your day understanding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s version of peace and justice. Compare it to what you know of Plato's or Locke's or Mill's or the concepts defined in the songs by U2 or Common. (Note that there are many songs which incorporate King's words, these are only two examples).

As a start, this excerpt comes from Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.


“Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau: 'Improved means to an unimproved end'. This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual 'lag' must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the 'without' of man's nature subjugates the 'within', dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.”

For the transcript or audio of the full speech, please visit the archive at

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