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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 33
Author: Elizabeth Horan
Title: Gabriela Mistral: An Artist and Her People

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

THE SUCCESS OF DESOLACIÓN [DESOLATION]

 

I. Modesty versus Pride—La Maestra and el Artista
[The Teacher and the Artist]
1

A Combative Adolescent

Soy modesta hasta la humildad y altiva hasta el orgullo. Me enorgullece inspirar ataques y odios; el inspirar desprecio me apenaría. Tengo una coraza que me hace impasible a todo ataque dirigido a mí por la Calumnia y la Maldad: mi carácter altivo, indomable, inalterable... Para derrotar a los míseros tengo una indiferencia, y una energía y un valor inmenso para combatir con los grandes.

[I am modest to the point of humbleness and arrogant to the point of pride. It makes me proud to inspire attacks and hatred; inspiring disdain would sadden me. I have a thick shell that makes me impassive to any attack directed towards me by Calumny and Evil: my arrogant character, indomitable, unchangeable... Towards pulling down the stingy I am indifferent, and have energy and immense courage for battling the eminent.]2

Originally printed as part of a response to an attack on her writing that had appeared in the local newspaper, El Coquimbo, Mistral wrote this self-description at the age of seventeen. The same lines reappear two years later, when her work was included in an anthology of the work of various local writers. The writer’s combative and seemingly self- assertive attitude has something of teenage bravado, yet the paragraph manifests personal qualities that remained hers throughout her life: a preoccupation with disapproval incongruously coupled with the refusal to be ignored. Here as elsewhere she cultivates contrasting and even contradictory personal attributes—modesty and haughtiness, humbleness and pride, indifference and combativeness.

This stated readiness to welcome attack, rather than be ignored, runs contrary to the circumspect, self-abnegating persona that appears in the letter to “Iris,” written eight years later, cited at the end of Chapter One. In the letter to “Iris” she describes herself as “una desconocida de provincia” [an unknown woman from the provinces] and uses phrases such as “no le hablo de mi, que nada significo” [I speak not of myself, for I am worthless.] In between the two statements she learned to avoid aggressive posturing. As she grew older, her recollections of herself as a child changed, as if to retract the earlier assertions that she was thick-skinned (“tengo una coraza”), courageous (“valor”), arrogant (“altiva”), quick to do battle, and, implicitly, quick to take offense. Her revised picture of herself as an adolescent avoids any reference to combativeness, concentrating instead on her personal awkwardness: “mi hurañez de castor que corría entre dos cuevas” [my timidity, like that of a beaver who scampered between two caves.] As an adult she thought of herself as having been “una niña triste... una niña huraña como son los grillos oscuros cuando es de día, como es el lagarto verde” [a sad little girl... a little girl as timid as the dark crickets during the day, as timid as the green lizard.]3

The strong contrast between the poet’s earliest self-descriptions, which show an insistent, scarcely concealed combativeness, and the view she later adopts, looking back on herself as having been a timid child, strongly suggest that reticence was a learned behavior for Mistral, who would need to cover up the pride that was bound to make her a target of attacks. Stalwart and impassive as she had claimed to be in the earliest self-description, there can be no doubt that she was extremely sensitive to criticism. This aspect of Mistral’s relationship with the public has been underestimated by critics who have preferred to idealize her as a monolith of almost superhuman strength. The origins of that idealization begin in the early years of the poet’s career, when she cultivated a poetic identity as a “maestra,” a schoolmistress whose authority was borrowed, proxy-like, from the state. The evolution, attributes, and utility of the persona from which her fame grew is the focus of this chapter.

Advantages of Rejection

The self-characterizations cited thus far evidence what was to become a lifelong preoccupation with disapproval and rejection. According to many who claim to have known her well, a hot and cold nature and suspicions of personal disloyalty required unusual tolerance from friends and acquaintances.4 Sensitivity to persecution may make for difficulties in one’s personal life, but as an artist, Mistral transformed her sense of constant personal struggle into a seemingly permanent identification with the oppressed and the suffering. Combining the role of “la madre aguantadora” [the enduring mother]—a traditionally silent figure of suffering—with the advantages of state patronage, she became an outspoken crusader for peace, literacy, and the rights of the native peoples of America, women and children. There were, of course, limitations on her right to speak, and we shall explore them.

Preoccupation with disapproval and sensitivity to rejection is exactly what one would expect of a lower middle-class, unmarried Chilean schoolteacher, “an unknown woman from the provinces.” What is unusual and unexpected is her refusal to be ignored, and the terms in which she states that refusal. Out of the contradiction between fear of disapproval on one hand and the desire for attention on the other, there emerge the first signs of the poet’s mature complexity as an artist. In a letter to a friend, written during the early years of her career, she describes art as a spiritual path enabling her at best to transcend and at the very least to bypass her own feelings of exclusion from the world of propriety, a world fittingly encapsulated in the snobbery of fashionable women:

No tiene el mundo nada mejor que esta exaltación espiritual que dan el arte, la naturaleza, los sentimientos soberanos. Cuando se llega a comprender esta verdad, todo lo demás: sociedad, chisme mundano, faldas empingorotadas de mujeres, se mira desde el margen del camino, se les ve pasar con una sonrisa fría entre los labios.

[There is nothing better in the world than this spiritual exaltation provided by art, nature and the sovereign senses. When one comes to understand this truth, everything else—society, mundane gossip, skirts with pettycoats—is watched from the side of the road with a cold sneer.]5

In the opening paragraph Mistral had asserted merely her own immunity to criticism, but this text written some eight years later suggests that she is the one who is critical, wearing “una sonrisa fría entre los labios” [a cold sneer.] The defense in the earlier passage involves the deliberate creation of a public persona in which pride and humility co-exist. The defense in the later one engages an idealized assertion about art as a means for taking on an impersonal, objective, transcendent attitude. Such a stance renders humility—or even the creation of an artistic persona—irrelevant. In the work that she produced during the first third of her career, she therefore moved between two alternative stances which allowed her to be assertive without inviting attack. One stance was to speak through the poetic persona of the “maestra,” which embodied contradictory qualities such as a simultaneous pride and humility. The alternative stance was the omniscient, detached attitude that she associates, in Desolación [Desolation], with “the artist” rather than with a particular persona. This impersonal stance is exemplified in the “Decálogo del artista” [Decalogue of the Artist], in the poems describing art-objects or nature in the first section of Desolación, and, to a lesser extent, by the “Voto” [Vow] which closes that volume. The detachment of the “artista” [artist] mode in these pieces is an attempt to avoid the limitations of humility, selflessness and vulnerability that the “maestra” persona mandated for her writing. Such escapes did not last long, given the immense popularity and accessibility, to herself and to her readers, that the pose of humility entailed. The “maestra” persona was inevitable given Mistral’s intent to use the first person authoritatively in issuing a call to judgment. Posing as a humble schoolteacher paradoxically allowed Mistral to enact a moral superiority that she could only indirectly assert when using the third person to describe art and the artist.

The maestra persona appears to be a humble one, but it is in fact heroic. That heroism serves her well in her poetry: she speaks in the first person as one who is both humble and proud, modest and arrogant, self-righteously impervious to criticism, eager to battle with “los grandes” [the eminent.] The assertion of art’s transcendent value, on the other hand, allows a respite from the first person mode by substituting omniscient, impersonal authority. The “spiritual exaltation” of art enables her to bypass the insecurities of a young woman born and raised in a mountain village, whose earliest published work appeared under pseudonyms, such as “Alguien” [Somebody] and “Soledad” [Loneliness], versions of the self that tell of how pressingly she felt the need to push on the boundaries of her own identity. Thus the very name “Gabriela Mistral,” which scholars have variously described as an act of homage to Gabriele D’Annunzio and Federico Mistral, or as “nombre de arcángel, apellido de viento” [named after an archangel and with the surname of a wind.] In either case the name identifies the writer with a higher, broader, already recognized authority, be it the borrowed authority of two regionalist European writers, both male, or be it the authority of Gabriel, God’s messenger to Mary and Elizabeth, and of Nature, embodied in the wind.

Modesty and Humility in the Context of Class, Race and Gender

With regard to the creation of a persona, Mistral seems to have been aware of herself, of her apparent inconsistencies, even to the point of consciously cultivating and throwing them down before her readers from the very start. When she writes “Soy modesta hasta la humildad y altiva hasta el orgullo” [I am modest to the point of humbleness and arrogant to the point of pride], the words “modesta” [modest] and “humildad” [humbleness] present her as meekly accepting a subordination that is social, economic, and sexual. To be a person of modest means, for example, is to be in a social or economic position that isn’t brilliant, but isn’t abject either.6 The two furthest extremes of social class in Chile are “clase alta” [upper class] and “clase humilde” [lower class.] The use of the “modesta-humilde” [modest-humble] pair in this social and economic sense is reflected in Chilean critic Hernán Díaz Arrieta’s account of Mistral’s origins:

Sus padres, don Jerónimo Godoy Villanueva y doña Petronila Alcayaga, de modesta fortuna, pertenecían a esa clase social provinciana en que, según los genealogistas, han quedado, obscurecidos, pero no humillados, los descendientes de los conquistadores, es decir, los que en todas partes forman la verdadera aristocracia.

[Her parents, don Jerónimo Godoy Villanueva and doña Petronila Alcayaga, of modest fortune, belonged to that provincial social class in which, according to the genealogists, the descendants of the conquistadors, that is to say, those who everywhere form the true aristocracy, have remained dark-skinned but not humilliated.]7

Díaz Arrieta’s usage of “modesta” refers specifically to the economic condition of her parents; “no humillados” [not humbled] alludes to the poet’s social class. His references to “conquistadors” and the “true aristocracy” represent an overt attempt to infuse her poverty with a genteel aura and thus to assert that her rise to fame does not disrupt a social hierarchy in which the “obscurecidos,” the descendants of the darker-skinned indigenous peoples of Chile, are at the bottom, and those of so-called pure European blood are close to the top.8 This characterization is all the more outrageous in that Mistral utterly repudiated the concept of purity of blood (as the study of Mistral’s lullabies in Chapter Four of this manuscript indicates); she was particularly loathe to identify herself with pillaging, gold-hungry Spaniards.9 In direct contrast to the genealogy that Arrieta proposes, she posited an apocryphal genealogy consisting of elements that she associated with once-proud civilizations brought into suffering: Jews, Basques, and the Diaguita Indians. The latter were indigenous to the Valle de Elqui and represented the furthest southern extension of the Inca empire. We would do well to revise Díaz Arrieta’s assertion: for Mistral, the obscurity of her ancestry was a point of pride allowing her to identify with the downtrodden.

In their social and economic signification, the terms “modesta” and “humildad” imply an uncomplaining acceptance of an ordinary position in society. Beyond this, “modesta” is specifically applied to women and is synonymous with “honesta,” “pudorosa,” “recatada” [honest, chaste, reserved.] María Moliner states that these terms refer to a woman’s taking care that her behavior toward the opposite sex be considered neither free nor provocative. This modesty involves circumspection, restraint, not taking initiative: it is the enforced passivity of feminine deportment, which operated as a constraint on the behavior of middle- and upper-class women. Strictures on womanly modesty were used to maintain the structure of male privilege; by dissuading women from seeking anything more than a rudimentary education, and by limiting the options of those who did manage to educate themselves, the constraints of modesty ensured that women would not enter into open competition with men.10 Modesty as a constraint on women’s public behavior was to be an especially crucial aspect of Mistral’s development of the “maestra” persona, in which the schoolteacher’s piety and purity provided a license for covert subversion.

As a constraint on women’s behavior, modesty accentuates the division between the sexes, which middle-class women exploited for their own benefit, forming independent women’s groups which lay outside male influence. Although the advantage of modesty is that it enables a woman such as Mistral to live in almost exclusively feminine realms, patriarchy censures women who manage to exploit modesty for their own ends. Thus, women who refuse to submit to male dominance (by declining to marry, for instance) are accused of prudishness or cruelty; their modesty is condemned as arrogance or pride, what Mistral characterizes as her “altivez” [arrogance] and “orgullo” [pride.]

Angry, Proud Women: Cervantes’ Marcela and Mistral’s Speaker
in the “Sonetos de la muerte” [Death Sonnets]

María Moliner writes that “altiva” is used to refer to someone who treats others with condescension.11 The rebellious Marcela in Don Quijote would be a classic example of how a woman who turns down suitors and chooses to remain single is accused of “altivez,” of being selfish and proud.12 The parallel between Mistral and the fictional Marcela offers a good illustration of how Mistral’s “Sonetos de la muerte” use conventional feminine humility as a mask for arrogance, and arrogance as a mask for anger. In Don Quijote, Marcela is called on to defend her choice to remain single after she has been accused of driving an eligible suitor to suicide by her selfish and arrogant desire to remain single. A similar configuration of love, suicide and spinsterhood surrounds Mistral. Popular lore has it that Mistral’s more than twenty poems dedicated “a su sombra” [to his shadow] refer to the young suicide Romelio Urreta, and that the poet wrote these poems, including the “Sonetos de la muerte,” in an expression of guilt, anger, and remorse at his death. Mistral, however, escapes the charge of a selfish, or arrogant refusal to marry by warmly asserting that she loved and still loves the young man, but as a mother would:

Te acostaré en la tierra soleada con una
dulcedumbre de madre para el hijo dormido,
y la tierra ha de hacerse suavidades de cuna
al recibir tu cuerpo de niño dolorido.

[I will lay you down in the sun-bathed earth with a
mother’s softness for the sleeping child,
and the earth shall become soft as a cradle
when receiving your aching child’s body.]13

Just as Marcela denies the charge of cruelty that men level against women who ignore or refuse the requests of supposedly love-sick males, the speaker in Mistral’s “Sonetos de la muerte” queries the charge that she is pitiless. Where Marcela engages in an elaborate self-defense, the speaker of the “Sonetos” questions the validity of the accusation by arguing that she did not understand what his kind of love was all about:

¿Que no sé del amor, que no tuve piedad?

[That I don’t know about love, that I had no pity?]

For critics who like to describe the “Sonetos de la muerte” in flowery terms as springing from the speaker’s supposedly fiercely protective love for the dead lover, there is an uneasy ambiguity in these lines: rather than stating that she loves him, she states that she knows about love—in retrospect. Those who insist that “she loved him” and feels remorseful evade the poem’s vehemence, which derives less from the poet’s supposedly tender feelings than from the speaker’s anger towards the lover and others who would thwart her will and superior understanding of their fate:

... en nuestro amor signo de astros había
y roto el pacto enorme, tenías que morir.

[...there was a sign of stars in our love
and once the huge pact was broken, you had to die.]

She is even more openly angry towards a world that is trying to cheat her. Her self-description as a woman prepared to defend what she sees as rightly hers is an expression of pride quite equal to any found in Cervantes’s depiction of Marcela. In the following lines, Mistral’s contentiousness comes to the forefront—after she has sanctioned it by representing herself as a woman who will defend herself against any who might try to despoil her of what little she has:

Me alejaré cantando mis venganzas hermosas,
¡porque a ese hondor recóndito la mano de ninguna
bajará a disputarme tu puñado de huesos!

[I will go away singing my beautiful vengeances,
because to that hidden depth no one else’s hand
will descend to dispute me your fistful of bones!]

Underneath the ambiguous expression of a love discovered too late for it to be realized, the desire for vengeance is what motivates her “song.” The tenacity of the speaker’s attitude verges on immodesty, were it not for the anger, pride and rebelliousness that are sanctioned by the subject matter. The speaker’s focused dedication to the memory of her young, dead lover permits her a far wider latitude than she would otherwise have.

There are other, less sanctionable contexts in which Mistral rejects modesty in order to express similar anger and pride. She tears off the smiling, otherworldly mask of selfless dedication in only the most protected circumstances: one must sift through her private correspondence with trusted individuals in order to find the poet admitting how stifled she was by the routine life of a rural schoolteacher, “esta vida de pueblo chico, rutinaria, grosera e insípida” [this small-town life, routine, coarse and insipid.]14 Such discontent sharply contradicts the rigidly-defined official version of Mistral’s life as an apostle to children and the rural poor. The fact of her dissatisfaction with this role gives some indication that the humility of this persona was a consciously assumed mask, and not, as has so long been assumed, just one more indication of the poet’s saintly personality.

The Schoolteacher’s Authority: In Loco Parentis

The figures of the “maestra,” characterized by a tone of humility, and of the “artista,” by distance, represent two different strategies, on Mistral’s part, to cope with an environment, a reading public that she perceived, with some accuracy, as hostile to her. As an outsider, Mistral personally lacked most of the tangible resources of social privilege that enabled other men and women of her day to present themselves as “artists.” Rather than setting herself in the aristocratic mold denied her, she turns her lack of social prestige or gentility into the positive value of the self-made woman, summing herself up to a friend from Los Andes: “Aquí, mi amigo, va en síntesis mi pobre vida, en la que yo encuentro una cosa extraordinaria: el esfuerzo” [Here, my friend, in synthesis, is my poor life, in which I discover a single extraordinary thing: effort.]15

The qualities of the self-made woman fit neatly into her characterization of the “maestra” as a public servant. Her “maestra” is depicted in such a way as to condemn the cold and selfish upper classes:

Mi corazón le sea más columnas y mi buena voluntad más oro que las columnas y el oro de las escuelas ricas.

[May my heart provide more columns and my good will more gold than the columns and gold of the wealthy schools.]16

The “maestra” physically and spiritually identifies herself, heart and will, with the school that she serves. This continuity between one’s public role and one’s individual conduct is a basic premise of Mistral’s theory of art. In her later writings on the subject of “el oficio,” that is, profession and vocation, artistic activity is described as a form of service in which the individual engages to the advantage both of the self and of the community.

Taking on the persona of the “maestra” gives the poet access to two channels of authority. To identify the schoolmistress’s interests with the school’s interests is to partake of the palpable authority of the state. Her authority as guardian of public morality presumes responsibility in exchange for an obligation to accept communal values. Obliged to stay within the previously mentioned confines of gender and class, the “maestra” cannot be too explicit about how the comfort of the few is bought at the human expense of the many. Still, by claiming that women’s maternal role need be extended into the world at large, the “maestra” persona legitimates the involvement of women in the public realm. I have already pointed out that this tactic of extending the boundaries of maternal authority from the individual to the generalized family was by no means unique to Mistral—it was at the heart of early feminism both in the United States and in Chile.17 What is singular about the “maestra” as a poetic persona is the way that it both frees and limits the poet: the “maestra” manages to represent state interests without abandoning or even repressing her orientation as a woman. Our effort to analyze that persona and understand what it represents means retracing the poet’s early attempts toward defining what a woman’s orientation would be.

When she brings together the authority of the poet with the state-sponsored version of maternal authority, Mistral’s “maestra” observes an important distinction between the “maestra” and the literal mother. The “place” of the “maestra” and her symbol of authority is her workdesk (“mi mesa de trabajo”) within the physical boundaries of her school (“mi escuela de ladrillos...su atrio pobre, su sala desnuda” [my school of bricks...its poor foyer, its naked room]). The literal mother—as we shall see in examining poems and prose pieces that Mistral directed toward a primarily female audience—is excluded from the boundaries of the school, where the teacher stands in her place. Because the “maestra” takes over the place that the mother would have, if she lived in the world, the “maestra” must adhere all the more to the code of sexual propriety:

Dame el ser más madre que las madres para poder amar y defender como ellas lo que no es carne de mis carnes.

[Let me be more motherly than the mothers, so I can love and defend like them what is not flesh of my flesh.]18

The biblical phrase (which the poet italicizes) emphasizes the origin of this woman’s selfless idealism in virginal purity, a purity that only metaphorical mothers can lay claim to.19

The “Oración de la maestra” [Prayer of the Schoolteacher] hints at a connection between the “maestra’s” messianic qualities and her unsullied sexuality. This connection is made explicit in “La maestra rural” [The Rural Schoolteacher], in which the use of the third person throughout the poem frames and distances the potentially explosive subject of how women are to labor and contribute to society, in the world-at-large, while apparently receiving none of its benefits. By using the third person in “La maestra rural” the poet creates the impression that the title figure is silent and uncomplaining, while the poem in fact does the opposite. Using the third person, moreover, allows the poet to exploit the ambiguities of this unattached woman’s relationship to the community which receives but scarcely acknowledges the benefits of her work. The third person permits the poet to create the impression that her portrayal of the schoolteacher is an objective one that neither the uncomplaining “maestra” herself, nor the callous and unappreciative community would be capable of.

The opening quatrains of this poem depict the unworldliness of the “maestra.” These first four lines represent the only occasion in the poem when the speech of the “maestra” is quoted directly. “La maestra rural” opens by addressing the social implications of the “maestra’s” specifically sexual purity as a woman, and relating that purity to problems of class and ownership.20 Since she belongs to no one and her only devotion is that of imitating Christ, she recognizes no rights of ownership save that of Jesus, her master and employer. We are never very far from an open denunciation of private property.

La maestra era pura. ‘Los suaves hortelanos’
decía, ‘de este predio, que es predio de Jesús,
han de conservar puros los ojos y las manos,
guardar claros sus óleos, para dar clara luz’.

[The schoolteacher was pure. ‘The gentle orchard keepers’
she would say, ‘of this land, which is Jesus’ land,
have to maintain the eyes and hands pure, and
keep their oils clear, to give forth a clear light.’]21

Readers who might be alarmed at a woman’s engaging in social criticism would be comforted by this poem’s pious appeal to the values of home and family. Her sexuality has both a virginally pure (“conservar puros los ojos y las manos” [to maintain the eyes and hands pure]) and a light-bringing aspect: she is not a human figure, but the incarnation of “claritas” [wisdom], personified throughout the Hebrew Bible as a woman. Like a monk or a nun in a cell, her absolute identification with a heavenly hierarchy explains, and for a potentially hostile audience, excuses the “maestra’s” refusal to recognize ownership. This spiritualization is repeated in describing the poverty of the “maestra,” and her refusal to adopt conventional signs of femininity. Following each negation, the poet rushes in to assure her readers that the “reason” for the teacher’s bizarre behavior is her scarcely human devotion to an other-worldly ideal. In essence, Mistral is using the motifs of religious poetry, but for a secular theme:

La maestra era pobre. Su reino no es humano.
(Así en el doloroso sembrador de Israel.)
Vestía sayas pardas, no enjoyaba su mano
¡y era todo su espíritu un inmenso joyel!

La maestra era alegre. ¡Pobre mujer herida!
Su sonrisa fue un modo de llorar con bondad.
Por sobre la sandalia rota y enrojecida,
tal sonrisa, la insigne flor de su santidad...

[The schoolteacher was poor. Her kingdom is not human.
(Thus in Israel’s sorrowful sower.)
She wore drab frocks, and no jewels adorned her hand
and all her spirit was an immense little jewel!]

[The schoolteacher was cheerful. Poor wounded woman!
Her smile was a way of crying with goodness.
Above the torn and reddened sandal
such a smile, the renowned flower of her sanctity...]

These three opening quatrains can be read as a composite reassurance to conservatives that none of the conditions under which feminine, public speech might be permitted, were being transgressed. Those conditions were, first, woman should be sexually “pure,” but eternally available as a source of comfort and inspiration. Secondly, she must have no interest in the material world—that is, her worldly claims cannot conflict with male claims. Hers is the world of the spirit, which is superior to worldly riches. Thirdly, she must accept her condition, especially the suffering that is hers as a woman. A pilgrim, she is uncommonly active in the world, as evidenced by her broken and bloodied sandal. That activity is restrained by her acceptance of suffering. “La maestra era alegre. ¡Pobre mujer herida!” [The schoolteacher was cheerful. Poor wounded woman!] encapsulates the Christian value that suffering is the road to virtue. That the “maestra” receives no material compensation for her work is another aspect of feminine piety that the poet takes up in later verses: the “maestra” loves the children under her care better than their parents do; she is alone, friendless among the country people: the “campesina” [female peasant] spreads malicious gossip about her; the laborer ignores her. Since “the least shall be as the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” it is best that the “maestra’s” work be met with mockery and ingratitude, as Jesus’ was.

“La maestra rural” [The Rural Schoolteacher] Compared to
“Oración de la maestra” [Prayer of the Schoolteacher]

What “La maestra rural,” written in the past tense and the third person, shares with the first person, present tense “Oración de la maestra” is that the “maestra” embodies the feminine virtues of maternal selflessness, Christ-like suffering and compassion. The two pieces diverge in their representation of the relation between women and the world, which is, like the choice to write in either first or third person, a function of the relation of poet to readers. The poet offers the title figure in “La maestra rural” as a moral exemplum of how to be in the world but not of it. The poet is protected by her choice of an impersonal voice from which she “talks down” to the readers, reassuring them that for all the independence and superiority of the “maestra,” she poses no threat, since she is merely a repository of their communal values. The title figure’s death at the conclusion of the poem settles once and for all the question of her independence; the hierarchy that she might have disturbed is restored. Death makes her safe as a moral exemplum because her memory can be manipulated according to the needs of the living. The rebelliousness implied throughout “La maestra rural” is short-lived, constrained by the poet’s need to indicate an acceptance of conventional values such as women’s virginity and the utility of suffering. If the poet did not ultimately accept these values, she would have no common moral basis from which to exhort her readers.

The relation of woman to world, and of poet to readers, is entirely different in the “Oración de la maestra” from what is postulated in “La maestra rural.” This difference is most apparent in the titles of the two poems: “La maestra rural” is a hagiography of sorts, creating a portrait of an exemplary person, or “humility portrayed”; the “Oración de la maestra” might be closer to hagiology, with its emphasis on discourse. In the “Oración,” the “saintliness” of the title figure would derive from the speaker’s laying claim to authority by seeming not to claim it, and of trying to be like the saints rather than actually trying to become a saint.

The exhortatory mode employed by both the “Decálogo del artista” and “La maestra rural” scrupulously avoids any personal appropriation of power or authority. Even when delivering judgments in the persona of the “one just and faithful servant” (as in “Al oido de Cristo” [At Christ’s Ear]), the poet serves as anonymous witness to the sin, squalor, and moral indifference of those around her. But in the “plegarias,” or “prayer poems” (for which the “Oración de la maestra” is a prototype), permission to speak is predicated on that very element of individual necessity which the poet neutralized when she assumed a tone of impersonal, moral superiority. While the presumption of moral superiority is often voiced in the prayer or “petition” poem, it is mitigated by the poet’s stance of absolute humility and powerlessness, for petition acknowledges and asks the help of a more powerful other. Also, exhortative, public speech (as opposed to the intimate “plegaria”) is constrained by the requirements of the public: the poet must persuade her listeners that she is addressing their concerns. In the “private,” first person voice of the “Oración,” however, the speech represents the poet’s sole opportunity to vent grief and outrage—within a socially sanctioned context.

Writing as “plegaria,” as prayer, writing from within the “maestra” persona creates a situation whereby the individual’s expression of suffering is her contribution to the larger community. Paradoxically, in order that her expression be believed, the poet in this persona will usually maintain that she is isolated, friendless and alone except for the all-powerful, silent listener. Beseeching, pleading, she asks for intercession on her behalf; she asks that her suffering be recognized and justice be done; she asks that she be made more accepting of the limitations imposed on her by a hostile environment. Cultivating the appearance of resignation allows the poet to enumerate the conditions that she is attempting to resign herself towards, and to describe the ways in which she is struggling to survive in a hostile environment. The “plegaria” permits the self-righteous accusation of her persecutors, and, given the attitude of humility which the convention brings to the speaker, it even permits the poet to suggest, as Job did, as the Psalmist did, and as Jesus on the Cross did, that she has been forgotten:

‘Ahora suelto la mártir sandalia
y las trenzas pidiendo dormir.
Y perdido en la noche, levanto
el clamor aprendido de Ti:
¿Padre Nuestro que estás en los Cielos,
por qué te has olvidado de mí?’

[‘Now I loosen the martyr sandal
and my braids asking for sleep.
And lost in the night, I raise
the cry I learned from You:
Our Father who art in the Heavens,
why have you forgotten me?’]22

By identifying her “clamor” with Christian prayer, the poet presents herself as modest, humble, subordinate, but in her reiterated question, “Why have you forgotten me?” she challenges the authoritarian Father for being oblivious to her suffering. Faithful as Job, she inverts the very code that ought to keep her silent, so that it authorizes her to speak.23

As a literary convention, the prayer mode involves speech personally directed toward a single listener who, in all of the occasions that Mistral uses it, is identified as a single, powerful male—“El Señor” [the Lord]. He and the speaker are at opposite extremes: he is omnipotent, she is abject; he is wise, she is ignorant. The situation of the “plegaria” is an artificial one, for the saint and the penitent are alone with God, whereas the “plegaria” is meant to be “heard,” not just by any distant, powerful figure, but also by anyone who might share the speaker’s lowly position. This humility may be presented as absolute but in practice it is relative—relative to “El Señor,” and shared by others who share her same subordinate status.

Dissembling as a Strategic Necessity: “Oración de la maestra”
[Prayer of the Schoolteacher]

There is a tension bordering on contradiction within Mistral’s first person “maestra.” Her poetic self-presentation simultaneously embodies both humility and pride; an otherwise unacceptable arrogance is conditioned by modesty. I have already pointed out the inconsistency in “Sonetos de la muerte” between the covert bitterness and outrage and the “acceptable” content or subject, whether it is the dead lover, a longed-for child, or the suffering of innocent children. Much of Desolación seems sentimental in content; on closer examination many of the poems seethe with the poet’s rage at a life riddled with injustice, exclusion and deprivation. Adopting the “maestra” persona, the virtues of humility and modesty within the socially sanctioned context of the complaint as “plegaria” are what temper and make permissible the poet’s otherwise furiously combative attitude. When assuming the persona of the “maestra,” in poetry, prose and letters, the humility of the role permits her to speak of injustice as if she accepts it when she in fact does not, for if she did accept it she would not be speaking at all.24

Most notable in Mistral’s use of the maestra persona is her apparent acceptance of the speaker’s subordinate position as a woman who lacks class privilege: “Hazme fuerte, aún en mi desvalimiento de mujer, y de mujer pobre” [Make me strong, even in my unprotectedness as a woman, and a poor woman.]25 Carefully emphasizing that her desire to be “made strong” excludes the desire for personal prestige, praying not for herself but for others, the speaker anticipates and attempts to shield herself from the charge of pride. When she does ask for herself, she asks to be humbled. The phrasing of her request raises the question of who her unnamed attackers are, and why she is “wounded”:

Arranca de mí este impuro deseo de justicia que aún me turba, la mezquina insinuación de protesta que sube de mí cuando me hieren... Dame el levantar los ojos de mi pecho con heridas.26

[Tear from me this impure desire for justice that still disturbs me, the petty insinuation of protest that rises in me when they wound me... Let me raise the eyes of my wounded breast.]

Here, she covers and shields herself by belittling her authority, describing her “desire for justice” as “impure” (as opposed to pure or modest) and her “insinuation of protest” as “petty” (as opposed to unselfish or humble). This is a disarming humility: by admitting to the very charges that can be used against her she robs them of their potency.

When Patience Wears Thin

In spite of the fact that her work was initially promoted as the work of a teacher moved by love for her students, some evidence indicates that Gabriela Mistral grew impatient with this persona even prior to the publication of Desolación in 1922. In a letter written around 1920, she addressed her detractors who, scandalized or invidious of her appointment as director of  Liceo de Niñas No. 1  in Santiago, had been murmuring about her lack of credentials and her abuse of her “gloria literaria” [literary glory.] Here is her reply, in a letter that she did not send, because any appearance of ingratitude, rebelliousness, or complaint about her “privileges” would have supplied ammunition to her detractors:

creo que me hace digna de no ser excluida de la vida en una ciudad culta, después de dieciocho años de martirio en provincias.

[I believe that it makes me worthy of not being excluded from living in a cultured city, after eighteen years of martyrdom in the provinces.]27

For one who was celebrated, in Fernando Alegría’s phrase, as “una misión educativa ambulante” [a walking educational mission], to reject that version of her saintliness was unthinkable, as was her insistence, in that unsent letter, that her literary work was on a par with her pedagogical work. More surprising still is Mistral’s open pride about her contribution to Chile as an artist:

...he contribuido mucho a que en América no se siga creyendo que somos un país exclusiva i lamentablemente militar i minero, sino un país con sensibilidad donde existe el arte.

[...I have contributed much so that in Amercia they do not continue believing that we are exclusively and lamentably a military and mining country, but, instead, a country with sensibility where art exists.]28

It is easy to imagine the clamor had this letter been published at the time of her controversial appointment as director of the prestigious Girl’s First Liceo in Santiago. Had she publicly described as a “martirio” [martyrdom] the pedagogical work she had done, had she asserted that her literary work was more valuable than that of the mining industry or military glory in putting Chile on the map, her enemies would crow, “What ingratitude, what pride!” So, she restrained herself, she maintained her dignity: she did not send the letter. This dignity represents the sense of “altiva” as applied to one who does not allow herself to be deprecated or humiliated. Pride can involve a positive sense of satisfaction with one’s work as an artist as well as the negative sense of “soberbia” [haughty.]29 Part of the reason why Mistral used the “maestra” persona, however confining it may have been, is that it allowed her an authority that she could not claim as an artist, being an unmarried woman of the lower middle-class, “una nadie...una desconocida de provincia” [a nobody...an unknown woman from the provinces.] Class and gender created an inescapable environment to which she answered by presenting the artist as embodied in the “maestra,” one who serves others.

Art as Anodyne, Justice and Judgment

As a mode of speech and an attitude of the poet towards her readers, Mistral’s concept of the “artista” is antithetical to the insistently self-referential humility of the “maestra” persona. The artist is not explicitly developed as a persona. When the poet chooses to address her readers as a woman, she speaks as a “maestra.” To speak as a woman, particularly at the earlier stages of the poet’s development, is continually to disqualify herself through the cultivation of humility and modesty. Indeed, the more insistent the reference to feminine experience, the more likely that she will represent her speech as involuntary and the more liable the poet is to represent herself as speaking on behalf of helpless others, i.e., children. Involuntary speech, in Mistral’s work, is frequently associated with childbirth. Like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in her autobiography, Mistral uses the first person mode to defend herself as a woman whose suffering forces her to speak, as evident in “El suplicio” [The Torment]:

Tengo ha veinte años en la carne hundido
—y es caliente el puñal—
un verso enorme, un verso con cimeras
de pleamar.

[For twenty years now I’ve had, driven in my flesh
—and the dagger is hot—
an enormous verse, a verse with crests
of high tide.]30

“El suplicio” represents the poet as having struggled to remain silent and submissive; she protests her unworthiness to “bear” this song:

De albergarlo sumisa, las entrañas
cansa su majestad.
¿Con esta pobre boca que ha mentido
se ha de cantar?

[From submissively sheltering him, the entrails
his Majesty tires.
With this poor mouth that has lied
must one sing?]31

Where the first person voice is repeatedly identified with femaleness, gender references in the “artista” mode are always ambiguous. When Mistral depicts the artist as an idealized figure, in her statements on art, her references deliberately leave the artist’s gender open, as the following example from the “Decálogo del artista” indicates:

No te será la belleza opio adormecedor, sino vino generoso que te encienda para la acción, pues si dejas de ser hombre o mujer, dejarás de ser artista.

[Beauty will not be sleep-inducing opium to you, but generous wine that sparks you for action, for if you stop being a man or woman, you will stop being an artist.]32

In the context of Latin American literary tradition, Mistral was unusual and even daring to assert that men and women equally could be artists. To compare her “Decálogo” with similar pronouncements such as Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” or “The Poetic Principle,” makes it evident that she was unique in asserting that men and women were equally “fated” to be artists. Despite her contention that artistic identity is as fundamental and fixed as gender identity is, only with the greatest difficulty could she assume the perspective of a woman artist. Throughout the first half of her career, she consistently identified with femininity the mode of personal modesty and humility. These qualities were incompatible with the impersonal, all-knowing and condescending mode that she adopted when writing about Art.

When Gabriela Mistral spoke as an artist, or about art, (rather than as a “maestra”) about the so-called “women’s subjects” of teaching and children the tendency to shield herself from attack and humiliation became an urgent necessity. In Desolación, when the theme of art appeared, Mistral carefully created an effect of impersonal distance: the third person dominates such poems; the rhetoric is exhortatory. Where the “maestra” speaks up to a powerful, absent addressee, beseeching God, Mistral’s “artista,” as in the “Decálogo del artista” speaks down, serving to make a distant God more immediate to the people. The use of the first person speaker (otherwise a prominent feature in her poetry, usually appearing in the opening lines) occurs toward the end of such poems, when it occurs at all.33

The most-often quoted, most frequently analyzed of Mistral’s poems are of the “humble,” first-person type from Desolación, but the import of those in the impersonal, “artista” mode is evident in the prominence that she assigned to them in compiling that volume. Desolación opens with a series of poems which use the third person, or an imperious first person plural, to describe the effects of particular art objects named in titles such as “El pensador de Rodin” [Rodin’s “The Thinker”] and “La cruz de Bistolfi” [Bistolfi’s “Cross.”] Here, as in “Al oido de Cristo,” the poet assumes an exhortatory attitude that makes those objects present to the readers, in lines such as “Cruz que ninguno mira y todos sentimos” [Cross that no one looks at and all of us feel.]34 Suffering is a precondition for intimacy and self-revelation, as when she uses the first person to identify with the “raza judía” [the Jewish race] in “Al pueblo hebreo” [To the Hebrew People]:

Los surcos de tu rostro, que amo tanto,
son cual llagas de sierra de profundos.

[The furrows of your face, that I love so much,
are as deep as the wounds of the sierra.]35

To be wilfully authoritative, to instruct and counsel, to act as a judge, either praising or condemning others, are modes, in Mistral’s poetry, that demand an absence of self-reference. Significantly, the overt identification with women’s experience that typifies the predominantly first-person mode does not occur when she takes an exhortatory attitude.

Beyond the Flesh: Constraints on the Artist

Where other women poets such as Delmira Agustini and Juana de Ibarbourou dwelt at length on sexual relationships between men and women, references to any kind of adult sexuality are so conspicuously absent from most of Mistral’s work that one must read quite carefully to apprehend the poet’s attitude toward Eros. The topic of heterosexual love provides occasions for the poet’s expressions of anger and rebellion, in the “Sonetos de la muerte,” where all tenderness is reserved for the dead. Throughout the “Poema de la madre” [The Mother’s Poem]—analyzed in Chapter Three of this manuscript—the poet depicts male sexuality as violent and threatening, in stark contrast to the bonds of love and suffering that unite women. Within the context of defining the role of the artist, safely hidden behind the powerful anonymity of “nosotros” [us], she suggests that artists have transcended the obsession with gross sensuality with which she faults the rough, common man:

A ti, hombre basto, sólo te turba un vientre de mujer, el montón de carne de la mujer. Nosotros vamos turbados, nosotros recibimos la lanzada de toda belleza del mundo, porque la noche estrellada nos fue amor tan agudo como un amor de carne.

[And you, coarse man, only a woman’s belly disturbs you, the mound of a woman’s flesh. We go forth disturbed, we receive the lance-thrust of all the beauty of the world, because the starry night was to us a love as acute as a love of flesh.]36

Writing of women’s bodies as if they were quivering flesh, it would seem that the writer had tried to see the world from the crude perspective of the generic man, and had failed. By arguing that the artist lives on a higher spiritual plane than the “hombre basto” [coarse man], she attempts to escape the limitations of a perspective in which women are reduced to slabs of meat. Her alternative to that perspective is an emphasis on an anonymous, genderless suffering, a visceral, involuntary response to “Beauty,” exacted at great personal cost:

Y de devolver en sangre esta caricia de la Belleza, y de responder al llamamiento innumerable de ella, vamos más flagelados que tú.

[And in returning in blood this caress of Beauty, and in answering to her innumerable calling, we go forth more flagellated than you.]37

This would recall Poe’s statements about Beauty were it not that Poe, unlike Mistral, insists on keeping morality out of art. This desire is utterly alien to the “Decálogo,” in which the artist serves the people.

The Authority of the Oppressed

Throughout Mistral’s work, and most overtly in Desolación and Tala [Felling Trees], suffering legitimates speech and is the individual artist’s mark of election, often summarized in the female speaker’s identification with the crucified (male) savior. By closing Desolación with the first person “Voto,” Mistral indicates that she feels her vocation as an artist to be premised on an authority that is nothing less than sacramental. Her promise to renounce bitterness is couched in a humility that just barely covers her pride that the worth of her work will be recognized and she will be vindicated:

Dios me perdone este libro amargo y los hombres que sienten la vida como dulzura me lo perdonen también.

[May God pardon me for this bitter book and may men who feel life as sweetness pardon me for it as well.]38

Sweet recognition (not modesty) compensates for and vindicates the bitterness of the book. The last line of the “Voto” is an exception to the poet’s tendency to engage the mode of humility when using the first person. She directly identifies herself with the fire-script of the “Decálogo”:

A los treinta años, cuando escribí el ‘Decálogo del artista’, dije este voto.

[At the age of thirty, when I wrote the ‘Decalogue of the Artist,’ I took this vow.]39

In an enigmatic gesture that skirts modesty between pride, the poet-artist identifies herself in terms of age, almost as if she were a biblical figure—Jesus at the onset of his ministry, or Moses bringing the tablets of the Law down from Sinai. Her identification with biblical authority, the patriarchal book, renders moot the question of the artist’s gender. At the same time, however, to speak as the Bible would gives this “Vow” an impersonal aspect that effectively disengages her from speaking as herself, that is, as a woman.

The Mother of Creation, the Father of the World

Yo no soy una artista; lo que soy es una mujer en la que existe, viva, el ansia de fundirse en su raza, como se ha fundido en mí, la religiosidad con un anhelo lacerante de justicia social.

[I am not an artist; what I am is a woman with a live desire to become one with her race, as the religious feeling with a cutting desire for social justice has become one in me.]40

When Mistral published a third edition of Desolación in 1926, she added a number of new poems. With two books published in the United States, Chile and Mexico, and a third book (Ternura [Tenderness]) in press in Spain, some of the qualities she had ascribed to the artist and to femininity began to take on connotations that went beyond the capacity to bear pain. The gender of the artist is just as ambiguous as before, in the “Decálogo.” Nonetheless, as her audience expanded and as she adopted a permanent residence outside of Chile, she grew bolder, and began to elaborate in verse and in prose what would eventually become a more overtly feminine image of the artist:

Amad al que trae
boca de canción:
el cantor es madre
de la creación.

[Love the one who brings
a mouth of song:
the singer is mother
of creation.]41

Although the noun and pronoun clearly identify the “singer” as male, in seeking to describe a power that is both absolute and benevolent the poet assigns to him the quality of universal motherhood. Likewise, the “Dios Padre” [God the Father] figure which Mistral begins to use at this time is decidedly more positive than the distant and impersonal patriarch addressed in the “plegarias” of Desolación. “Dios Padre” is conspicuously maternal, in the final stanza of the poem “Meciendo” [Rocking]:

Dios Padre sus miles de mundos
mece sin ruido.
Sintiendo su mano en la sombra
Mezo a mi niño.

[God the Father his thousands of worlds
noiselessly rocks.
Feeling his hand in the shadow
I rock my child.]42

II. Name and Renown

A Changing Career, an Enduring Example

Of the two modes, the humility of the first person who speaks from a position of relative powerlessness (exemplified in the “Oración de la maestra”) has been more frequently associated with Gabriela Mistral’s work. It was during the first decade of her career, from 1914 to 1924, that she most often wrote from within this “maestra” stance, and even when she did use the third person, her work was aimed toward readers who were involved in the schools. Thus, as far as these readers were concerned, the basis of her authority, and consequently her reputation as a writer, lay in her pedagogical background. The poet combined the qualities of humility, modesty and the suggestion of a religious vocation with a certain rebelliousness and challenge to the status quo. This combination gave the poet license to enter a public realm otherwise denied her. Chile’s and Mexico’s Ministries of Education, headed by the radical sympathizers Pedro Aguirre Cerda and José Vasconcelos, could easily see the advantage of ascribing religious and ethical values to a public servant. Mistral’s early poetry aided their project of claiming for the State the role of “teacher” which the Church had previously monopolized.

Around 1925 the nature of Gabriela Mistral’s audience began to change. She had retired from teaching and definitively left Chile to take up residence in Europe, where she commenced her career in journalism. During the next decade, and through the mid-thirties (until the Chilean government recognized her cultural work by making her part of the diplomatic service), Mistral earned her living primarily as a lecturer and journalist. This work involved a continued engagement with educational reform; she also promoted Latin American culture and wrote on current affairs for major newspapers throughout Spanish-speaking America.43 As a consequence of her travel and residence in Europe, and because the readers of newspapers sought and expected a wider range of subjects than did the readers of poetry, Mistral addressed topics that seemingly went far beyond her original areas of interest.

For all the wider range of her prose, from the time she left Chile, however, Mistral’s writing still works from the same voice as before. She reminds her readers that she writes as a woman, defenseless were it not for her moral agenda; her Spanish becomes even more colloquial, her vocabulary, more Latin American. While her readership grew, the basis of Mistral’s authority remained unchanged: poet and pedagogue, self-taught by necessity and by “dieciocho años de martirio en provincias” [eighteen years of martyrdom in the provinces], she well knew and frequently recalled to her readers the value of sacrifice. This value is evident in her evolution as a public figure. From the moment that the poet first achieved national recognition in the “Juegos Florales,” to the time of her permanent appointment to the diplomatic corps, accounts of Mistral’s growing fame have a single common denominator: service, expressed in the figure of the “maestra.”

Anonymous Readers and Well-Connected Patrons

The poet’s reputation as a woman of great moral value, a woman disappointed in love, a humble, modest schoolteacher faced by a hostile environment, was an element that served the interests of a great many readers, from a small but influential literati—such as the Chilean writers nicknamed “Los Diez” [The Ten]—to an equally small group of politically powerful individuals: Mistral’s official patrons in the Ministry of Education. Outside Latin America, a handful of professors associated with the Instituto de las Españas [Institute of the Spains] in New York were similarly interested in promoting these particular aspects of Mistral’s work. The image of the “maestra” was the single most serviceable aspect of Gabriela Mistral’s work: it admirably fit these communities’ ideals of what women’s concerns should be. Those who most actively promoted her work were men who supervised women in the field of education. Only later would the literati come around, responding less to Mistral’s work than to her recognition outside Latin America.

This image of the poet-maestra also served a public substantially different from the influential men described above. These were members of the rank-and-file: teachers, teachers’ aides, schoolchildren and their mothers, in Chile and Mexico; as well as a number of North American teachers of Spanish whose identities have not been preserved, and who learned of Gabriela Mistral from lectures given by professors of Spanish in the United States. On the one hand are influential men whose enthusiastic recommendations of Mistral’s work to others can be easily and abundantly documented. In the clamor of their praise, it is striking that none of these men took her seriously enough to incorporate any aspect of her aesthetics into their own. Rather, they recommended her work to others—their subordinates, who were women. Thus, on the other hand, we have those readers to whom Mistral was recommended. She was praised not so much as a serious or powerful writer, but as an acceptable one, a teacher whose moral agenda seemed laudable.

The interests and responses of this second group of readers are difficult to document, yet we can be certain of their reality, not just for those who promoted Gabriela Mistral’s work, but for the poet herself. In her dedications, introductions and commentaries on her poems, she repeatedly describes herself as having chosen to work on their behalf. She recognizes them in her prefaces and notes to her poems—in her margins, as it were. Even the most self-serving and patronizing of the prefaces written by influential men as forms of recommendation acknowledge this “other audience,” unwittingly indicating that another kind of response is possible.

Of Mistral’s readers during the years 1914 to 1924, various sub-groups, or sub-communities can be distinguished according to the nature of their interest in her. Responses to the figure of the “maestra,” for instance, seem to follow a fundamental distinction based on gender: the poet’s male patrons, such as Federico de Onís, felt that women should identify with or emulate that figure; it does not occur to him to emulate that figure himself. There is a similar response on the part of Mistral’s male contemporaries with regard to the qualities of humility, modesty and piety. Piety, both as a quality ascribed to the “maestra” figure, and as a tone which the author chooses to maintain in her work, is particularly indicative of a double standard. Influential critics and poets such as Federico de Onís and Pedro Prado recommend her piety from a distance, apparently without appearing to adopt such an attitude themselves, which suggests that “piety” was set up as a condition for the legitimation of women’s writing. I would further argue that piety was a prerequisite for the recognition of Mistral’s work, as an artist coming from a group that the critical establishment had not previously associated with artistic merit. Through all of Mistral’s lifetime, her success seems to have been based on men and women accepting her persona as “who she really was.”

The Fiction of Personal Obscurity

The widespread misconception that Mistral’s work was appreciated by foreigners before it was acknowledged in Chile testifies to how thoughtlessly critics will buy into a currency of recognition monopolized by white North Americans and Europeans. Prior to the “discovery” of Gabriela Mistral by Federico de Onís of the Instituto de las Españas and his North American audience, the story is that she was unpublished and unknown. This version of her reception ignores as much as possible the achievements and alliances that Mistral formed in Chile and Mexico; attaching exaggerated importance to the volume Desolación often results in a belittlement of her subsequent work. Maybe Mistral went too far in accusing Federico de Onís, a Spaniard, of racism; still, there is an extraordinary mixture of naivete and arrogance in those critics, such as de Onís, who, as we shall see, described her as an unknown in order to enhance his own reputation. There is a further consideration, that in the history of the reception of Mistral’s work, the modest-unknown “maestra” was permissible where the proud-recognized artist represented a threat.

Even before 1914, when she won a nationwide poetry contest,44 Gabriela Mistral counted as friends two of the most prominent poets in Chile—Magallanes Moure and Armando Donoso. These two men, with whom Mistral had been corresponding, were two-thirds of the jury that voted, two to one, in Mistral’s favor. This is not to diminish the merit of her work, but to point out that she was not a total unknown even then. Some four years before the “discovery” of Mistral’s work by de Onís and his audience of North American teachers, the poet had published some fifty-five poems in Manuel Guzman Maturana’s Libros de lectura [Reading Textbooks]; she had, in Punta Arenas, edited several issues of the magazine Mireya; she was in correspondence with other nationally known writers such as Magallanes Moure and Alfonsina Storni.

Ultimately, we need to question the very usefulness of the term “unknown.” In many instances such a term involves, consciously or not, a European or U.S.-oriented perspective. Even today Chile is so isolated a nation that any individual with an unusual interest in reading and writing, in books and art, becomes almost immediately known to others with similar interests. This is evidenced in Gabriela Mistral’s own description of an event important to her formation as a writer, that took place when she was a teenager. Working as a teacher’s aide near La Serena, she met Bernardo Ossandón—editor of the newspaper in El Coquimbo, member of an old and important Chilean family:

Un viejo periodista dio un día conmigo y yo di con él...poseía el fenómeno provincial de una biblioteca, grande y óptima. No entiendo hasta hoy cómo el buen señor me abrió su tesoro, fiándome libros de buenas pastas y de papel fino.45

[One day an old journalist came across me and I came across him... he possesed the provincial phenomenon of a library, large and of the best. I don’t understand even today how the good gentleman opened his treasure to me, loaning me well-bound books with excellent paper.]

The poet juxtaposes the beauty of the books with her still-vivid awareness of her own poverty; the details of the “treasure” accentuate all the more the humility of the teller and the market value of the books. Her wonder at being lent such gorgeous books is consciousness of class and awareness of relative value. She accentuates her own poverty and subordination by describing her gratitude to “el buen señor” [the good gentleman] with his “biblioteca, grande y óptima” [library, large and of the best.] Stressing her own provinciality was a factor that worked in her favor, from the very first: she presents herself as one who needed help and knows how to be grateful.

“Palabras preliminares” [Preliminary Words]:
Who Must Know Her Before She Is “Known”

In 1921, after she had been publishing nationally (within Chile) for seven years and after she had published in France, in a magazine edited by Ruben Darío, it would seem strange that the introduction to the North American edition of Desolación described her as an unknown.46 This introduction, entitled “Palabras preliminares” and signed Instituto de las Españas, contains a fascinating account of Mistral’s “first audience” which gives evidence of the division in her readership that I have suggested, between patronizing male critics and empathizing female peers. In February of 1921, Federico de Onís gave a conference on Gabriela Mistral to a group of teachers and students of Spanish. They are an undifferentiated mass of listeners when the introduction first mentions them. But the fiction of personal obscurity on which the “Palabras preliminares” is based argues that the greatness of Gabriela Mistral’s work lay far less in its craft than in its affective quality, which so excited its “first audience” that they literally “forced” her into the world. Such a thesis makes the initial response to her work very important, and it is for this reason that the preface indicates, almost offhandedly, that the so-called original audience was primarily feminine, a group of women who were interested in Mistral because they felt that she was like themselves:

se sintieron más vivamente impresionadas que nadie al saber que la autora de aquellas poesías conmovedoras era además y era sobre todo una maestra como ellos.

[they felt themselves more vividly impressed than anyone else when they found out that the author of those moving poems was furthermore and above all a schoolteacher like themselves.]47

That the appeal of Mistral’s work is premised on this feminine audience’s feelings of identification is echoed in the manner in which her work is circulated among them:

Corrieron de mano en mano las pocas poesías de Gabriela Mistral que habían sido publicadas en periódicos y revistas, y la ‘Oración de la maestra’ fue rezada en lengua española por muchas voces con acento extranjero.

[The few poems by Gabriela Mistral that had been published in newspapers and magazines were passed from hand to hand, and the ‘Prayer of the Schoolteacher’ was prayed in the Spanish language by many voices with a foreign accent.]48

These readers are interested in Mistral’s poetry because they feel it represents them; the transformation of the “Oración de la maestra” from individual, silent reading into a group recitation illustrates their feeling that Mistral is their representative and equal. Yet at the same time that Federico de Onís, the author of the “Palabras preliminares,” wishes to emphasize and to elevate this moving (“conmovedora”) quality of her work, he is anxious to keep it within bounds. The most obvious way of accomplishing this is to remind readers that for this woman writer, literary and moral value are of a pair:

... puede decirse que Gabriela Mistral conquistó, no sólo la admiración, sino el cariño de todos. Porque todos vieron en la escritora hispanoamericana, no sólo el gran valor literario, sino el gran valor moral.

[it can be said that Gabriela Mistral conquered, not only the admiration, but the affection of all, because everyone saw in the Hispanic-American writer not only great literary value but great moral value.]49

“Admiración” [Admiration] is associated with literature, but “cariño” [affection] is her moral due as a woman. Three times in the course of the six-paragraph introduction this pairing of “admiración” is repeated, with the second item changing from “cariño” in this instance to “simpatía” [congeniality] in the second and third instances. “Admiración” elevates; “cariño” and “simpatía” bring down to a lower level: the combined effect verges on patronizing her. There is no male writer of whom the Instituto de las Españas would write “He conquered, not only the admiration, but the fondness of all.” Likewise, in the pair “no sólo el gran valor literario, sino el gran valor moral,” what is stressed is the second item: what the author of the “Palabras preliminares” advocates in Desolación, what he finds particularly appropriate in it to teachers of Spanish is not literary value alone, but moral value. About the former he has rather little to say, but the latter, he argues, is the vital ingredient in Mistral’s success with this audience (described in moral terms as una hermandad profunda [a deep sisterhood]). It is to her vocation as a teacher, and not her skill as a writer, that he attributes her success and makes of her “una noble mujer” [a noble woman.]

Modesty Exposed

Having built up her moral value and accentuated the element of piety in the “ideal de magisterio ejemplar” [ideal of exemplary teaching], the remainder of the introduction concentrates on describing “la modestia genial” [genial modesty.] The “modesty” of the poet is chronicled by a series of interesting and unverifiable phrases that describe publication as a battle with sexual overtones, referring to the “constante resistencia” [constant resistance] of the poet, whose work is “constantemente solicitada” [constantly solicited.] Initially, she “conquered” an audience of her peers; at the end, the author suggests, so powerful is the excitement that she had so unwittingly generated that readers, demanding more, turned the tables:

... debemos alegrarnos todos de que al fin haya sido vencida.

[we should all be happy that she had finally been defeated.]50

For the author of the “Palabras preliminares,” “modesty,” together with being unknown and scarcely published, are qualities that make the poet all the more attractive as prey. Here, too, is a power of the weak that is also evident in Emily Dickinson’s “Master Letters”: the more she allows herself to be conquered, the more of a conquerer she is—at least according to this male editor who surely projects some of his own motivation onto the female audience. He builds her up with superlatives in order to knock her down, handing the triumph to the Instituto de las Españas in the form of “nuestros maestros norteamericanos” [our North American teachers.] But the interests of the “first audience,” insofar as they can be read between the lines, are of a different order: what impresses and moves them is that Mistral is a teacher and a woman like themselves.

It cannot be repeated too often that among the sundry communities that invested so heavily in the “maestra,” each chose different qualities to emphasize according to its own interests. Only those who lacked first-hand experience of subordination and exploitation chose to glorify her powerlessness. This aspect of the reception of Mistral’s work sharply contrasts with the stance of the artist that closes Desolación. Were it not for the anonymous audience of peers, there would be no common ground between the version of the “maestra” offered by the author of the “Palabras preliminares,” and the poet’s “Voto,” which refers to “la canción se ensangrentó para aliviarme” [the song bloodied itself to give me relief.]51 Surely her work found readers who were moved because of their common ties with her, readers like Palma Guillén who saw her human qualities, rather than critics like Federico de Onís, who pedestalized and patronized her.

The author who signed Instituto de las Españas to the “Palabras preliminares” is not alone among the poet’s contemporaries in linking the poet’s condition as an unknown to the quality of “modesty,” both as feminine reticence and as acceptance of a lesser social rank. Corroborating this is an anecdote about Gabriela Mistral’s participation in the Juegos Florales that has been so consistently and routinely repeated in accounts of the poet’s life and work as to have acquired the quality of a religious creed. When Gabriela Mistral “triumphed” in the Juegos Florales by taking first prize, she is reported to have attended the ceremony while watching anonymously from the balcony, for she lacked the appropriate attire. The story makes a winning combination of humble poverty and a most unfeminine other-worldliness (any less modest a woman would have gone into debt to purchase the necessary attire): thus, potentially dangerous pride is safely converted to “dignity.”

Mistral’s Invisibility—A Question of Context

As I have indicated, moving to the city of Los Andes allowed Mistral to acquire a reputation among various individuals of Santiago’s literary elite, a select coterie, whom everyone, including its members, referred to as “Los Diez.” Both privately (in Mistral’s letters) and publicly (in the nature of the magazines and texts which published her work), the poet’s relations with the social and literary elite scrupulously observed a complicated etiquette of class and gender division.

From the very start, the character of Mistral’s publications reveal her as a writer who avoided putting herself in open competition with the male writers of the time. This tactic was to become habitual with her. It is not that Mistral “ignored” the upper-middle-class, male-oriented, literary hegemony of her time: her letters indicate that she was well aware of them, she read their poetry and magazines and corresponded with some of them. Rather, because the writers of “Los Diez” were a self-contained unit, they did not regard her as a poet to be reckoned with. While individuals in this group knew of her and of her work, her poetry only intermittently appeared in their magazines. Rather than align herself with any particular group, she published in a variety of magazines, some of them so ephemeral in nature that they disappeared after printing one or two issues, leaving no trace. There were also the magazine-newsletters of the theosophical groups to which Mistral belonged. Just as she had done in assuming the voice of the humble “maestra” while using the first person, and pushing on the outer edges of that small space accorded her, so did she publish in a forum that she could claim, in a small way, with a minimum of fuss, as her own.

During the years before Gabriela Mistral left Chile in 1922, the writing that she published in magazines and textbooks sponsored by the Chilean Ministry of Education appeared more consistently and enjoyed the widest national distribution of all her work at that time. The Revista de Educación Nacional, like the Libros de lectura (1917, edited by Gomez Maturana, in which fifty-five of Mistral’s poems and short prose pieces appeared), like Mistral’s Lecturas para mujeres [Readings for Women], and like parts of Desolación, were edited, printed and circulated for use in the public schools. These school texts stood between and responded to the interests of two interdependent communities. One, a group even more exclusive than “Los Diez,” consisted of representatives of the State, Santiago-based individuals who worked in or with the Ministry of Education. Their sponsorship, encouragement, and personal prestige stood behind the publication and distribution of these texts. The other community included people who were involved in education, but worked in the schools at a local rather than national level. Clearly, the differing interests of these two groups would result in different responses to Mistral’s work.

With regard to the first group, it is ironic that a poet whose authority, be it as a teacher or as an artist, is posed as a quasi-religious vocation, would encounter her earliest and most remunerative support in the guise of two anti-clerical Ministers of Education—Pedro Aguirre Cerda in Chile (later elected president of Chile in 1939 as part of the Popular Front coalition) and José Vasconcelos, one of the leading figures in post-revolutionary Mexico. This irony can be explained with reference to the overall project of the ministries of education, not just in Chile and Mexico, but throughout Latin America, as expressed in the concept of the “Estado Docente” [the teaching state.] Governments which saw the field of education as the single most important area in which to establish their influence could do so only by co-opting the power of the church. Given the open rivalry and warfare between the opposing interests of Church and State, the piety of the humble and modest “maestra” was most advantageous to the latter. The religious and ethical values which the “maestra” advocates in the “Oración” are based not in dogma but in her claim to a morality “higher” than that of her attackers. Battling on behalf of her “niñas” in the face of powerful but unnamed adversaries, hers is a populist piety that challenges the remote, unforgiving “Dios Padre” and repeatedly identifies her sufferings with those of Jesus, another controversial teacher. By asserting that the vocation of the “maestra” is a moral one, Mistral challenged the Church’s traditional claim on morality. She used evangelical terminology to claim for the “maestra,” a representative of the state, the duty of teaching the common people the difference between right and wrong.52

Gratitude: “I speak not of myself...”

The poet’s dedication of Desolación to Pedro Aguirre Cerda and, at the end of the introduction to Lecturas para mujeres, her statement of indebtedness and gratitude to José Vasconcelos for commissioning the volume, are worded almost identically. Naming Don Pedro Aguirre Cerda and his wife, she states that she owes to them “la hora de paz que vivo” [the hour of peace I live.] This same description of indebtedness for protection in the form of a temporary reprieve is repeated two years later, but more emphatically. Having lived for two years as a foreigner in the politically volatile situation of post-revolutionary Mexico, the poet makes explicit both her role as the delegate of a powerful man, and her awareness of the implications of that role:

Será en mí siempre un sereno orgullo haber recibido de la mano del licenciado señor Vasconcelos el don de una Escuela en México y la ocasión de escribir para las mujeres de mi sangre en el único período de descanso que ha tenido mi vida.

[There will always be in me a serene pride in having received from the hand of Mister Vasconcelos the gift of a School in Mexico and the occasion to write for the women of my blood in the only period of rest that my life has had.]53

These dedications establish the poet’s credentials: first, she is subordinate to the high-ranking individuals whom she names as her benefactors and protectors; second, their protection means that the activity of writing can take place in an hour of peace, a period of rest. Elsewhere in her “Introduction” to Lecturas para mujeres, she justifies the text as an “encargo,” or commission, assigned her by the “Secretaría de Educación”: the very phrase itself is a summary of the personal power of Vasconcelos, who is both the department which he heads and the position that he holds. On the level of credentials she is his subordinate: she accepts his project and is grateful for his protection. On the level of personal identification, she presents herself in a slightly different light: her life has been one of grueling work, neither protected nor peaceful. Consequently, whatever occasional peace and rest might be found in her work would be a temporary veneer pasted onto the reality that truly qualifies her to address other women. These powerful men entered for an hour, a single space of time, a bit of rest in her lifetime of struggle. When she defines more specifically her task to the special audience that she refers to as “las mujeres de mi sangre” [the women of my blood], her sense of obligation to them comes from within, as opposed to the indefinite, externally imposed promise with which she concluded Desolación: “cantaré como lo quiso un misericordioso, para consolar a los hombres” [I will sing as a compassionate one wanted, to console men.]54 On receiving from Vasconcelos both a school and a commission, she claims her space: “Me siento dentro de ella con pequeños derechos” [Within it I feel I have some small rights.]55 Now when she envisions the future, a specifically feminine, Latin American readership is foremost in her mind:

Es éste el ensayo de un trabajo que realizaré algún día, en mi país, destinado a las mujeres de América. Las siento mi familia espiritual; escribo para ellas, tal vez sin preparación, pero con mucho amor.

[This is the trial run of a work that I will carry out some day, in my country, directed towards the women of America. I feel they are my spiritual family; I write for them, perhaps without preparation, but with much love.]56

Initially defining her position in relation to Vasconcelos, she now identifies herself with her readers. These ties of common blood (“las mujeres de mi sangre”) and of shared spirit are designedly phrased as claims of kinship in order to silence those who would question her preparation, that is, her credentials. On the most obvious level the “maestra” borrows from the paternal authority of the state, but on the more pervasive level of kinship she possesses a wider authority which she describes as the “solidarity of sex.” That solidarity, suggested in the “Poemas de las madres” of Desolación, is made manifest in Lecturas para mujeres, and continues fourteen years later, in Mistral’s dedication of Tala, which names Palma Guillén, not as an individual but as a woman who represents her country: “A Palma Guillén y en ella, a la piedad de la mujer mexicana” [To Palma Guillén, and in her, to the piety of the Mexican woman.]57 This expression of gratitude and admiration is devoid of the sense of hierarchy present in the other dedications. It recalls the readers who saw themselves and their experience represented in the embattled, “anonymous ‘maestra.’ ” Even the limiting (and protecting) fictions of modesty and obscurity, submission and piety, cannot fully conceal the tremendous appeal that the “prayer” form, with its “humility” (and considerable self-righteousness), had for Mistral’s readers. They were eager for a representation of women’s experience as one of struggle in the face of unnamed oppressors.

The Utopian Past

To be a sufferer is to have protected status, in Mistral’s poetry. The poet presents herself as one who has experienced sadness and shame. Her low status and her body are interwoven figures in the badges of the humiliation that becomes her defense.58 Her work differs from that of her contemporaries in the tenacity with which she clings to isolation, oppression, and marginality as the necessary preconditions for writing poetry. The poet’s denunciation of socially constituted centers of wealth, status, and prestige aligns her work with the “poesía de conciencia social” [social conscience poetry], which she antedates by twenty years and more.59 But hers is not a poetry of protest that seeks redress and relief for the victims of injustice. She mistrusts revolutionary movements. Appeals to human community that do not address above all else the conditions of women’s (and, by extension, children’s) lives say nothing to her. Her utopia would be not the community of an abstract, generic mankind, but an organic community of women and children.

Mistral’s office as a poet is not to call for revolutionary change, but to indicate modes of response to injustice and suffering, which she sees as being permanent, defining features of the human condition. In her poetry, members of certain groups (such as pregnant women, abandoned women, the mothers of young children, Jews, American Indians, mixed-blood South Americans, war refugees) are singled out as possessing a vocation for suffering. She unfailingly identifies herself with the members of these groups (even though her success, first in the schools, later as an expatriate artist and intellectual, gave her ample opportunity to change this self-presentation). She could have chosen, for example, to identify with the fashionable and well-to-do women of Santiago who were seeking political and social influence. In Europe, she could have chosen to affiliate with left-wing causes as did her fellow Chilean artists, Laura Rodig and Pablo Neruda. Yet when others were becoming internationalists, she remained stubbornly regionalist:

yo, corredora de tierras extrañas, descastada según ciertos santiaguinos señoritos ... yo he sido y soy cada día más regionalista ... la patria es el paisaje de la infancia y quédese lo demás como mistificación política.

[I, roamer of strange lands, lacking lineage according to certain of Santiago’s little masters... I have been and am each day more of a regionalist...the homeland is the landscape of childhood and let the rest remain as political mystification.]

The landscape of infancy slips further and further away. As a woman from the provinces, the only world of which she felt a part lay at a greater and greater remove from the world of her day-to-day life. During years when the arts were dominated by self-conscious avante garde experimentation, she declared: “No me interesa ser ‘actual’; me interesa ser ‘permanente’ ” [“I’m not interested in being ‘up-to-date’; what interests me is being ‘permanent.’ ”]60

The permanence of her commitment is what she has to offer us today: her commitment is a response to the problem of how women are to live in the world, in the so-called public sphere, guest workers in a foreign country. From nearly the beginning of her career to the end, she looks for poetic authority among the eternal types of women, in the well-spring of myth. In so doing she may depict primarily her own powerlessness, but it is also that of others. Dissimulation would be a practical necessity, reinforced by the language of metaphor, a language which women have made theirs.61 She doubted herself at least as much as any of her detractors did, for after all, she was only an uneducated woman. This doubt would follow and at times envelop her like a protective shadow.

But for all her doubt, even in her first volumes she knew that others in their lives had known a pain and an anger to equal hers, and she can speak to them. This communal dimension grows and matures in her work; it is present when she writes out of what would be called (were it not “hers”) the anonymous experience of a “typical” woman, identified only by what she has lost. This impersonal voice should not be termed “confessional” poetry. It is testimony.

 

NOTES

1. This use of the masculine pronoun “el” [the] with “artista” follows Mistral’s use in “Decálogo del artista”, Desolación (New York: Instituto de las Españas, 1922) and subsequent editions.

2. Letter from Gabriela Mistral to L. Carlos Soto Ayala, printed in Literatura coquimbana (Santiago, 1908) 101-102; reprinted in Fernando Alegría, Genio y figura de Gabriela Mistral (Buenos Aires: Editora Universitaria, 1966) 23-24.

3. Roque Esteban Scarpa’s commentaries are vital to understanding this aspect of the poet’s self-image. The earliest mention of it is in Mistral’s “Recuerdo de la madre ausente,” first published in Gabriela Mistral, Lecturas para mujeres (1923; México: Porrúa, 1975).

4. Ciro Alegría recounts some of these in Gabriela Mistral íntima (Lima, Perú: Editorial Universo, 1968).

5. Letter, Gabriela Mistral to Isauro Santelices E., in Santelices, Mi encuentro con Gabriela Mistral (Santiago: Editorial del Pacífico, 1972) 77.

6. See “Modesta: De posición social o económica no brillante, aunque tampoco humilde” [Modest: of a social or economic position that isn’t brilliant, but isn’t abjectly humble either], María Moliner, Diccionario del uso del español (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1986).

7. Hernán Díaz Arrieta (pseud. “Alone”), Gabriela Mistral, Premio Nobel 1945 (Santiago: Nascimento, 1945) 9.

8. Díaz Arrieta’s insistence on the white side of her lineage is arbitrary; some might find it racist. He is willing to accept as an unsettled possibility her suggestion that she had Jewish ancestors, but by utterly disregarding Mistral’s self-identification as a mestiza he thereby excludes from his discussion the substantial portion of her work in which this is a major theme, from the poems in the third edition of Desolación, much of Tala, and all of Poema de Chile [Poem of Chile.] To be fair, the inclusions and omissions in his version of Mistral’s genealogy are typical of his generation: until about fifteen years ago, few critics paid any attention at all to Mistral’s interest in the indigenous cultures of America. Perhaps the only book to deal with Mistral’s Pan-Americanism in depth is Juan Antonio Rodríguez Pagan, Gabriela Mistral, voz de la América hispánica (Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial San Juan, 1973). I should also note that Mistral’s own interest in the indigenous peoples in America did not begin until after she had left Chile to live and work in post-revolutionary Mexico, in 1922.

9. In Mistral’s Spanish aristocracy, service and compassion and intellectual honesty are what matter—not the conquistador Cortes but the writer-activist-priest, Las Casas.

10. In an unpublished manuscript on nineteenth century Black writer Harriet Jacobs, Harryette Mullen points out that the constraint of women’s modesty further serves the status quo by ensuring the production of “legitimate” offspring for the purpose of property inheritance. It is for this reason that modesty was a virtue enforced or available only to women from the propertied classes.

11. See “Altiva: Se dice de uno que trata a otros con desprecio” [Arrogant: said of one who treats others with disdain], in Moliner.

12. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quijote de la Mancha, Vol. 1, Chapter xiii (Barcelona: Editorial Juventud, 1971). For Mistral, the choice to remain single rather than to marry is central to the reception of her work, ensuring her reputation as being mysterious or distant.

13. Gabriela Mistral, “Los sonetos de la muerte”, Poesías completas, ed. Margaret Bates, Biblioteca Premios Nobel (Madrid: Aguilar, 1968) 81-83.

14. Letter, Gabriela Mistral to Isauro Santelices, 1917, printed in Santelices 77.

15. “Altiva: Puede emplearse con sentido favorable aplicado a una persona que tiene mucha dignidad y no se deja despreciar o humillar” [Arrogant: it can be used in a favorable sense for someone who has much dignity and permits no disdain or humiliation], Moliner.

16. Mistral, “Oración de la maestra”, Desolación 103.

17. This is a thesis central to Elsa Chaney, Supermadre: La mujer dentro de la política en América Latina (1979; México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1983).

18. Mistral, “Oración de la maestra”, Desolación 103.

19. As noted in the first chapter of this manuscript, this same rhetoric of messianic purity was crucial to those women in Chile and in the United States who argued that women should be involved in politics. Chilean scholar Julietta Kirkwood points out the double bind of this argument: if women’s relative inexperience with politics qualifies them to enter the political arena, then once women do enter politics, they lose the very disinterestedness and incorruptibility that was their special qualification. An extension of this reasoning is that the childlessness of the “maestra” is crucial to the fiction that she is a better mother than “real” mothers are.

20. Mistral wrote, but later suppressed from publication, a companion piece to “La maestra rural” entitled “El maestro rural”. See the valuable commentary in Roque Esteban Scarpa, Una mujer nada de tonta (Santiago: Andrés Bello, 1976).

21. Mistral, “La maestra rural”, Desolación 34-35.

23. The prayer mode has other advantages: the speaker’s admission of personal helplessness, and her self-representation as a wronged woman, give her the power to threaten. Even so, her gravest threat is that of angry self-destruction: such an outcome would have no affect on the ostensible addressee, a distant and all-powerful God. In “Íntima” [Intimate] from Desolación, she conjures up an image of incipient catastrophe: “Recíbeme, voy plena, / tan plena como la tierra inundada” [Receive me, I am full, / as full as the flooded earth.] Similar threats are evident in the first person “Locas mujeres” [“Mad” women] poems written thirty years later. There, the speaker depicts herself as the “mountain cactus” of “La otra” [The Other], who, having passed through the flood of love, will live through drought: “Ahora voy a aprenderme / el país de la acedía, / y a desaprender tu amor / que era la sola lengua mía, / como río que olvidase / lecho, corriente y orillas” [Now I go forth to learn for myself / the country of drought / and to unlearn your love / which was my only language, / as a river which would forget / its bed, current, and banks.] “La abandonada” [The Abandoned Woman], in Lagar: Poemas [Wine Press: Poems] (Santiago: Editorial del Pacífico, 1954).

24. Praising Gabriela Mistral for her personal “greatness,” her “force of character,” or her “ideology” leads to the conclusion that her personality mattered more than her writing; this is ultimately to emphasize the “maestra” rather than the artist. Ciro Alegría, Gabriela Mistral íntima is one such evaluation.

25. Mistral, “Oración de la maestra”, Desolación (1922; Santiago: Andrés Bello, 1983) 103.

26. Mistral, Desolación 103.

27. Letter, Gabriela Mistral to Sra. Dey, 1919 or 1920, reprinted in Santelices 60.

28. Letter, Santelices, 60.

29. Mistral, “El suplicio” [The Torture], Poesías completas 30.

31. Mistral, “El suplicio”, Poesías completas 20.

32. Mistral, “Decálogo del artista”, Desolación 121.

33. This attempt to avoid using the first person, and thus avoid appearing as personally authoritative when dealing with the serious matter of high art, sometimes creates syntactically twisted and obscure language. Raúl Silva Castro, in Estudios sobre Gabriela Mistral. Precedido de una biografía (Santiago: Zig-zag, 1935), pointed out this shortcoming without connecting it to the poet’s gender. Such circumlocutions often derive from the attempt to avoid self-references. When she was young, there were a few occasions when she directly identified herself with what her contemporaries regarded as high art (the Vargas Vila episode being one example), and her judgment was ridiculed. Understandably hesitant to repeat this experience, she became more circumspect in her enthusiasms.

34. Gabriela Mistral, “La cruz de Bistolfi”, Poesías completas 4. The five sections of Desolación, taken as a whole, alternate between sections in which the poems are written in the first person, employing a mode of humility, and poems which are distant, exhortatory.

35. Mistral, “Al pueblo hebreo”, Poesías completas 8.

36. Mistral, “El arte”, Desolación 119.

37. Mistral, “El arte”, Desolación.

38. Mistral, “Voto”, Desolación 140.

39. Mistral, “Voto”, Desolación.

40. “Habla Gabriela Mistral en la unión panamericana”, Repertorio americano, viii (San José, Costa Rica, 11 August 1924) 322.

41. Mistral, “Elogio de la canción” [Praise for the Song], published in the 3rd and subsequent editions of Desolación, probably written in Mexico around 1922.

42. Mistral liked “Meciendo”: she added it to the 1925 edition of Desolación; printed it in Lecturas para mujeres (1922), Ternura (1926), and many years later taped it for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. In the unedited version of the tape, available in the Hispanic Reading Room of the Library of Congress, she notes, before reciting the poem, “Este poema le gustó mucho a Valery” [Valery liked this poem very much.]

43. José Enrique Délano describes some of his work as Gabriela Mistral’s consular and personal secretary in Madrid during 1934: “Mucha gente cree que al nombrarla en ese cargo, el Gobierno de Chile hacia un favor a Gabriela. Por mi parte, yo creo que la explotaba. El cargo de cónsul de elección que tenía en esa época le daba derecho a percibir hasta doscientos y tanto dólares de los ingresos consulares; pero los ingresos en Madrid eran muy bajos, jamás alcanzaban a esa suma. Gabriela, en cambio, ponía a disposición del país su alta categoría intelectual. Siempre estaba escribiendo sobre Chile, dando conferencias o recitales en universidades y academias, aparte de servir cumplidamente la tarea consular rutinaria. A menudo le sacaba en limpio sus artículos, que se publicaron simultáneamente en diarios de Chile (El Mercurio), México (El Universal), Colombia (El Tiempo) y otros países. Escribía a mano, en forma muy enredada, con llaves, sacados, agregados, líneas sobrepuestas y pases a otras hojas. No siempre era fácil descifrar originales tan complicados. También le ayudé a poner a máquina poemas, muchos de eso poemas amargos y profundos que iban formando el libro Tala, que hizo y rehízo tantas veces” [Many people believe that when they appointed her to that job, the Chilean government was doing Gabriela a favor. From my perspective, I believe that it was exploiting her. The job that an “honorary” consul held, at that time came with the right to receive up to two hundred dollars or so in consular fees; but the fees in Madrid were very low, they never reached that sum. Gabriela, on the other hand, put her high intellectual rank at the disposal of the country. She was always writing about Chile, giving lectures or readings at universities and institutes, aside from scrupulously fulfilling the routine consular tasks. I would usually make clean copies of her articles which were published simultaneously in newspapers in Chile El Mercurio, Mexico, El Universal, Colombia El Tiempo and other countries. She would write by hand, in a very intricate way, with keys, parts taken out and added on, superimposed lines and indications to move to other pages. It wasn’t always easy to decipher such complicated original manuscripts. I also helped her type poems, many of those bitter and profound poems that were gradually making up the book Tala, which she made and remade so many times.] Délano, Sobre todo Madrid, Ediciones Cormorán, Colección Testimonios (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1970) 9, 40-41.

44. The poet took first prize in the “Juegos de poesía”, [Poetry Games] held as a nationwide competition to encourage young Chilean poets. With the “Sonetos de la muerte”, readers of poetry who lived in or near the capital learned of her work.

45. Roque Esteban Scarpa rightly insists on the importance of this occasion for Mistral. See the works already cited as well as his preface to Gabriela Mistral, magisterio y niño (Santiago: Editorial Andrés Bello, 1978) 13.

46. What is meant is that she was not widely known among professors of Spanish literature in the United States. Of course, it flatters the vanity of a North American audience to feel that they have discovered her.

47. Mistral, “Palabras preliminares”, Desolación 1.

48. Mistral, “Palabras preliminares”, Desolación. Modifying “poesías” [poetry] with the adjective “pocas” [few] gives the impression of a small, limited quantity, a modest quantity, without going so far as to say that her work itself is limited. Of course, throughout the entire introduction, the “Oración de la maestra” is the only poem mentioned and there is no indication at all how prolific Mistral was during this time: Scarpa very convincingly presents the evidence that Desolación includes less than a fifth of the poet’s finished work at the time.

49. Mistral, “Palabras preliminares”, Desolación.

50. Mistral, “Palabras preliminares”, Desolación.

51. Mistral, “Voto”, Desolación (1979, 1983) 140 of the 1979, 1983 edition cited above. This is echoed in a definition Mistral offered in 1933, in “Como escribo” [How I Write], a talk offered in Montevideo: “Escribo para la salud” [I Write for Health.] “Como escribo” is reprinted in Gabriela Mistral, Páginas en prosa (Buenos Aires: Editorial Kapelusz, 1962) 1-3.

52. Mistral later extends this claim to any “Oficio” or occupation. Any work to which an individual may devote him or herself becomes a morally exemplary, communally uplifting act: “No hay éxito individual” [There is no individual success]—Gabriela Mistral, “Grandeza de los oficios” [Grandness of Occupations] reprinted in the prose collection of the same name compiled by Roque Esteban Scarpa (Santiago: Editorial Andrés Bello, 1979) 9.

53. Mistral, Introducción, Lecturas para mujeres xx.

54. Mistral, “Voto”, Desolación 140.

55. Mistral, Introducción, Lecturas para mujeres xv.

56. Mistral, Introducción, Lecturas para mujeres.

57. Mistral, Tala (1938; Santiago: Editorial Andrés Bello, 1979).

58. “Tengo vergüenza de mi boca triste / de mi voz rota y mis rodillas rudas” [I am ashamed of my sad mouth, of my broken voice and my coarse knees.] Mistral, “Vergüenza” [Shame], Desolación 48. Carefully keeping her expressions of outrage within sanctioned contexts (such as religion), she compares herself to the farm-laborer and the orphaned child and says, like them, I am someone who has been wronged: “Yo tengo rencor cuando anochece” [I am full of rancor when night falls], Gabriela Mistral, “Viernes santo” [Good Friday], Desolación, 11. Like them, her history is a history of loss “Yo que he perdido todo” [I who have lost all], Mistral, “Apegado a mí” [Close to me], Desolación 91; “Soy yo la que tengo / mi luz hecha llanto” [I am the woman who has / her light turned to crying.] Once a beggar, always a beggar: the poverty and isolation that she has known remain with her forever: “Como soy reina y fui mendiga, ahora / vivo en puro temblor de que me dejes” [Since I am a queen and was a beggar, now / I live trembling for fear that you may leave me.] Gabriela Mistral, “Desvelada” [Sleepless Woman], Desolación 48.

59. See Eliana Rivero “Para una actualización de Gabriela Mistral: Conciencia y poesía”, Mistral, Humberto Díaz, ed. Casanueva et al. (Jalapa, México: Universidad Veracruzana, 1980) 20-35.

60. Gastón Von dem Busche quoted this line to me in a conversation at the Universidad Metropolitana in June of 1986 in Santiago, Chile. I trust Sr. Von dem Busche’s wide knowledge and excellent memory of the writer’s work, but I have not been able to locate this quote precisely; it may appear in unpublished correspondence.

61. Helene Araujo, “Escritoras latinoamericanas: ¿Afuera del ‘Boom’?”, Quimera, Revista de Literatura (Barcelona, 1983).