Author: Elizabeth Horan
Title: Gabriela Mistral: An Artist and Her People
I. Extensions of Mistrals Work in the Schools
Patronage and the Ministry of Education
As I have indicated, it is important to correct the fiction of undiscovered genius, which holds that Mistrals writing was virtually unknown until Federico de Onís led a group of North American teachers to beg her for the manuscript of Desolación, which they published in New York in 1922. I have pointed out that Chileans and other South Americans had in fact been reading wide selections of the poets work since 1917, in nationally distributed magazines: the Revista de Educación Nacional, for example, and the Libros de lectura (a series of textbooks edited by Gomez Maturana). The work that was published between 1914-1918 was primarily an extension of Mistrals involvement with public education in Chile. These years represent a crucial stage in the poets apprenticeship.1
While Gabriela Mistral counted as friends and as sponsors many of the most prominent poets and writers in Chile at the timeMagallanes Moure, Pedro Prado, Armando Donosomen who constituted the literary elite of Santiago universally referred to as Los Diez, the character of her publications in those years reveals her careful avoidance of open competition or controversy. By publishing under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, in Theosophical Society publications, small literary magazines, and occasionally in the magazine Los Diez (as if to show that she was slighting no one and was open to all), Gabriela Mistral acquired a following in reading communities which older, more established writers had overlooked. Just as the women of the elite to which Iris belonged had overlooked the maestritas [young schoolteachers] so had Los Diez failed to notice the growing audience for poetry. This audience was made possible by the advances in education outlined in Chapters One and Two.
Many of the poems which Mistral published under the aegis of the Ministry of Education were subsequently printed (with some revisions) in Desolación. This included work in the categories poesías infantiles [childrens poetry], la escuela [the school], prosa [prose], escolares [for students], casi escolares [almost for students] and canciones de cuna [cradle songs.] Ever since the twenties Mistrals writing in these categories has been the most frequently reprinted of her work. Poems such as Piececitos de niño [childrens little feet], Miedo [Fear], and Apegado a mí have gained an apparently permanent place within school curricula in Chile and Argentina. Despite the publics enduring loyalty to the work that Mistral produced for use in the schools, scholars ignore it just as the writers and followers of Los Diez did when it originally appeared. This bespeaks a general tendency to ignore and dismiss whatever can be construed to have been written for use in the schools, for children, or for mothers. Scholars routinely overlook any part of the poets work that she has described as being directed towards an audience of women and children.
The purpose of the following pages is to identify and analyze in terms of the poets strategies for audience-building those portions of Mistrals work that scholars have tended to exclude from consideration. Mistrals fame is based not just on the Oración de la maestra, or the Poema del hijo [Poem of the Son], the Sonetos de la muerte, but also on her poesías infantiles, Poemas de las madres [Mothers Poems], and Lecturas para mujeres. Each of these collections reveals a different aspect of the poets relationship with the public. In them are visible her accommodations, her conformity to what was expected of her as a self-taught, unmarried, childless woman who had grown up in a remote Andean valley and received only a schoolteachers wages for over seventeen years of her working life. These series of poems, prose poems, and essays incorporate many of the old cliches about feminine graces and domestic obligations, all wrapped in the poets duly expressed gratitude to the powerful men who gave her leave to speak. Yet the cliches have an additional function: they signal the poets sense of commitment to others like herself, and to a world that these men scarcely knew. The old, recognizable signs, the cliches of domesticity, serve as a bridge between the world in which women (including the poet), children, and animals are subordinate to male-defined authority. They present an alternative, gynocentric world based in mutual respect, empathy, and reciprocity. Mistral pointed out that men had been silent about this world and that women had an almost religious obligation to write about it. It was this sense of obligation, this carefully defined and continually changing relationship with her specified reading communities, that imbued these old signs with new meaning.
Implied in the Poesías infantiles
When Mistral undertook to write poetry and prose for use in the schools, she was in fact addressing a complex audience with a stringent set of demands. There was less latitude, in many ways, in writing for the community of readers represented by the public schools than there had been in writing verses for Ruben Daríos Paris-based magazine, Elegancias, or for the magazine Los Diez. That Mistral published her work in so diverse an assortment of magazines reveals her versatility, a characteristic that she might well have developed as a rural schoolteacher-poet. Necessity is the mother of invention: during her years in the schools, she would hope that the verses and stories which she wrote and shared with her students (and colleagues) might also appeal to others. The decision to seek publication meant anticipating the requirements of still other reading communities: a nationwide corps of teachers (many of whom would be inexperienced readers of poetry), as well as Santiago-based administrators, and finally, children.
Given the various requirements imposed by so comprehensive a readership, the poesías infantiles published in the Revista de Educación Nacional and the Libros de lectura are the least abrasive of her work: they carefully skirt the interrelated subjects of female sexuality, maternity, and a woman-centered world which increasingly interested Mistral. Women do not appear in these poems; instead, the bond of child to father is emphasized. The salient quality of these poems is their apparently naive and uncritical acceptance of male domination as embodied by a strong patriarchal deity who protects his weak and otherwise helpless charges. Just as any references to women are kept out of these texts, social commentary is absent as well. In poems such as El himno cotidiano [The Daily Hymn], Plegaria por el nido [Prayer for the Nest], and Hablando al padre [Speaking to the Father] the weak are not depicted as being oppressed, as they were in Oración de la maestra. In work written for this school-oriented audience, dependency is represented as a quality that endears the weak to the idealized father-figures on whom the poems focus.
The early childrens poems on the whole rely on the cliches of patriarchy. There is the sower in ¡Echa la simiente! [Scatter the Seed!], who is a good provider for his family, as well as the young girl who benefits from her fathers strength and power, a Jove-like fulgor [brilliance], in exchange for maintaining her virginity, in Hablando al Padre [Speaking to The Father]:
Me has de ayudar
sin deshojar mi rosa de esplendor
[You have to help me
without defoliating my rose of splendor]2
In these poems the genderless children recognize how good the father is, and they gratefully compare their situation with that of other more sensitive creatures:
Tú, que me afeas los martirios
Dados a las criaturas finas.
[You, who make ugly to me the martyrdoms
given to fine creatures.]3
It is in consequence of the single-minded devotion to the father characteristic of the poems for children that mothers, adult women, do not exist. The exception, in the opening line of El encuentro hermoso [The Beautiful Encounter], gives Mistrals interpretation of Suffer the little children to come unto me: Madres, dejad que vengan hacía mí los pequeños [Mothers, suffer the little children come to me.] For children to go to Jesus, they must leave their mothers behind them.
From a practical point of view, the poets choice to write for children represents her means of seeking, in the fatherly sponsorship of the state, that very protection and refuge depicted in the poems; the quality of weakness, of helplessness, is transferred from the poet, to children, and back again. The decision to write for children resembles the self-protective strategy of assuming the persona of the humble maestra, in the Oración de la maestra, except that in the poesías infantiles, patriarchy is absolute and direct references to femininity are rigorously suppressed.
The Silent, Soothing Mother in a Patriarchal World
A manuscript which Mistral compiled and, in June of 1915 even announced she would publish, bore the title Suaves decires [Tender Sayings]: tender, idle talk is a way of avoiding trouble.4 To speak softly is to steer clear of conflict by deferring all authority to the kindly father (variously identified as mi dueño [my master], Jesús, el Señor). This solution unwittingly represents the position of the mother: to mediate between the state and children is to take on the role of the mother who intervenes between father and offspring.
I would argue that the defect of the poems and prose pieces published in the Libros de lectura arises from the insecurities of the poets position as a woman writer being sponsored by the state. Locating herself between the rulers and the ruled, she wholly concentrates on gaining the acceptance of the former. Paternal and paternalistic authority is stipulated but not examined: as the deputy of the powerful, she cannot speak, just yet, as a representative of the oppressed, however familiar she may be with their situation. Thus, these very early poems sidestep the social criticism that pervades the Oración de la maestra. Rather, in El himno cotidiano, Plegaria por el nido, or Hablando al padre, weakness is not a correlate of suffering, nor does the poet ever characterize herself as a sufferer. The poet holds herself aloof from the pervasive dualism of the weak, helpless, and therefore loveable on one side, and a range of kind, strong, protective father figures on the other; there is none of the self-dramatization so typical of other work.
The themes of oppression and refuge, suffering and relief, figure strongly in poetry that Mistral wrote during her final years. Because depictions of suffering are as prominent in her poetry for adults as in the poesías infantiles, one wonders how to gauge whether children are indicated as intended readers in any given text. The surest way to distinguish what Mistral wrote for use in the schools from her other work can be found in the poems attempts to explain why refuge is necessary. In her poems for children, human or animal figures seek protection from vaguely described forces of nature (such as wind, mud and snow) or from mythical creatures resembling the bogeyman. The poems for children never allude to malevolent intentions in humans and they carefully avoid attribution of guilt or blame. By contrast, in the Poemas de las madres (which Mistral was writing at approximately the same time but withheld from publication until after she had left Chile), human malevolence is graphically evident, and the poet adds a lengthy, anecdotal note discussing guilt, complaisance and suffering, as if to ensure that her readers would not overlook this dimension. As shall be apparent in contrasting specific poesías infantiles with selections from Poemas de las madres, Mistrals decision to write poetry for children entailed extensive self-censorship. These self-censored elements (which include human malevolence, the attribution of blame for human suffering, a feminine poetic persona, and references to women) are central to the Poemas de las madres and much of the poets other work.
Pros and Cons of Being Regarded as a Childrens Poet
On the positive side, writing poesías infantiles accelerated the professional advancement of Lucila Godoy. Her achievements as Gabriela Mistral brought promotions, wider responsibilities, a growing circle of friends and correspondents, the respect of her subordinates, and near-awe from the townspeople of the villages in which she worked. Recognition as a poet brought opportunity for travel and a life outside Chile. The early poems had one immediate effect: they brought Mistral to the attention of the educational administrators who became her patrons. These administratorsmany of whom I have already named: Brígida Walker, Pedro Aguirre Cerda and his wife, José Vasconcelos; perhaps even Palma Guillén and Fidelia Valdés Pereira can be included in this categorywere urban, well-educated, privileged. They would regard this provincial, minimally educated schoolteacher-poet as a representative, perhaps a token or a delegate from a remote group, whose participation was crucial to the task of creating rural schools, promoting literacy, and fostering national pride. This work required the poets willingness to work smoothly within the system, and this is exactly where the poets collaboration in the Libros de lectura fits in.
The success of the poesías infantiles brought disadvantages, according to critic-historian Roque Esteban Scarpa. He suggests that Mistrals collaboration in the Libros de lectura may have hindered her by temporarily circumscribing her poetry in terms of theme, language, didactic function, and creative intentions. He indicates that she acquired a reputation as one who wrote about certain values of beauty in the world ... her verses were often, if not always, beautiful:
...el material que iba incluyendo en los libros de lectura de Guzmán Maturana, si no era el mejor, fijaba su nombre en un vasto sector de maestros, valores de belleza en el mundo en torno y en la perfección de las almas, en versos, algunas veces o parcialmente, hermosos.
[...the material that was included in the schooltexts of Guzmán Maturana may not have been the best, but for a vast sector of teachers it attached to her name values of beauty in the surrounding world and in the perfection of souls, in verses that were occasionally or partially beautiful.]5
Scarpas suggestions imply that what was circumscribed was not so much Mistrals poetry as the image that the public cultivated of her. To some extent she collaborated or was at least complicitous in the early development of this public image, for she wrote other kinds of verses which she largely withheld: Scarpa estimates that Desolación represents a fraction of the work that the poet had written by the time she left Chile in 1921.
The Poets Self-Censorship
As I have already noted, critics have attempted to account for the poets delay in publishing a full-length volume, by reference to the convention of the poets modesty, and by suggesting that she did not hold her work in high esteem. The fact that she wrote in a range of styles and on a number of themes, work that she published in a widening variety of magazines argues against giving too much credence to the theories of modesty and self-doubt. Scarpa leads others in suggesting that Gabriela Mistral delayed publishing because some aspects of her work had already been singled out for attack:
Mujer sensible, la admiración de muchos no vencía a la impiedad de los ataques que su poética, por sus intentos renovadores en el lenguaje y en el desgarramiento de su contenido, no era perdonado en mujer, por esos años.
[A sensitive woman, the admiration of many did not win out over the impiety of the attacks which her poetry, with its efforts at renewing the language, and its blood-curdling content, were not pardoned in a woman in those years.]6
Of course, Mistral was not merely sensitive to attacks; I have already shown that her status as an outsider placed her in an extremely vulnerable position. Given this vulnerability, her reaction was to retreat from the front where she was least sure of herself and had the fewest allies. The need for accommodation to her immediate environment can account for Mistrals choosing, on the one hand, to publish primarily limited and conventional poesías infantiles, and, on the other, to refrain from publishing (until she left Chile) the more controversial and problematic Poemas de las madres.7 This goes beyond ordinary self-consciousness. Mistrals awareness of those who were obsessed with proprieties or who questioned her unique language and style (accusing her of pretentiousness) made her habitually withhold from publication much of her best work, even after she had won international acclaim.
Childrens PoetrySome Crucial Distinctions
I have suggested that the work which Mistral described as poesías infantiles differs from her other work in important ways: in these poems the poet avoids self-representation, she avoids references to adult, female figures generally, and she avoids tracing the causes of the suffering depicted in the poems. In writing poems for children at this stage in her career, Mistral was conscious of having to pass muster with reading communities who represented her employer, the state: this awareness is quite possibly what limits them. Federico Schophs observation is entirely apt:
...no conmovieron sus convicciones ideológicas, no les ofrecieron una representación más verdadera del mundo infantil y sus relaciones.
[...her ideological convictions were not moving, they did not offer a truer representation of the world of children and its relationships.]8
What is true of some categories of poetry for children is not true, however, of all the work that Mistral wrote for use in the schools. The differences involve the implied audience for the poems in question. Schopf, for instance, admires the poets rondas (childrens [rounds]) for their vitality, which he ascribes to their communal nature. Aside from looking at the original circumstances of publication, examining the poets dedication or inscription of a poem to a specific individual is one way of approximating an implied audience. Scanning the poesías infantiles, it is evident that the poet dedicated many of the poems in this category to people who had been her supervisors. In the Poesías completas, published by Aguilar shortly after her death, the poetry that Mistral selected for the categories casi escolares and la escuela share many of the characteristics of her poesías infantiles, and they too bear dedications to individuals such as Vasconcelos and Brígida Walker. By contrast, her childrens rounds and her canciones de cuna carry dedications to former female colleagues of the poet, close relatives or people from Elqui, and one (at least) is dedicated to a child; none are dedicated to individuals who have been her patrons or supervisors.
Thus, while the rounds and lullabies may have been written for use in schools, in further specifying their use, Mistral separated them from other work that has been regarded as childrens poetry. Two characteristics are worthy of note: the rounds and lullabies strong association with oral performance and music. Perhaps more importantly, in contrast with the poesías infantiles, there is a reduction in the number of implied audiences or reading communities through which the rounds and lullabies must filter. If indeed the lullabies were written for childrena questionable assumption that I will return to in dealing with them in Chapter Fourthey would reach children through mothers. For the lullabies, the mother, rather than the state, would be the transmitting agent. In the case of the roundsmost of which Mistral wrote after she had retired from teachingthe poet was probably more concerned with producing work that children and teachers could use for singing and dancing, than she was with producing poetry that might or might not be acceptable to administrators.
Distinctions according to the reading communities whose approval Mistral sought are vital in light of the tendency to by-pass her classroom-oriented poetry. We must not forget that the poet regarded the rounds and lullabies as forming the basis of her later work, as indicated in her description of the poems Sol del trópico [Sun of the Tropics] and Cordillera [Mountain Range] (entitled Dos himnos [Two Hymns] in Tala). It is ironic that critics have praised the grandiose Americanism of what Mistral self-mockingly called in Tala la trompa épica, más elefantina que metálica [the epic trumpet, more elephantine than metallic.] According to the poet, the americanist poems began in the short syllables and simple meter of the lullaby and the childrens round:
cuando hice unas Rondas de niños y unas Canciones de Cuna, balbuceo el tema por vocear su presencia a los mozos... Yo sé muy bien que doy un puro balbuceo del asunto. Igual que otras veces, afronto el ridículo con la sonrisa de la mujer rural cuando se le malogra el frutillar o el arrope en el fuego.
[when I made some Childrens Rounds and some Cradle Songs, I haltingly addressed the topic in order to voice its presence for the younger ones... I know quite well that I only give a babbling of the topic. Like other times, I face ridicule with the smile of a rural woman when her strawberry jam or grape syrup spoil over the fire.]9
Because the fear of ridicule is never far away, Mistral hid el tono mayor [the major tone], when she first haltingly addressed it in the rounds for children and lullabies. Only later does she develop it in the Dos himnos (in Tala) which her Excusa de unas notas [Excuse for some Notes] referred to as la paena y el nimbo de la Walkiria terrestre que se llama América [the joyful song and the halo of the earthly Valkyrie that is called America.] Ironically, what Mistral expected to be ridiculed, figures, at present, among her most admired poetry, but the rounds and lullabies on which that later work is based have been relegated to the schoolyard.
Childrens Rounds, Circle-Songs as Symbols of Community
More obviously than her other poetry, Mistrals rounds for children are addressed to specific communities which their titles indicate, either directly (as in Ronda argentina [Argentine Round] and Ronda cubana [Cuban Round]) or indirectly, through a representative symbol (as in Ronda de la ceiba ecuatoriana [Round of the Ecuadoran Ceiba Tree]). Because Mistral wrote rounds, like lullabies, during the length of her career, the themes of these poems offer a compendium of her changing interests. Already noted are themes related to Mistrals dedicated Latin Americanism, a factor emphasized by the appeal to community identity in the rounds. Concentrated attention to the specific terrain, creatures, and customs of the New World appears in the rounds as well as lullabies which Mistral published in 1945, in the revised version of Ternura. By contrast, the terrain in a very early round, El corro luminoso [The Luminous Circle], is never precisely identified:
Corro de las niñas
corro de mil niñas
a mi alrededor:
¡oh Dios, yo soy dueña
de este resplandor!
[Circle of girls
circle of a thousand girls
oh God, I am mistress
of this splendor!]10
El corro luminoso differs from the other childrens poetry which Mistral was writing at the time, for the poet appears in it, as dueña [mistress.] The corro de mil niñas furthermore raises an important point: the poets rounds frequently address a community that is specifically feminine: singing and dancing are strongly reinforced behaviors for girls, and the circumstances in which rounds are taught (by elementary school teachers) suggest a community that is feminine in consequence if not in design. We should not forget that in Chile overall, and in the schools where Mistral worked, girls and boys as a rule attended separate establishments on both the elementary and secondary levels: with the single exception of her work in the night school in her teens, Mistrals career as an educator was spent in all-female environments.
In later poems such as Mistrals Ronda de la ceiba ecuatoriana, the qualities of femininity or of the female groups described belie the meekness and assumed humility evident in Mistrals earlier work: the gigantic Ecuadorian ceiba-tree is warrior-like, recalling the Medusa (except that the ceiba is victorious); her twisting against the sky implies a proud, almost Luciferian rebelliousness; the singers liken the jubilation that passes through the tree to that of the Hebrew warrior-prophetess Deborah and her followers:
Tuerce y tuerce contra el cielo
veinte cobras verdaderas,
y al pasar por ella el viento
canta toda como Débora!
[Twist and twist against the sky
twenty real-life cobras,
and when the wind passes through her
she sings all like Deborah!]11
The ceiba also evokes a resurrection in which an intergenerational female community dances in its shadow. Again, the mention of the giantess suggests pride:
A su sombra de giganta
bailan todas las doncellas,
y sus madres que están muertas
bajan a bailar con ellas.
¡Ea, ceiba, ea, ea!
Damos una y otra mano
a las vivas y a las muertas,
y giramos y giramos
las mujeres y las ceibas....
[Under her shadow of giantess
the maidens all dance,
and their mothers who are dead
come down to dance with them.]
[Ea, ceiba, ea, ea!
We give one and then another hand
to the living and the dead,
and we spin and spin about
the women and the ceibas....]
The ceiba takes on a totemic significance for the group: in these last lines, the dividing lines between the significant ancestors (the mothers) and the members of the group, and the ceiba, as a symbol of their identity, collapse: living and dead, women and ceibas, are one.
When the round centers on the community of dancers and singers, that community is overtly identified as feminine, as in El corro luminoso. When the round centers on a national identity, however, details of gender are excluded from the song. Perhaps it is not surprising these latter, serious (or at least more intellectual) roundssuch as Ronda de la paz [Peace Round] and Ronda de segadores [Reapers Round]are the ones that the poet inscribes with dedications to male poets; the lighter, more festive ones are dedicated to women, if at all.
Writing for Children versus Writing for Mothers
los poemas que Gabriela Mistral dedicó a los niños y a la maternidad ... habrían hecho llorar a muchas madres, pero nada más ... contribuyeron a envolver a las madres en los velos de representaciones represivas del mundo infantil, de sus propias tareas y su probable puesto en una sociedad, en tanto mujeres y madres.
[the poems that Gabriela Mistral dedicated to children and to maternity...would have made many mothers cry, but nothing more... they contributed to wrap mothers in the veils of repressive representations of the world of children, of their own chores and their probable place in a society as women and mothers.]12
What Federico Schopf most admires in the work of Gabriela Mistral is what he calls el viejo sueño de comunión con la tierra y los hombres [the old dream of communion with the earth and men.] Thus, within the part of Mistrals work that focuses on motherhood, he prefers poems which show the mother as an educator, teaching her child about the world, and poems which emphasize the community of mothers, as opposed to the visión pseudocristiana y pequeño burguesa de la maternidad y el mundo del niño [pseudochristian and petty bourgeois vision of maternity and the world of the child] that he roundly condemns, especially in the lullabies. While I agree with Schopfs emphasis on Mistral as poet of ecological communion and of community, it is surprising to encounter an otherwise perceptive critic neglecting a simple although vitally important distinction. The poems that Mistral seemingly dedicated to children rarely mention mothers; they focus on an idealized father instead. A great many of the poems that Mistral dedicated to motherhood have little or nothing to do with children. Children, when they are noted at all, are hypothetical and entirely secondary to the pervasive and wholly feminine subjectivity of Mistrals work. The development of that subjectivity, not any obsession with children per se, is at the center of Mistrals interest in maternity.
Schopfs complaint is in one sense entirely justified: if by poems dedicated to children he means the poesías infantiles, those poems indeed offer repressive representations of the world, and they are undeniably flawed by the restrictions of being a state-sponsored poet. The very reverse is true of the poems dedicated to maternity which Mistral wrote during the same era. In these texts she adopts a women-centered perspective that exposes the hard reality of womens lives in a world made to mens measure. The series of prose-poems entitled Poemas de las madres portray violent, tyrannical fathers and insensitive husbands who are not charmed in the least by womens dependence, but rather, resent it. It is as if the poet were pouring all of her pent-up anger and fear into the Poemas de las madres to which we now turn.
II. Poemas de las madres [Mothers Poems]
First published in the Repertorio americano [American Repertoire] of Costa Rica in June of 1921 as Poemas de la madre, translated into English and published in New York in August of that same year, Mistral changed madre [mother] to madres [mothers] and included this series of nineteen prose poems in all of the major anthologies of her work that she compiled in her lifetime. Her repeated republication of them over the years indicates two possibilities: one, that she continued to esteem the Poemas de las madres (even though her other early work interested her less and less), and two, that there was a certain public demand for them which the publishers hoped to take advantage of.
These prose poems appear in Desolación from the very first edition of that text. There, they are included in the section Prosa rather than in the section Prosa escolara further indication that they were in no sense intended for children, just as the lullabies which appear immediately after them, in the first edition of Desolación, are not directed toward children either. From the second edition of Desolación onward, the poet draws particular attention to the last two prose-poems of the series by placing them under a separate heading, Poemas de la madre más triste [Poems of the Saddest Mother], appending a half-page note that describes and defends the circumstances of their composition and publication. Of course, the note draws increased attention to the Poemas overall: within Desolación, the attempt to account for and defend her work by direct address to her readers is unique; the only item to even approximate it is the Voto with which the volume ends. Both defenses assert that there is a correct and an incorrect way of reading and interpreting what unenlightened persons have regarded as bitter, scandalous texts. The writer implies that her decision to publish is based on moral-religious premises.
Nerudas Impression: Una larga nota inútil [A long, useless note]
Writing about his friend and compatriot, Pablo Neruda criticizes the note that Mistral appended, even though he praises the poems. Nerudas commentary is imprecise and his memory does not serve him, for he confuses Mistrals Poemas de las madres with her Poema del hijo. The mistake is one that is repeated again and again; it is a result of misreading Mistrals focus on motherhood as a focus on children:
Por aquellos días escribió los poemas del Hijo, hechos en limpia prosa, labrada y constelada, porque su prosa fue muchas veces su más penetrante poesía. Como en estos poemas del Hijo describe la gravidez, el parto y el crecimiento, algo confuso se susurró en Temuco, algo impreciso, algo inocentemente torpe, tal vez un comentario burdo que hería su condición de soltera....
Años después, en la primera edición de su gran libro, puso una larga nota inútil contra lo que se había dicho y susurrado sobre su persona en aquellas montañas al fin del mundo.
[In those days she wrote the poems of the Child, done in clean prose, sculpted and starstudded, because her prose was very often her most penetrating poetry. Since in these poems of the Child she described pregnancy, childbirth, and growing up, something unclear was whispered in Temuco, something imprecise, something innocently clumsy, perhaps a coarse commentary that wounded her condition as a single woman....]
[Years later, in the first edition of her great book, she included a long useless note against what had been said and whispered about her person in those mountains at the end of the world.]13
Ironically, Nerudas mix-up, his confused impression that the Poemas are about a child-son (Hijo) rather than about madres, closely resembles the murmured rumor about Mistral in su condición de soltera [her condition as a single woman] in Temuco. The mistake that the people in Temuco make is, according to the great malacólogo, (malacologist) that they read literally what was written metaphorically. Mistrals descriptions of gestation (which she euphemistically refers to in her note as este estado doloroso y divino [this painful and divine state]) are taken as literal truth by the simple, or by others only a little less naively, as evidence of the poets desire to bear children. Both misreadings begin in the inability to perceive the metaphorical truth of the Poemas de las madres: gestation and maternity are metaphors for aspects of feminine identity.
Modesty, Silence and a Ruinous Commentary
Throughout the Poemas de las madres, the detailed references to the female body (pecho, entrañas, vientre, senos, cintura, caderas [chest, entrails, womb, breasts, waist, hips]) draw the attention of women and men alike and make modesty a problem for the poet, as Neruda shows in commenting on the rumors that the poems were inspired by the frontier town of Temuco. Clearly the poets choice of the first person to concentrate on the sensations of pregnancy from a manifestly autobiographical perspective could jeopardize her reputation. It is modesty or chastity as reputation, rather than any tangible reality, that concerns the unnamed women alluded to in Mistrals useless note:
Alguna de esas mujeres que para ser castas necesitan cerrar los ojos sobre la realidad cruel pero fatal, hicieron de estos poemas un comentario ruin, que me entristeció por ellas mismas. Hasta me insinuaron que los eliminase de un libro.
[Some of those women who in order to be chaste need to close their eyes to the cruel but fatal reality, made of these poems a base commentary, which made me sad for them. They even insinuated that I should eliminate them from a book.]14
Silence, concern for appearances, and the reputation for modesty are all crucial to the code of female chastity. Within that code, the sign of the female body after male desire has been served transmits to men and women a message associating womens pregnancy with shame and powerlessness. Mistral removes this symbol of shame from the male realm by making women both the senders and receivers of a message which she sends to women readers who are capaces de ver [capable of seeing]capable of reading and interpreting the sign in the new context to which she has assigned it. She contrasts the correct reading with the incorrect one produced by women whose preoccupation with the old, shame-centered code of female chastity renders them blind:
...esas mujeres que para ser castas necesitan cerrar los ojos
[...those women who in order to be chaste need to close their eyes]
It is the act of dedicating this material to women readers who are capaces de ver that enables the poet both to maintain her modesty and to demonstrate the various readings of the single sign. Within the context provided by these ideal recipients, she can transmit messages that the old code excluded:
Es una de nosotras quien debe decir (ya que los hombres no lo han dicho) la santidad de este estado doloroso y divino. Si la misión del arte es embellecerlo todo, en una inmensa misericordia, ¿por qué no hemos purificado, a los ojos de los impuros, esto?
[It is one of us women who ought to express (since men have not expressed it) the sanctity of this painful and divine state. If the mission of art is to beautify everything, with immense compassion, why have we not purified, in the eyes of the impure, this?]15
Womens speech is legitimated where men (los hombres here is gender specific) have been silent for whatever reasons, be it out of respect, or out of disdain.16 The poets use of religious vocabulary (santidad [sanctity], divino-doloroso [divine-painful] as a pair, misericordia [compassion], purificado [purified]) contradicts male disdain while playing up the culturally imposed expectation that men observe a silent respect for motherhood. Her anecdote in the Nota shows that such silent respect for the mother is not viable in the cases of women who, having no men to defend them, become the objects of male scorn.
Una tarde, paseando por una calle miserable de Temuco, vi a una mujer del pueblo, sentada a la puerta de su rancho. Estaba próxima a la maternidad y su rostro revelaba una profunda amargura.
Pasó delante de ella un hombre y le dijo una frase brutal, que le hizo enrojecer.
[One afternoon, walking along a miserable street in Temuco, I saw a woman of the village, seated at the door of her shack. She was very close to giving birth and her face revealed a profound bitterness.]
[A man passed by in front of her and said a brutal phrase which made her blush.]17
Mistral intercepts mens brutal abuse on the one hand and their silence on the other in order to create a territory that women writers can claim as their own, a space more readily perceived by women than by men:
Yo sentí en ese momento toda la solidaridad del sexo, la infinita piedad de la mujer para la mujer....
[I felt in that moment all the solidarity of gender, the infinite piety of a woman for a woman...]18
The authors use of the first person throughout the Poemas further specifies to women the poetry of motherhood. If men can only express silent respect or brute ridicule when faced with the sign of the female body after male desire has been served, then no man subject to the code of female chastity could write a line such as Dios dejaría enjuta la yema de mi seno [God would let the yolk of my breast dry up] without bringing ridicule and scorn upon himself. The use of the first person in the context of gestation is dangerous to an unmarried woman such as Mistral, writing in Chile, much less in Temuco, at that time.
A Sequence of Rejection; Censorship Foiled
In all, Mistrals Nota to the Poemas de las madres draws attention to the poets use of gestation as a metaphor within the larger context of explicitly feminine aesthetics. The metaphorical reading is most obvious in the themes of vulnerability and rejection, present through the Poemas and central to the Nota, which Mistral presents as a key to the Poemas. Throughout the Poemas, vulnerability is the speakers primary attribute; on the one hand, she is profoundly influenced by and responsive to the natural world, at times completely identifying herself with it (except that she, unlike the natural world, longs to know herself and to understand what is happening to her). On the other hand, the speakers vulnerability makes her susceptible to the casual brutality of men, be they her intimates (as in the Poemas) or be they strangers (as in the anecdote narrated in the Nota). This sensibility or sensitivity is expressed in aesthetic terms:
Y un simple canto que viene en el viento o la gota de sangre que tiene la tarde en su último latido sobre el cielo, me turban, me anegan de dolor.
[And a simple song that comes in the wind or the drop of blood that the afternoon has in its last beat across the sky, disturb me, flood me with pain.]
In the Poemas the poet proposes that vulnerability and susceptibility can be positive qualities that can draw women together (c.f. La hermana [The Sister], Imagen de la tierra [The Image of the Earth], La madre [The Mother] and Cuéntame, madre [Tell me, Mother]). In the Nota the poet depicts herself as willing to share in the rejection and humiliation that other women experience. The first rejection is the scorn of the male stranger for the unidentified and presumably unmarried woman in Temuco. This same scorn is reproduced throughout the Poemas: mens response to female fertility is depicted as one of impatience and loathing. Mistral reads the absence of literature on the subject of maternity as an additional sign of scorn, but the crucial, decisive rejection, what spurs her to publish her response and not merely to commiserate with the rejected woman of Temuco, is the hostile reception of her verses among women preoccupied with propriety. This ultimate rejection is more serious: to insinuate that it is wrong to publish poems dealing with illegitimacy constitutes a movement towards censorship.
Gabriela Mistrals response to the attempt to censor her further extends the metaphor of her identification with the woman of Temuco: the poets relationship to her scorned, quasi-legitimate poetry mirrors the madre más triste [saddest mother] who identifies herself with the illegitimately conceived, soon-to-be-born child. In all, the negative responses of an unnamed community of disapproving women readers effect two positive outcomes: the completion of the poets metaphorical identification with rejected women, and her positing an alternative community of women capable of reading the old sign in a new context.
Social Critique: Poemas de las madres
[Mothers Poems] Compared to Piececitos de niño
[Little Feet of a Child]
A public accustomed to thinking of Mistral primarily as a childrens poet who occasionally worked for a more sophisticated audience in poems such as the Sonetos de la muerte, would be surprised, if not shocked, by the Poemas de las madres, with their appropriation of a semi-mystical language to describe pregnancy, a topic not sanctioned in polite society. The last two poems in the series would be especially upsetting to readers for whom motherhood was sacred only in relation to paternity, i.e., only when legitimate offspring were involved. Rather than the benevolent, generalized fantasy-father of the Libros de lectura work, the series alludes to the hard reality of life for women in a world made cruel by tyrannical, violent fathers, and, for married women, insensitive, selfish husbands. One of the clearest messages that the Poemas send is that women should look, not to men, but within themselves and to each other for support and solace.
Although the poesías infantiles sometimes gestured in the direction of social criticism, that attempt pales alongside the vehemence of the Poemas. Piececitos de niño, one of Mistrals best-known works, offers an excellent example of the great contrast between Mistrals restraint in writing for children (and the state) as opposed to the frankness of the Poemas de las madres.19 In its earliest form, there were just three stanzas; these later became the first, second and fifth of a six-stanza poem. Avoiding the crucial but dangerous question of Why are the childrens feet blue and wounded in the snow? or, more bluntly, Why are these children poor? the poets expansion of her verses concentrates instead on the strangely aesthetic-sounding perfection of the childrens feet. Here is the shorter version (first published in 1914):
Piececitos de niño,
azulosos de frío,
cómo os ven y no os cubren,
por los guijarros todos,
ultrajados de nieves
Vosotros que marcháis
por los caminos rectos,
sed puros como sois
[Little feet of a child,
blue with cold,
how is it they see you and do not cover you,
[Little feet wounded
by pebbles all,
ravaged by snow
[You who set forth
along the straight roads,
be pure as you are
Referred to metonymically by the sign of their deprivation, niños descalzados [shoeless children] are the apparent addressees in this exhortative and ethical poem. Their situation is unfortunate, but no one is specifically blamed for their suffering, neither in this version nor in the revision, in which el hombre ciego [the blind man] and la gente [the people] are criticized for not seeing them. Even had the poet hoped for her readers to respond by intervening in the childrens suffering, the refusal to blame human society (typical of the poesías infantiles) inadvertently sentimentalizes that suffering. Students required to memorize the poem are steered away from the dangerous conclusion that suffering can be prevented. Instead we are asked to meditate on the goodness of children whose poverty purifies and ennobles them. The popularity of this poem is something of a travesty, for the safe recognition of Gabriela Mistrals concern for children has been substituted for the more dangerous recognition that these conditions persist because the social inequalities that bring them about are too readily tolerated.
No easy, sentimental solutions are available for the suffering described in the Poemas de la madre más triste. This can be ascribed to the vividness of the first-person narration, and to the controversial nature of the topic of illegitimate births. The conventional, moralizing response to the question of who is responsible for the suffering of unmarried mothers and their children would be that the women have only themselves to blame. Mistral, by contrast, blames the irresponsible cruelty of men along with womens misplaced notions of propriety. The suffering in Piececitos de niño stems from neglect: described from afar, it is passively heroic. But the suffering in the Poemas de la madre más triste originates in the realm of men and is reinforced by women.
Defining Womens Identity; Eluding the Feminine Mystique
The feminine mystique says that the highest value and only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity ... that women can know fulfillment only at the moment of giving birth to a child... In the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future... The feminine mystique permits, even encourages women to ignore the question of their identity.21
As I have already shown, during the years 1914-1918 the organization of a few women, primarily in Santiago, to promote their educational, political and professional interests greatly alarmed Chilean traditionalists. Outside of a few liberal enclaves in government and education, it is safe to say that the power of those traditionalistslandholders and the Churchwas so pervasive that few men or women dared challenge it outright. Such readers who regarded maternity as the only career proper to women would be pleased with Mistrals insistence that la santidad de la vida comienza en la maternidad [the sanctity of life begins in maternity.] Pity would be their probable response to the authors pointed reference to her own childlessness. A more careful look at the poets self-depiction reveals the short-sightedness of this response, which does not go beyond the authors apparent acceptance of cliches about maternity. These cliches are the writers camouflage as she explores a wider terrain, of womens identity, oppression, and responses to the world.
This camouflage is evident in the words maternidad [maternity, motherhood] and santidad [sanctity], which the poet links in the Nota, in order to deflect the criticism that she is somehow defaming motherhood. The traditionalist reading fails to note that the poet accomplishes this linkage without positing motherhood as an ideal to which women should aspire. She defines sanctity as consisting not in motherhood per se, but as a compassionate response to what other women feel. While it is important that women care for children, it is even more important that they care for one another. As her Nota indicates, and as the Poemas demonstrate, femininity is manifest in the ability of any one woman to share in the responsibilities, identities, and feelings of all women, and vice-versa.
Sientan ellas la honda ternura con que una mujer que apacienta por la tierra los hijos ajenos, mira a las madres de todos los niños del mundo.
[Let them feel the deep tenderness with which a woman who nurtures on the earth children not her own, beholds the mothers of all the children of the world.]22
The poet points to her own childlessness in representing herself as una mujer que apacienta por la tierra los hijos ajenos (my emphasis) [a woman who nurtures on the earth children not her own.] The note redefines femininity, associating it with the ability to empathize with other womens feelings and perceptions rather than with the ability to bear children. In the Poemas the ability to empathize is extended outward to become a generalized sensitivity to and responsiveness toward the surrounding world.
Ya no puedo ir por los caminos: tengo el rubor de mi ancha cintura y de la ojera profunda de mis ojos. Pero traedme aquí, poned aquí a mi lado las macetas con flores, y tocad la cítara largamente: quiero para él anegarme de hermosura.
Digo sobre el que duerme estrofas eternas. Recojo en el corredor hora tras hora el sol acre. Quiero destilar como la fruta miel hacia mis entrañas. Recibo en el rostro el viento de los pinares....
[No longer can I go forth along the roads: I flush at my wide waist and the deep dark circles under my eyes. But bring here, put here at my side the pots with flowers, and play the zither at length: I want, for his sake, to drown myself in beauty.]
[I recite eternal stanzas over the sleeping one. In the corridor I feel the harsh sun hour after hour. Like fruit I want to distill sweet syrup into my entrails. In my face I receive the wind from the pine groves....]23
Having lured a general audience by choosing the well-sanctioned theme of the sacredness of maternity, and having secured that audiences attention by alluding to the controversial topic of illegitimacy, by exploiting the theme of gestation the poet brings together her two centers of interest: the effects of art and feminine subjectivity. The theme of gestation in the Poemas permits the poet to assert a feminine subjectivity based in womens responsiveness to the world, to art, and to one another.
Maternal Involvement, Paternal Detachment
Mistrals version of feminine subjectivity takes place at a considerable remove from masculine influence. Outside the Poemas de las madres but within the context of the self-sufficient, gynocentric mother-child unit, the poet sometimes portrays the father as good, that is, responsible, but nonetheless remote and detached. In the Recuerdo de la madre ausente [Remembrance of the Absent Mother] the father is an occasional visitor whom the mother and child regard with bemused wonder:
El padre anda en la locura heroica de la vida y no sabemos lo que es su día.
[The father is immersed in the heroic madness of life and we know nothing of his day.]24
Elsewhere, the fathers detachment is seen as selfish and irresponsible, as in La mujer fuerte [The Strong Woman], where the title figure is praised for raising her child single-handedly.
Alzaba en la taberna, honda, la copa impura
él que te apegó un hijo al pecho de azucena,
y bajo ese recuerdo, que te era quemadura,
caía la simiente de tu mano, serena.
[He would raise in the tavern, deep, the impure cup
he who thrust a child on your lily-like breast,
and under that memory, which was to you a burn,
the seed would fall from your hand, serene.]25
Generally, paternity is depicted as a temporary condition, a momentary involvement. The author patronizingly contrasts the well-intentioned but inadequate afanes [zeal, eagerness, manual work] of fathers with the sturdier commitment of the mother, a heroic figure who travels and climbs mountains:
Los padres están demasiados llenos de los afanes para que puedan llevarnos de la mano por un camino o subirnos las cuestas.
[Fathers are too filled with work to be able to bring us by the hand along a road or to climb up hills with us.]26
By positing the heroism of motherhood, the author simply reverses the truism in which the frivolity and coquettishness of women is unfavorably compared with the seriousness and valor of men. Later in this chapter, when dealing with the introduction to Lecturas para mujeres, the further implications of this reversal are spelled out in greater detail.
Male Violence and Female Subservience
In Poemas de las madres the poets choice of a subject matter which men have overlooked is related to the decision to write poetry for children under the sponsorship of the state schools: both follow the principle of accommodation and of avoiding conflict. Avoidance of conflict is consistent with the poets invocation of toda la solidaridad del sexo [all the solidarity of gender]: her proposal as a woman poet is that solidarity begins in the neglected, omitted territories that men have overlooked, and in ways of writing that men have neglected to mention or, more specifically, to use.
Throughout the Poemas, the principle of avoiding conflict has as its corollary the rage and resentment that female fertility seems to inspire in men, be they depicted as fathers, husbands or lovers. In the final two selections, for example, fatherhood is synonymous with violent rejection
Mi padre me dijo que me echaría, gritó a mi madre que me arrojaría esta misma noche....
[My father told me that he would toss me out, he yelled at my mother that he would throw me out this very night...]27
and physical revulsion:
...él que te trajo te odió al sentirte en mi vientre....
[...he who brought you hated you when he felt you in my womb....]28
The masculine rejection that the title figure of the Poema de la madre más triste experiences is more extreme than in the other Poemas. They are slightly less blatant, but the Poemas also put paternal authority in a very negative light. Protection and compassion are sought and found in other women and in a symbiotic relationship with nature. From the female subjects point of view, intimacy with men involves an ever-present awareness of her inadequacies, ever defending herself from criticism and abuse, begging to be relieved of her duties.
Consistent with all of the cross-gender interactions in the Poemas is that the speaker acknowledges subservience, referring to her husband as mi dueño, a term we have seen in Mistrals religious poetry. In El esposo [The Husband] and Por él [For Him], one line of defense involves begging pardon for her clumsiness and sensitivity:
Perdóname! Estoy torpe al andar, torpe al servir tu copa; pero tú me henchiste así.
[Forgive me! I am clumsy when I walk, and clumsy when I serve you your cup; but you swelled me up like this.]29
While the supposition that a man is entitled to use and be served by his wife, regardless of her condition, seems to be regarded uncritically, the pointed tú me henchiste así [you swelled me up like this] indicates that the reverse is the case, and that he is responsible for her clumsiness.
Another possible defense involves pleading for special treatment, not on her own behalf (since she might well be ignored), but in recognition of the unborn and presumably male child she carries. She pleads:
Por él, por él que está adormecido ... no me dañéis, no me déis trabajos. Perdonádmelo todo: mi descontento de la mesa preparada y mi odio al ruido.
[For him, for him who is sleeping...do not harm me, dont give me work. Forgive me everything: my discontent at the set table and my hatred for noise.]30
The speaker fears that she will be physically injured. It is not clear whom she is addressing, in this plural you form, when she apologizes for being discontent and sensitive. The addressee could be her spouse, or anyone in the position of giving her work to do: the speakers attempt to avoid chores, injury, reprisal and reprimands all center on her worth as the bearer of a male child. Aware of her own expendability, she refers directly to his well-being (por él), and only indirectly does she speak on her own behalf.
Still another defense is that of building up the male ego by stressing her own smallness and helplessness. The act of reminding her husband that she is bearing a child who will duplicate him ends in a covert plea to be relieved of her sexual duties:
Esposo, no me estreches... Yo, ¡tan pequeña!, te duplicaré por los caminos. Yo, tan pobre, te daré otros ojos, otros labios, con los cuales gozarás el mundo... Seme más que nunca dulce. No me remuevas ansiosamente mi sangre; no agites mi aliento.
[Husband, dont squeeze me... I, so tiny, will duplicate you along the roads. I, so poor, will give you other eyes, other lips, with which you will delight in the world. Be, more than ever, sweet to me. Dont stir up my blood anxiously; dont disturb my breath.]31
All of these defenses operate under the unspoken assumption that the condition of marriage is one that allots to the man the free and unlimited use of his wifes sexual, domestic, and physical labor. Being married is no help; rather, the speaker portrays marriage as just another difficult situation to face. Yet, as the last two poems and the Nota bring home, the abuse and manipulativeness that permeate the intimacy of marriage are to be preferred to the random violence and societal rejection experienced by women outside marriage.
[another]: El sentido maternal de las cosas
[The maternal sense of things]
For all the negativity with which men are depicted as cruel and terrifying taskmasters, there is an unidentified male figure, referred to as él, towards whom the speaker is reverent but not subservient. This unearthly lover is held responsible for initiating the speakers transformation, which is announced from the very first lines of the Poemas.
Me ha besado y ya soy otra: otra, por el latido que duplica el de mis venas y por el aliento que se percibe entre mi aliento.
[He has kissed me and I am already another: another, because of the beat that duplicates the one in my veins and because of the breathing that is perceived between my breath.]32
For the speaker to have become otra, in these poems, is to have been transformed, suddenly to have an awareness of dimensions previously hidden to her. This new identity is gradually revealed to be a recuperation of an identity that was lost; the company of women, and particularly the presence of her mother, returns it to her:
estuvo sentada aquí a mi lado y, por primera vez en nuestra vida, fuimos dos hermanas que hablaron del tremendo trance....
Volví a ser de nuevo una niña pequeña que sollozó en sus brazos del terror de la vida!
[She was seated here by my side and, for the first time in our life, we were two sisters who spoke of the tremendous trance...]
[I became again a little girl who sobbed in her arms at the terror of life!]33
The speakers pregnancy effects her return to and increased identification with her own childhood and her own mother.34 Just as the boundaries separating one woman and another are blurred, so do the poems collapse the boundaries between animate and inanimate:
No había visto antes la verdadera imagen de la Tierra. La Tierra tiene una actitud de una mujer con un hijo en los brazos (con sus criaturas en los anchos brazos).
Voy conociendo el sentido maternal de las cosas. La montaña que me mira también es madre, y por las tardes la neblina juega como un niño por sus hombros y sus rodillas.
Recuerdo ahora una quebrada del valle. Por su lecho profundo iba cantando una corriente que las breñas hacen todavía invisible. Ya soy como la quebrada; siento cantar en mi hondura este pequeño arroyo y le he dado mi carne por breña hasta que suba hacia la luz.
[I had not seen before the true image of the Earth. The Earth has a stance of a woman with a child in her arms (with her creatures in her wide arms).]
[I am gradually learning the maternal meaning of things. The mountain that looks at me is a mother too, and in the afternoons the fog plays like a child over her shoulders and knees.]
[I remember now a cleft in the valley. Along its deep bed was singing a current which the brambles still keep invisible. I am now like the cleft; I feel in my depths this tiny stream singing and I have given it my flesh as a thicket until it rises to light.]35
Where the voice associated with the child, and with childbirth, is a grito [shout] in the Poemas, the newly-recognized voice here is a stream of songs.36 The speaker identifies herself generally with the earth, and specifically with a quebrada, an interruption, a cleft, a discontinuity in the terrain of the earth, a terrain made available by memory. Just as motherhood is a cover for feminine subjectivity, so does the female body cover the stream of songs hidden within. The dazzling, polished form in which the Poemas de las madres are cast, more complex than most of Mistrals other poetry of the time, more intricate and subtle than much of her prose, hides and protects her ideas until they arise to light.
Writing for Children: Keys to the Kingdom?
Writing for children, then, in the early stages of Mistrals career, was a bridge toward poetic recognition. That bridge was straight and narrow, but it did bring her out of isolation and dependence into a position where she could exert some influence and make herself heard, as a woman. The poets biographers are in agreement that the appointment to work in Mexico was a turning point for Mistral. In Mexico and thereafter, she continued to write poems and prose and to compile texts for use in public schools; these texts remained important to her work and to her reputation. However, in Mexico her public diversified, and as she acquired a broader base of readers, she depended less on the good-will of her Chilean public. Working for other governments and for international organizations involved making herself at home in their requirements, adapting her writing to each new public, beginning but not ending with the assumption of a school-related readership.37
If writing for children was a bridge toward recognition, writing about motherhood was a way of attracting the interest of a sector of the public that few other writers of her time took seriously. Writing about motherhood gave her license to address subjects which interested her, such as aesthetics and the function of art, from a feminine point of view, and to abandon from here on out the impersonal one to which she had confined herself previously. From the Poemas de las madres onward, Mistral uses the theme of motherhood to speak with a collective authority, as one woman among many. By addressing women in her work and by claiming them as readers she hoped to legitimate the lives of women as historical subjects. Considering the continuing attention paid to Mistrals poetry as well as to her words and actions in the public realm, she enjoyed, especially in the twenties and thirties, a good deal of success.
III. Legitimating an Audience of Women
Maternity: The Personal and the Political
Critics usually respond to the theme of motherhood in Mistrals work by way of speculative biography. The impressionistic praise of Hernán Díaz Arrieta, one of Mistrals earliest and most influential critics, typifies the thoughts of the poets contemporaries: in her Poemas de las madres he praises la punzante melancolía de la esterilidad [the poignant melancholy of sterility]38 even though sterility is never mentioned in the Poemas de las madres. More recently, Schopf, Alegría and Villegas have worked with an awareness of the social and historical contexts of the poets work, bringing to light Mistrals suppressed political ideas, but they have yet to challenge the orthodox interpretation with regard to motherhood. Schopf, for instance, generalizes that la maternidad frustrada es un problema que reaparece intermitentemente a lo largo de la vida de Gabriela Mistral [the problem of frustrated maternity appears intermittently throughout Gabriela Mistrals life.]39
To take the poets interest in maternity as evidence of her frustrated and tragic yearning to bear a child is to miss an important dimension of Mistrals work. Biographical readings of Mistrals interest in maternity completely overlook the poets criticism of gender roles: only Fernando Alegría has noted her criticism of male roles. The expressions of discontent in the Poemas de las madres may or may not refer to personal melancholy, as Díaz Arrieta thinks, but they certainly represent an acute dissatisfaction with many aspects of womens condition in society. From the plural madres in the title, to the identification, in the Nota, with another womans rejection, the Poemas are a call, made in the name of motherhood, for solidarity among women. In the Poemas, in Lecturas para mujeres, and in the poets commentary on writing cradle songs, motherhood is only tangentially related to bearing children. Rather, maternity provides an acceptable, socially encoded metaphor for exploring aspects of feminine identity, for expressing womens relationships with the past, with children, with one another and with the physical world. Most importantly, speaking about motherhood in ways that men have not spoken about it allows Mistral to take on the public role of a poet speaking to and for other women.
The Nota to the Poemas de las madres is the first of a number of occasions throughout the poets career when the poet indicated that her work was directed toward a readership of women. Further specifications about this community of readers occur in the introduction to Lecturas para mujeres, where she describes them in a number of different ways: first, her readers are the women, aged thirteen to fifteen, who will attend la escuela mexicana que lleva mi nombre [the Mexican school that bears my name]40; second, they are las mujeres de América ... mi familia espiritual [the women of America...my spiritual family],41; and third, they are las mujeres de mi sangre [the women of my blood.]42 She justifies the pieces collected in Lecturas para mujeres (an anthology that José Vasconcelos, as Mexicos Secretary of Education, commissioned from her while she was working for the Ministry from 1922 to 1924) as an attempt to meet this publics general need for positive literature on maternity and on the home. She repeatedly relates this theme to a Latin American environment. Thus, of the five parts of Lecturas para mujeres, Mistral most extensively defends the first two, entitled Hogar [Hearth] and México y la América española [Mexico and Spanish America.] That these two sections include the greatest proportion of the poets original work is a further indication of how domesticity and Latin America were uppermost in the poets mind.43 Her continued interest in the needs of women in Latin America remained prominent some twenty-three years later, in Mistrals Colofón con cara de excusa [Colophon with an appearance of excuse],44 where she justified the decision to write lullabies as a response to the needs of mothers in Latin America. Thus, at very distinct junctures in her career, Gabriela Mistral argued that she was qualified and even obliged to address these particular readers because of who she is and will always be, no matter how much fame she accumulates: a Latin American woman of unpretentious origins who lived much of her life in the countryside, educating adolescent girls. It does not discredit this persona to point out that it is both factually accurate and extremely useful for a woman who received the Nobel prize in the name of los muchos trabajadores de la cultura latinoamericana ... tan poco y mal conocida [the many workers of Latin American culture...so little and poorly known.]45
Answers to Hostility: The Apology
The poets specifications about her intended audience most frequently appear in the introductions and addenda to her texts; these prose essays function as literary apologies that defend and justify what she has written. In Desolación, these defenses presume the imputation of some quasi-moral fault (as in the Voto where she acknowledges that her work is bitter, or in the complaints regarding the propriety of the Poemas de las madres). In the poets later work, the strange wording of titles such as Colofón con cara de excusa (printed at the end of Ternura) or Excusa de unas notas (at the end of Tala) draw attention to the excuse as a rhetorical pose that the poet assumes in vindicating her choice to work in a particular literary form or genre. The apology in the introduction to Lecturas para mujeres lies in between the earlier defenses, which were morally based, and the poets later ones, which engage a variety of arguments arising out of assertions about the historical development of Latin American culture.
There are a number of recurring factors in the poets apologies. One factor almost goes without saying: the poet assumes that she and her work will be the subject of attack. Her response involves describing her attackers complaints, and frequently acknowledging that they have a certain limited legitimacy. She then goes on to demonstrate that these attempts at sanctions are wrongly directed at her work, that these readers have misconstrued her intentions, that they have mistakenly thought that she was somehow overstepping her boundaries. Without attempting to regain the hostile readers, she constructs an alternative sympathetic audience, whose interests she professes to serve. This alternative audience is often specified in terms of gender, as feminine, and in terms of race, as Latin American. Less obviously, the poet will argue that they are from the middle- and lower-middle classes, and from the countryside.
The poets motives for constructing her audience in terms of race, gender, class, and ethnicity, should be evident: I have already indicated that Mistrals perceptions of hostility should be taken seriously; for if we limit ourselves to collecting merely the facts of outright, intentional discrimination, there would be little to prove. If we look, however, at her lack of formal schooling or of social position, her dependence on the good-will of the state, if we remember the great care that any woman of the middle-class had to take with regard to her public reputation, it becomes obvious that she was extremely vulnerable to even the slightest insinuation. In Chile and in Mexico her defenders were remote (albeit well connected) men of government, or women from the privileged classes who did not share her position as an outsider.46 Later, living and working as a representative of Latin America among Europeans, she would be increasingly exposed to the brunt of their racism; her encounters with and utter rejection of Fascism provide the setting for her deepening attention to problems of colonialism, race, and national identity. The poet regarded objections to her work as covert objections to her origins. She fought back by claiming those origins, and by claiming what no one who attacked her as an outsider could take from her: she argued that she was working out of love on behalf of other women like herself.
Rivalry in Mexico
When Mistral went to work in Mexico, the hostility that she faced from some members of the public in Mexico City differed from what she had known in Chile. The Nota to the Poemas de las madres describes a fairly simple, straightforward situation that strongly contrasts with the complex relationship of writer to public in the introduction to Lecturas para mujeres. Before, she had been a Chilean writing to Chileans; in Mexico she was the other, the foreigner, working for the Mexican government, writing to Mexicans and others. Moreover, the stakes in Mexico were far higher than they had been before: Lecturas para mujeres was a textbook that the Mexican Ministry of Education had commissioned, printed and distributed in a first edition of 20,000 copies. The task of compiling such a book was one in a series of extraordinary gifts which the Mexican government made her, such as naming the most recently constructed school in the capital after her, and commissioning the sculpture of her larger-than-life statue to be placed there. Palma Guillén recounts how this prejudiced a certain segment of the public against Mistral:
algunos maestros más bien maestras y también algunos escritores de la Capital (no hay que olvidar que nosotros somos muy nacionalistas) se sintieron disgustados, disminuidos y hasta ofendidos por el hecho de que una extranjera hubiera sido llamada a trabajar a México.
[some teachersor rather, female teachersand also some writers in the capital (one must not forget that we are very nationalistic) were displeased and felt diminished and even offended by the fact that a foreign woman had been called to work in Mexico.]47
This hostile public of maestros nacionales [national teachers] is the first readership that Mistral mentions in the introduction. Feeling displeased, diminished, and even offended, they regard her as an unwanted foreigner who has no business working in their field and their country. The poets response to this environment is typical of how she turned to her advantage the attempts of others to impose sanctions on her work. First, she implicitly concedes the justice of their claim, by using Palabras de la extranjera [Words of the Foreign Woman] as a subtitle to describe her own role. She then states her claim in such a way that it appears not to conflict with theirs:
Comprendí que un texto corresponde hacerlo a los maestros nacionales y no a una extranjera, y he recopilado esta obra sólo para la escuela mexicana que lleva mi nombre. Me siento dentro de ella con pequeños derechos, y tengo, además, el deber de dejarle un recuerdo tangible de mis clases.
[I understood that the task of making such a text falls to the teachers of this country and not to a foreign woman, and I have compiled this work only for the Mexican school that bears my name. Within it I feel I have some small rights and, whats more, I have the duty to leave the school with a tangible memory of my classes.]48
Here, she stays on the safe ground of the school named for her and of her experience, modestly referred to as a deber [duty] and mis clases [my classes.] Although she avoids describing herself as a professional, a maestra (which would overtly place her in the same category as her hostile readers), she invokes mis clases, mi deber [my duty], and la escuela que lleva mi nombre [the school that bears my name] in pointed reference to the hostilities that her presence has aroused. She again portrays herself as the wronged party by mentioning her derechos [rights.] Attaching the modifier pequeños [small] could be read as an understated irony bordering on sarcasm, or as a gesture toward humility: the two are not mutually exclusive.
Her modest limitation on her readership as consisting only of the students of the school to be named for her is questionable, given that the governmental agency that had commissioned her to compile Lecturas para mujeres was engaged, in those years, in an extremely ambitious scheme of translating, editing, publishing, and distributing school texts throughout Latin America. The writer wisely begs the question of what the Secretaría de Educación [Secretariat of Education] might choose to do with the text once it is delivered to them. Just a few paragraphs later, however, she enlarges the originally very specific readership addressed and redefines the intentions that she associates with it:
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.]49
By describing her work as un ensayo (a trial run, an attempt), she suggests that it is not a finished work and should not be viewed critically as if it were. By agreeing that she lacks credentials, and changing the implicit requirements for the job from formal education to love, she anticipates and answers the charge that she is unprepared. Added to her refusal to compete as a professional with Mexican nationals is her refusal to differentiate herself from other women. Her real colleagues are not teachers and writers, but other women, her familia espiritual [spiritual family.] She describes them as a group which she is qualified to address by virtue of a spiritual birthright and family feeling. To present herself this way is to engage a set of subjective credentials that no one can or will challenge, given the vague sanctity, the undefinable kinship stipulated by las siento mi familia espiritual [I feel they are my spiritual family.]
The writer cannot avoid alluding to her particular experience in order to speak authoritatively, but she is careful to speak in an understated fashion, for the idea of the teacher (maestro) carries with it a great deal of authority, as, for example, the idea of Jesus as el divino maestro [the divine teacher]a figure somewhere between guru, mentor, and instructor. Mistral both understates and augments her teacherly authority when she refrains from specifically invoking it. In lieu of stressing her professional qualifications the writer presents herself as one who exercises her skills on behalf of a general class of people, the community of girls and women, many of whom cannot read yet, who attend and will attend state-run schools. In a few matter-of-fact, unobtrusive lines, she notes her concern that this constituencys interests have been short-cut in favor of the interests of men:
He observado en varios países que un mismo libro de lectura se destina a hombres y mujeres en la enseñanza primaria y en la industrial. Es extraño: son muy diferentes los asuntos que interesan a niños y niñas. Siempre se sacrifica en la elección de trozos la parte destinada a la mujer.
[I have observed in various countries that the same school textbook is used for men as well as women in primary and technical education. Its strange: boys and girls are interested in very different sorts of things. In the choice of excerpts the parts addressed to women are always sacrificed.]50
Of course, Mistral would not be the first or the last writer to direct her attentions toward a broad readership of educated women. Kathryn Shevelow has studied how in England the eighteenth century magazine the Tatler sought to cultivate this newly discovered and lucrative market.51 Shevelows close readings demonstrate that the inscription of the female reader reproduces the patronizing attitude of male editors toward the female reading public. The phenomenon of men writing down to women is one that Mistral, in the introduction to Lecturas para mujeres, suggests that she is familiar with, and to which her work is an alternative. Without specifically accusing any one individual, she points out that those who write with an attitude of superiority or condescension will fail to meet this audiences need to be recognized as worthy:
La llamada literatura educativa que suele circular entre nosotros lo es solamente como intención. No educa nunca lo inferior. Necesitamos páginas de arte verdadero en las que, como en la pintura holandesa de interiores, lo cotidiano se levante hasta un plano de belleza. (Emphasis in the original)
[The so-called educational literature that circulates among us is educational only in its intentions. What is inferior never educates. We need pages of true art, in which, as with Dutch paintings of domestic interiors, the common is raised to the level of beauty.]52
If mundane, daily experience is to be ennobled through literature and the arts (as Mistral argues), then writers and readers must work from the same horizon. For an author with such a goal to talk down to readers would be counter-productive. Any hint of snobbery or arribismo [social-climbing] would have alienated this writer from her basis of support.
Mistrals terminology (las mujeres de América ... mi familia espiritual) effectively re-draws the boundaries of which readers belong to which writers. This action allows her to include the very public which she has disqualified herself from addressing. That is, her perception of hostility in the public of maestros y escritores nacionales [national teachers and writers] meant that she could not freely acknowledge that her work will be used on a general basis in the Mexican schools. Rather than place herself in open competition with those Mexicans who already regarded her as a threat, she concedes the validity of the limitation they assign to her. She modestly disqualifies herself from a task which she acknowledges to be theirs, because she is precisely what they have taken her to be: an outsider, a foreigner, una extranjera. By agreeing that the task of addressing a Mexican audience is their domain and not hers, the writer uses the nationalism of her hostile audience of Mexican teachers and writers as a weapon against them. Moreover, the writers friendship with Vasconcelosthe central part of her defenseimplicitly identifies her with the power structure that dominated Mexican readers. While the maestros nacionales may limit themselves to readers in Mexico, she can take on las mujeres de América. This alternative readership automatically includes all the women of Mexico.
A Little Bit of Culture: Justifying the Education of Women
Mistrals defense of Lecturas para mujeres also has to deal with those who object to the study of literature as an inappropriate and harmful element in womens education. The poets awareness of this hostility is manifest in the strange syntax with which she justifies her task:
Bueno es darles en esta obra una mínima parte de la cultura artística... Es muy femenino el amor de la gracia cultivado a través de la literatura.
[Its good to give them in this work a little bit of artistic culture... Very feminine is the love of grace cultivated through literature.]53
This oddly inverted phrasing, that begins Es muy femenino el amor de la gracia [Very feminine is the love of grace] as opposed to El amor de la gracia es muy femenino [The love of grace is very feminine], puts an emphasis on being very feminine, as if to answer an indirect suggestion that education, and specifically literature, makes women less feminine. The word order minimizes the threatening element (literature) and maximizes the effect that she says it will have: reading will make women more feminine. The author represents literature as a means to an end, el amor de la gracia, a pleasant-sounding and ambiguous phrase that she leaves up to her readers to define. Her argument is a perfectly safe one, for the quality of femininity is easy to assert but impossible to prove. Registering femininity in so conventional a way, as el amor de la gracia, she inscribes into her text an empty but reassuring answer to those readers who fear that femininity is a quality that can be threatened by acquiring a little bit (una mínima parte) of artistic culture.
Having professed that her work is not in competition with los textos nacionales [national texts], and having declared that she hopes that women will become more feminine by doing a little reading, she continues to develop her own qualifications. In a complicated move begun in the first paragraph, she mentioned the commission that she received, and the school that has been named for her: these constitute her pequeños derechos. But to invoke these rights, or the patronage that she enjoys, revives the anger of those who regard her as a rival. Thus she must take care not to engage in anything that resembles self- promotion, for this would make her the target of those who regard her motives with suspicion. Her safe alternative is to argue that as an individual, her work merely represents the interests of the community she serves. By de-emphasizing her personal involvement (as when she signs herself La recopiladora [the compiler]), she constructs that community of readers in such a way as to avoid challenging the status quo.
A fascinating and understated way in which Mistral indicates her membership in the spiritual family of Latin American women is her particularly colloquial use of the first person plural, whereby she posits first the group (rather than the speaker), as the grammatical subject, followed by the verb, with the pronoun omitted. Mistrals prose abounds with examples: los criollos vivimos [we criollos, (born and raised in Latin America), live], las mujeres nos hemos atrevido con la palabra [we women have dared with the word], las mujeres no podemos quedar mucho tiempo pasivas [we women cannot remain passive for very long], las mujeres que no tenemos hijos [we women who dont have children.] This rhetorical device identifies the speaking subject with authority as part of a chorus or social construct; the referent is not personal identity, but the identity of the group; omitting the pronoun makes this less ostentatious than the presidential we.54 In this typically Chilean construction, it is as if the speaker does not exist. The first person plural serves to draw attention to herself and her authority, a kind of pontification without seeming to do so.
In Mistrals prose, the construction that I have described is used exclusively when referring to her status as a Latin American and as a woman. In the following sentences (which are usually quoted out of context), it forms a very effective part of her argument on behalf of her own qualifications, and it is crucial to her rationale on behalf of the literary education of women:
Y sea profesionista, obrera, campesina o simple dama, su única razón de ser sobre el mundo es la maternidad, la material y la espiritual juntas, o la última en las mujeres que no tenemos hijos.
[And whether she is a career-woman, a worker, a peasant, or just a wife, her only reason for being on earth is maternity, both material and spiritual, or the latter in we women who dont have children.]55
The point of informing her readers that she has no children is to include herself in a single, undifferentiated category of all women. Rather than divide women into two categories, those who have children and those who do not, she argues that all women are mothers: espiritual disembodies maternity; it neutralizes it. Using familiar and uncontroversial terms will allow Mistral to reach a newly literate readership of women to whom she felt particularly qualified to speak. Maternidad espiritual [spiritual maternity] and su única razón [her only reason] has an appearance of conformity that would also comfort the defenders of the status quo, even though she uses this terminology to raze the fortress-like boundaries of education (profesionista), of class (obrera) and geographical origin (campesina), or of marital status (simple dama), of whether a woman has borne children or not. Maternidad espiritual describes women as a class whose common interests the author purports to serve in her text.
Expanding on Domesticity
The theme of domesticity is another aspect of the writers strategy of simultaneously pacifying the fears of opponents of womens education while attracting the attention of a wide variety of readers. Mistral displays eminent caution in stating that she is taking on only those themes directly related to womens day-to-day experience. Such caution could become a trap; to dwell wholly in the world of women could have become as limiting and as confining as the Libros de lectura poems had been when they remained in the fantasy world of the good father and his juvenile charges. In the introduction to Lecturas para mujeres, Mistral characteristically accepts and works with this limitation: she initially accepts the restraints of a particular audience or an assigned theme, using the earliest available opportunity to erase and redraw these boundaries.
Mistrals particular attention to the theme of the home in the introduction to Lecturas para mujeres illustrates how the poets acceptance of the boundaries assigned to women only goes as far as the need to maintain the appearance of gender conformity. In considering this theme, it is important to remember that for Mistrals contemporariesespecially among Latin American womendaily life centered on the home was a socially-imposed, inescapable reality. Challenging this reality would have alienated her from the very readers she was trying to address. Mistral is careful to stay within the boundaries of conventional ideas about women, despite all the idealism of the motives that she had ascribed to art in Desolación, and despite all her affirmations about the artists capacity to change the individual, a corrupt society, and the world. Maternidad is safe and socially encoded. In order to ensure herself the widest acceptability at the start, the poet initially embraces and admires the simplest commonplaces about women:
Mi libro no tiene de original sino esta sección Hogar, para la que he espigado en unas cuantas obras todas aquellas páginas que exaltan la maternidad o el amor filial y que hacen sentirse, hecho nobleza, el ambiente de la casa. Desearía que se realizara en mi raza lo que llama en un noble verso Eduardo Marquina: elevar lo doméstico a dominio. Y también a belleza; debemos ennoblecer con éstas todas las cosas que queremos hacer amadas.
[My book has nothing original except for this section Hearth, for which I have culled from a few works those pages that exalt maternity or filial love and that make the atmosphere of the home be felt as nobility. I would like, in my race, realized what Eduardo Marquina in a noble verse calls, elevating the domestic to the level of dominion. And to the level of beauty as well, thereby ennobling all the things that we want to have loved.]56
She begins with humility, protesting that there is nothing special about her work (Mi libro no tiene de original [My book has nothing original]), quickly adding (...he espigado en unas cuantas obras todas aquella páginas.... [...I have culled from a few works those pages...]) that it has been a laborious and time-consuming chore. The verb espigar (to cull or glean) indicates labor that demands patience, endurance and discrimination rather than strength; these are qualities that Mistral typically attributes to and praises in women workers. After emphasizing her work and de-emphasizing the quantity of her reading (unas cuantas ... todas aquellas), she introduces the commonplace that because motherhood is noble, so is the family and the home, for it is the place of the mother.
The apparent aim is to elevate motherhood and all that is associated with it. This makes for a relationship with her readers rather like that of the politician who campaigns by kissing babies, and speaking out in favor of Mom, the flag and apple pie. After evoking mi raza [my race]which insists on her similarity with her Mexican readers as well as with the nationalistic post-revolutionary Mexican government that is subsidizing her work, she introduces her main point by quoting an unexceptional (but popular and harmless) male writer. Two points usually raised in favor of domesticity are conspicuously absent from Mistrals defense: one, the idea that the home is noble per se, and two, the separate-spheres ideal, which seeks to appease dissatisfied women by telling them that they are important in relation to men. She does not say that the home is noble insofar as women who stay there can influence, indirectly, the world of men by being wives and mothers. Rather, her word-play on the common roots of domestic and dominion argues that the home is important because it is a base from which womens power can expand upward (elevar) and outward into the world at large.
Those readers whose primary concern was that women stay within the confines of the patriarchal family would be satisfied with so seemingly simple and narrow an elaboration of the poets task. Her choice of themes and her initial arguments never challenge the notion of womans place. Instead, she pushes outward by accepting the home as womens place, and consequently defining the home as wherever women are, and as any place where the influence of women extends and is felt.
Women and Patriotism
There is a similar appearance of accepting limitations in Mistrals discussion of patriotism. What Mistral calls amor patrio [love of country] would be a touchy subject for a foreigner to address with regard to the general Mexican audience (that she initially disqualified herself from addressing). On the other hand, she cannot avoid the topic since she is, after all, working for a newly established government which was deeply concerned with creating and encouraging a sense of national identity through the schools. As before, the poet practices a certain evasion; she begins by taking refuge in an apparently comforting, empty cliche:
Quiero decir lo que pienso sobre la formación del amor patrio en la mujer. Algo he observado en mis años de enseñanza escolar. Para mi, la forma del patriotismo femenino es la maternidad perfecta. La educación más patriótica que se da a la mujer es, por lo tanto, la que acentúa el sentido de la familia. (Emphasis in original)
[I want to say what I think about the development of love of country in women. I have observed something in my years of teaching school. For me, the form of feminine patriotism is perfect maternity. The most patriotic education that is given to women is, therefore, what accentuates the sense of family.]57
This would seem perfectly harmless, utterly reassuring to all parties, from the hostile readership of Mexican schoolteachers who regarded her as a rival, to the Secretaría that commissioned the book, and from the Mexican women who will attend the school named for her, to the general women of America. But in following up her elaboration of how this vague sense of family and love of country should be addressed in ways appropriate to women, she indicates that the field of womens studies is very wide indeed:
El patriotismo femenino es más sentimental que intelectual, y está formado, antes que de las descripciones de batallas y los relatos heroicos, de las costumbres que la mujer crea y dirige en cierta forma; de la emoción del paisaje nativo ... [y de] la biografía heroica.
[Feminine patriotism is more sentimental than intellectual, and is formed, rather than by the descriptions of battles and heroic tales, by the traditions that woman creates and directs in some way; by the emotion of the native countryside... and by heroic biography.]58
By agreeing, pro forma, that womans role is maternity, that her place is in the home, that she is ruled by family feeling and, by extension, a sentimental patriotism, the poet gets license to open those conventions wider. To emphasize the world surrounding the home and the aspects of culture in which women play the dominant role allows for an orientation toward daily life, and a preference for biography (in which women can play a prominent part) as opposed to battle-accounts (which traditionally focus on men). By naming these areas of interest common to women, the writer has transcended, if not dismissed, the boundaries of national concerns. Her acceptance of womans role along with her use of generalization and even cliche allows her to overcome the limitations of her identity as a foreigner for her Mexican readership. Her redefinition of maternidad allows her to glide over the obvious differences between herselfa single, successful, childless, Chilean woman poetand her intended audience, an anonymous readership of women who are sympathetic to this covert attempt to validate and thereby extend their domain.
In all, the poets generalizations about the sanctity of motherhood and her references to the family are crucial to her self-defense: they protect and shield her from critics who wish to disqualify her on the grounds of education, class and national origin. Maternidad is not a term that signifies motherhood, but a term that the poet employs to create allies among women in general and among Latin American women in particular. Avoiding the biologically and socially inscribed meanings of maternidad, the poet gives it a new meaning by using it as a justification for womens education, and as a topic around which literature by and for women can be organized. From the very first time that the word enters her discourse, maternidad is an umbrella-like term in which children are not really at issue; rather, maternidad is an emblem of Mistrals primary concern here and elsewhere, with how to make the interests and condition of women a topic for discourse. Maternidad and the family as she defines it (las mujeres de América ... las mujeres de mi sangre) are fighting words for the author and passwords for her sympathetic readers, that give them an entry into the safe territory of her chosen subject: the lives of women, from a gynocentric point of view.
The Decline of the Family and the Betrayal of the Race
A final charge that Mistral must answer whenever she argues for the creation of una literatura femenina, seria [a serious feminine literature] is that if women devote more time to reading, writing, and education, and if they enter the so-called world of men, then the family will fall apart. As ever, Mistral anticipates this argument by seeming to agree with it; she represents herself as a traditionalist who favors motherhood and the family. Critics who embrace Mistrals traditionalism have somehow overlooked a crucial aspect of the poets interest in the past: her fascination and identification with earlier ages concentrates on women. The topic of the family, past and present, is secondary to her central concern: exemplary women.
...los mejores tipos de mi sexo yo los hallo en el pasado. Me parecen más austeros que los de hoy, más leales a los fines verdaderos de la vida; creo que no deben pasar. Para mí son los eternos.
El descenso, imperceptible, pero efectivo, que se realiza desde ellos hasta nosotros me parece un triste trueque de firmes diamantes por piedrecitas pintadas, de virtudes máximas por éxitos mundanos; diría más: una traición a la raza que socavamos en sus cimientos. Puede haber alguna exageración en mi juicio; pero los que saben mirar a los intereses eternos por sobre la maraña de los inmediatos verán que hay algo de esto en la mujer nueva. (Emphasis in original)
[...I find the best types of my gender in the past. They seem to me more austere than those of the present day, more loyal to the true goals of life; I believe that they should not fade away. For me they are the eternal ones.]
[The decline, imperceptible but real, that unfolds from them to us today, seems to me a sad swap of hard diamonds for little painted stones, of the greatest virtues for mundane successes; I would say more: a betrayal of the race that we undermine in its foundations. There may be some exaggeration in my judgement; but those who know how to discern eternal interests from the tangle of immediate ones will see that there is something of this in the new woman.]59
Mistral disarms the opponents to womens education by agreeing that the spirit of family is vanishing and that if women are not educated as women, the future will be bleak. The traditionalists cherished belief that the past was good and the present, lamentable, goes unchallenged: no one who sighs over the days when women were women and men were men could quarrel with her assertion that women should not receive an education identical to that of men. Hedging a bit, using the subjunctive, she gives this argument an unexpected twist:
Tal vez en parte no pequeña hayan contribuido los Libros de lectura sin índole femenina, a esa especie de empañamiento del espíritu de familia que se va observando en las nuevas generaciones. (Emphasis in the original)
[Perhaps in no small part the Reading Textbooks that lack a feminine nature have contributed to that sort of blurring of family spirit which is being observed in the new generations.]60
Mistral ingeniously does what no opponent of womens education would dream of doing: she traces the moral and cultural decline of the family and (by extension) Latin America, to womens alienation from or ignorance of art. The writer enlists those who are hostile to womens education by citing the decline of the family and by criticizing la mujer nueva [the new woman.] As a traditionalist she looks to the past; unlike them and unlike her supporters in the Secretaría, she looks for a feminine version of the past just as she looks for a particularly feminine version of reality in general. This is crucial to Mistrals justification of her role as a writer and to her construction of an audience of women: she suspects that men are uninterested in a feminine version of the past and she fears that women scarcely recognize its importance.
If Mistral believed that the family (rather than the nation or the race) was the basis of feminine patriotism, then her reference to la traición a la raza [the betrayal of the race] shows her addressing the fears of men rather than those of women. A different emphasis would be required in addressing women. The poet represents womens activity and response to art as a form of familial and social responsibility for creating continuity. As ever, she divides women into two groups, the hostile versus the sympathetic, according to their fulfillment of this responsibility. Womens willingness to engage with the storytelling traditionand not simply as passive consumersis equated with the commitment to raise children, in the following selection from Colofón con cara de excusa:
Nuestras abuelas amamantaban, nuestras madres también, a Dios gracias; después sobrevino una caída de la maternidad corporal, tanto en la disminución de los hijos como en la rehúsa de muchas mujeres a criar, a ser la higuera de leche de los cuentos.
[Our grandmothers breast-fed, so did our mothers, thank God; afterwards there was a decline in corporal maternity, both in the decline of the number of children as in the refusal of many women to nurse, to be the milky fig tree of the stories.]61
Bearing children (la maternidad corporal [corporal maternity]) matters, but raising them is crucial to Mistrals idea of feminine creativity, as summarized in the verb criar, to raise, to nourish, to bring up. The metaphor of breastfeeding and specifically the higuera de leche de los cuentos [milky fig tree of the stories] represents the positive response of her women readers who agree to transmit a specifically feminine literary tradition received from the past, via our mothers and grandmothers. The possessive is important: Mistral clearly feels that telling stories and singing songs are intrinsic aspects of womens roles as givers of nourishment. If women today refuse to carry on the traditional activity of the women artists then the next generation will be stunted: this is the negative response. La rehúsa de criar [the refusal to nurse], in this context, is an attempt to goad her readers out of their indifference, just as she invoked la traición a la raza some twenty years earlier in her long struggle to vindicate literature for women, in Lecturas para mujeres.
In seeking to convince women that art was important to them Mistral developed a view of storytelling and versifying (that is, literary activity) as symbolic nourishment for women, a carrying on of permanent relationships, as from grandmother to mother, and mother to daughter. This is summed up in the higuera de leche de los cuentos, a specifically feminine tree whose broad, soft leaves served as the first clothing, for Adam and Eve, an orchard tree that produces milky-sweet, seed-filled fruit. The genitive de makes the storied tree simultaneously a figure in and producer of cuentos. Mistral suggests that feminine engagement in the storytelling tradition could bring power to those whose linguistic artifice is reified in the family tree. Here, the appeal to women is inscribed in the poets insistence that literature minister to personal and familial relationships.62
IV. Revisions and Relocations: 1922-1926
The texts that Gabriela Mistral produced between the years 1922 and 1926 indicate increasingly complex relationships between the author and the public. Her production during these years, and her editing practices in particular, therefore deserve close attention. The year 1922 was crucial for the poet, marking her departure for Mexico as well as the publication in New York of Desolación. During the ensuing years she published a series of texts directed to specified audiences: Lecturas para mujeres appeared in 1923 and was intended for the use of older girls and women in public schools of Mexico; Ternura, appearing first in 1924 (revised and expanded in 1945) further developed the idea of the specified reading community, for it includes most of the classroom-oriented poetry that Mistral had written. The publication by Editorial Cervantes in Barcelona of Mistrals Las mejores poesías [The Best Poems] (with a prologue by Manuel de Mantoliu) in this same year indicates the growing international dimension to her fame. The year 1926 was pivotal, however: the poet published in Chile a greatly revised edition of Desolación in which the proportion of school-oriented poetry, of childrens rounds as well as poesías infantiles, had been dramatically reduced. By 1926 the poets teaching career had come to an end; she handed in her resignation and retired to La Serena where she bought a house with her mother and sister. Mistrals plans for starting her own school there were broken off, however, when just a few months later she was called to Europe for what would become a lifetime of residence outside Chile.
With her teaching career concluded and her long-term residence in Europe underway, the poet acquired access to a wider audience than ever before. Paradoxically, the poets reputation as a modest, nearly anonymous rural schoolteacher remained substantially unaltered. This reputation was to persist long after the poet had ceased to write poetry for children and had redefined her audience to consist of a specified community of Latin American women as well as a more general community of readers interested in Latin America. The persistence of the maestra persona in the public image of Gabriela Mistral is due to the publics continued preference for regarding her as a schoolteacher rather than as a diplomat, a mother-figure rather than as a Latin Americanist, a woman yearning for maternity rather than as a complex and successful artist.
The differences between the 1922 and 1926 editions of Desolación indicate the poets attempt to shrug off the limitations of the maestra image, to move beyond the school-oriented community of readers, without repudiating the audience of women and children. She would later assert that she served this audience by writing in specific genres such as the childrens round and the lullaby. The first edition of Desolación stands apart from Mistrals later volumes, however, in the great variety of forms and styles presented, and in the orientation of different sections of the volume to distinct reading communities. The first edition of Desolación tries to offer something for everybody, from schoolchildren to educational administrators, from women generally, to the preeminently male group of other poets and writers of her time. These various communities were addressed within the poets single larger purpose of shaping an art that would be simultaneously purifying (in the purgative sense) and uplifting. The 1926 edition of Desolación is by comparison a far less mixed text: much of the poetry written to be used in the classroom is relocated to Ternura.
The new poems appearing in the 1926 version of Desolación were written in Mexico and added to the end of the sections Dolor [Pain] and Vida [Life.] These new poems give a sense of distance on and closure to the sometimes chaotic poetic narratives that precede them in Desolación. Where the preceding poems attempt to reexamine and justify a personal past, the new poems concentrate on the distance of the past and the feelings of gratitude and wonder in the present. This theme is evident in the opening lines of Serenidad [Serenity]:
Y después de tener perdida
lo mismo que un pomar la vida
hecho ceniza, sin cuajar,
me han dado esta montaña mágica...
[And after having lost
just as an apple orchard, life
gone to ashes, without coming to fruit
theyve given me this magic mountain...]63
The speaker in the poem Palabras serenas [Serene Words] likewise dismisses her prior personal history of loss and suffering by assuming an attitude of stoic gratitude. It is as if the poet were working on her earlier promise, in the Voto written some five years previously, that her next work would be one of consolation, transcending bitterness:
Ya en la mitad de mis días espigo
esta verdad con frescura de flor:
la vida es oro y dulzura de trigo,
es breve el odio e inmenso el amor.
[Now in the middle of my days I glean
this truth with a flowers freshness:
life is gold and sweet like wheat,
brief is hatred, and immense is love.]64
I do not think that these are poems directed toward schoolchildren, a group not much given to looking backwards, at least not compared with a poet who describes herself (at age thirty-three) as being in the middle of my days. Their vocabulary is erudite in comparison to that of the poesías infantiles.
Another of the poems that she wrote in Mexico and then added to the revised edition of Desolación is Elogio de la canción [Praise of the Song.] This poem resembles the rounds in its quick rhythm, its song-like refrains, and the delight in sounding out a seemingly indiscriminate range of ancient names. Elogio de la canción shares with the rounds the quality of communal celebration, except that the festivity of the rounds is located in a timeless present. In Elogio de la canción, however, the song embodies a continuity of past into present, from nation to nation. This continuity is the focus of the opening lines as well as of the refrains, which are printed in italics as if to emphasize the point:
boca de canción:
boca, la de Teócrito
y de Salomón!
Alabo las bocas
que dieron canción:
la de Omar Kayyan,
la de Salomón.
Vivió en el Anáhuac
también en Sión:
Se llamó Petrarca,
se llama Tagore:
del inmenso amor.
mouth of song:
mouth of Theocritus
and of Solomon!]
[I praise the mouths
that brought forth song:
that of Omar Khayyan
that of Solomon.]
[It lived in Anahuac
as well as Zion
it is Netzahualcoyotl
[It was called Petrarch,
it is called Tagore:
of immense love.]65
In the envoi of courtly love poetry originating in traditions of Provence and the dolce stil nuovo, the poet would normally name the addressee, the beloved to whom it is addressed. In her Envío to this poem, Mistral reveals the identity of the beloved not as a person but a countryMexico. Her praise of Mexico further drives home that the present can only be enriched by the past, as represented in a Dionysian ability to transform new verses into old wine:
Paisaje de Anáhuac,
suave amor eterno,
en estas estrofas
te has hecho falerno.
[Landscape of Anahuac,
soft eternal love,
in these verses
you have become Falernian.]
The final blessing is spoken in the name of the poets of sacred verse. Here, the poet unites her enduring identification with Biblical poets with an equally old religious tradition that is new to her:
Al que te ha cantado
y por Salomón!
[To the one who has sung you
I say a blessing:
and for Solomon!]66
Preoccupation with the personal past and with poetic antiquity is typical of these later poems which Mistral adds to Desolación. The conscious pan-americanism evident in the rounds that she was writing at this time is manifest as an increased fascination with antiquity. In Elogio de la canción both spirits are evident: these verses somewhat resemble and are influenced by Mistrals work with schoolchildrens rounds, but their message is quite distinct. In the rounds, individuality is arbitrary; the past creates a communal identity. For the poet of Dolor and Vida in Desolación, the past matters in that it enables the poet to create an individual poetic history. In the rounds as in the recados [messages] personas son siempre para mí los países [persons for me are always countries.]67 When figures from history or mythology are named, who they were matters less than who they are in the moment of the songs performance.
El cobre es arrebato,
la plata es maternal,
los hierros son Pelayos;
el oro, Abderramán.
[Copper is ecstasy,
silver is maternal,
iron is Pelayo;
Ultimately, the decision to move her school-related poetry from Desolación to Ternura represents an attempt to serve the interests of her school-oriented audience in a single volume, and to remove from Desolación the possibly limiting connotations of childrens poetry. The same distinction appears in the 1938 publication of Tala, which includes no rounds, no lullabies, and no clearly indicated childrens poetry, even though the poet continued working in these genres, and she published this later poetry in her 1945 revised edition of Ternura. This reverses the pattern of the earlier years, when she frequently withheld from publication her more serious writing while extensively publishing her work for children. Mistrals growing tendency to withhold or delay publication of pieces identified with an audience of children indicates the extent to which the poet feared being buried in the very element that had brought her renown.
To summarize, Lecturas para mujeres is the least studied and the least understood of all the texts that Mistral wrote and published during her very productive years between 1922 and 1926. As a quasi-official text compiled by a young writer and teacher for a revolutionary government during an era of intense artistic and political excitement, this textbook-anthology is fascinating even from a purely historical point of view. Scholars interested in influences on Mistrals work and in how she viewed her own verses in the context of the work of other writers ignore it at their own risk. Given my specific focus on how the poets self-presentation reflected her perception of the audience for her work, I have concentrated on the Introduction to Lecturas para mujeres. The prose essay which Mistral subtitled Palabras de la extranjera and modestly signed la recopiladora provides a key to understanding her strategy for appropriating safe, conventional ideas about patriotism, motherhood, and womans place. The appearance of conformity allowed her to deflect criticism of her work, and to make possible an alternative reading of these signs. That alternative reading or message of her text was made possible by the existence of women who would read it as directed toward them by a writer who felt that she was one of them. The importance of gender, race, nationality, and class origin as factors in the poets self-presentation and in the reception of her work are perhaps more obvious here, in the Introduction to Lecturas para mujeres, than at any other point. Mistral turned to her advantage the very qualities for which she was attackedher rural origins, her lack of formal schooling, her beginnings as a schoolteacher, her status as an outsider and a foreigner, her identification with ordinary mixed blood and Indian women. Claiming to serve the interests of this group to which she felt she belonged, writing to them in a language that they would recognize, Gabriela Mistral sought to validate their lives and surreptitiously to extend their domain.
1. Gabriela Mistrals Libros de lectura contributions are reproduced and reliably documented in Raúl Silva Castro, ed. Producción de Gabriela Mistral de 1912 a 1918, 11 (Santiago: Ediciones Anales de la Universidad de Chile, 1957).
7. The extensive publication history of Poemas de la madre is set forth in Alfonso Escudero, La prosa de Gabriela Mistral: Fichas de contribución a su inventario, 14 (Santiago: Ediciones Anales de la Universidad de Chile, 1957) 17, 19.
16. The high percentage and astounding variety of the expletives and euphemisms devoted to female genitalia, in Chilean Spanish, is evidence of how speech about the mothers body is psychologically charged. For confirmation of this see Andrés Cox Balmaceda, A garabato limpio: Una interpretación del mal lenguaje del chileno (Santiago: Ediciones Cerro Huelén, 1985) 40.
19. Judging from the number of times that I was witness to spontaneous recitals of Piececitos in Chile and in Argentina by various individuals who otherwise showed no interest in poetry, it is probable that the poem has long been part of the official curriculum for schoolchildren in these countries.
34. Psychoanalytically oriented critic Jorge Guzmán argues to the contrary, that in Desolación the desire for the male lover is transferred and transformed into a desire for a male child, but the Poemas de las madres, Mistrals most comprehensive statement about maternity, constantly, deliberately equivocates on this point of whether the child is male or female. Her choice of gestation, rather than child-rearing as a metaphor indicates how the gender of the child is far less important than are the transformations in the self, and in the notion of feminine identity.
36. To some extent, the generic child serves as a metaphor for the speakers submerged self; the childs shout will be hers and she will express herself through this child: ...su grito pasará también por mi garganta. Mi llanto y sonrisa comenzarán en tu rostro, hijo mío... [...his shout will also pass through my throat. My cry and my smile will begin in your face, my child....] Similarly, the voice expressed in childbirth is not wholly her own: mi grito de dolor ... trenzado con el canto de los pájaros [my shout of pain...interwoven with the song of the birds.]
37. This same strategy is evident in her insistence that literature for women should focus on the atmosphere of home: she defines the home not just as the house, but the lands surrounding it, and all of the territory over which womens influence is felt.
43. Of the fifty-five pieces in Hogar, eleven are by Mistral; all but twoMiedo [Fear] and Recuerdo de la madre ausentehad been published in Desolación. Of the sixty pieces included in the section México y la América española, fourteen are by Mistral; all of these were first written in Mexico, apparently with this text specifically in mind. She includes in Hogar selections from the series Poema de la madre, four lullabies: Meciendo, Duérmete apegado a mi, Canción amarga [Bitter Song]; the sonnet El niño sólo [The Lonely Child]; two poesías infantiles: Piececitos and Manitas [Little Hands]; and the prose-poem El canto [The Song] from the series El arte.
46. See for example, the poets dedication of the Poemas de las madres to doña Luisa F. de García-Huidobro, an extremely well-known, wealthy patron of the arts, a woman with impeccable connections. It is not clear that this dedication worked to the poets advantagethe poets friendships with socially prominent women made her an object of attack among others who did not enjoy such connections, just as a professional teacher, a Señora Dey who was one of the poets rivals, accused Mistral of abusing her gloria literaria in order to obtain better teaching posts.
51. Kathryn Shevelow, Fathers and Daughters: Women as Readers of the Tatler, in Schweickart and Flynn, Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1986). According to Shevelow the condescending attitude of the male writer who writes down to women is patterned on the power situation in the patriarchal family; the Tatler editor assumes the role of older brother/uncle advising his younger sister. Mistral, by contrast, assumes most often the role of the comadre, speaking to another comadre. At other times she takes on the stance of a wandering daughter speaking to her absent, house-bound mother. Arrogance or condescension are impermissible in either situation. The implications of these stances are discussed further on, with reference to Recuerdo de la madre ausente, the lullabies, and La fuga [The Flight.]
62. The relationship of mother to daughter is particularly singled out for attention, here and elsewhere in her work. She views language as a gift from the mother, an extension of the mothers love. The remarkable account of her own acquisition of language, in the Recuerdo de la madre ausente, spells this out in greater detail, as shall be evident in Chapter Four.