Gabriela Mistral was a Chilean poet and teacher who in 1945 became the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Gabriela Mistral was born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga in the northern town of Vicuña, Chile. Alcayaga assumed the pen name Gabriela Mistral when she started to write poetry.
After Mistral’s poetry made her famous, she spent several years living outside of Chile, giving lectures and teaching at foreign universities. She died on January 10, 1957 in Hempstead, Long Island, New York.
After Mistral’s death, her body was returned to Chile for burial, and the Chilean government declared three days of mourning. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans lined the roadways as her body was transported from Santiago to its final resting place in Montegrande, Chile, the town where she had spent most of her childhood.
Located in the town of her birth is the Gabriela Mistral museum. The museum serves as her everlasting biography, telling the story of her life and work. While visiting Vicuña, I spent a couple of hours at the museum.
The museum housed a surprising number of her personal effects: night tables, chairs, a bed, a teapot, a hair brush, a handheld mirror, one of her writing desks. Housed in glass cases were more personal effects as well as original copies of her writings and her Nobel medallions. I stood in awe of the bronze medallions, realizing the accomplishments behind them and how Mistral lives on through her writings.
Photographs and text on the museum walls told the story of Mistral’s years as an educator. As a youth, her education ended when she was 12 years old. But due to a paucity of teachers in Chile, she was able to get a teaching job during her adolescence. She went on to become an agent of change in the Chilean educational system, taking on administrative positions and advocating for greater access to quality education. Mistral’s passion for education stemmed from her love of children, once writing, “We are guilty of many errors and many faults but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow.’ His name is ‘Today.’”
Walking through the history of Mistral’s life was a moving experience. Mistral showed an unwavering determination in living a life congruous with her convictions. She never allowed circumstances to deny her of her aspirations.
Inscribed on her tombstone in Montegrande are her own words: “What the soul is to the body, so is the artist to his people.”