One of my most vivid memories is of my grandmother smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee at the patio table. In those moments of complicit silences, long before I dared put a cigarette to my own lips, my grandmother used to recite loose verses by Gabriela Mistral.
The Chilean poet was one of her favorite authors because of her simple, humble, and transparent verses, very different from those of her contemporaries. “Piececitos de niño, azulosos de frío,” my grandmother would repeat, smiling with her eyes behind her thick reading glasses.
Many years later, while my grandmother was battling a violent multiple sclerosis that immobilized her body and living as an expatriate in the land of Mistral, a publishing house reissued the collection of the writer’s intimate letters. Niña Errante: Cartas a Doris Dana revealed the homosexuality of my grandmother’s favorite poet.
As I read the press release, I could only smile and look over my phone at my grandmother peacefully sitting in a chair. At another time in my life, I might have jumped out of my seat and laughed at the irony that the writer of my grandmother’s favorite verses was a lesbian like me. I might have used this posthumous publication to seek the approval of one of the most influential women in my life.
But as affection is oftentimes more powerful than irony, I preferred to close the article and continue working in that shared silence.
A Woman Against the System
Lucila de María Godoy Alcayaga, better known as Gabriela Mistral, was a Chilean poet, diplomat, teacher, and pedagogue, born in 1889, whose poetic work won her the Nobel Prize in 1945. Mistral was the first Latin American to win the Nobel in literature and only the second to win a prize from the famed organization after Carlos Saavedra Lamas won the Peace Prize in 1936.
Before becoming famous for her verses, Mistral stood out for her reflections on public education, including her involvement in the reform of the Mexican educational system. In the 1920s, Mistral served as a consul and representative in international organizations in America and Europe and settled in the United States during her last years, dying in New York in 1957 of pancreatic cancer.
For women like my grandmother, who also dedicated her professional life to education, Gabriela Mistral was more than an icon — she was the living testimony that women could carve out a niche for themselves in their professional lives, independent of the male yoke.
Not that Mistral’s journey to glory was easy. She had to face the toxicity of the Latin American patriarchy, even years after her death. From the rivalry of her colleagues after she obtained her state teaching degree in Chile without having attended the Pedagogical Institute of the University of Chile, to the rejection of her press articles for their strong political criticism of the system of the time, Gabriela Mistral was a textbook disruptor, fiercely using her voice no matter the obstacles.
Poetry as a Natural Impulse
As she became known in the educational and political milieu, Mistral started to sign her literary writings with the pseudonym that would immortalize her. Indeed, the loose verses that accompanied her throughout her life began to form sonnets in 1910.
By 1922, while struggling against professional rejection due to her lack of the “proper” educational background, Mistral wrote her first masterpiece. Entitled Desolación, it is a collection of poems written over ten years and published by the Instituto de Las Españas.
Between verses with political overtones, laments of poverty, and dreams of a better future, Mistral’s verses and her diplomatic career took off together, leading her to be installed as consul in New York in 1953.
Poems of a Forbidden Love
Gabriela Mistral’s career led her to become the most important writer, diplomat, and intellectual in Chilean history and one of the most influential in all of Latin America. However, the deification of her image by Chileans — after all, hundreds of plaques and statues populate the country, and her face even appears on the 5,000 peso bill — also overshadowed her passionate love verses that elegantly praised feminine eroticism.
The conservatism of the time meant that Mistral met “all the conditions to be discriminated against,” as María Elena Wood, a documentary filmmaker who studied the last years of the poet’s life, told BBC Mundo.
Mistral was a woman, came from a low-income family and had no formal education. She had powerful indigenous features and a love affair with a woman the Chilean media and biographers always called an “assistant or secretary.”
The reality is that a woman was the receptacle of the fervent love that Mistral professed in the poems and sonnets that would make her famous even long after her death.
“There are kisses that only souls give each other,” reads one of her most famous poems. “There are forbidden and true kisses.”
Indeed, Mistral’s deep depression following the 1943 suicide of her nephew, Miguel Godoy, allowed the Chilean press to label her “maddened” and dismiss her “abnormal” characteristics as part of grief.
However, for my grandmother — and, surely, for millions of others — Mistral’s poems translated into infinite scenarios.
By the time the Chilean poet was becoming a diplomat, my grandmother had met a young Arab who sold brushes door-to-door. At that time, falling in love with a “Turk,” as all Middle Easterners were called in Venezuela, was as criticized and judged as falling in love with a person of the same gender, especially if the Arab was not baptized. However, as Mistral’s poems say, “love always protects, always trusts, always illusions, and never, ever surrenders.”
Even years after my grandfather died, my grandmother still recited Gabriela Mistral’s verses, while her eyes were lost in some memory.
The Love that Inspired a Nobel Prize in Literature
Gabriela Mistral, known as “the divine” or “the saint,” had countless secretaries — educated women who accompanied her at home and professionally. Although the poet never made public her intimate life, the correspondence with her last love would leave implicit the true inspiration behind her poems.
Amid her travels as consul, and after winning the Nobel Prize, Mistral was invited to give a lecture at Columbia University in New York, and among the audience was Doris Dana.
“My beloved teacher,” reads the first letter Dana wrote to Mistral, two years after that lecture. “Through the deep contemplative tenderness and the strength of your works, the world has found in you a teacher of great feeling and a bright flame of the purest art.
With the writer Thomas Mann as their main common ground, the two women began a relationship, first professionally and then sentimentally, as understood in their passionate epistolary exchange published in Niña Errante.
When Dana first corresponded with Mistral, she was 28 years old and taking her first steps as a writer. The Chilean writer, for her part, was an established author in her 60s who was already beginning to have health problems.
“You don’t know this, but I have a profound respect for you because of your wisdom. And aside from my passion, I have a great esteem for you, for your ideas, for your demeanor, that you’re unaware of too,” says one of Mistral’s letters to Dana.
“I put myself in the wind and the gentle rain, so that they, wind and rain, can hug and kiss you for me,” the American, who would later become the executor of Mistral’s material and intellectual assets, replies.
It was not until 2015, when the then president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, quoted Mistral during the enactment of the gay marriage law, that the country publicly acknowledged the author’s homosexuality.
“Our Gabriela Mistral wrote to her beloved Doris Dana: ‘You have to take care of this Doris. Love is a delicate thing.’ And I remember it today when we recognize with this law the State’s care for couples and families and give material and legal support to that bond born in love,” said Bachelet.
A love that survived more than a century and that will remain forever immortalized as the inspiration behind one of the jewels of Latin American literature. But for my family, and two years after the physical disappearance of my grandmother, Mistral has an even more symbolic meaning: that of the transmutability of love, without distinction of race, color, or gender.