Well, it is that time again when the chilean bloggers blog together. Last time we talked about chilean men and I was not a fan of the topic. This time we are blogging about Chilean Women and I am even less of a fan. In fact, I didn’t know what to write yesterday. This morning, however, while reading the New York Times, I decided that I would write about Gabriela Mistral because, well, there was an article about her in the newspaper and she is a revered Chilean woman. Here is what the NY Times has to say:
Nearly a half-century after Gabriela Mistral’s death, her presence can still be felt almost everywhere in Chile. There is probably no town in this country that does not have a street, square or school named for her, the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and her poems and essays have long been part of the school curriculum.
But ”the mother of the nation,” as Mistral is often called here because of her poems for and about children, is now the focus of a controversy that is forcing a re-examination of her life and work. The recent publication of her private journals shows that she had a love-hate relationship with Chile, while a biography and a film project argue that part of her ambivalence stemmed from what is described as her lesbianism.
”Mistral is a legend and a myth,” Jaime Quezada, the scholar who edited ”Blessed Be My Tongue,” a 290-page selection from her journals, said in an interview here. ”She is part of our national patrimony, and everyone thinks that they know her. But the paradox is that only now are we beginning to have a direct and truthful relationship with her work.”
An even greater paradox is that most of Mistral’s six books of poetry were published abroad before appearing here, where they received mixed reviews. In the newly issued journals and notebooks, she wonders why ”nobody in Chile likes me,” in contrast with Pablo Neruda, a younger poet and future Nobel laureate whose work she had championed. She repeatedly expresses exasperation with the conservatism and indifference of Chilean society.
”Chile has no brains or common sense yet, it has no maturity,” she wrote in one typical entry. ”I pray for it.”
Born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga in 1889, Mistral began writing as a child and took her pen name from a French poet when her first collection, ”Death Sonnets,” was published in 1914. At first she earned a precarious living as a teacher, transferring from one remote rural school to another. Later she became headmistress of a prestigious private girls’ school here in the capital.
”I lived in isolation from an illiterate society whose daughters I educated and which disdained me as badly dressed and badly coiffed,” she complains in one journal entry.
Mistral left Chile in 1922 and in a sense never returned, even after the awarding of the Nobel in 1945 finally brought her acclaim at home. After working in Mexico in a government educational reform program, she joined the Chilean diplomatic service, spending the rest of her career as a consul in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico and the United States, visiting Chile only three times. She died on Long Island in 1957.
Since her death, Mistral’s image has been remade and manipulated, especially during the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which went so far as to put her face on the currency’s highest denomination note at that time. In the 1970’s and 80’s, she was packaged as a symbol of social order and submission to authority, ”a uterus birthing children for the motherland” in the memorable phrase of the writer Diamela Eltit.
”After the 1973 coup, Mistral and her religiosity were used against Neruda and his atheism,” said Luis Vargas Saavedra, a leading Mistral scholar and a professor of Latin American literature at the Catholic University of Chile. ”Any time an official representation of Chilean culture was needed, it was Mistral and not Neruda to whom they turned.”
Since the return of democracy in 1990, Mistral and Neruda have enjoyed roughly equal official status here. But to a generation of young Chilean readers she seems a fusty spinster, the antithesis of the eternally hip and contemporary Neruda, whose poems have recently been set to music by pop, rap and heavy metal groups and issued on a best-selling CD called ”The Mariner on Land.”
Mistral’s admirers argue that she remains relegated to that status because even today the official curriculum stresses the poems she wrote for and about children, many with echoes of lullabies or nursery rhymes. Her more complex, dense or disturbing poems are largely left out, as are her political essays, in which she often takes internationalist and feminist positions that were unusual for their time.
”The worst enemy of Gabriela Mistral in Chile has been the Ministry of Education and the teachers’ union,” Dr. Vargas Saavedra said.
Despite her close identification with motherhood and children, especially those who were indigenous or disenfranchised, Mistral never married or had children. Throughout her life she was trailed by rumors that she was a lesbian, and one passage in the journals reveals her resentment at that.
”About Chile, the less said the better,” she wrote. ”They’ve even hung this silly lesbianism on me, which wounds me in a way that I can’t even put into words. Have you ever seen so big a falsehood?”
But in ”A Queer Mother for the Nation: The State and Gabriela Mistral” (University of Minnesota Press) Licia Fiol-Matta, an assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American Cultures at Barnard College, argues that ”Mistral was a closet lesbian” and that her posthumous ”consecration as a celibate, saintly, suffering heterosexual national icon” is at odds with the reality of her life and work.
”Although hard documentation of her sexuality simply does not exist, it is quite possible that Mistral’s exile was in part sexual,” Dr. Fiol-Matta said. ”Certainly, the assumption of the schoolteacher’s image resonated with her need for self-protection when she was in Chile.”
The appearance of the Fiol-Matta book comes as a Chilean director-screenwriter team based in Mexico have announced plans to make a movie of Mistral’s life in which her American secretary is to be portrayed as her lover. ”Gabriela Mistral was completely and totally a lesbian and spoke and wrote from that vantage point,” the screenwriter, Francisco Casas, a former member of a gay arts collective here, said.
But the project has been heavily criticized in Chile. The government arts agency has turned down a request for financing, and a mayor in Mistral’s home area in the Elqui Valley has warned that he will do everything to prevent the filmmakers from shooting there. ”We are not going to permit them to attack one of Chile’s greatest cultural references,” the mayor, Lorenzo Torres, said.
Volodia Teitelboim, the Chilean author of the biography on which the screenplay is partly based, has also complained about the movie, saying he ”could find no proof” of Mistral’s lesbianism. He described the film as an attempt to ”besmirch the memory of a great Chilean and Latin American woman.”
When asked about the dispute, Dr. Vargas Saavedra said: ”You cannot say that Mistral is a lesbian writer. In all of her work, there is not a single text in which she presents herself as such.”
As if to undermine the claims that Mistral was a lesbian, the love letters she exchanged with a married male poet while a young woman are to be published here later this year. But at the same time, the literary detectives are hard at work in their search for new material that can clarify the question of Mistral’s sexual orientation and the impact it may have had on her poetry.
”That one reference in the journals was the first and only time I found a reflection on or complaint about this issue of lesbianism,” said Dr. Quezada, who is also a director of the Gabriela Mistral Foundation. ”But there are a lot of letters still out there.”
And, since many of you (not the chilean blogger readers, but others) may not know her writting. Here is one poem:
by Gabriela Mistral
Let us go now into the forest.
Trees will pass by your face,
and I will stop and offer you to them,
but they cannot bend down.
The night watches over its creatures,
except for the pine trees that never change:
the old wounded springs that spring
blessed gum, eternal afternoons.
If they could, the trees would lift you
and carry you from valley to valley,
and you would pass from arm to arm,
a child running
from father to father.
And here are the other blogs that have blogged on the topic: