BORN Lucila Godoy Alcayaga in the little village of Vicuña, Chile, in 1889, the poet known to the world as Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American author to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, which she won in 1945 for her “lyric poetry inspired by powerful emotions.” Of humble origins, graced with strong indigenous features, and possessed of an indomitable character and high intelligence, Lucila quickly progressed from teaching first graders in her native town to becoming the headmistress of Chile’s most prestigious school for girls. Soon she was leading the Mexican education system reform by the express invitation of the country’s Minister of Education.
In monuments dedicated to her and on the 5,000 Chilean peso bill, Mistral is shown as a frowning woman in a two-piece suit, manly shoes, and grey hair pulled into a severe bun. Even posthumously, during the 1970s and 1980s, the military government of General Augusto Pinochet, used Mistral’s image as a symbol of what the regime wanted Chilean women to be—self-effacing, sexless, and respectful of the established social order. In reality, Mistral was anything but that propagandized ideal.
For starters, Gabriela Mistral spent most of her adult life in a loving relationship with another woman, Doris Dana, who was officially her companion, secretary, and finally the executor of her estate. “I know very well that, except for us, no one, no person in this world can possibly understand the essence of our life together,” Mistral wrote in one of her letters to Doris. This letter, which was overflowing with love and passion, had been kept secret for more than fifty years, until Dana’s death in 2006, when her niece Doris Atkinson donated these letters to the Chilean National Library. The upshot was a disclosure that finally destroyed the myth of “Saint Gabriela,” who had been thought a brilliant but sad and uncomely poet, a spinster incapable of passion who wrote about love and betrayal without ever having experienced them firsthand.
J. B. Polk is a British short story writer who has lived in Chile.