“Mister! You who taught, forgive me for teaching ”: when Gabriela Mistral was a teacher – La Tercera

On a day like today 65 years ago, Gabriela Mistral died in Hempstead Hospital, New York, as a result of pancreatic cancer. The noisy American city, very different from her native Vicuña in northern Chile, would see one of the most important national poets fade away.

During her life, an already consecrated Mistral defined herself, above all, as a teacher. He traveled and worked as such not only in different sectors of his native Valle del Elqui, but also in La Serena, Santiago, Traiguén, Los Andes, Antofagasta, Temuco and even in Punta Arenas. However, the first links of a shy and silent Lucila Godoy with teaching, and her beginnings in some unfinished primary studies, were not entirely easy.

In 1892, when he was only three years old, he settled with his family from Vicuña to the town of Montegrande, in the Elqui Valley. The change arises since his half-sister, Emelina Molina Alcayaga, would be assigned as director of the Montegrande Primary School.

The abandonment of Jerónimo Godoy, the father of the family, determined that it was Emelina who took charge of financially supporting her half-sister and mother, with whom she would live in the school house. At that time, Emelina herself was her first approach to teaching, educating a little Lucila Godoy to read and write, this being, as Gabriela Mistral would recognize years later, the only one she had.

“He gave me entirely the education I received in childhood, which in good accounts is the only one that I had and that was transmitted to me, it can be said, on fraternal knees. He replaced my father in his family obligations, and I recognize him as the ultimate good of material and moral assistance ”, Mistral would write about Emelina, in a letter sent to Virgilio Figueroa in 1933.

Emelina Molina Alcayaga, sister of Gabriela Mistral (1898). Recovered from: memoriachilena.gob.cl

According to the poet and specialist in the work of Gabriela Mistral, Jaime Quezada, the figure of the stepsister in the life of the future poet from Vicuña is key; in fact, it would inspire one of his most important poems.

“You have to consider that Gabriela Mistral had her own teacher from a very young age, who was her stepsister, Emelina, to whom she is going to dedicate one of Gabriela Mistral’s anthological poems, which is The rural teacher and that the true rural teacher would say: Merlina is my sister (…). Not only is she going to teach her the first letters, but also the world that surrounds her, ”says Jaime Quezada.

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Mistral, Gabriela, 1889-1957. The rural teacher [manuscrito] Gabriela Mistral. Writer’s Archive. . Available at the National Digital Library of Chile.

After a while, Lucila Godoy was sent back to Vicuña, to continue her primary studies at the Higher School for Girls in the city. It is here, where one of the events that would mark the future poet and teacher would take place: her stay at the Higher School would last only four months, since she would be accused by Adelaida Olivares, the director herself, of stealing sheets of paper.

Gabriela Mistral, who, at that time, was only a girl, did not know how to respond to the accusation, suffering harassment and violence from her other companions.

“The director knew that my sister was a teacher and she gave me all the role I wanted, and she did the same with Bernardo Araya. What was I going to steal my paper for then? However, I was accused of being a thief, and the director, that woman considered a saint, gave a lesson against theft by looking at me. I, who was a girl with pure ears and no conversation, did not say anything. In this regard, her friends always told my mother: ‘You are so talkative, and this girl’s voice is never heard’. Well, that day when I heard the director, I was stuck, unable to say a word. Later, outside, the other girls were waiting for me with their aprons full of stones that they threw at me. I arrived at my aunt’s house, where I was staying, with my head full of blood, and my sister had to come find me and take me with her to Diaguita. Those events could never be erased from my mind ”, Gabriela Mistral would comment on this fact in an interview with Lenka Franulic, rescued in a book Hard Currencyby Cecilia García-Huidobro.

After this episode, Lucila emigrated from her “beloved town of Montegrande”, moving for a short time to La Serena and Coquimbo.

Despite the bad experience, Lucila would end up teaching herself. A work that would mark one of the most important facets of the future poet and of which she would feel proud throughout her life.

And it was through the recommendation of a companion of her sister, named Antonia Molina de Rigada, that Lucila would be appointed assistant at the Escuela de La Compañía Baja, in La Serena.

“I started working in a village school called Compañía Baja when I was fourteen years old, as the daughter of poor people and with an absent and somewhat neglected father. I taught to read to students who were from five to ten years old and to illiterate boys who were older than me “, Gabriela Mistral wrote in The Lateral trade (1949).

In this period, another very important figure appears in a young Lucila: the journalist Bernardo Ossandón, who would provide fundamental books in the formation of the future vate.

“An old journalist and wise teacher from La Serena, Don Bernardo Ossandón gave me a day and I with him. It had the provincial phenomenon of a large and excellent library. The good lord opened his treasure to me, entrusting me with books of good pasta and fine paper “, writes Mistral in The side trade.

His teaching work would be accompanied at that time with the writing of articles and the publication of poems that would appear in different regional media, such as El Coquimbo, La Reforma and in the magazine Twilight from La Serena, where he would use the pseudonym “Someone” or “Alma”.

In fact, it is in The Coquimbo, where the name by which she would be known internationally would appear: in a publication of July 23, 1908 Lucila Godoy would sign a poem of hers entitled From the past, for the first time, with the signature of Gabriela Mistral.

However, it was precisely his publications and his friendship with Ossandón, which would determine that he was denied admission to the Normal School of La Serena in 1905.

“Only years later did I learn why I had been received first and then kicked out of the Normal, from the mouth of Teresa Figueroa herself. It turns out that at that time I was reading books lent to me by a curious man I knew, Don Bernardo Ossandón, an astronomer who had made me read Flammarion, and I had written an article in which he said that ‘nature was God’. Because of that pagan phrase, the chaplain of the Normal said, on the advice of teachers: This girl is a naturalist, and asked that I not be admitted. I didn’t even know the meaning of that word ”, Mistral pointed out in an interview with Lenka Franulic.

Only three years after her start as an assistant at the Escuela de Compañía Baja, Lucila Godoy would be appointed inspector of the Liceo de Niña de La Serena, and after another three years, take the exam at the Escuela Normal N ° 1 de Niños de Santiago. Thus, she obtained her recognition as a primary teacher due to her work in the exercise of education, after which she is assigned as a teacher to the district of Barrancas (today Pudahuel), in the western sector of Santiago.

About her time as an interim teacher and her formal appointment as a teacher, Mistral would delve into details during the interview conducted by Lenka Franulic.

“Being an interim teacher was a calamity back then. Always postponed and looked down upon by the other titled. Then came the bell that we interns had to go to Santiago to take an exam. When it was my turn, I was already trembling with fear. Fortunately I met an understanding woman, Mrs. Brígida Walter, director of the Normal, who gave me a written job. After seeing him he took me aside and told me to read a lot. That was the first glimmer of hope. Then they appointed me in Barrancas, near Santiago, until Fidelia Valdés put me in high school. He took me to Traiguén and later to Antofagasta and Los Andes, which was where I lasted the longest, ”said Mistral.

For Jaime Quezada, as a teacher, Gabriela Mistral, would be the owner of a very distinctive seal, which was marked above all by elements that she could not count on in her training.

“Feeling within a field in which it is pleasant, that the teaching be like a beauty like a tenderness, like a form of love, and that is what she will always highlight (…). Because she suffered it, she did not have that beauty, she did not have that love, she did not have that tenderness as a child, so of course, that is why she is going to advocate for those sensitive values ​​in the same educational teaching, “he says.

Already in 1912, at the age of 23, Gabriela Mistral would be appointed by the then Minister of Justice and Public Instruction, and future president of Chile, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, as director of the Punta Arenas Girls’ Lyceum. While the exact date they met is unknown, the two were close friends. In fact, Mistral dedicated the first edition of Desolation Aguirre and his wife, and he in turn dedicated his book The Agrarian Problem (1929) to him.

It should be noted that, years later, and already as president of Chile, Pedro Aguirre Cerda was one of the great promoters of Gabriela Mistral’s candidacy for the Nobel Prize, requesting his ambassador to France, Gabriel González Videla, to promote the work of Mistral in Europe.

On his passage through Punta Arenas, the poet Jaime Quezada highlights the work of a Mistral who would be sent on a mission to “Chileanize” a territory as southern as Magallanes.

“She came to reestablish education in an establishment that was in a very irregular situation, very deteriorated, and then of course, they send this teacher who is not yet 30 years old to go to the end of the world to reestablish that education. Girls’ high school, and Gabriela Mistral goes obediently, arrives in Punta Arenas to fulfill this task that she fully fulfilled, she put that high school in the first place, of which she will always be very happy and proud to have contributed ”, she points out.

Mister You who taught forgive me for teaching when
Gabriela Mistral in Punta Arenas


After passing through Punta Arenas Gabriela Mistral would be assigned to Temuco, with the same position, to later be appointed in 1921, at the time of its foundation, as the first director of the Girls’ Lyceum No. 6 (current high school No. 7 Teresa Prats de Sarratea) of Santiago.

His appointment, aroused criticism among his peers at the time, who did not see with good eyes that someone with a lack of formal studies, was appointed director of such an important establishment.

“I do not have the title, it is true, my poverty did not allow me to acquire it and this crime, which is not mine but of life, has earned me the one that is denied me by some, salt and water,” said Mistral years later.

However, his contributions to Chilean education were undeniable. This fact would be worth an invitation from the Secretary of Public Education of Mexico, the educator José Vasconcelos and would thus begin a long journey where that modest rural teacher would travel the world holding different positions, many of them linked to issues related to education, maintaining always within himself, the tasks that as a teacher he developed in Chile.

Perhaps his vision on education could be summarized in that famous phrase of his that would appear in the publication Teacher and child.

“Always teach: in the courtyard and in the street as in the classroom. Teach with attitude, gesture and word ”.

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“Mister! You who taught, forgive me for teaching ”: when Gabriela Mistral was a teacher – La Tercera