Gabriela Mistral: Poetess in New York

Carla Magri
September 30, 2021

Since the early 20th century, Columbia University has encouraged the study and promotion of Ibero-American and Spanish culture, allowing for the cultural influence of Columbia students and faculty with Hispanic heritage to be wide and varied. In the context of Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated annually in the US between September 15 and October 15, the following is a tale of a primary school teacher from rural Chile turned poetess and Nobel laureate, and how her life was determined by her relationship with Columbia.  

But none of this would have happened had it not been for Federico de Onís, a young professor who in 1916 arrived at Columbia invited by then-President Nicholas Butler with the mission of establishing advanced studies in Spanish at Columbia. After leaving his full professorship position at Universidad de Salamanca, de Onís got established in New York, where he took part in the founding of Columbia’s Department of Spanish (currently the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures) and Instituto de las Españas (today’s Hispanic Institute). His arrival was pivotal for the future development of Hispanic studies at Columbia: for 40 years, he strove to disseminate knowledge on Iberia and Latin America, as well as the promotion of Hispanic culture across the US.

Five years after his arrival at Columbia, on a February night in 1921, during a lecture at the Spanish Department, de Onís read poems written by an unknown school teacher from a rural town in Chile. Her name was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, a young educator who published poems under the pen name of Gabriela Mistral. Students and faculty present responded to the originality and moral force of the woman's writings, who de Onís knew because some of her poems had been printed in Spanish newspapers. “They wanted to know where they could get her poems and all I could give them was a handful of clippings. I told them that if they wanted a volume, enough of them would have to subscribe to copies to pay for the printing,” he said. It took some work to convince Mistral, who had received previous offers to publish her work and had, until then, been too modest to accept, but in the end de Onís got her approval. A year later, her first book, a collection of poems entitled “Desolación” (Desolation) was published in New York by Columbia's Instituto de las Españas. The book was published in Chile the following year.

De Onís’ initiative helped pave the way for Mistral's international career, as during the next years, she positioned herself as one of the most prominent Latin American writers of the first half of the 20th Century. In 1922 she moved to Mexico, to assist the Ministry of Education in the modernization of the female school curriculum. At the time, her second volume, “Ternura” (Tenderness), was being published in Spain. Following a brief return to Chile in 1925, she joined the League of Nations to work in intellectual cooperation, consolidating her international career. Though she would occasionally return to Chile to visit, she never lived in the country again, remaining an expat for the rest of her life.

Mistral’s relationship with Columbia resumed the following decade, when, rising to international fame, she moved to New York to teach Spanish Literature at Barnard College as a visiting professor during 1930 and 1931. Later, she went on to work as a diplomat for the Chilean government, serving as a Consul from 1932 until her death. As she traveled the world, living in Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Mexico, and Brazil, among other countries, her poetry was translated into several languages. Throughout the years, Mistral cultivated friendships with intellectuals and political leaders, who began to promote her as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The recognition came in 1945, the first granted to a Latin American artist and the fifth Literature Nobel ever given to a woman. Seventy-six years after, Mistral remains as the only Latin American woman recipient of the award.

Mistral returned to Columbia to attend a reception organized in her honor in May 1946, six months after receiving the Nobel Prize. By then, she was living in California, serving as a Consul in Los Angeles. Invited by Barnard College Dean Virginia Gildersleeve, she addressed the Spanish Department at a ceremony in Milbank Hall. It was there that she met Doris Dana, a young aspiring writer from New York and graduate from Barnard College who became her friend, confident, and companion until her death. Their initial epistolary relationship evolved into travels through Europe and Latin America, and an eventual life together, sparking as much speculation as it did controversy regarding the nature of their bond.

Eight years later, as Columbia commemorated its bicentennial, Mistral was once again invited to campus in October 1954. At the time she resided in Long Island with Dana and her health had significantly deteriorated, but she accepted the invitation. The bicentennial celebrations included a series of symposiums featuring prominent Latin American intellectuals. Along other guests, Mistral participated in a conference entitled “Responsible Freedom in the Americas.” But the reason behind her visit was twofold; on October 31,, 1954, the rural educator with no formal teaching training and self-taught writer was awarded an honorary doctorate by then-University President Grayson Kirk, crowning her decades of relationship with Columbia.

With Dana by her side, Gabriela Mistral died in January 1957 in Hempstead Hospital, New York. After her passing, Dana became the manager and executor of Mistral’s literary rights, which would once again unite the poetess with Columbia, as in 1978 Dana decided to donate Mistral’s archive to Barnard, her alma mater, and the place where she had first met Gabriela. After remaining in Lehman Hall for 32 years, and after Dana’s death, in 2010, Barnard decided to donate Mistral’s library to the Gabriela Mistral Museum in her native town of Vicuña. In exchange, Chile’s National Library provided Barnard with microfilm copies of the complete archive, which includes letters, notebooks, poems and other drafts that are available for consultation from students and researchers.

Two years later, in April 2012, the US premiere of “Madwomen,” a documentary portraying Mistral and Dana’s relationship, based on Dana’s recording of their conversations during the last years of Mistral’s life, was held at Barnard. The event was followed by a discussion between director Maria Elena Wood and professors Nara Milanich and Maja Horn. In attendance were also former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University.

It was in New York where Gabriela Mistral was first published, where she taught and worked, and it was in New York where the poetess lived, loved, and died.