In October 2019, more than a million Chileans took to the streets in what became the country’s biggest ever protest. Few things united them: Some demanded better education, others greater Indigenous rights. They had no leaders or symbols.
But as the dust settled, one image slowly emerged as a prominent emblem. A mural in downtown Santiago depicted an elderly woman dressed in black combat boots, faded jeans and a T-shirt with lyrics from a punk rock band. Her neck was wrapped in a green handkerchief, the signature of Latin American abortion-rights activists. In her left hand she held a blacked-out national flag; in her right, an open book.
The woman is Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean poet, educator and diplomat, who was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1945. Long depicted in fusty garb and known for writing poems about children, Mistral is being reclaimed by a new generation of feminist and L.G.B.T. activists as an anti-establishment icon — and igniting a debate about how we appropriate literary figures from the past.
“My instinct told me that Gabriela was a good figure to accompany this whole cause,” said Fab Ciraolo, the artist who painted the mural. “For women, gay rights, rights for the poor — she touches all those issues.”
The past few years have seen a surge of interest in Mistral, who died on Long Island in 1957. In 2020 the Chilean Ministry of Culture released an eight-volume digital anthology of her poetry, letters and essays, one of the most significant compilations of her work to date. In 2021, a selection of Mistral’s letters to Doris Dana, her longtime companion and executor, was published to acclaim.
This spring the Spanish version of “A Queer Mother for the Nation: The State and Gabriela Mistral,” by Licia Fiol-Matta, a professor of Latin American literature at New York University, is scheduled to be released by a Chilean publishing house, two decades after its controversial publication in English.
The country’s new president, Gabriel Boric, a 36-year-old millennial, has mentioned Mistral as one of his favorite poets, and frequently quotes her. And though Mistral is everywhere in Chile — her name adorns roads and her face is on the 5,000-peso ($5.60) bank note — her legacy has long been the subject of contention.
Born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga in 1889, Mistral grew up in the remote Elqui Valley in northern Chile. Her father abandoned the family when she was a baby and she was raised by her mother, a seamstress; her older sister, a schoolteacher; and her grandmother. Though they lived in a two-room shack and Mistral did not finish primary school, she had one big advantage, according to Elizabeth Horan, an associate professor of English at Arizona State University: All the women in Mistral’s household were literate, at a time when less than a third of the population could read and write. Ms. Horan’s Spanish-language biography of Mistral, which has been 25 years in the making, will be published by Random House later this year.
Mistral worked as a rural teacher’s aide and sent poems and essays to local newspapers in her spare time. In one article published when she was just 17 years old, she boldly implored the state to educate women, arguing that “there is nothing in her that should lead her to be placed in a lower rank than that of men.”
Though she worked as a teacher all over Chile, Mistral’s poor origins and lack of a formal degree impeded her career progress. In 1922 she accepted an invitation by the Mexican government to reform the public education system, and never moved back to Chile.
For the rest of her life she worked as a consul and visiting professor in Spain, Portugal, France, Brazil, Italy and the United States, where she taught at Columbia University.
Despite gaining fame abroad, Mistral’s works were often ignored back home. Of the four poetry books released in her lifetime, three were published outside Chile. Her poems about children are included in the school curriculum, but her political essays, which often took internationalist and pacifist stances and argued on behalf of the disenfranchised, Indigenous people and women, were long left out.
When the military took power in 1973, Chile’s most famous poet was Pablo Neruda, a Nobel Prize winner and atheist communist. Mistral, by contrast, seemed like a palatable cultural icon. The regime “manipulated her work to such an extent that her poems became considered naïve and cute, when in fact they are powerful social critiques,” said Alejandra Araya, the director of an archive which houses some of Mistral’s work.
The leadership went so far as to put Mistral on the currency, and promoted her image as a matronly schoolteacher for the nation. Most Chileans knew her as the “gray, ugly, boring old lady,” who scowled at them from the bank note, said Maria Elena Wood, a filmmaker who made a documentary about Mistral in 2011.
After the dictatorship ended in 1990, some scholars began to question her portrayal as a saintly spinster. But their claims about her personal life met with resistance.
“Mistral was a very protected icon,” said Ms. Fiol-Matta, whose book was turned down by local publishers partly because it claimed the poet was a closet lesbian. “I was told I was bringing something foreign into Chile, that I wanted to see lesbianism everywhere.”
In 2007, the cracks started to widen. That year troves of letters between Mistral and Dana became public. In them Mistral oscillates between doting mother — she often called Dana, who was 31 years her junior, “my little daughter” — and jealous lover, berating her for meeting with other men and women.
“I live fixed on you like a man possessed except for the moments when I read or write,” Mistral wrote in 1950. In another written exchange, Dana told Mistral: “Do you think that in my way of looking at you, and in my way of touching you, there are things that I cannot say or show? I love you with the fullness of my being.”
Mistral categorically denied being lesbian. Yet some scholars claim that the letters and Mistral’s unusual lifestyle suggest that she was at least queer. She lived for long periods with secretaries who doubled as confidantes. And she adopted and raised her nephew with another woman, Palma Guillén, a Mexican diplomat.
Now, decades after the dictatorship first appropriated Mistral’s image, activists in Chile are celebrating her as a feminist and L.G.B.T. icon — though Mistral never identified as either.
“There is a debate here: Can we say that Gabriela Mistral was a lesbian if she never said so? I prefer to say that she dissented from the heteronorm,” said June Garcia, an author who runs a feminist book club.
Ms. Garcia added that though Mistral did not call herself a feminist, she was “someone who took the values of equality and justice seriously — and these are the values that ultimately move us today.”
Chile experienced a #MeToo moment in 2018, when thousands of women in college campuses called out sexual harassment and started reassessing their curriculums. One of the movement’s beneficiaries was Mistral — and one of its victims Neruda, who has become increasingly canceled.
Feminists argue that Neruda deserted his wife and daughter, who was disabled, and point to a passage in his memoirs, published in 1974, in which he described raping a maid when he was a diplomat in what is now Sri Lanka.
“I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist,” he wrote. “The encounter was of a man with a statue.”
The passage has recently caused outrage, and in 2018 Congress dropped a proposal to rename Santiago’s airport after Neruda.
The feminist protests have gone hand in hand with a growing L.G.B.T. movement in the country. A government survey published in November found that the share of Chileans aged 15-29 that identify as lesbian, gay, transgender or nonbinary has quadrupled in the past decade, to 12 percent.
“We are looking back in our genealogy for badass lesbians and queer figures, looking back to find ourselves and to see that we have been here all along,” said Claudia Cabello Hutt, a Chilean who identifies as queer and is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
“At a time of powerful feminist movements, a time when we are calling out violence against women” said Ms. Cabello Hutt, “this is not a time for Neruda. This is a time for Mistral.”