Possibly even more than its pisco, the Elqui Valley’s greatest source of pride is Gabriela Mistral, born in Vicuña in 1889 and, in 1945, the first Latin American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. A schoolmistress, a confirmed spinster and a deeply religious woman, Mistral’s poetry reveals an aching sensitivity and passion, and her much romanticized life was punctuated with tragedy and grief.

Lucila Godoy de Alcayaga, as she was christened, was just 3 years old when her father abandoned the family, the first of several experiences of loss in her life. It was left to her older sister, Emiliana, to support her and her mother, and for the next eight years the three of them lived in the schoolhouse in the village of Montegrande, where Emiliana worked as a teacher. At the age of 14, she started work herself as an assistant schoolteacher, in a village close to La Serena. It was here, also, that she took her first steps into the world of literature, publishing several pieces in the local newspaper under the pseudonyms “Alguien” (“Someone”), “Soledad” (“Solitude”) and “Alma” (“Soul”). When she was 20 years old, a railway worker, Romelio Ureta, who for three years had been asking her to marry him, committed suicide; in his pocket, a card was found bearing her name.

Although it would seem that his love for her was unrequited, the intense grief caused by Ureta’s suicide was to inform much of Mistral’s intensely morbid poetry, to which she devoted her time with increasing dedication while supporting herself with a series of teaching posts. In 1914 she won first prize in an important national poetry competition with Los Sonetos de la Muerte (Sonnets of Death), and in 1922 her first collection of verse was published under the title Desolación (Desolation), followed a couple of years later by a second collection, Ternura (Tenderness). Her work received international acclaim, and in recognition the Chilean Government offered Gabriela Mistral a position in the consular service, allowing her to concentrate almost exclusively on her poetry; here the parallel with Pablo Neruda is at its strongest. As consul, she spent many years abroad, particularly in the US, but her poems continued to look back to Chile, particularly her beloved Elqui Valley, which she described as “a cry of nature rising amidst the opaque mountains and intense blue sky”. Her most frequently recurring themes, however, were her love of children and her perceived sorrow at her childlessness.

Gabriela Mistral did however serve as a surrogate mother for her adored nephew, Juan Miguel or “Yin Yin”, who had been placed in her care when he was just 9 months old. Once again, though, tragedy struck: at the age of 17, Yin Yin committed suicide in Brazil, where she was serving as consul. It was a loss from which she never recovered, and for which her Nobel Prize, awarded two years later, could do little to console her. Gabriela Mistral outlived her nephew by twelve years, and in 1957, at the age of 67, she died in New York of cancer of the pancreas, leaving the proceeds of all her works published in South America to the children of Montegrande.

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