Chilean Poet Gabriela Mistral and Anarchism

The whole world has gone astray. Selfishness, lust for power and ignorance being the reasons why. The greater number of us are a burden on the few, the ones who rule with a startling brazenness and inhumanity. Fear, weapons, violence and concentration camps are turning man into a veritable puppet, stripping him ruthlessly of his greatest possession: his freedom to think and act and his creative mind.
(Gabriela Mistral)

My intention in this essay is not to corral the thoughts of this unassuming poetess within the confines of any political denomination but to highlight certain similarities between Gabriela Mistral’s thinking and a few of the classical postulates of anarchist philosophy.

Among these is care for the position of workers, women’s rights and steadfast denunciation of the prison system which, in her estimation, has virtually no impact when it comes to reshaping the mind of the prisoner, as Kropotkin argued in his lecture “Prisons” delivered in 1877. So even though the subjects raised in the lines above may not be exclusively anarchist, they at least surfaced in the anarchist press from an early date.1

Of course, when tackling the literary output of our poet, one of the most surprising things one finds is precisely how little we know about her everyday opinions. Never having been active in any party organisation, her beliefs are relegated to a secondary position, her poems addressed to Sandino - and her public championing of him - opening up fresh approaches to her work. To be honest - and I do not wish to offend anybody here - I do not believe (although I might be wrong) that it was the “right” that banished her political views into oblivion, for her criticisms of Stalinism as well as her aversion to any brand of totalitarianism doubtless loomed large back in the days when a certain moustachioed “comrade” was the idol of more than a few.2

Notwithstanding that, I am not arguing that Gabriela Mistral was an anarchist. Far from it. Indeed she was very hard on the Spanish anarchists, labelling them “poor dreamers” (although she was critical of every political mirage, dubbing Stalin a “butcher”, she wrote no poems to him), in light of what she held was the undue utopianism of their plans.3

Instead, what I mean to do is to set out what she wrote for the Chilean anarchist press, which has until now been overlooked.

Her background

Gabriela Mistral (real name Lucila de Maria del Perpetuo Socorro Godoy Alcayaga) displayed an interest in social issues from a very early age. In fact her pen name was borrowed from [Italian poet] Gabriele D’Annunizio - who went on to become a support of fascism - and from [French poet] Frederic Mistral). She always admired them both for the way their pens were loyal to the peasantry.

In her native Vicuña - in northern Chile - at an early age she became acquainted with the work of Leo Tolstoy, borrowing some formative elements of her thinking from him, and in her Escritos Políticos she speaks of a “Christianity with a sense of the social”.4 Not to mention her ardent pacifism.

Likewise it needs to be added that Gabriela Mistral was in contact with people who, during one period of her life at any rate, espoused a libertarian approach - people such as the poet Manuel Magallanes Moure - a painter and poet who was a member of the San Bernardo Tolstoyan commune 5 - or Manuel Rojas. What is more, the criollo [ie South-American born] anarchist writer José Santos González Vera was a close friend of hers.

In a collection of the correspondence exchanged between Gabriela Mistral and Magallanes Moure6, we find here in 1915 acknowledging the Reclus brothers7 as great influences upon her, alongside Walt Whitman or Maxim Gorky.

No less significant are her contributions to the review Babel, which was unmistakably libertarian in outlook: Babel started off in Argentina in the 1920s but resurfaced in Chile years later under the direction of the anarchist writer Enrique Espinosa (Samuel Glumsberg). Babel carried the writings of Alfonsina Storni, Horacio Quiroga, Ernesto Montenegro8, Aldous and Julian Huxley and Albert Camus among other leading lights from a wide spectrum of disciplines.

Standing with the exploited and oppressed

Gabriela’s early years, then, brought her face to face with the greatest challenge facing the governments of the Americas: the so-called “social question”. In Europe as well as in “the dark-skinned Americas”, this was a problem of immeasurable import to the most vulnerable sections of society. It included housing shortages, the absence of a health system and of universal education. Albeit that with the passage of time many of these problems were resolved, in Gabriela Mistral’s early years they were the staple diet of the labour press and a worry to many. Among those moved by the predicament of the workers in Chile was Arturo Fernández Vial 9, to whom Mistral dedicated a poem, dubbing him “hatless”, being the only person - so far as we know - to dedicate a poem to that rear admiral who was converted to anarchism following his dismissal from the Chilean armed forces.

Similarly, it is important that we bear in mind how, in Temuco, Gabriela Mistral harboured Manuel Rojas and González Vera when both were wanted men during “Don Ladislao’s war”10 in 1920.

So the old notion of Doña Lucila [ie Gabriela Mistral] as conservative or “apolitical” bursts like so many soap bubbles.

However, the firmest link between Gabriela Mistral and anarchist thinking was the publication of two prose poems in El Sembrador11, the anarchist newspaper in Iquique city, run by the indefatigable Enrique Arenas, whom Angel Cappelletti12 has stated was a printing worker. Both appeared in 1923 in Nos 62 and 63, respectively.

Read these and there is no mistaking her pen, her mind and that depth that reminds us of birdsong, a feeling one gets only from those who write from the recesses of their heart of hearts.

The first prose poem appeared on 27 October 1923 - a year after she published “Desolation” [a poem, her keynote work] - and is entitled “To a sower”. It seems even to have carried this dedication: “Sow without glancing at the soil where falls the seed; you are done for if you consult other people’s faces” And later she states: “Give your word and stay calm, without turning your head. When they see that you have wandered off they will gather up your seed or perhaps kiss it tenderly and carry it to their hearts … Even the most practical of men, those who claim to be less interested in dreams, know the infinite worth of a dream and are reluctant to magnify the dreamer.

The second prose poem appeared in No 63 of the anarchist weekly El Sembrador and is entitled “To the children” and her again her kindness shines through: “A long time from now, when I am but a tiny heap of compacted dust, play with me, with the earth of my heart and my bones. Should a bricklayer scoop me up, he will place me in a brick and I shall be pinned forever in a wall and I hate quiet corners.” Later she remarks: “If they should make of me a prison brick I will blush for shame to hear a man’s sobs; and if I am a schoolbrick likewise, that I cannot join in your singing in the early mornings” Amen.

Crazy little army

During the mid-1920s, many Latin American republics were occupied by the United States, Nicaragua being one of them.

Taking up the colours of the anarchist flag - black and red - in 1926, one Nicaraguan peasant rushed to the defence of his people and their freedom. And with a pathetic force - “30 had he with him”, as the song says - he fled into the jungle to prepare for armed resistance, heading an “army of free men”, to the chagrin, be it said, of Latin America’s incipient communist parties.

Mistral’s open championing of him in the pages of the newspaper El Mercurio was greeted with the most ignominious silence.

Even so and even though her words in support of Sandino speak of a rampant Americanist mind-set, Gabriela Mistral had written a few years before, on 17 April 1922: “Do I despise the Yankee? Why would I hate him? We should hate that which makes us vulnerable to his steel and gold talons, his determination, his opulence.”13 Here, in my opinion, we can discern a clearly libertarian rationale with a distinction drawn between society and the state. Which is quite something in that it constitutes the foundation of the anarchist rationale. Something which has been forgotten my many young libertarian sympathisers who, faced with the atrocities committed by the state of Israel against the Palestinian people, fulminate against the “dirty Jew”.14

Thus Gabriela Mistral rejected the slick revanchism in which certain leftists wallow, but she also steered clear of the fiction of legal sciences that are out to make society automatically synonymous with state. Which as I see it, takes the view that a group of rulers can, prompted by economic and geopolitical interests, embark upon a project of conquest even though they do not necessarily reflect the feelings of the nation in its entirety.

The Bragado prisoners

Especially in the wake of the 1929 economic crisis, a number of dictatorships or ideologically motley-hued mandates, surfaced. In Argentina in 1930, Uriburu overthrew the second cabinet of Hipólito Yrigoyen, a hopelessly contradictory appointee who, even though he had made changes as oligarchic rule was ended, had also brandished the sword against the workers of Patagonia during his first mandate back in 1921.

Thus, in 1931, during the Uriburu dictatorship, seven anarchists, allegedly responsible for the murder of a conservative politician, finished up in the jail in Bragado in greater Buenos Aires. They included the workers Reclus De Diago, Santiago Mannini, Pascual Vuotto and Rossini.

The “dark decade” of Argentinean history - dark in terms of corruption and the violence used - eventually imprisoned the first three of the above, releasing the rest. Vuotto, Mannini and De Diago served 11 years in jail, from 1931 until 1942 to be precise.

The case bore great similarities to that of Sacco and Vanzetti who had gone to the electric chair in the USA in 1927.

Thus the incarceration of these three anarchists was very tough, although they were lucky to have support from other leftwing groups which showed solidarity with them as victims of injustice.

In his book The Myths of Argentinean History, the historian Felipe Pigna sets out the following letter sent at Christmas 1939 to the anarchist Pascual Vuotto. It states (I give it in its entirety): “Dear Vuotto: many thanks for the gift of your two books and I have read almost the whole of your life story. One of the things that matter most to me in this world is the conditions of the prisoner. This is not a literary concern but a heartfelt one. I have been deeply moved by your case. Defend your soul that you may cling to hope and a little joy. Which is essential for work and simply in order to live. I know that the price is high but it is heroically possible. When you get out of there, life will seem broader and more beautiful than ever. I have no doubt but that you will come out because you have friends watching out that you receive justice. Gabriela Mistral.”15

Even in Chile that letter to Vuotto was known to very few anarchists. I have heard it said that Jose Ego Aguirre mentioned it to a few comrades but plainly it went no further and did not reach a wider audience, by which I mean academia.

One of the most striking things about the topic under examination is the profound ignorance about Gabriela Mistral’s relations with anarchists. For myself, I reckon she was a freethinker, but I would also suggest, almost with certainty, that she was conversant with anarchist thought, perhaps through Gonzalez Vera.16 In any event, ignorance of this aspect of Mistral, is commonplace in our Chile of “the blind”. At least the libertarian writings of González Vera and Manuel Rojas have recently been published as Letras Anarquistas.

Now as to Lucila Godoy specifically, the writer Matilde Ladrón de Guevara17, notes in her book La rebelde Gabriela that it was her humble origins that prompted her consignment to oblivion, that plus her criticisms of latifundism and the oligarchy which provoked angry responses in the national press from, say, Raúl Silva Castro.

Thus Gabriela Mistral was always on the side of the humble, the bare-footed children, the exploited workers, the unjustly jailed anarchists; in short, her thinking bore the stamp of libertarianism, freethinking and antifascism. As I see it it was on this basis that the anarchist writer Oscar Castro Zuñiga (from Rancagua), the only Chilean to have penned a response to the fascist murder of García Lorca, dedicated this poem to Gabriela Mistral:

When you lie still - ay, Gabriela, Gabriela - the Andes will cradle you - as if in a mint - and will make you a clay sarcophagus - that you may always have land.”18

Sebastián Allende Martínez

 [In 1945 Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral won the first Nobel prize for Literature ever awarded to a South American.]


1 As well as positioning itself as a revolutionary idea, anarchism has also sought to bring a new ethic to human relationships: see Anselmo Lorenzo El Proletariado Militante (especially Chapter 27)

2 There was a very striking cover on El Siglo when Stalin died in 1953. However, Neruda’s poems are unquestionably worthy of a read.

3 See Luis Varga Saavedra “Castilla, tajeada de sed como mi lengua. Gabriela Mistral ante España y España ante Gabriela Mistral 1933 a 1935.”

4 Gabriela Mistral: Escrito Políticos, anthology compiled by Jaime Quezada, (FCE, Chile 1994)

5 Founded and encouraged by the Tolstoyan pioneer Agusto Dhalmar, first winner of the national literary award in Chile in 1942.

6 Espistolario entre Gabriela Mistral y Manuel Magallanes Moure (Universidad Catolica) p. 97.

7 In the biographical index to the text the two brothers are described curiously as “skilled popularisers of geography”, but at no point is there any reference made to their anarchist beliefs.

8 Journalist by trade, San Felipe native Ernest Montenegro was a professional writer and very close to anarchist thinking. He also wrote the foreword to a Chilean edition of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in 1970.

9 Fernández Vial has been very little studied. There was even a soccer team called after him. It was set up by railway workers back in 1903. [Raimundo Arturo Fernández Vial (1858-1931) descended from one of the architects of Chilean independence, served with distinction in the Chilean navy and was something of a national hero following his service in the Pacific War which robbed Bolivia of its outlet to the Pacific. In 1903 he was appointed “Inspector of Railways” during a rail strike but gave the workers a fair hearing, supporting most of their demands and granting them. In return the railway workers renamed their sports club the Fernández Vial Sports Club and the soccer team still exists with that name. He fell from favour with those in government and was eventually forced into semi-retirement. He eventually retired completely and devoted himself to educational and recreational ventures among the workers, earning himself the nickname “The People’s Rear Admiral” and was friendly with Chilean anarchist labour leader Magno Espinoza. PS]

10 Named after the then Interior minister, Ladislao Errázuriz Zañartu. Chile was going through a deep-seated social and economic crisis and the government of the day, led by the oligarch Juan Luis Sanfuentes, decided to deploy Chilean troops along the border with Peru, as a result of which student and worker groups made it plain in their press that this tub-thumping was merely a ploy to distract attention from real conditions in the country, whereupon the government and the well off, using the ‘White Guards’ decided to storm the headquarters of the FECH (Chilean Students’ Federation) and persecute anybody questioning the government’s stance.

11 There were two phases to El Sembrador, so far as I have been able to discover: the first covering 1922-1924, and the second 1925-1927. As such it amounts to an excellent source for students of literature and of the thinking of the anarchists of the time, since its pages covered matters such as female emancipation, naturism and stinging polemics with the incipient Chilean Communist Party.

12 Angel Cappelletti El anarquismo en America latina (Editorial Ayacucho, Venezuela, 1990,) p. 85

13 Gabriel Mistral “El Grito”.

14 Suffice to remind them of the Jewish Anarchist Federation that once existed in England and in which the indefatigable Rudolf Rocker was a participant.

15 Felipe Pigna Los Mitos de la historia argentina (Planeta) Vol. 3, p. 274

16 I was delighted to discover on the webpage of the Biblioteca virtual José Ingenieros a pamphlet on anarchist education with a foreword by Gabriela Mistral.

17 Matilde Ladrón de Guevara La Rebelde Gabriela (Araucaria 1984)

18 Oscar Castro “Bajorrelieve de Gabriela” in Nueva Antologia Poética (Editorial del Pacífico, Chile 1972), p. 71

From: Tierra y Libertad (Madrid) No 249, April 2009. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.