Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1945. To date, she is still the only Latin American woman to receive the prize. The prize citation states that her award recognizes “her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.”

Introducing her before her banquet speech at the occasion of the prize-giving, the Swedish Academy’s representative stresses the geographical distance she has travelled: “From a distant continent, where the summer sun now shines, you have ventured the long journey to Gösta Berling’s land, when the darkness of winter broods at its deepest.” The implication here is that this voyage is some sort of novelty, that Mistral has been plucked from her naturally sunny climes to receive her award in frosty Northern Europe. In reality, however, the poet’s biography is marked by constant mobility: first in Chile itself, where she worked in secondary schools from Antofagasta in the north to Punta Arenas in the far south; and then, after leaving Chile in 1922, as she moved between consular posts and teaching positions in Mexico, France, Spain, Portugal, Guatemala, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and finally the continental USA where she was to die in 1957. In short, the long trip to Sweden was hardly Mistral’s only transatlantic or transhemispheric trip.

The Nobel prize committee’s point, however, is no doubt more metaphorical than literal: it may feel that “the darkness of winter broods at its deepest” in that Europe had only recently emerged from the Second World War. As the first post-war recipient of the Literature prize, Mistral’s task is to bring some Latin American optimism and “idealistic aspirations” to a climate in which, as German theorist Theodor Adorno suggested, it felt barbaric to write poetry in the wake of Auschwitz.

In response, Mistral says very little about herself and nothing about her (or indeed anybody else’s) literary work. She presents herself as the representative of Chilean democracy and Latin American culture, both of which tells us are indebted to European social democracy. In a speech whose hallmark is modesty and self-abnegation, she thanks “the cosmopolitan spirit of Alfred Nobel” for including Latin America within its remit and “the Swedish democratic tradition” for showing an openness to renovation while adhering to “the core of the old virtues, the acceptance of the present and the anticipation of the future.” If her prize signals the New World’s “idealistic aspirations,” Mistral is far from playing the part of enfant terrible or radical innovator. A stress rather on “tradition” and “heritage,” both her own and that of the hosts, is the keynote of her modest acceptance as part of the pantheon of global culture.

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