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Desolation; Gabriela Mistral…In English

The newly released first bilingual edition of Gabriela Mistral’s foundational collection of poetry and prose, Desolation, is sure to be a landmark in bringing Chile’s Nobel prize-winning poet closer to English speakers throughout the world. This 553 page book presents each piece from the original book Desolación face-to-face with its English translation. So now many more readers can enjoy Mistral’s magnificent writing, which Spanish speakers, Chileans especially, have grown up with for years.

Desolation; Gabriela Mistral

Desolation; Gabriela Mistral

Desolation was launched on September 30, 2014, at the Embassy of Chile in Washington, DC, to a full house of literary aficionados and Gabriela Mistral followers.  This event was preceded by a similar presentation in New York City in late September (

Desolación was published initially in 1922 in New York by the Instituto de Las Españas, slightly expanded in a 1923 edition, and subsequently published in varying forms over the years. Parts of Desolación, but never the entire book, have been translated and presented in various anthologies. A very attractive limited edition collector’s version of ten poems illustrated by Carmen Aldunate, in Spanish only, was published by Ismael Espinosa S.A. in 1989 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mistral’s birth.

Desolación; Ten poems with illustrations by Carmen Aldunate

Desolación; Ten poems with illustrations by Carmen Aldunate

Desolation, The bilingual edition, follows the 1923 version, which is felt to be the version that follows the poet’s wishes.  This English translation was artfully made by Liliana Baltra and Michael Predmore, who included in the book an extensive introduction to her life and work, and a very informative afterword on Gabriela Mistral, the poet.

Ambassador of Chile, Juan Gabriel Valdés, opened the ceremonies at the Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue by welcoming the attendees to “The House of Chile”.  He was followed by words from Lawrence Lamonica, President of the Chilean-American Foundation* and Gloria Garafulich-Grabois, Director of the Gabriela Mistral Foundation**, sponsors of the event. IMG_1426

“Gabriela supported those who were mistreated by society: children, women, and unprivileged workers. With passion, she defended the rights of children not only in Chile and Latin America but in the entire world”, stated Lamonica. “She made their voices heard through her work.” Chileans of all ages recall fondly Mistral’s children’s poems from Desolación, especially Tiny LIttle Feet (Piececitos), Little Hands (Manitas), and Give Me Your Hand (Dame La Mano).

Lawrence Lamonica; President, Chilean-American Foundation

Lawrence Lamonica; President, Chilean-American Foundation

“Gabriela played an important role in the educational systems of Chile and Mexico. If Gabriela were alive today, what would she say about the fact that nearly 50 percent of children in Chile suffer some type of physical violence (according to a recent report from the United Nations)?  What would she say about the fact that almost half of the Chilean population does not understand what they read (according to a study conducted by the University of Chile last year)?”, Lamonica asked rhetorically.

Her poem, His Name is Today (Su Nombre es Hoy), the words of which adorn and motivate public appeals for international efforts such as UNICEF and UNESCO in support of the rights of children, give a partial answer. “We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow,’ his name is Today.”

Possibly if Gabriela had written this today, she would have said “To her we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow’, her name is Today.”

Gloria Garafulich described to the audience at the book release the reasons for her, and her Foundation’s, commitment to promoting Gabriela Mistral’s work and legacy. “She wrote about what she keenly felt and observed, what most of us miss; the emotions and the needs; she saw in us what we do not see.  It is more than the beautiful poems we know and love.  Her fame endures in the world also because of her prose through which she sent the message to the world that changes were needed.  The issues that she wrote about are as relevant in the modern and technologically advanced world of today as they were more than sixty or seventy years ago.”

Garafulich firmly believes that “In the globalized world of today, translations are a very important element to promote her work to new generations…we know that this interest is growing in places such as the Ukraine, China, Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan and a number of other countries. Translations bridge the gaps of time, language and culture.” Hence, the importance of this first complete translation of Desolación. “We can relate to her poems and her writings,” continued Garafulich, “at different times in our personal lives: when we are young we read her love poems and think of someone special; when we are granted the miracle of parenthood we read poems to our children and through her words we express our love; when the years pass and we suffer the loss of our loved ones we read the poems that speak of sorrow and loss.”

Gloria Garafulich-Grabois, Director of the Gabriela Mistral Foundation with David Joslyn

Gloria Garafulich-Grabois, Director of the Gabriela Mistral Foundation with David Joslyn

Liliana Baltra, co-translator of Desolation, presented an entertaining and detailed account of the process of translating this collection of Gabriela Mistral’s most cherished writings over seven or so years.  Baltra, a Chilean literary treasure in her own right, is Professor Emeritus of Applied Linguistics at the University of Chile.  For seven years she concentrated on the works of Gabriela Mistral and the challenges of translating her writings into English.  Michael Predmore, Professor of Hispanic literature at Stanford University, collaborated with Baltra from California while she was either in Chile or Mexico.

Liliana Baltra with Chilean artist Carmen Barros

Chilean artist Carmen Barros with Liliana Baltra

Desolation is much more than simply a collection of Mistral’s writings, thanks to the extensive Introduction to the Life and Work of Gabriela Mistral, written by Predmore, and the very informative Afterword on Gabriela Mistral, the Poet, written for this book by Baltra. Each of these embeds Mistral’s work into the hard life and times of the poet in the first half of the twentieth century in Chile, and helps the reader understand something about the contradictions that Mistral’s writing, and life, reflect. Actually, her life was rife with complexities, more than contradictions. She was strikingly consistent; it was the society that surrounded her that exhibited contradictions.

For sure, Gabriela Mistral had a difficult childhood. She struggled against blatant gender and social prejudice, and received a big dose of mistreatment by her contemporaries and public authorities before finally becoming an accomplished school teacher and administrator.  In spite of her humble beginnings in the Elqui Valley, and her tendency to live simply and frugally, she found herself ultimately invited into the homes of the elite, eventually travelling throughout Latin and North America, as well as Europe, before settling in New York where she died in 1957.  On that day of her passing, we are told, the debate at the UN General Assembly was paused to pay tribute “to the woman whose virtues distinguish her as one of the most highly esteemed public figures of our time.”

The dedication of Mistral’s original Desolación reads: “To Mister Pedro Aguirre Cerda and to Madam Juana A. De Aguirre, to whom I owe the hour of peace I now live.”  Aguirre, president of Chile at the time, supported her in her diplomatic career, named her Consul in France and Brazil, and was a fast friend.  Eduardo Frei Montalva, as a 23 year old Falangist leader just beginning his political career, met Gabriela Mistral, 22 years his senior, in Spain in 1934.  Through her, he connected with Jaques Maritain, the French Philosopher so influential on Frei’s political development.  Mistral and Frei corresponded regularly from then until her death.  According to Cristian Gazmuri’s biography of Eduardo Frei, Gabriela Mistral helped him appreciate indigenous America, a dimension of his world he had apparently ignored until he met her.  Frei did not adorn himself nor his surroundings with many self agrandizing trappings, but one thing he did keep in his office, even as President of Chile, was a signed photograph of Gabriela Mistral. She inspired him, for they shared a deep commitment to social and economic justice, based in their unwavering religious faith and the social doctrine of their church.

Elqui Valley

Elqui Valley

Mistral spent her early years in the desolate places of Chile, notably the arid northern desert and windswept barren Tierra del Fuego in the south.  She dedicated much of her life and energies to exposing and explaining, through her poetry and prose, the ugliness of what human beings do to the natural gifts we receive. Her poems in the Landscapes of Patagonia section of the book include the poem Desolation (Desolación) from which the book is named, Dead Tree (Arbol Muerto), and Three Trees (Tres Arboles); when taken together they describe the ruined landscape we are disgracefully apt to leave behind; much to her dismay and disdain.

Baltra refers to Mistral’s poems as reflecting “landscapes of her soul”. The mistreatment of nature obviously infuriated Mistral, but her cause went beyond that, to the immoral and often criminal treatment of each other, especially of women and children.  Her version of Little Red Riding Hood (Caperucita roja) at first seems uncharacteristically macabre, unless, in Baltra’s words, “Mistral probably wrote it as a metaphore of children being mistreated, of girls being abused at a young age.”  Sadly, she may even have been remembering her own unpleasant personal experiences.

Gabriela Mistral’s writings on women and mothers often reflect deep sadness; she did not have children of her own. In her youth, her amorous interests in young men seemed to be mostly platonic at best. The Spanish and English versions of one of her most famous poems, Ballad (Balada), Mistral’s recounting of the pain caused by an impossible love, were read aloud at the book launching by Javiera Parada, Embassy of Chile Cultural Attaché and Molly Scott, Chilean-American Foundation member.

El pasó con otra; / yo le vi pasar. / Siempre dulce el viento / y el camino en paz. / Y estos ojos míseros / le vieron pasar!

With another woman, / I saw him pass by. / The wind, always sweet, / and the road in peace. / And these wretched eyes / saw him pass by!

When Mistral received the Nobel prize for literature in 1945, she received the award for her three large poetry works: Desolación, Ternura, and Tala, but she was presented as “…the queen, the poet of Desolación, who has become the great singer of mercy and motherhood!”.  At this point she had not yet been awarded her own country’s highest prize for literature, but this may be another case of the Nobel Committee using its prestigious award to “pull” society along rather than acknowledge past accomplishment.  However, while it is true that Gabriela Mistral had already begun to write and speak out against all forms of oppression, imperialism, corruption, prejudice, and abuse, after winning the Nobel prize her thought leadership on the rights of women, children, indigenous peoples, and the vulnerable became as influential as any of her contemporaries.

The statue of Gabriela Mistral next to the church in Montegrande, in the Elqui Valley, appropriately depicts her greatest concern; lovingly sheltering children.

Gabriela Mistral statue next to the church in Monte Grande

Gabriela Mistral statue next to the church in Montegrande (2008)

Since the welcome and unselfish transfer to Chilean non-governmental institutions of Gabriela Mistral’s privately-held legacy documents several years ago, and the consequent opening up of many unstudied papers, academic researchers are delving much more deeply into the writings of Gabriela Mistral, and as a result, of her life and thoughts. With the expectation that interest in Gabriela Mistral will grow, Desolation, A Bilingual Edition, offers an excellent road map to follow the winding, tortuous meanderings of Gabriela Mistral, as she uncovered life: its pain,its passion, its rhythm, and its rhyme.

“What the soul does for the body, is what the artist does for her people.” Gabriela Mistral.


*Founded in 1990, The Chilean-American Foundation is a private, non-profit, all-volunteer organization based in the Washington Metropolitan Area, which provides financial support for projects benefiting underprivileged children in Chile. **

Founded in New York in 2007, the mission of the Gabriela Mistral Foundation to deliver projects and programs that make an impact on children and seniors in need in Chile and to promote the life and work of Gabriela Mistral. Please


Posted in Leesburg, Virginia, on October 10, 2014.

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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