[Published in Gabriela Mistral: The Audacious Traveler. 
Ed. Marjorie Agosín. Athens: Ohio UP, 2003.]

My very flesh is permeated with
an infusion of the soil of this continent.

 Mistral at the Pan American Union, 1946 

WHEN Gabriela Mistral died in 1957 at the age of sixty-seven, she was living on Long Island in the affluent north-shore village of Roslyn Harbor, close to New York. She had been a resident there for the last few years of her life, in her retirement, far from the mineral mountains and fruitful desert of the Elqui Valley, that oasis of northern Chile's arid mining country which had produced her. After the funeral service held in St. Patrick's Cathedral, her body was flown in a U.S. official plane to Lima, Peru, where it was met by a Chilean military transport that would return her to her homeland. Three days of mourning, previously accorded only to top army and government officials, had been decreed by Chilean President Carlos Ibáńez to pay homage to the Nobel laureate the Swedish Academy called "the spiritual queen of Latin America." Half a million Chileans crowded the streets of Santiago to accompany her body in the funeral procession. The cortege ultimately made its way north to her final resting place in the mountain village of Montegrande, her childhood home in the Elqui Valley, close to her birthplace; she was buried there at her request, so that the children of this poor and isolated village might never be forgotten by her country. An audacious traveler of the New World, Mistral had made her final journey: it took her from one corner of the Americas to another, across more than 5,000 miles of what she pointedly called the American continent.

America — in the original sense of the word signifying the entire hemisphere — was, of all the many places in the world that Mistral had known, the place closest to her heart. America, not simply Chile, was her true homeland. It defined her: the Basque mestiza, she somewhat proudly called herself, half European and half Indian (Incan). Not surprisingly, the Pan Americanism that had begun to flourish during her youth — that is, the ideal of political and cultural unity between Latin America and Anglo America — appealed to her, and moved her to champion this dream throughout her life.

Mistral's hopeful Pan Americanism was tempered by a Christian and democratic humanism, as well as by her personal experiences with the United States. Her long relationship with this country began with the 1922 publication, in New York, of the first edition of her first book, Desolación (Desolation). Her frequent visits to the States starting in 1924; her long sojourns at northeastern colleges (Barnard, Vassar, and Middlebury), where she taught Latin American literature during the early 1930s; and her friendships with North Americans — Waldo Frank, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Leo Rowe (director of the Pan American Union), Erna Fergusson, Margaret Bates, and Doris Dana, to name a few — all strengthened the friendly admiration she always had for the people of the United States.

Indeed, the North American professors who had first published Desolación could never have guessed that Mistral's destiny, her glory, and her death would be so closely linked to the United States.

Mistral chose the United States as her home twice during the course of her life. The first time was in 1946, after having received the Nobel Prize in Literature in Sweden. Chile had just appointed her Consul in Los Angeles. Before moving there, the Union of American Women availed itself of her stay in Washington to confer upon her the title of Woman of the Americas. She then crossed the country to assume her new responsibilities, and lived in Monrovia, near Pasadena. Not entirely happy with its climate, she moved north to Santa Barbara, where she bought a house in which she lived until 1948. Then, stricken with diabetes, she left for Mexico to convalesce.

Finally, in 1953, after living in Veracruz, Mexico, for two years and then in Naples, Italy, for two years, she returned to the United States to serve in New York as Chilean delegate to the United Nations. She lived in Roslyn Harbor, on Spruce Street, in the home of her long-time friend, Doris Dana. When Mistral's failing health forced her to resign from her diplomatic post, the following year, she retired to Roslyn Harbor and spent her final years on Long Island, Whitman's "fish-shape Paumanok." It was a country refuge for her, but close enough to New York that friends and admirers could visit her.

At the start of Mistral's relationship with the United States in the early 1920s, the modern Pan American movement was gaining a certain popularity throughout the Americas. This movement, which aimed at promoting political, cultural, and economic ties among the independent nations of the Americas, had begun at the First International Conference of American States (also known as the First Pan American Conference) held in Washington in 1889–90, sponsored by the United States. The Pan American Union was then established, with its headquarters in Washington. Participating nations looked for ways of solving their common problems, including the development of a united front for maintaining their rights and preserving peace throughout the Americas. Just over two decades later, the First World War would intensify relations between the United States and Latin American nations, in light of the wartime need for hemispheric solidarity of the Americas.

The early 1920s saw popular magazines dedicated to promoting the ideals of Pan Americanism and facilitating cultural exchange, such as the monthly Pan-American Magazine; the monthly Pan American Review of the Pan American Society of the United States; and the bimonthly Inter-America, which offered English translations of articles published in the Latin American press, like its counterpart, Inter-América, which offered Spanish translations of articles published in the U.S. press. The monthly Bulletin of the Pan American Union was, in the early 1920s, publishing everything from agricultural assessments to poetry in translation.

Of course, there were serious problems facing Pan American unity that had arisen from the recent intervention of the United States in the affairs of the small countries of the Caribbean and Central America, such as its illegal seizure of the Panama Canal Zone in 1903, its second intervention in Cuba from 1906 to 1909, its breaking of relations with Nicaragua and armed intervention there in 1909, and its ongoing intervention in the affairs of the Dominican Republic since 1916. As a result of the chronic interventionist behavior of the so-called Colossus of the North, strong opposition to Pan Americanism was voiced by intellectuals throughout Latin America. For instance, the leading editorial in the September 1920 issue of Nuestra América (Our America), one of the most widely read magazines of Latin America, attacked the United States for threatening the independence of the Dominican Republic, and concluded with this rallying cry: "Brethren of America, let us unite. Let us lift our arms in defense of the Latin republic whose honor is being wounded by the greedy Yankees" (qtd. in Inman 333).

The so-called Gay Twenties that the United States was enjoying would show Mistral "the rampant materialism" that helped to crystallize her understanding of one of the fundamental differences between the cultural values of North and South America ("Gabriela," Bulletin [1924] 654). The 1920s were anything but "gay" in Latin America. They were not, as in the United States, years of rapid economic growth, of scandalous orgies under prohibition, of short-lived economic stability — the heyday of the movies, the Charleston, and the stock market. To the contrary, they were difficult years of foreign interventions, tyrannical governments, growing production of the foreign market, unfavorable terms of trade, and an increasing inflow of foreign capital which entered neither to industrialize nor to modernize the economy of Latin America, but rather to subordinate and bind it more and more to U.S. domination.

This is how the continental stage of the Americas was set when, in 1924, Mistral entered it as an eloquent advocate of Pan Americanism. The opportunity presented itself to her during her first visit to the United States, in the spring of that year. Already established as an important educator, poet, and humanist, she had just finished working for two years in Mexico in a collaboration with that government's rural education program. Then, moved by the desire to get to know the States, she visited Washington and New York on her way to Europe.

The Pan American Union celebrated her in the grand style at a reception attended by official, intellectual, and social Washington. There, in the stately Hall of Honor of the Union's marble building (which had been designed to blend the architectural styles of North and South America by combining Aztec, Incan, Mayan, and European themes), Mistral delivered an address in which she laid out her concept of the value of "dissimilarity without inferiority" with respect to the Latin and Anglo-Saxon cultures of the Americas. "I do not believe that differentiation in nations is a world fatality," she said, and went on to elaborate:

I believe that difference in the case of humanity, as well as in nature, is merely another form of enrichment. In this way what is Latin, even in its sharpest contrast, when face to face with Anglo-Saxonism, is a kind of strength through different virtues, through other modes of living, but in no sense the occasion of inevitable discord. ("Gabriela," Bulletin [1924] 652)

Contemporary advocates of diversity and multiculturalism echo her wisdom. She argued that the "friendship of the different peoples sought by the Pan American Union would be easily attained if we were all imbued, to the farthest limit of consciousness, with the concept of dissimilarity without inferiority" (653). She explained:

Union will be entirely possible if those of the North, penetrating the unpleasing exterior to the fundamental nobility beneath, perceive that like a clear-running stream a deep, though confused, aspiration and longing for justice flows underneath all our sufferings; through the painful economic conditions afflicting our Chile, a country heroically poor, rich only in honor; through the long Mexican Revolution, holy in its aspirations; and through the lack of accord in Central America. (653)

In concluding her address, Mistral acknowledged the prevailing economic and intellectual approaches to continental unity, but asserted that a practical application of shared Christian faith and values was the "higher" path: "To stamp the relations between the countries of the North and South with the standard of Christianity, to place conscience, individual and national, above material and personal interests: That is the task" (654).

The July issue of the Bulletin of the Pan American Union, which celebrated Mistral's visit, noted that "from the purely intellectual and spiritual point of view [this occasion] constitutes one of the most significant manifestations of inter-American confraternity in the history of Washington" (655).

The United States would be a repeated theme in Mistral's prolific prose work. Between 1922 and 1948, she published numerous articles dealing with U.S. culture and policy, which appeared in periodicals throughout the Americas, often in the daily press: El Mercurio of Chile, La Nueva Democracia of New York, El Repertorio Americano of Costa Rica, Puerto Rico Ilustrado, and the Boletín of the Pan American Union. Among her specific themes involving the United States were true Pan Americanism and the relations between North and South America; agreements and disagreements between them; the moral and practical virtues of the North American people; Catholicism in the United States; the interest in Hispanic culture found among intellectuals. She also published glowing tributes to North American artists and writers, such as Isadora Duncan, Frances Horne, Alice Stone Blackwell, and Waldo Frank (whom she spoke of as a brother).

The occasion of the first Pan American Day on April 14, 1931, provided Mistral with the opportunity to expound her view of continental unity and further promote Pan Americanism. In early April, she published a prose work titled "Voto de la Juventud Escolar en el Día de las Américas" (Students' Pledge on Pan American Day). It appeared in Spanish in the Costa Rican paper, Repertorio Americano, and its publication there made it a powerful political statement, in view of the current four-year-long U.S. intervention taking place in Nicaragua, Costa Rica's northern neighbor. Also in April, the Bulletin of the Pan American Union published an English translation of the pledge, under the title "Message to American Youth on Pan American Day."

An expression of the popularity of Pan Americanism in the first half of the 20th century, the new holiday called Pan American Day was (and still is) observed throughout the Americas. It became an annual event celebrating the diverse cultures of the Americas and stressing inter-American goodwill. The date was chosen to commemorate April 14, 1890, when the Pan American Union was established; this body subsequently evolved into the Organization of American States (OAS). In the United States, Pan American Day is now observed with ceremonies at OAS headquarters in Washington, and with proclamations by the U.S. president and other government officials. Many cities hold concerts, festivals, and exhibits that celebrate Latin American culture.

Like many of her prose works, Mistral's pledge reads like a prose-poem. Her compelling vision of Pan American harmony and unity emerges in clear terms in this composition. Key to its rhetorical structure is Mistral's use and repetition of the first-person plural pronoun, which forms the collective voice of the youth, the future, of the Americas. The pledge begins:

We Americans of North and South America ["Nosotros, americanos del Norte y del Sur"] have accepted with our heritage of geographic unity a certain common destiny which should find a threefold fulfillment on our continent in an adequate standard of living, perfect democracy, and ample liberty.

Here the collective "we" is intended to affirm the entire American community. In the school setting, the recited pledge would be a didactic exercise meant to take students beyond the individual "I" and to challenge it. Mistral recognized the degeneration of the Whitmanian I with its power of self-affirmation that had given rise to the United States. She clearly rejected its transformation into imperial egoism that commodified Latin America, depriving South American nations of their autonomy.

A central theme of the pledge is that the American community shares "a common destiny" based on "our heritage of geographic unity" and the "common task" founded by our national heroes of American independence and democracy, Washington and Bolívar, Lincoln and San Martín. The governing national constitutions throughout the Americas are "the fruit of their insight," and have "the family resemblance of plants nurtured in the same soil." Having established the community of nations that resides on the American continent, the pledge reminds us that "our first duty is to our nearest neighbor," and instructs that "we have enough land so that no one need be envious of his neighbor."

Echoing her address delivered at the Pan American Union in 1924, Mistral wants America to appreciate through this pledge the concept of "dissimilarity without inferiority" that is essential to harmonious cultural diversity: "We must realize that the fact that two cultures differ outwardly does not imply that one is necessarily inferior to the other." And she emphasizes that "our very situation, between Europe and Asia, obliges us to comprehend conflicting viewpoints; even our coastline, looking both to the east and to the west like that of Greece, gives us the mission of welcoming different races [ethnic groups] with understanding" ("Message," 354).

Although the pledge does not explicitly use Christian language (as Mistral did at the Pan American Union), it expresses in fairly secular terms the Judeo-Christian values of human fellowship that she embraced. Not only does she tell us how we must treat our neighbors, the pledge establishes the ideal of "a republican sobriety to which vicious luxury is repugnant," as if to invoke the biblical condemnation of living for mammon. The golden rule of the Gospel is expressed in terms of an American virtue, that "unanimous religious and lay sentiment which considers fair dealing the only lasting basis for world relations."

Well aware of the inter-American political realities of her day and the challenges facing Pan Americanism, Mistral concluded her pledge with an emphasis on the right of nations to self-determination:

We Americans of North and South America have been nurtured on twenty-one constitutions, all of which proclaim respect for the independence of others as a basic principle of self-respect. Our republics were launched in life by Washington and Bolívar under the auspicious star of the rights of nations. From the kindergarten through the university we have been indoctrinated with a firm belief in the gospel of our national laws. Americans all, we affirm to the heroes from whom we are sprung our determination to hold the independence of all our homelands as sacred as our own. We renew our pledge that, in the intercourse between these twenty-one nations, we shall repudiate violence as treachery to the principles of eternal right, and challenge injustice as a blot on that glorious honor by which we now and shall forever live. ("Message," 356)

Here Mistral indirectly registers her condemnation of the pattern of growing U.S. intervention in the affairs of Latin American nations (as in Nicaragua), at the same time she affirms the high American ideal of liberty and justice for all. Thus, with "an adequate standard of living, perfect democracy, and ample liberty," North and South Americans can realize the full potential of the New World: "Together we shall give a new key, a new rhythm, a new democratic interpretation to European culture, European institutions, and European customs, art, education, and science, blending them all into a harmony of greater beauty and greater sweetness."

In February 1939, Mistral was again an honored guest at the Pan American Union, where she said she felt truly at home. This was her second visit to the Union. In the stately Hall of Heroes, she gave a lecture titled "The Human Geography of Chile," taking her audience the length and breadth of her homeland, and showing how poetry and beauty are found in its people and its landscape. Before her lecture, she pointed out that in the fifteen years that had elapsed since her first visit she had noted with pleasure the increasing influence of the Union and "the progress of an indisputable Pan American sentiment" ("Gabriela," Bulletin [1939] 191).

Seven years later, in March 1946, having just come from a tour of Europe after receiving the Nobel Prize, Mistral made her third celebrated visit to the Pan American Union. She had been appointed Chilean Consul in Los Angeles, and was on her way to assuming her new post there. The governing board had assembled to pay her the official tribute of the Americas for her literary achievement. Standing before its governing board, she stated:

I declare my faith in this institution, and to it I entrust myself as to an entity sound and strong in storm or danger. […] Your task, sirs — and you have never had a greater — is to keep the continent free from worldwide madness, from physical misery, and from the fatalistic and resigned depression that grows out of it. And while you are discharging this duty it is equally incumbent upon you, agents and interpreters of our spirit, not to slip on the treacherous stones of a certain zoological kind of nationalism which would station us here, would pin us in flesh and spirit to a single meridian, as if we were no more than the llama or the alpaca of the Aymaras. ("Gabriela," Bulletin [1946] 303)

Reiterating the theme of continental community articulated in her 1931 Pan American pledge, Mistral used the Lord's Prayer as an example of proper collective plurality, because it "begins and ends in a plural as round and unqualified as the blow of a hammer or the piercing phrases of the litanies" (303). She added that the "prayers which came later are for the most part entirely individual; perhaps for that reason they are more like counter-prayers, a perverse pagan about-face." Grave problems had arisen in the world because, as she asserted, "we left our course when we began to say that 'we' [of the Lord's Prayer] with a mind that was blank or wandering; when habit turned our prayers into a mere repetition, and their meaning went flat and stale."

She was driving home her point that both individuals and nations must learn to appreciate their place within, and their obligation to, the larger human community. A citizen of the collective Americas, she identified herself as American: "I have come to know almost the whole hemisphere, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego; I have eaten at the grandest and the humblest tables; my very flesh is permeated with an infusion of the soil of this continent" (303).

Mistral's address culminated with her call "to unify our countries from within by means of an education which shall grow into a national awareness […] and also to unify those countries of ours in a harmonious rhythm that shall be almost Pythagorean, a rhythm in which those twenty spheres shall move freely, even gracefully, without ever colliding" (304). Freedom and democracy throughout the Americas, together with peace and social justice, were the ideals she invoked, in the face of what she called the world's "satanic postwar panorama" (302).

At every opportunity in the remaining decade of her life, as before, Mistral would speak out for Pan American unity. Beyond that, the poetry she wrote during her sojourn in California would further express her embrace of the Americas. These were hard years for her personally — years of lingering personal grief in the shadow of the tragic deaths of people she loved. Nonetheless, the human and natural landscapes of North America moved her to compose new poems, such as "Amapola de California" (California Poppy), "Ocotillo," and "Nacimiento de Una Casa" (Birth of a House). In the first poem, for instance, Mistral personifies California's state flower in a song. She identifies with it and reveals the common destiny that binds them:

Your poor glory and mine
(your poor soul, my poor soul)
we burn without provocation
and are equally urged to touch
this shore of the world,
descendants of Our Flame!
(Mistral, Reader 120)

Like all of her poems which were born of an immediate and physical contact with the world around her, the poems that Mistral produced in the United States added a new dimension to her work rooted in North America. They would appear in Lagar (Wine Press; 1954), the last book of poetry she published in her lifetime. Thus, an array of elements derived from the entire American hemisphere would distinguish the full body of her poetry, infusing it with her Pan American spirit.

Commenting on Mistral's lifelong contributions to Pan Americanism, her personal friend and biographer, Margot Arce de Vázquez, paints a noble picture:

Few statesmen, few politicians worked as assiduously as Gabriela toward this beautiful goal [Pan American unity]. She was moved by a proud and authentic Christian spirit based on justice and love. She considered herself American, in the broadest sense of the word; both the grandeur and misery of America were her innermost concerns. Her maternal inclinations sought to protect all the American countries as children of her spirit, and she watched over them with the prophetic and selfless view of a poet and of the most tender and far-seeing mother. (144)

And concerning Mistral's high-minded response to the realities of the United States and its anti-American behavior, Arce de Vázquez explains:

As a Hispano-American, she deeply regretted what seemed to her the errors of official North American policy in its relations with the peoples to the south; she was hurt by the economic exploitation, by the armed interventions, by the moral and material support of dictators, by the almost complete ignorance of the Hispanic spirit, culture, customs, and idiosyncracies. But this critical view never caused hate or resentment on her part. She adopted, on the contrary, a free and creative attitude of love, with faith in men and nations and with firm confidence in the final triumph of reason, truth, and goodness. (140)

Similar praise had been expressed by Leo Rowe at the Pan American Union, when he introduced her there in 1939, at the height of her career: "She has dreamed of our nations united, loving each other, teaching each other and mutually protecting each other and has set an example of what true Pan American friendship and cooperation are" (qtd. in Arce de Vázquez 142).

To the end, Pan Americanism was close to Gabriela Mistral's heart. The first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, she had become not only one of the leading writers in the Spanish language but a prominent voice of the Americas which transcended language barriers and national borders. Her very diction expressed her Pan American spirit. In her prose publications and her public addresses, as in her Nobel acceptance speech, she referred to the Americas as "the American continent." Mistral had long embraced the old idea that the American lands formed a single continent, and this phrase would underscore her belief that the geographical unity of the Americas formed the basis of their common destiny. In a tribute published soon after she had died, Waldo Frank celebrated the continental dimension of her voice: "She was the bard of mothers and children; but she was also the laureate of her vast American earth: of the mountains, ice and burning valley" (84). Two months after her death, Américas (formerly the Bulletin of the Pan American Union) reprinted her Pan American pledge under the title "Pan American Manifesto," which remains a full expression of her Pan Americanism. Moreover, it stands as an enduring, hopeful vision of multicultural harmony and unity for America — in the sense of that word so much a vibrant part of her.

Works Cited

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