On January 1, 2013, I stepped onto a metal machine in Toronto and I stepped off it in Santiago, Chile. When I left Maine, there was a fresh covering of nearly a foot of snow. In Santiago, it was summer. Hot. I had to change clothes in the airport for the journey north to La Serena. I really didn’t know much about Chile. My Spanish was non-existent. And the landscape was like another planet to me. Cacti and stone and the occasional goat. We stopped on the way and I had my first of many empanadas in Huentelauquen, famous for its cheese. I really knew nothing about Chile or Latin American culture.
One of the many things I didn’t know about was Gabriela Mistral. In 1945, she was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although I fancied myself knowledgeable in literary matters, I had hardly heard of her. I wasn’t prepared for the status she holds in Chile. Everywhere in the country, you find streets named for her as well as schools and businesses and plazas. Her image and profile can be found everywhere, including on the 5,000 peso note. She wrote poetry, some of it for children, and was a teacher and tireless advocate for women’s rights. She was also a thinker and wrote hundreds of articles on the future of Latin American culture and society.
My wife, Fernanda Glaser, whom I met in Buffalo, wrote her dissertation on Mistral, and I was drawn into it, of course. Over the next few years, I learned a lot about Mistral, how she was a lesbian in a world run by men and yet somehow still succeeded. How she lost her adopted son to suicide. How she fought for traditional values in a world that was changing in ways she did not appreciate. How she also fought for radical values and social equality in a world seething with fascism and imperialism. Her story is a fascinating microcosm of the complexity of the 20th century.
After my wife finished her dissertation, we were approached by Claudia Reyes García, editor of Editorial LetrArte about transforming the first chapter of her dissertation into a book. For the next year, we struggled to do so, turning an academic chapter into something more popular with a simple, concise narrative of her life and her thoughts. It was difficult work, but we accomplished it finally, and the end result was a bilingual edition of the life and thought of Gabriela Mistral.
It is called Regional Creature: An Introduction to Gabriela Mistral. Pedro Pablo Zegers Blachet, a leading scholar of Mistral and the director of the National Library in Santiago wrote a flattering prologue. In it, he calls the work, “a necessary biography.” He continues: “Through a clean and informed panorama of her life, this book invites the Chilean reader, as well as a visiting foreigner, to carry with them not just a biographical sketch, but also an example of an intellectual ethos and an invitation to reflect upon the image this woman, in no way strange but progressive, obstinate, passionate, and, above all, gifted with an admirable lucidity not only from her geographical and familiar conditions, but also from a real American intellectual.”
I’m honored to have been a part of this book. For me, it seems the product of many years of coming to understand, even if a little, the complexities of Latin American culture and the specifics of Chilean identity. I learned far more writing this book and organizing it and researching it than I can possibly convey in a single blog post. I am also happy to have worked with Claudia Reyes García who was an incredibly supportive editor. Without her, this book would never have been produced.
It seems like a lifetime ago that I stepped off that plane into the hot summer of Santiago. Thanks to this book, in part, I’ve learned much about the country I now call home. I have been lucky to participate in the legacy of Mistral.
Now if only my Spanish would improve.