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Gabriela Mistral’s educational vision endures decades after her death

By Iñaki Martinez Azpiroz

Santiago, Jan 10 (EFE).- Sixty-six years after the death of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, her pioneering ideas for transforming education – perhaps the least well-known aspect of her legacy – remain as relevant as ever.

Latin America’s first and only female Nobel literature laureate, who died on Jan. 10, 1957, at age 68, championed equal access to education for all children, regardless of their gender or social class, and also sought to overhaul the notion of a teacher-centered classroom.

“She proposed a transformative and liberating education where girls and boys were at the center of the educational process,” Isabel Orellana, director of the Gabriela Mistral Educational Museum in the Chilean capital, told Efe.

A century ago, Mistral participated in the design of an educational reform program in Mexico, developing an “open-air school” model and laying the groundwork for a type of schooling that was student-focused and closely tied to nature.

“Gabriela Mistral’s legacy in Mexico lives on. The values that motivated her actions still endure, such as her commitment to girls’ education and her special focus on rural communities and the most vulnerable persons,” Mexico’s ambassador to Chile, Alicia Barcena, told Efe.

The Mexican diplomat recalled that Mistral led literacy efforts in rural peasant and indigenous communities, funding schools, giving lectures on teaching methods and promoting the reading of classic female writers.

Mistral, who was born Lucila Godoy but is known by her pseudonym, grew up in Montegrande, a small, isolated Andean village located in northern Chile’s arid, northern Elqui Valley.

Her house was also the village school, while her older sister Emelina served as the local teacher and helped instill a strong sense of curiosity in the future poet and prepare her for a career as a educator.

Affluent residents of Coquimbo, a city in Mistral’s native region, also assisted her educational process by granting her access to their personal libraries and particularly to the classic works of European philosophers, which were a major early influence on the young writer.

Mistral began developing ideas that did not dovetail with Chilean conservatism, Soledad Falabella, a University of Chile professor and expert in Mistral’s poetry, told Efe.

“She grew up in an environment that did not inhibit her personality: her sister trained her to be a teacher and Montegrande was a place with less of a social hierarchy than other areas of Chile,” Falabella said, adding that Mistral’s familial reference points were all women because her father had abandoned their home.

Few people who knew Mistral personally are still alive today.

One of them is Betica Rojas, who was 11 years old when the poet visited Montegrande in 1954, three years before she died of cancer.

“Gabriela went to our school every day during her two-week visit to Montegrande. She liked watching us play and was interested in knowing what games we were doing,” Rojas, who now receives tourists visiting the artist’s old residence/school, told Efe.

That modest adobe building still houses the classroom where Mistral studied and the bedroom the future poet shared with her mother and sister.

Although Mistral always felt a strong sense of attachment to her homeland, she lived abroad for most of her life in “voluntary exile,” fleeing from a deeply conservative society that clashed with her own liberal worldview, Falabella said, adding that “she never wanted to go back.”

Orellana agrees: “Chile was very traditionalist and what Gabriela Mistral did was put at the center of the discussion all the marginalized human beings that the Chilean oligarchy absolutely shunned.”

Reflecting on her legacy, she recalled that the lasting importance of Mistral’s educational ideas resides in her commitment to providing equal opportunities to each and every child.

“Mistral proposed shattering the classist, territorial and gender structures that lead to each child’s future being determined by where he or she was born,” Orellana said. EFE

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