Reading Rooms celebrates Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral

arpillaraFriday 14th October saw the launch of the exhibition ‘Arpillera: Voices and Echoes’ at Verbal Arts Centre. The exhibition was commissioned by the Chilean Embassy in London and Verbal, and features 21 arpilleras made by communities and individuals from Chile, Northern Ireland, Catalonia/Spain, the UK and Zimbabwe.

Cristián León, who has worked for the Embassy of Chile since 1999, first as Press Attaché and currently as the Head of the Cultural Department, was present at the exhibition opening, and worked with the children to help make one of the dolls for the new arpillera.

Arpilleras, which are at the centre of the exhibition, are brightly-coloured patchwork pictures made by groups of women in Chile during the military dictatorship (1973-1990). They typically depict scenes of hardship and violence these women experienced due to their impoverished and oppressive living conditions. Children from Oakgrove Integrated Primary School joined artist in residence Deborah Stockdale to make their own arpilleras to accompany the exhibition.

Chilean literature was a major reference point in the preparation of this exhibition, and the work of Gabriela Mistral in particular. Because of this, many of our Reading Rooms had a little taster of Mistral’s poetry during the week leading up to the launch. Sinead Devine from Reading Rooms read Mia’s Story by Michael Forman and the poem Little Feet by Mistral. The conversation with the children included what it would be like to walk in the snow barefoot, how lucky we are to live in brick houses and not one made of cardboard and corrugated iron such as Mia, how resourceful the people in Chile are and how stories can be told through words by poets and writers and through other artistic forms such as textiles in the arpilleras on display.

Gabriela Mistral was in fact the first Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, many years before her more widely known fellow countryman Pablo Neruda who won in 1971. She was honoured for her ‘lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world’. Mistral was also a diplomat, educator and humanist, and according to our exhibition’s curator, Roberta Bacic, a ‘modest and very down-to-earth person’. Her real name was Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga and she ‘formed her pseudonym from the names of two of her favorite poets, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral or, as another story has it, from a composite of the Archangel Gabriel and the Mistral wind of Provence.’

Here is an extract from her famous Poema de Chile (‘Poem of Chile’, 1967), in which she reflects on her childhood, illustrating a special relationship with language from the very start:

Me llamaban “cuatro añitos”
y ya tenía doce años.
Así me mentaban, pues
no hacía lo de mis años:
no cosía, no zurcía,
tenía los ojos vagos,
cuentos pedía, romances,
y no lavaba los platos . . .
¡Ay! Y, sobre todo, a causa
de un hablar así, rimado

They called me “little four-years”
and I was already twelve.
They called me thus, because
I did not act my age:
I did not sew, I did not darn,
I had a vague gaze,
I asked for stories, narrative poems,
and I did not wash the dishes . . .
Alas! And, above all, because
I spoke thus, in rhyme

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