A Queer Mother For The Nation Background

A Queer Mother For The Nation Background

Gabriela Mistral who was born in 1889 and died in 1957, was perhaps the most famous female Latin American author, if not woman, of her time. What distinguished her as a writer was her bending of practices, drawing from European and native influences to achieve worldwide recognition. In 1945 she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, an extraordinary feat considering her ethnic influences and status as a woman in a prejudiced world. Her works are still beloved worldwide and particularly in Latin America itself, forming an integral part of the curriculum in Chile - the place of Mistral's birth. Despite this her personal life has been shrouded in speculation, as Mistral never married, nor had any children, and throughout her life she denied occasional claims that she was a lesbian. Nevertheless, she became a figure for womanhood, and was seen to epitomize maternal values in Chile.

It is with this iconic status that Licia Fiol-Matta, who at the time was an assistant professor of Latin American Cultures at Barnard College, made the claim in A Queer Mother for the Nation that Gabriela Mistral was a "closet lesbian''. While Mistral's contributions to the literary canon are well known, Matta draws attention to Mistral's relatively unexplored political and social essays which form the basis for her argument. Published in 2002, 45 years after her death, distance and hindsight allow Matta's case to be more objective than other writers who either wish to scandalize or idealize Mistral’s life. While writing the book Matta made use of unseen private correspondence and photographs to shed light onto her argument.

Since its publication A Queer Mother For the Nation has had a considerable impact on the way not only Mistral is perceived, but on the perception of queer figureheads in general. Crucially Matta shows how it is possible for a gay icon to paradoxically embody subversion of social norms but also at times propagate traditional values. Six years after the publication of the book, more personal archives of Mistral’s were accessed which seemed to consolidate Matta's claims. The archives were compiled by Mistral’s companion Doria Dana, until her death in 2006, and highlight the changing perception to her personal life, with Matta's own book forming an integral part of this transformation.

Licia Fiol-Matta now teaches in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University, but continues to pen works exploring gender roles and sexuality in female Latin American artists. Arguments made in A Queer Mother For the Nation evolve in Matta's recent publication "The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Voice in Puerto Rican music". While details surrounding Mistral's private life remain unclear to this day, A Queer Mother for the Nation can be seen as both an integral chapter in the changing perception of Mistral and also a perceptive exploration into gender and society in its own right.

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