restricted access "Race Woman": Reproducing the Nation in Gabriela Mistral
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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.4 (2000) 491-527

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"Race Woman":
Reproducing the Nation in Gabriela Mistral

Licia Fiol-Matta

The Chilean poet, educator, and Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) is an example of a Latin American queer intellectual who was instrumental in instituting sexual and racial normativity through nationalist discourse. This article expands the scope of the inquiry into Mistral's sexual identity by examining her status as "race woman," a public position that she fiercely claimed, as opposed to any public nonnormative sexual stance. 1

Within the Latin American public, Mistral upheld the heterosexual matrix. But was her queerness completely out of public view? Certainly, Mistral alluded to reproductive sexuality every time she spoke of race. She consistently portrayed herself as the spokesperson of Latin America--which she referred to as "our race" [nuestra raza]--posing as the mixed-race mother of the nation. Mistral devoted many prose pieces to the subject of a Latin American unified culture achieved through individual and social reproduction. Well known for her defense of the indigenous peoples of Latin America, she frequently and vigorously alluded to the process of mestizaje.

Through the stance of race woman Mistral aided the state in managing Latin America's racially heterogeneous populations, regarded as a problem since the Wars of Independence. Both publicly and privately she addressed topics ranging from the classification and hierarchical ordering of racial "mixings" to the status of black Latin Americans in nationalist discourse, from desirable mestizaje in the Latin American territory to dangerous mestizaje beyond the watchful purview of the state.

It is tempting to separate Mistral's sexual and racial identities, envisioning one as private and the other as public, one secret and the other on strident display. Typically, the quandary of a subject such as Mistral is to be analyzed one identity at a time. The story of her romantic life is separated from the story of her public career, even as her public figure unfolds in accordance with the narrative of republican [End Page 491] motherhood. Salacious attention to the invented details of her private existence meshes happily with a hagiographic view of her role in world affairs. But to understand Mistral's complexity more fully, it is useful to view her private and public identities less as discrete chunks of self and more as spliced and interdependent.

Examining the intersection of race and sexuality in Mistral is vital in more senses than one. Dispelling myths about her is important, but understanding a mythology put at the service of the state is critical. Both racial mixing (collective sexuality) and Mistral's ambiguous sexuality (seen as a private affair) involve the social demarcation of acceptable and unacceptable sex; in both instances, sex is coded as reproduction. In the state project that Mistral helped articulate, reproduction meant not only maximizing women's bodies to produce fit laborers and manage productive, patriarchal, heterosexual families but also establishing and enforcing the parameters of who belonged, racially speaking, in the nation. This was true of the restricted sense of the emerging nation-state--what is a Chilean? who can be considered a Mexican?--and of the expansive, indeed massive, sense of Americanism [latinoamericanismo]. Enforcing the stricture of belonging entailed a submerged but no less potent role for Mistral's "silent" sexuality. As I have discussed elsewhere, the language of reproduction and child care functions as a kind of closet that paradoxically has made public what was to remain private. 2 In the more far-reaching context of public or collective sexuality, Mistral deploys the same language to draw a firm, frequently onerous line of national belonging. Elucidating the connection between her queerness and the racial discourse she successfully deployed is the goal of this article.

An intersectional analysis reveals that Mistral's symbolic heterosexuality was meant to guarantee or benefit not heterosexuality per se (i.e., not all heterosexuals equally) but a particular heterosexuality, tailored to the state's project. Mistral offered her own body as the representation of an entire race--a...