In the closing days of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), we do well to consider the overlap of this month with the High Holy Days of Jewish faith. Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) bookend the highs and lows of the ten Days of Awe, capturing our own emotional register of late. This set-aside time invites personal and social introspection and repentance in order to invoke forgiveness, healing, and hope for a better future.

As COVID-19 continues to attack Hispanics (and other people of color) in proportions that mortally expose systemic class and color bias in our culture, it’s hard to feel God’s healing and liberating presence. We’re overcome with anger and frustration over police brutality and racist terrorism meted out by roving white nationalists. We suffer horrible losses from fires and floods all over. We’re weighed down by profound political division as we head into an election fraught with misinformation and voter suppression. Days of Awe, indeed! In times like these, we do well to look to those who inspire hope and perseverance in the face of brutal reality. One such person of mythic fame throughout Central and South America is virtually unknown to far too many of us north of the Rio Grande. Her name is Gabriela Mistral.

Gabriela was born into a Catholic family in a small village in the Elquis valley of Chile. After her father abandoned the family when she was a little girl, Gabriela became melancholic. She was expelled from school for being an “odd and stupid” girl. As a result, Gabriela spent hours in the garden talking to herself and to the birds and flowers there. During those years of isolation, she taught herself to read, write and learn. At twenty, Gabriela’s first love committed suicide, driving her further into despair. Still, Gabriela Mistral, a nobody from nowhere, persisted. She went on to be the first author in all of Latin America to win the Nobel Prize (1945). She would also serve as ambassador to several countries, become a professor of literature, teacher to Pablo Neruda, who also would go on to win the Nobel Prize in literature. She was a renowned journalist and became principal at the best school in Chile, advancing public education at the national level. She became so well-known beyond her native country as to have her visage featured on national stamps and the Chilean peso. No matter her fame, she always and forever advocated for the “least of these” until her death in 1957.

Her most famous early book of poetry, not too surprisingly, was entitled Desolación (Despair). Her poems in that volume and other works, thereafter, are full of pathos that capture her personal and childhood pain. Her words bear the scars of two World Wars, the Spanish Civil war, the suffering of many under ruthless dictatorships of the time. And, she managed to live through the worst pandemic ever, the Great Influenza of 1918. In spite of the flu killing some fifty million people worldwide (675,000 in the U.S. alone), she persisted. Her acute awareness of the world’s pain only strengthened her resolve to advocate for others and fight for a more just and livable world. In Desolación, she identified as one source of succor and strength the Psalms of David. As a child, her secreted Sephardic Jewish grandmother made her memorize the whole book of Psalms. In her poem, “Mis Libros” (My Books), she proclaims the source of life and light to be her grandmother’s Spanish Bible (translation mine):

At Berkeley School of Theology, we like to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month year-round by diligently studying La Biblia Santa, the Holy Bible, and other ministry classes fully in Spanish. For Gabriela Mistral, the sweat on one’s forehead that comes from such diligent study, from such hard work, and, yes, even from suffering, itself, “¡No es la muerte, es la vida!¨ It is not death, it is life! To learn about the several options and programs in Spanish at BST, go to our website by clicking Iniciativa Latina for more information. BST also offers a distance-learning Doctor of Ministry degree focused on Pastoral Care in the Latinx Church fully in Spanish, as well. 

Psalm 27, memorized by little Gabriela at her grandmother’s urging so long ago, also happens to be recited as a daily prayer throughout the Jewish High Holy Days. May these ancient words be a blessing to each of us as we embark on a new (school) year in troubled times:

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