A Cross and a Star: Memoirs of a Jewish Girl in Chile

A CROSS AND A STAR: Memoirs of a Jewish Girl in Chile by Marjorie Agosin [University of New Mexico Press $19.95.] 

In this collection of beautifully written vignettes, Agosin [LILITH’s Winter 1991 cover woman] relates her mother’s experiences as a Jewish girl growing up in Osorno, Chile. Drawing upon her own memories of childhood in Chile, as well as her mother’s and aunts’, she describes her mother’s encounter with the poet Gabriela Mistral, the 1945 Nobel Prize Winner. A schoolteacher from northern Chile, Mistral strongly identified with the Jewish people. Though respected for her writing, she was surrounded by controversy because of her status as a single woman, feminist, and pacifist.

I still don’t know why the teachers chose me to present Gabriela Mistral with the bouquet of roses and violets on the day that she passed through Osorno. Some evil and perverse tongues said that it was because Gabriela Mistral liked Jews, that she wrote about the Jewish people; others, the more innocent, said that it was because I was a sweet little blonde with little blue eyes. Then I looked at them with a nostalgia that was vague and distant. I only thought about how nice it would be to wear a dress made of blue percale and how I would loosen my hair to recite a poem of hers….

When Gabriela Mistral arrived, the school became solemn and silent. She had green eyes and a displaced gaze; she wore a long skirt and men’s shoes. I approached her and gave her the bouquet of freshly cut flowers. And she kissed me on my cheeks drenched in sweat and shame. From that moment on I loved her because everyone also laughed at her and called her a dirty Jew, an ugly lesbian and friend of the unfortunate Indians.

Years later I learned that Dona Gabriela was a teacher to my aunts in Temuco who belonged to one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish colonies in Chile. Mistral talked to them about love and about the Jewish race; she gave them a sense of belonging in a sacred history and she spoke to them about usurped identity.