Skip to main content

Colloquy Podcast: Speaking of the Rightless, Envisioning New Rights

Like the poetry of his fellow Latin Americans, the scholarship of Mauro Lazarovich, PhD '24, is not only humanist but also humanitarian. “I wanted to make a contribution to the humanities by saying that literature and art have something to bring to the table when we are talking about refugees,” he says. “And not only literature in general but specifically Latin American literature.” In this talk, delivered at the 2024 Harvard Horizons Symposium, Lazarovich shines a light on the experience of the stateless—and the writers and artists who brought those “erased” by governments and bureaucracies back into view through their creative work.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and correctness.

Del hombre fugitivo

solo tengo la huella,

el peso de su cuerpo

 y el viento que lo lleva.

Ni señales ni nombre,

ni el país ni la aldea;

solamente la concha

húmeda de su huella;

solamente esta sílaba

que recogió la arena

¡y la Tierra-Verónica

que me lo balbucea!

Who is this fugitive man with no name and no country running from an unknown danger towards an unknown destination? The poetic eye is a subject who enunciates a poem. Who is this poetic eye following the fugitive from afar, only finding the footprint that he leaves behind? 

This is the first stanza of a poem titled “La Huella,” meaning the footprint, the fingerprint, or the trace. It was written by the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral in 1939. Let's look at it for a moment. 

Throughout the poem, we see a fugitive man with no mark of identity who is being followed by someone, the poetic eye, who never catches him. This poetic eye keeps repeating that from the fugitive, she has only one thing, the footprint. However, it is as if this footprint can never signify just one thing, but it becomes, first, the weight of the fugitive's body, then the wind, a shell, a syllable, and finally, the earth itself, the whole world. 

Like the fugitive, the footprint keeps moving, becoming more and more inaccessible for this poetic eye who does not know what to do when confronted with it. She can only use it to create the poem "The Footprint." 

As a scholar of Latin American literature, I studied these texts alongside other works created by Latin American writers and artists during World War II. I show how, while their countries were not the main actors in the war, they created works that documented the consequences of the war's refugee crisis. Specifically, they recorded the emergence of a new historical subject in modernity, the human without human rights, embodied in the figure of the stateless person and the refugee. 

This idea that stateless people are humans without human rights comes from the German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt. The Nazis made Arendt a refugee herself. Having found asylum in the United States, Arendt observed that when refugees lost their rights as citizens, they also lost their human rights. They endured what she called the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human, a condition now revealed as one of profound vulnerability. 

Now my work shows that, concurrently with Arendt and sometimes even before her, Latin American writers like Mistral used their poems, their fiction, their paintings to articulate the ethical, historical, and political implications of the world's refugee crisis. 

Mistral was a poet and a schoolteacher. During the 1930s, she became the first woman to be appointed as a consul in her country, Chile. In 1945, she became the first Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

In 1939, Mistral was working as a diplomat in France. Part of her work involved issuing visas for migrants and refugees. Through archival research, I show that "The Footprint" is the product of these encounters between Mistral and these refugees. In one of the first manuscript versions of the poem, Mistral included a footnote dedicating the poem to the fugitives fleeing from xenophobia in Europe and in other parts of the world. 

However, when she published the text, she removed it, leaving only the title and the poem itself. As a diplomat, Mistral could not question official migratory policy. Now as a poet, she could. 

Mistral asked herself, how can I, a simple poet, portray the waves of refugees fleeing Europe, each with a different background, each with a different story? Her solution was to craft a poem about just one man, a refugee who had lost his address, his name, his country, his village, a man reduced to abstract nakedness, just a footprint, recorded in the poem to be found by us, the readers. 

After the war, Mistral became a public intellectual. She collaborated with the United Nations in articulating a new cosmopolitan set of human rights. In her public appearances, she would recite her poem "The Footprint," and she would use it as a platform to advocate for new rights of hospitality for the refugees. 

Today, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has surpassed that of World War II. My work shows how writers and artists, like Mistral before them, keep grappling with the challenges of using their voices to bear witness to the plight of refugees and to advocate for new rights of asylum for them. Their works confront us readers with these realities, compelling us to articulate our own ethical responsibilities. 

The Colloquy podcast is a conversation with scholars and thinkers from Harvard's PhD community on some of the most pressing challenges of our time—from global health to climate change, growth and development, the future of AI, and many others. 

About the Show

Produced by GSAS Communications in collaboration with Harvard's Media Production Center, the Colloquy podcast continues and adds to the conversations found in Colloquy magazine. New episodes drop each month during the fall and spring terms.

Talk to Us

Have a comment or suggestion for a future episode of Colloquy? Drop us a line at And if you enjoy the program, please be sure to rate it on your preferred podcast platform so that others may find it as well.

Harvard Griffin GSAS Newsletter and Podcast

Get the Latest Updates

Subscribe to Colloquy Podcast

Conversations with scholars and thinkers from Harvard's PhD community
Apple Podcasts Spotify
Simplecast Stitcher

Connect with us