Although Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, known throughout the world as Evita, lived very briefly, her impact on Argentine politics was enormous and continues today, more than four decades after her
Evita was venerated by the Argentine working class, mocked by the grandes dames of Buenos Aries society, and misunderstood by the military establishment. Through all of this she came to symbolize a wealthy Argentina, full of pride and great expectations immediately following the Second World War.
Her meteoric rise from her beginning as a poor villager in the backwaters of the interior to a status as one of the most intriguing, engaging, and powerful figures in a male dominated culture is a tale worth retelling because it is unique.
Evita was born in the squalid village of Los Toldos in 1919, one of five illegitimate children her mother bore to Juan Duarte. After her father's death, the family moved to the north western provincial town of Jun, under the patronage of another of her mother's benefactors.
It was in Junin, at the age of 14, that she became determined to be an actress, and when she was given the opportunity to flee the dusty town, she grabbed it. Evita ran off to Buenos Aries, the cultural mecca of Latin America, in company of a young tango singer (thought there is a lot of controversy over who she went with this theory is the most widely excepted version of her trip to Buenos Aries but not necessarily what i believe to be true).
As an aspiring 15 year old actress, Evita faced almost insurmountable odds in landing jobs in the theatre. She led a miserable existence, often falling ill and never having much to eat. Her opportunities took a dramatic leap forward when a rich manufacturer fell for her and provided her with her own radio show. Shortly thereafter, Evita's voice became a regular feature on the airwaves of Radio El Mundo.
Evita's energy was boundless: her work pace became frenetic and she made powerful friends. Her lack of acting talent and sophistication did not seem to hinder her ability to attract some very important people to her cause. Among her admirers were the president of Argentina and, more importantly, the Minister of Communications, Colonel Imbert, who controlled all radio stations in the country.
Evita met Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, the reputed power behind the new military government, at a fund raising event for victims of the devastating 1944 San Juan earthquake, in which thousands died. She wasted no time in catching the widowed colonel and later left the fundraiser on his arm.
Though exactly half Peron's 48 years, Evita, at numerous turns, assisted her husband's rise to power in ways that were beyond the imagination of even the most astute politicians. When Peron became Minister of Labour and Welfare, Evita convinced him that his real power base should be the previously ignored masses of labourers living in the horrible villas miseria (slums) that still ring the capital city.
A stream of pronouncements issued forth from the ministry instituting minimum wages, better living conditions, salary increases and protection from employers. The working class, for the first time in Argentina's history, began to see some of the profits of its labour.
Additionally, and most brilliantly, Peron empowered and shepherded the giant Confederation General del Trabajo (CGT or General Confederation of Labour), which embraced many of the trade unions. In the process, recalcitrant labour leaders were picked up by the police and sent to prisons in patagonia.
It was not long before Evita called Peron's constituency the descamisados, the shirtless ones to his aid. An army coup was on the point of success when Evita called all her chips in. Upwards of 200,000 descamisados entered the capital city and demanded that Peron be their president. The colonel accepted the mandate of the Argentine people.
Evita, now married to Peron, cemented her ties with the workers by establishing the Social Aid Foundation. Through this charity, scores of hospitals and hundreds of schools were built, nurses trained, and money dispensed to the poor. Evita also furthered the cause of the women's political party, the Peronista Feminist Party.
Although a cult was developing around her personality, she would always tell the people in her countless speeches that all the credit should go to her husband and that she would gladly sacrifice her life for him, as they should sacrifice theirs. Perhaps Evita's finest personal and political moment came with her long tour of Europe, during which she met with Franco, the dictator of Spain, Pope Pius XII, and the Italian and French foreign ministers.
She absolutely dazzled post war Europe with her jewels and elegant gowns. Her rags to riches story was told and retold in the press, and she was even on the cover of Time magazine.
The peoples heroine was dying by 1952, a victim of uterine cancer, but she kept up her intense work schedule. At her last speech, on May Day, her husband had to hold her up as she spoke to the descamisados. Evita's death on July 26, 1952 brought the whole of Argentina to a stand still. Her body was embalmed, and at her wake thousands paid their last respects.
In 1955, Evita's corpse disappeared, stolen by the military after they had deposed Juan Peron. It was carried to Germany and then Italy, where it was interred for 16 years under another name. After negotiations, it was finally returned to her husband in Spain.
Evita's long odyssey came to an end when Juan Peron died in Argentina in 1974. Her coffin was brought from spain and lay in state next to that of the one she had said she would die for.
Even though efforts to have her canonized in Rome met with polite refusal, Evita still holds near saint status in Argentina. Graffiti proclaiming !Evita Vive! (Evita Lives!) can be seen everywhere. At the Duarte family crypt in the Recoleta Cemetery, devotees still leave flowers and a continual guard is kept to prevent vandalism.
Her epitaph, made famous by the Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice musical Evita, reads: Don't cry for me Argentina, the truth is i never left you." It still rings true, decades after her early death.