By Rodrigo Garcia
Buenos Aires, Jul 25 (EFE).- Seven decades ago Argentina was paralyzed by the death of its most popular first lady, Eva Duarte de Peron, known to all as “Evita.” At just 33, the “champion of the humble” departed the earthly plane and was transformed into an eternal myth, the symbol of an epoch and the inspiration for musicals, films and books all over the world.
On July 26, 1952, the second wife of then-President Juan Domingo Peron (who governed from 1946-1955 and 1973-1974) lost her three-month battle with uterine cancer.
But her charisma, her iconic image and her impassioned speeches in support of the working classes and society’s most needy – and against the oligarchy and imperialism – would become the stuff of history and of legend.
“When we talk about Evita, the first thing that comes to mind is the struggle for equality, which is a mandate that Evita exercised. She didn’t just preach about it, she made it into a reality,” Cristina Alvarez Rodriguez, the grandniece of the iconic politician, whom she defined as “a woman who absolutely broke the standards and rules for women in her epoch,” who created the Women’s Peronist Party and her own social foundation and whose work was determinitive in getting women the vote in Argentina, told EFE.
Eva had no children, although she left behind her untold thousands of people who wept over her death and held vigils and wakes for her for the next two weeks, in the face of which – at the seat of the General Labor Confederation, Argentina’s main union – Spanish physician Pedro Ara devoted the next three years and three months to preserving and safeguarding her corpse.
The plan was to embalm her – as indeed occurred – so that her remains could be placed, unblemished, in a great monument in Buenos Aires which could not be built at that point. In 1955, in its eagerness to erase every trace of Peronism, the dictatorship that toppled Gen. Peron from power stole the body from the union and, after a macabre journey, ended up hiding it under another name in an Italian cemetery until the early 1970s, when it was returned to her widower, who was in exile in Madrid.
“My family, who was in exile after the ’55 military coup, sought Evita’s body with letters written to the pope, to the bishops, to the presidents of the world (and) of course to the Argentina military junta, which was the (country’s) de facto government,” said Alvarez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of Blanca, one of Eva’s four siblings.
The family endured 17 years of sadness, searching and rumors. “She had been buried, they had made copies (of her body) and had taken it here, there,” said the current government minister for Buenos Aires province about the disappearance of Eva’s remains, which were the focus of countless investigations, all of which have served to enhance her myth.
Juana Ibarguren, Evita’s mother, died a few months after her daughter’s body was recovered, which – after all it had been through – was, the grandniece said, “hurt, damaged, with the feet painted with tar.”
Peron became president once again in 1973, but he died shortly thereafter leaving his third wife, Isabelita, to govern in his place, and in 1974 she ordered Eva’s body returned from Spain to Argentina. For the past 46 years, the remains have rested in a vault in the Recoleta Cemetary in Buenos Aires, paradoxically the emblem of the oligarchy she detested.
Born in 1919 in a rural part of Buenos Aires province, Evita was marked by her tough childhood. Juan Duarte, her father, had another family, his “legitimate” one, and he died in 1926 leaving Juana and his children by her economically and legally abandoned.
As a teenager, Evita moved to the capital, found work as an actress and in 1944 became acquainted with Peron, who was then the national labor and budget secretary, at a meeting to raise funds for the victims of an earthquake in San Juan province.
They fell in love and after Peron, who was a military officer, was briefly arrested but later released, a situation hailed by the masses who thanked him for his policies while holding his government post, they married and he then won the 1946 presidential election.
From that moment on, whether it was delivering fiery speeches from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, the presidential mansion, visiting Europe in 1947 – where she was received by all the top officials in Francisco Franco’s Spain – or swathed in the dresses and gowns of the exclusive fashion firms that idolized her, Evita continued to make her indelible mark on Argentine society.
“Evita is the purest and most noble expression of the humble classes. She had no father, she had no surname, she had no (family) history … she had all that darkness that drags down the humble people but she also asserted the strength of their dignity,” Peronist writer and thinker Julio Barbaro, who was a lawmaker during Peron’s last administration, told EFE.
The political analyst remarked that Peronism receives similar infusions of strength from both Evita and Peron himself, but he said that “Evita is the myth of power” and “the purest expression” of “those who love the homeland.”
After her death, the figure of the former first lady – who, already ill with the cancer that would kill her, was proposed by union organizations for vice president, a candidacy she ended up rejecting amid political pressure – has been a constant presence in Argentina’s turbulent national politics and today she remains defended by some, mainly the Peronist groups and parties, which are currently in power, and reviled by others.
“Even today when you go the slums in any part of the country and you will find housing (established by) the Eva Peron Foundation, a portrait, a letter received by a grandmother, a great-grandmother… It’s very moving to (hear) the life stories, which are what motivate many kids in Argentina to tattoo Evita on their arms,” said Alvarez Rodriguez, who heads the Evita Museum, which has been open to the public in Buenos Aires for the past 20 years.
Convinced that her great aunt remains an “uncomfortable and controversial” figure due to her place in history, she believes that, if Eva were alive today, she would be “a warrior,” like her colleagues during her life.