The Extraordinary Life (and Death) of Eva Peron

Building of the Ministry of Health and Public Works in Buenos Aires, depicting an image of Eva giving a passionate speech (not biting into a juicy hamburger...)

I'm a little ashamed to say that much of what I knew about Argentina before our visit could be credited to Madonna.

This included lyrics to “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, “What’s New Buenos Aires”, and a few shaky details about the life and death of Eva Peron. These details came, of course, from the Broadway show and hit movie “Evita” (starring Madonna) which tell the story of the simultaneously revered and hated former First Lady of Argentina.

During our visit of Buenos Aires we learned a bit about this lady legend. Let me tell you: her life (and afterlife) is certainly good fodder for a drama. Even though she died in 1952, Evita still elicits strong feelings of either love or hate from the people of Argentina. On the two history tours we took, one guide was enamored by this charismatic, saint-like beauty, while the other guide thought she was a self-absorbed dictator who caused serious damage to the country. I was intrigued by the stories these guides told and their competing viewpoints. So, attempting to get an unbiased perspective, I read a well footnoted biography by a couple of outsiders, called “Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron" by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro.

Below is a summary of what I learned, a history as fascinating and troubled as any historical figure you’ve heard of. What’s more, Evita not only had an interesting life, but also an insane afterlife. I hope you find her story as intriguing as I did.

GETTING TO POWER: EARLY LIFE AND MEETING PERON

Portrait of Eva and Juan Peron hanging in Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.

Eva was born an illegitimate child in a poor rural village. Her family had little and lived very simply, but from a young age she had big dreams—she wanted to leave that town. At 15she moved to Buenos Aires with the hopes of becoming a star, but for years she had little success, securing only minor roles and finding herself in situations where she had to choose between keeping her morals and getting the parts she wanted. She struck it big at the age of 18 when she landed a recurring role in a radio soap opera. With her steady, charismatic voice, she was almost guaranteed success on the radio.

But her icon status wasn’t solidified until she met her husband, Juan Peron. Juan was an up-and-coming political figure in Argentina. His greatest accomplishment at that time was providing basic rights to workers (including enforcing 8-hour workdays and paid time off). Not surprisingly, he was simultaneously loved by the working class and hated by the Argentinian oligarchy. But, as in most cases, the working class was the majority and gave him the backing he needed to run and for win the presidency in 1946.

EVA BECOMES EVITA: THE LOVED AND FEARED FIRST LADY

Eva often gave passionate speeches from the balcony of Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.

With her charismatic personality, Eva played a key role in connecting her husband’s policies with the people of Argentina. Eva loved the presidential limelight and the benefits that came with it: fancy parties, lavish dresses, rooms full of shoes, gigantic pieces of jewelry. It was a life very different than the one she grew up with. The working class people of Argentina loved the idea of Evita—a poor girl who made it big. She became an icon.

And she didn’t forget about the "little people" either. With the help of her husband’s government, she started the Eva Peron Foundation. Through the foundation, the poor could write her letters to ask for literally anything they needed—clothing, homes, dentures. She would then meet each person individually in Buenos Aires and arrange for them to get whatever they needed. She personally helped thousands of people live better lives in just a few short years of power. Under her foundation she built dozens of schools and hospitals for the poor, opened homes for orphans and underprivileged women among innumerable other social works.

This elevates her to Saint status, right (she was, incidentally, recommended for canonization by her supporters after her death)?

Not so fast. The other side of the story reveals a problem: the dictatorial way in which she and her husband achieved these feats. A large portion of the government’s budget was funneled to her foundation, yet Eva was the sole person allowed to decide what happened to it. Even more problematic, ‘donations’ to the foundation were not voluntary for people above a certain threshold of wealth. If wealthy person refused to donate, the government would retaliate against them in some way, for instance, shutting down their business..

It didn’t stop there. Under Peron, media unfavorable to his party was shut down, and the Peronist government used Eva’s popularity as propaganda, imposing the idea of her as the country’s savior to a ridiculous degree. The names of entire cities were changed to "Eva Peron”. Her biography became required reading in schools, where children recited prayers that included reference to both God and Eva. The first thing children learned to write in school was “Evita loves me. I love Evita.” She was declared the spiritual chief of the nation.

In short, while she made real difference in the lives of the poor, she took many (often unconstitutional) liberties to do so. Her controversial actions and her husband’s iron fist deeply angered the oligarchy and caused a great political unrest, which would soon end with a clash...

FOREVER YOUNG: EARLY DEATH AND POST-MORTEM INSANITY

This polarizing figure’s life came to a sad, early end: Evita got cervical cancer at 33, and very suddenly died thereafter.

The country was in shock. The working class mourned her death as if she were a family member and millions came to pay their last respects the first weeks after she passed. To allow Argentinians to forever see and revere her, Peron decided to embalm her body so it could displayed in a mausoleum (this was also likely an attempt at leveraging her figure to keep the Peronist movement alive).

Unfortunately, before the temple was built, Juan Peron and his government were overthrown, forcing him into exile and instilling a new military government.

But Evita’s story doesn’t end there. Brace yourselves, it’s a wild ride...

The new government wished to rid the country of all symbols of the Peronist government, including Eva’s body. To do so, the body was taken into hiding, first in an unmarked van that drove around during the day and parked at night. All of a sudden, flowers started appearing by the van, suggesting that information of her body’s whereabouts had leaked. So Evita’s body was moved to the back room of a cinema for a period of time. Unbeknownst to many, they were watching a movie while Evita’s body hid in the back. But once again flowers began to appear by the theater.

So, the body was entrusted to a government officer, who hid it in his attic for safekeeping. Knowing that there was a legion of Peron supporters searching for the body, the officer soon became paranoid that someone would break in looking for Eva and harm him and his family. One night he heard a noise and saw a shadow walking in the hallway. He shot and killed the figure who tragically turned out to be his pregnant wife.

Evita's body was then moved to the possession of a general who kept it in his office. On occasion, the deranged general would open the casket, show the body, and brag to visitors about "his woman” as if she were a kind of trophy. Once word of this got out to the president at the time, Pedro Aramburu, he decided to take the body from the general and put an end to the fiasco.

Aramburu enlisted the help of a priest from the Vatican, asking him to bury the body overseas under a false name, write the body’s location on a piece of paper, seal it in an envelope and give it to his lawyer. He then asked his lawyer not to open the letter until 10 years after his death. For his own safety from the Peronists who were constantly searching for Evita, he asked not to be told the location of the body. Unfortunately, this didn’t save him. Suspecting he had some information on the body’s whereabouts, Peronist supporters kidnapped him from his home and tortured him for information. Since he didn’t have much to share, he was shot and killed (he is famous for his stoic last words: “Proceed”).

Aramburu’s body was returned to his family and buried. Years later, Peron supporters, still eager to find Evita’s body to help catalyze their underground movement, broke into his tomb, and kidnapped him again. They would return the body only when Eva’s body was returned.

Eva’s body was dug up from the cemetery in Milan where she had been laid to rest for 14 years under a fake name. Her body was dropped at Peron’s doorstep in Madrid, where he was living in exile. Miraculously, she still looked like her old self, relatively unscathed for a person who had been dead almost 20 years!

She was eventually laid to rest where she is today: a very basic mausoleum built for her family in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. Without much fanfare or luxury, a few small plaques are the only indication that Evita is buried there.

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Today, Peronism still remains as powerful and controversial as ever. Many feel the Perons robin-hooded their way toward helping the poor and left a divided Argentina in their wake, others feel it’s the only modern government that’s actually done something real for the working class.

Eva didn’t get that gigantic monument built for her in the capital but it turns out she didn’t need it, her controversial legend is still very much alive in Argentina.