Who was Eva Perón? Understanding Buenos Aires

Sometimes the lives of a city and a character are inextricably intertwined. As travellers on a mission to get under the skin of our destinations, a little knowledge of a person’s life, their impact and legacy can be instrumental in understanding the places we explore.

Eva Peron, aspiring actress, aged 15
Eva Peron, aspiring actress, aged 15. Public Domain

During a trip to Buenos Aires in December 2014, I was struck by the number of everyday references to Peronism and Eva Perón herself. Some are subtle (on bank notes, the odd cutout image behind a shop counter or in a bar) and some not so subtle (the Eva Peron Museum in Palermo, or her lavish tomb in La Recoleta cemetery).

So, in a bid to better understand the city as it is today and the mentality of its people, it’s well worth taking a deeper look at the question; “who was Eva Perón?”

Who Was Eva Perón?

María Eva Duarte de Perón, or Eva Perón as she was popularly known, was born in 1919 in the Argentine village Los Toldos in Buenos Aires province. One of seven children, she moved from humble beginnings as the “illegitimate” daughter of an already-married man in the pampas to Buenos Aires with ambitions to pursue a career in drama.

She met Juan Perón in 1944, married him the following year and found herself the first lady of Argentina upon his election as President in 1946. She wasted no time in positioning herself as a politically passionate and hardworking first lady, as well as a champion of oppressed social groups.

Eva Perón – Championing  the ‘Shirtless’, Dressed in Furs

Eva Duarte (Evita). Eva Peron holds while delivering a speech at Plaza de Mayo on May 1, 1952.
Eva Duarte (Evita). Eva Peron delivers a speech at Plaza de Mayo on May 1, 1952. To the left Interior Minister Angel Borlenghi. Public Domain.

Among the causes she was involved in were workers’ rights, womens’ rights and the plight of the poor. As well as fighting for and witnessing the introduction of womens’ suffrage in 1947, she set up the Eva Perón Foundation, a charitable organisation that operated between 1948 to 1955.

It provided the poor with everyday amenities and oversaw the construction of new schools, medical facilities, orphanages and homes.

Juan and Eva dubbed their followers ‘descamisados’ (‘the shirtless’), taking back a formerly derogatory term for the poor and using it as an endearment.

However, this imagery jars with the Eva Perón who took a two-month tour of Europe (dubbed ‘ The Rainbow Tour’), equipped with a full arsenal of jewels and enough outfits to change four times a day throughout the entire trip.

She also met with “El Caudillo” himself, the fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who invited, happily received and decorated her in Madrid.

The Darker Shades of Peronism

There’s no denying that the Peróns were a popular political force at the height of their power and among some, remain so to this day. However, their unique brand of politics, Peronism, had its foot in many camps and its fair share of enemies.

Who was Eva Perón? A portrait of Eva Perón by Numa Ayrinhac, Public Domain.
Who Is Eva Peron? Image Credit: Eva Perón Retrato Oficial By Numa Ayrinhac – Museum of the Argentine Bicentennial, Public Domain.

Critics of various political persuasions argue that Peronism was an essentially fascist, oppressive and dictatorial movement that contradicted its socialist proclamations by retaining capitalist systems and values.

The Peróns’ camaraderie with General Franco is at best unsettling. As are accounts that those who questioned or opposed Peron’s increasingly strict policies quickly fell from favour and were even imprisoned.

Media censorship is an unattractive aspect of any system of governance and this was a practice known to have taken place under Perón’s rule. For example, Time magazine was banned from the country entirely for several months after referring to Eva Perón as “an illegitimate child”.

The Death and Funeral of Eva Perón

Eva Perón was diagnosed with cervical cancer in her early 30s and became the first Argentinian to undergo chemotherapy. She died in 1952 aged 33 and was given a state funeral, a privilege usually reserved for heads of state.

Adopting a somewhat socialist tradition, Juan Perón had his second wife’s body embalmed and put on public display. It is estimated that three million people took to the streets of Buenos Aires on the day of her funeral to mourn her passing.

Who was Eva Perón? A portrait of Eva Perón by Numa Ayrinhac, Public Domain. Eva Perón's embalmed corpse is inspected by Dr. Pedro Ara, circa 1954. Public Domain. Author: Francisco Bolsíco, E.F.C.A. Image Source: AGN.
Eva Perón’s embalmed corpse is inspected by Dr. Pedro Ara, circa 1954. Public Domain. Author: Francisco Bolsíco, E.F.C.A. Image Source: AGN.

The 16-Year Disappearance of Eva Perón’s Corpse

This marked the beginning of a bizarre string of events that saw Eva Perón’s embalmed body go missing for sixteen years.

First it was stolen by military officers involved in a 1955 coup that unseated her husband and forced him to flee to Paraguay and eventually Spain. Eva Perón’s body was allegedly safely transported to Italy and protected in a fake grave on the order of the Pope.

It was later exhumed, and returned to Juan Perón in Spain, where he and his third wife cleaned it up and put it on display in their dining room. Eventually, her remains were sent back to Buenos Aires and interred alongside her family in La Recoleta, where they remain today.

Whatever your political beliefs, Eva Perón’s life story is anything but dull. It can also certainly go some way in helping explorers of Buenos Aires to understand the city’s history and collective mentality, as well as the political identity and development of Argentina as a whole.

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