BUENOS AIRES – Although cancer took her at age 33, Eva Peron, this week will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Argentina’s eternal first lady, known as Evita.
Her physical absence – far from confirming the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” – has only served to protect the political and social myth that has arisen about her around the world.
Starting with a humble birth, the “illegitimate” daughter of a landowner, Eva Duarte triumphed as an actress before ascending into the political stratosphere as the wife of Argentine President Juan Domingo Peron when she began lobbying in favor of the poor, outfitted with her iconic bun, brilliant jewelry and haute couture outfits by Christian Dior, Marcel Rochas and Pierre Balmain.
“She spoke of social justice and, above all, about equality between men and women, but also for there not to be such wealthy rich people nor such poverty-stricken poor,” Cristina Alvarez Rodriguez, Evita’s grandniece, told EFE.
Her passionate speeches to the masses from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, the presidential residence in Buenos Aires, her 1947 trip to Europe – where she was received in style in Spain by then-dictator Francisco Franco – and her campaign to get women the vote in Argentina, at which she succeeded that same year, all made her a beloved symbol among a huge swath of the population.
Her boundless charisma and the wide reach of her social activities – she also created the Women’s Peronist Party – all elevated her to the status of virtual queen of the people in a country that in the 1940s was one of the richest in the world, where she was the object of both love and hate, but never indifference.
Alvarez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of Blanca, one of Evita’s four maternal siblings, emphasized how three myths were created about her relative after her death in 1952.
“The white myth – the one according to which she was a saint, St. Evita. There were even religious cards with her image. When the disease began and later after her death there were public altars to her. And the black myth – that she was the whip lady ... and which said she was a devil, a prostitute, a social climber and a woman without scruples,” she said.
The “red” myth developed during the 1970s, which were marked by violence by guerrilla groups that claimed her as an inspiration. “She was a revolutionary, a woman who wanted to change the established order to benefit the majority,” said Alvarez, who is an Argentine lawmaker.
“We are left with what she did. And how everything she did was sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Fortunately, she was right more often,” Alvarez emphasized.
Evita was born in 1919 in Los Toldos, a rural town 300 km (186 mi.) from Buenos Aires. Juan Duarte, her father, had another “formal” family, but died in 1926 without having officially acknowledged the illegitimate children he had by Juana Ibarguren, who – not without difficulty – raised Eva and her siblings.
Evita spent her teenage years in the capital, made it big as an actress and met Peron in 1944, when he was Labor and Welfare secretary.
They fell in love and – after Peron was briefly arrested but then released and hailed by the people, who thanked him for the social improvements made on his watch – they married and he won the presidential election in 1946, thus beginning Evita’s legend, which has inspired an endless number of books, musicals and films.
“What can be seen is a physical and political transformation in seven years. From a little girl coming from the interior into the ultimate Evita with tailor-made and very austere outfits and hairstyles,” said Marcela Gene, the curator of the Evita Museum in Buenos Aires.
Her popularity as first lady grew and the top fashion designers and apparel firms wanted to dress her.
“Dior had a fascination for her. They have in Dior’s Paris firm a mannequin with Eva’s precise measurements. In that way, they worked and sent clothing to Argentina,” Gene said.
A beautiful women surrounded by luxury, something that contrasted with the popular tone of her speeches.
“She herself said: ‘I like to dress well and be beautiful for my little darlings (i.e. the poor),’” said the curator of the museum, located in a building where in 1948 the Eva Peron Foundation set up a shelter for women and where today one can view items from her life including gala gowns and workaday outfits, hats, shoes and other objects.
She was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus in 1951 but nevertheless the workers movement proposed her for vice president, an offer that – due to political pressure – she declined.
Finally, and after a hard fight against the cancer and surgery, Eva died without any progeny on July 26, 1952.
While thousands wept, others celebrated.
Her death was the beginning of the end of Peron’s second mandate as president. He was overthrown by a dictatorship in 1955 and spent almost the next 20 years in exile, during which time the military exhumed Evita’s remains and sent them to Italy to be reburied.
Since 1976, however, Evita’s remains have rested in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, where each day thousands of tourists take photos in front of the tomb of the woman who is now the eternal emblem of an epoch.