by Eric Andrews-Katz -
SGN A&E Writer
The name Evita has become recognized worldwide as a woman of power. Causing extreme emotions and opinions, her following has become almost cult-like - even today - causing either passionate devotion or a dangerous loathing in citizens and leaders of Argentina. Born of dubious legitimacy this incredibly determined woman clawed her way up from poor circumstances to becoming a radio personality, a movie starlet and eventually, the First Lady of Argentina. While most people have their biographical knowledge from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical, her life is far from being either that simple or that salacious. To get to the bottom, I went to the source. *
Eric Andrews-Katz: Will you describe the circumstances of your upbringing?
Maria Eva Ibarguren Duarte de Perón: My mother (Doña Juana Ibarguren) gave birth to me on May 7, 1922. My father Juan Duarte was often absent from our lives due to his 'other' family. We were poor and because my father's other family was middle-class, we were forcibly kept outside the church for his funeral. It's something that I will never forgive the Middle and Upper Classes, sorry - I mean, my father's family for doing.
Andrews-Katz: While simultaneous second families were common in Argentina at the time, your baptismal certificate says you were born in 1919 as the illegitimate daughter of Juan Duarte.
Evita: My autobiography, In My Own Words, has the definitive say on the subject matter. Once I became First Lady, I made sure that every child born had the official stamp of 'legitimacy.' As for my birth date, I only have a copy of my birth certificate, because the original seems to have been lost. Obviously, we know which one is a forgery.
Andrews-Katz: How did you first make your arrival in Buenos Aires?
Evita: The tango singer, Augustin Magaldi, ignited the desire in me. I caught his eye during a performance one night when I was 15 years old. Later, I managed to talk to him and he told me all about the wonderful city. He offered to take me back to Buenos Aires with him, but his wife (who traveled with him more often than not) objected. As my sisters often stated when asked, no Catholic girl would ever be accepted traveling by herself, so my mother took me in 1934, getting me settled with religious friends of the family.
Andrews-Katz: What kind of work did you first do in Buenos Aires?
Evita: The Great Depression made finding work very difficult, but I was talented enough to make my stage debut in 1935. Eventually, I toured with a troupe that was lead by a lecherous director. In fact, he once burst into the room where a famous actress (I'll call her XX) and I were having our mat?. He told us that if we didn't sleep with him we were both fired! I was disgusted, offended and appalled! But at rehearsals three weeks later, I was shocked that XX was still there. Everyone whispered about her. Eventually that job led to several others including modeling, a few B-rated movies, and then performing daily dramas on the radio. Through my contacts and determination, I soon co-owned the station.
Andrews-Katz: Under what circumstances did you meet Colonel Juan Perón?
Evita: The 'Marvelous Day' occurred on January 22, 1944. Colonel Perón was a quickly rising officer in the military during a time of great political uncertainty. His concern was for the people so when an earthquake ravaged the town of San Juan, he organized a fundraiser, and I was invited. My political knowledge at the time was minimal, but the moment we met we became as one, despite the fact that he was 48 and double my age. He used to joke with his cabinet that he chose me because I had no knowledge of politics and he could mold me like clay to be used as the voice to the people. A few weeks after we met, the broadcast department was formed into a Union and I was shocked to find out I was nominated President of the Union. The first thing I did after winning was to form a radio show called 'Toward a Better Future.' Very often I played Colonel Perón's speeches in the background. I would talk to the people, my poor beloved descamisados not as Eva but as 'Evita' to remind them that I was still one of them despite my success, and how impressed I was with his political prowess and dedication to the people.
Andrews-Katz: What led up to Colonel Perón's arrest on October 9, 1945?
Evita: The sniveling President Edelmiro Julian Farrell was always jealous of Juan's political charisma. I helped to organize over 300,000 people in front of the President's house, the Casa Rosada, to demand his release. My critics say the Unions formed it and my contribution was little, but I leave it to the facts to tell. My beloved Juan and I married a little over two months later, finally putting to rest all those rumors of my illegitimate birth and dubious reputation. He became President less than a year later. I am the first woman to ever be with her husband in the official Presidential portrait.
Andrews-Katz: Tell us about the European 'Rainbow Tour' of 1947.
Evita: My husband, the President, was a devoted fan of Mussolini - in fact it is a derivative of his extended arm salute that Juan used, and subsequently became my signature pose. Despite a German international connection, he was never fond of Hitler. 'Why kill your people when you can make them exalt you,' he used to say. We had highly appointed Jewish advisors on both of our cabinets. To smooth over any rough edges with Europe I went as Argentine Ambassador and had meetings with Francisco Franco, and even with Pope Pius XII. I was so horrified by the refugee camps that I visited, that Argentina made a large donation to the Israeli cause and later I even met with the Labor Minister of Israel, Golda Meir.
Andrews-Katz: Were there any drawbacks of the tour?
Evita: The Italians gave me a cold reception. They insisted that my husband was just another version of Mussolini. They made remarks that neither one of the Peróns could change alleged elicit past behaviors. The Count of Paris kept on showing me and explaining to me the horrors of the recent war, but I finally made it to Cartier and left my measurements with Christian Dior. Exhaustion caught up with me in France, and that is why I cancelled my visit to England. That's the real reason and not that I felt insulted as George VI reported: although it was a second rate invitation to the UK, to say the least. It was then that I knew what needed to be done and returned home.
Andrews-Katz: What was the Eva Perón Foundation?
Evita: It was a foundation created to help my descamisados. When the Society of Beneficence overlooked my nomination to be society President, despite every other First Lady holding the position, I decided to start my own foundation. It was a good thing as their society folded very soon afterwards due to lack of Government funding. By putting a tax and levy on all casinos, horse racing, lottery, and my own 10,000 peso initial investment, we were able to provide cooking pots, sewing machines, shoes, clothing etc.... to the people who otherwise went without. After most businesses were convinced to contribute, the money greatly increased. We set a precedent as no inequality existed in the Argentine healthcare system. Again, my detractors said the money was coerced, but no one has ever come forth to testify with reputable evidence. They say that money was sent to Swiss bank accounts, but no Swiss accounts ever existed in the names of Juan or Eva Perón. Let them say what they want, but the people loved me because I was one of them, not afraid to embrace the diseased, or tend to the sick and poor, and they called me a Saint for it. Even as I grew more ill, my work with the Foundation never decreased. I was even the founder and leader of the Female Peronist Party, a women's suffrage group, responsible for allowing women to finally vote in Argentina. I am proud to say mine was the first female ballot ever cast.
Andrews-Katz: Your name was almost on that ballot as well, wasn't it?
Evita: Almost. On August 22, 1951 a great rally was held outside my balcony. While every President spoke from the rear of the Casa Rosada, I insisted that we spoke from the balcony facing the Plaza de Mayo. They pleaded for both Peróns to be in office. That showed the military councils my power, and so a lot of the government didn't want me there. I declined the people's invitation to run as vice president, but they continued to yell and plead with me to take their nomination. It soon turned into a discussion between 2,000,000 people and myself, as my husband stood aside and watched with surprise. They yelled 'Evita- Vice Presidente!' It was beautiful.
Andrews-Katz: Why did you decline the honors?
Evita: The English will no doubt say it was from pressures of my husband, the military and the extreme resentment by the upper classes. I think they are bitter because I am responsible for campaigning to have Argentine businesses run by Argentine people, and broke the English hold on our economy. The real truth is that I was too ill. My husband hid the truth from me, but I knew what it was. It was cervical cancer and even though I had an extreme hysterectomy and underwent chemotherapy - one of the first treatments ever - the disease had become too much. I knew I had to decline the titles the people were forcing onto me. It was one of my greatest joys to see my beloved re-elected President on June 4, 1952. I was so weak by that time that I couldn't stand without the constructed frame underneath my fur coat, and the help of my husband, but I spoke to the crowd of my joy, nothing would stop me from addressing my people. A few days after his election, I was given the honor of 'Spiritual Leader of the Nation.' I am the only person to ever hold that Argentine title!
Andrews-Katz: Salacious rumors have always followed you. Does it bother you?
Evita: Any woman of power has rumors that follow her. Look at what they have said about Catherine the Great and Elizabeth the First. Did I barter virtue for advancement? Is there anyone who doesn't one way or another? When a man of power is attacked it is through his actions. When a woman of power is attacked it is through her sexuality. History is full of examples and mine is no different - I just live in the time when any mass media quickly becomes world spread - true or not. I've heard the rumors that I slept my way to the top, or that I learned my political skills late at night on the wharfs. All I can say is that I am known throughout the world and most people can't recall any of my detractor's names.
* * * * * * * * * *
Eva Duarte de Perón died on July 26, 1952. All government activity ceased for over two days and flags were flown at half-mast. More than three million people held vigils outside the Casa Rosada for days leading up to her death, and continuing afterwards, causing congestion in the streets up to a 10-block radius. Within hours every flower shop in Buenos Aires was completely sold out. Despite never holding an official office she was given a full state funeral with complete Roman Catholic requiem mass, and a special memorial was granted for the Argentine team at the Helsinki Summer Olympics.
After her death, Dr. Pedro Ara was commissioned to embalm the body for future display, much like Lenin's tomb. It is considered to be one of the most perfect embalming jobs in history. A 17-foot monument was planned to be erected, but before it could happen renegade juntas overthrew the Peronist government. To avoid desecration, the body mysterious disappeared for over 16 years. It was discovered buried in Milan under the name Maria Maggi. In 1973 Juan Perón, and third wife Isabel returned from exile, and once again he became President. Juan had Evita's body buried in the family tomb at Recoleta Cemetery, an exclusive place for the prestigious Argentine elite, where allegedly it is 'so secure, it could withstand a nuclear attack.' Juan Perón died on July 1, 1974 and is entombed in La Chacarita Cemetery on the opposite side of Buenos Aires.
The cult of Peron, especially that of Evita, continued to grow and become rooted in Argentine society despite military oppression. As of the late 1970s, having a picture of either Peron was cause for arrest. Showing devotion or saying the name at military events was cause for execution - and hundreds of thousands mysteriously disappeared during 'The Dirty War' that followed. The musical EVITA by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice brought new notoriety to the famous First Lady causing a reemergence of interest. Raging from the salacious to the saintly - books (The Woman with the Whip, among numerous biographies), movies (starring Faye Dunaway and Madonna, among others) - Evita's cult grew, taking the world by storm. Today Argentina embraces the past and the Casa Rosada balcony from which she spoke is named 'Evita's Balcony.' Millions of visitors are drawn to it, to assume the position, and belt out a song that was based on an actual speech given from that site. Evita's gravesite in Recoleta Cemetery is one of the most frequently visited tombs in the world.
*Answers given are a combination from several different biographical sources.
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