SeñoraEva Maria Duarte de Perónwas one of Argentina’s most beloved first ladies.Sixty-six years after Eva’s death, the persistence of Peronism makes her one of the most fascinating characters in Argentina. Peronism has a deep rooted influence on the political structure of this Latin American nation. Long after Juan and Eva Perón, Peronist legacy is very much alive and it seems it will not leave Argentina. Eva Perónstill remains a “sacred” image for her ability to befriend the poor. She was considered one of them. The poor knew her as Evita. As a devout Catholic, she told them religion is something they should cherish, not fear. Thus she became a spiritual leader for the poor Argentinians as well. The working class felt a mystical connection with Evita, and those spiritual elements that surrounded her continued to inspire the working class. The enduring charm of Eva Maria and her charismatic husband Juan Perón is not easy to explain, and yet has a hold on the Argentinian mind as was demonstrated in general election heldlast month. The Peronist ideology remains embedded one way or another in almost every political movement in Argentina since the mid-1940s. The election on October 27 is an example of how the Argentines find it hard to live without the Peronist ideals. Their appeal seems to stem from a mixture of nationalism, populism, and interventionism, with a touch of demagogy driven by an authoritarian instinct.
With one in ten people out of work, Argentine voters elected the center-left candidate Alberto Fernándezas its president. He is believed to be the best person to lead the country out of its peril left by former president Mauricio Macri. MrFernándezbelongs to the populist Peronist movement. Another staunch supporter of Peronism, former president Cristina Fernándezde Kirchner has become the vice president. The Peronists coming to power once again after a short interval, testifies to the fact that Peronism has never been laid to rest. The ghosts of Juan Perónandhis ever enchantingwife EvaPerónstill wander in the psyche of the Peronist loyalists.The successors of Juan Perón in Argentine politics continue to carry on the legacy.
Eva Perónhad“played an important role in the political propaganda that supported Juan’s political ambitions and their ideology.” From the beginning of Peronism, Juan and Eva Perón’s privileging of the lower classesby making the state as mediator fit perfectly into the ideology of Peronism. Eva Perón’s Cinderella like storybecame a fable. That image helped the ordinary Argentine women to dream of a similar future for them. With her elusiveness, and rags-to-riches story, Evitasimply seduced the whole nation.
The charisma that Eva Perón is known for was meticulously planned to boost her image. Her short stint as an actress before meeting Juan had helped her to come out as a skilled political person as opposed to a mere ornament complementing her husband. Evawas the force behind JuanPerón. After so many years, Eva Peróncontinues toexert a lot of influence in the lives of the ordinary Argentinians, especially women. Perhaps the reason for that is at the time when she was the First Lady (1946-1952) women did not hold high positions as Argentina was a male dominant society. Eva was a strong supporter of women’s rights at a time when female voices had no champions. She had influenced Juan a great deal to change policies in regards to women. She had organised the women’s branch of the Perónist Party.She was Juan Perón’s liaison between people and the president’s office throughout his two terms. Since her death in 1952, the people of Argentina have gone through many political upheavals. They hadtwo female presidents.
Argentina’s previous president and current vice president Cristina Fernándezidentifies herself as a Peronist. During her tenure as president, she had hero-worshipped Eva Perónand often had indicated similarities between herself and Evita. Cristina and her husband Nestor’s success as presidents of Argentina “serve as a reminder of the remarkable durability and ideologically flexible appeal of the Peronist ‘brand’ in Argentine politics.”
The 1996 American film, Evita, restored Eva Perónto her former glory. Recently, Iwatched it again as an attempt to understand what it is about the Peróns that has the Argentines so captivated.The movie is based on Eva’s lifeafter she marries JuanPerón. She spoiled herself with beautiful clothes and jewels made with the most expensive fabrics and rare stones. It is almost impossible not to admire thevelvet, silk, satin and taffeta gowns that Eva Perónwore as the First Lady of Argentina.
In this epic fable,Madonna captured the essence of Eva Perónwith riveting music. Though Madonna has a striking resemblance to Eva Perón—it was not an easy part to pull off. She took on the role with passion and it won her the first Oscar nomination. Filmed in Buenos Aires, this was an adaptation of the original Broadway musical Evita. The movie is more of a musical theatre in an operatic style. The film is told in a flashback by a narrator, Che. The story centers on Eva Perón, who rose from poverty to become the most powerful woman in Latin America.In the opening scene, Che recounts the events that led to the announcement of Evita’s death at age 33. Millions of Argentinians lined up in pouring rain to see the funeral procession and to have a last glimpse of Eva. Thousands of mourners came to view her body which was displayed for three days. The entire street where the horse drawn carriage carried Evita’s body was covered with funeral wreathes. After her death, it rained for seven days in Argentina.
While watching, the movie also reminded me of a front-page Washington Post story in late 2011. The article was about how the government of then President Cristina Fernández, teamed up with some Peronists to fight “to keep history off auction block.”It was reported that Eva and her husband Juan Perón’s earthly paraphernalia is a subject of court fight, between Mario Rotando and the government of Argentina. Rotando is the official curator and the sole beneficiary of all of Eva and Juan Perón’s personal memorabilia. Fernández’s government was fighting to preserve the historical value of some of the items. According to historians, given Eva and Juan’s popularity in the 1950s, these personal effects are “worthy of being honored in the same way the Smithsonian reveres Abraham Lincoln’s top hat.” Rotando hasauctioned off some of Eva’s belongings in Rome. Among the items sold was the blue and white silk shroud that covered Eva’s remains. Some of the items are two centuries old. As a fashion icon, Eva had beautiful things. Among the items are Eva’s handbag, a French-made golden hand mirror, ruby and diamond necklace, rose pattern brooch and her blue sapphire and diamond earrings.
So the obvious question is: while living a lavish lifestyle,how did Eva Perónbecome a friend of the poor? A noted economist compared the figure of Eva Perón today that of a religious myth; her premature death contributed to her image of a martyr in the class warfare of the poor against the wealthy. Religious symbolism is a major part of her big appeal to the Argentine masses. Eva Peron’s critics unfailingly point out that she was simply piggybacking the poor to secure votes for Juan Perón. Her populist use of the poor remains concealed behind an image of a devoted political wife. The Peróns had used the vulnerable poor and enchanted them with Eva’s magic just to consolidate power into their hands. Eva had her own political ambition and Juan Perón did offer her the vice presidential spot while seeking reelection in 1952. By then Eva was too sick with cervical cancer to accept.
Eva was born in 1919in Los Toldos, adusty rural region in Argentina.She was theillegitimate daughter of an influential politician. Her mother was a cook to wealthy families. She became socially aware of the division between the rich and the poor at an early age.Growing up, she was deprived as a child and a young woman. The feeling of deprivation and social resentment drove Eva to rise to the top. She suffered humiliation because people gossiped about her birth. She wanted to leave it all behind and dreamt to have a life of recognition.
With her will to succeed, she left the suburb of Buenos Aires and came to the city. She aspired to be an actress. With her beauty and energy,she bewitched men. She became courtesans to some. She used powerful men and military officers to advance her quest and to avenge the suffering she had to endure.
She met Juan Domingo Perón, a handsome military officer with political ambitions. Both of them were attracted to power and prestige. Peron was in love with all the known fascists in history. Eva loved his speeches. Though it was highly unusual at that time in conservative Argentina–Eva led Juan’s campaign for presidency. She travelled with him by train and distributed campaign buttons and fliers to people. His campaign ran on helping the “losdescamisados,”the shirtless. Later, Eva became a great asset to Juan in manipulating the poor for their need to remain in power and to expand their influence.
Eva Peróndespised the rich, the oligarchy. They also held her in contempt and never accepted her as one of them even after she became one of the most dynamic women in Argentina. Eva surrounded herself with women with better lineage and relied on them to watch over her if she made any error of etiquette. Behind her back they called her vain, vulgar and a narcissist. In 1947, during her Europe tour with Juan Perónshe was awestruck by Parisian fashion and totally altered her image. She came back to Argentina with her new Parisian look to the envy of many. As she identified herself as a “friend of the poor,” she was hugely criticized for buying the most expensive fashion designs. After that she toned down her fashion a little but continued buying designer and couture gowns to attend lavish parties in the arms of Juan Perón.
Evita was vindictive, according to many. She used her power and position in punishing people for any disapproval of her and her husband. People who disagreed with the Peronist movement were sent to jail. She regularly censored newspapers if there were any critical commentary about her. The anti-Peronists viewed Juan and Eva as dictators “disguised as heroes,” by exploiting the poor.
In spite of all the criticisms, Eva had a genuine desire to help the poor. She never forgot where she came from. After she became the First Lady, she came to the balcony of Casa Rosada (pink house), the presidential palace, andsang her patriotic famous song, “Don’t cry for me Argentina, the truth is I never left you.”As First Lady, Eva plunged into work to help the masses. She lifted millions out of poverty. Juan Perón used her popularity to remain in power. He made her tour the world and she ran charitable organizations. She started the Eva PerónFoundation. She made all working citizens donate a day’s pay, and with that money she helped the poor and the elderly. She had built ‘Evita Village,’ a housing project with thousands of furnished homes for the needy people. To her followers, she became known as the ‘Lady of Hope.’ She would regularly bring in street urchins into the palace to bathe them and treat them if they were sick and gave them meal. She once said, “In me all the love and affection I feel for my people are not important, and have no value, because I come from the people, I suffered with the people.” Evita was an angel to the disadvantaged.
The Peróns made huge investments in schools, hospitals, infrastructure development and expanded the power of labor unions. They spent excessively on the welfare projects and waged a class war against the rich. She embraced the poor with her love, giving them hope.She would give a sewing machine, a bed, or money for an upcoming wedding. People thought they were personal gifts from her, and she became known as “unofficial queen.” Many social commentators believed Eva was practicing a “form of socialism that benefited families and individuals who managed to come to her orbit.”
Eva’s life as a political figure was cut shortand her amazing and mythical life ended. Before her death,she said about her people, “One must become one body with them, so that every pain, every sorrow and worry, all the joys of the people is as if it were ours.”Evita rose from her deathbed one last time and appeared in the palace’s balcony to say a final goodbye to them.She said she will leave them in body but not in spirit.
Within the short span as Argentina’s most powerful woman, Evita mesmerized her people.She became an obsession for her great influence, and style. Her ideas and magnetism that she invoked in the common people haveendured. She became a legend by captivating the poor Argentinians with her charm, spirit, and gift of giving.Eva Perónperhaps represented herself as anexample of a true Argentinian, engraved in Catholic beliefs. After her death, Juan Peróntried to preserve her body for years. Finally, Eva was buried in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aries. She continues to have cult like followers, and her grave has become a shrine.To the poor, Evita still remains an “emissary of God.” They earnestly believe that they see her face in the clouds.All year long,many men and women come to lay flowers on her grave and pray to this modern day “saint.”
The upper class regardedEva Perón as capricious and greedy. All the money she raised, she kept a significant portion for herself. It paid for her jewels, dresses and supported her lifestyle that befitted a queen. While at it, Eva Perónput a magic spell on the poor and they idolized her. Because of their perception of her, they made up stories about Evita and her benevolence. In 1974, V.S. Naipaul went to Argentina while he was researching on Eva Perón. In an essay titled “The Return of Eva Peron,”he wrote that he had trouble separating facts from fiction. Frustrated, he wrote, “So the truth begins to disappear, it is not relevant to the legend.”
Zeenat Khan was a special education teacher at Our Lady of Victory in Washington DC. She writes short stories and newspaper columns.