We all know the song and we've heard her name, but what's behind the legend of Evita?
There are very few characters in history as beloved and hated at the same time as Eva Perón, a woman with an intense life and a very tragic end that caused ardent reactions not only in Argentina, but also at an international level. Her popularity reached almost every corner of the globe to the point that her story was turned into a very famous rock opera in the 1970s and an iconic movie in the 1990s with Madonna playing Evita. Perhaps we’ve all heard about her and we might even know the famous song, but why was she such a polarizing figure? Was she the saint people claimed or the whore her detractors believed her to be? Take a look at this story of love, ambition, and even some macabre episodes. This is the life of the woman who became a living legend.
The Argentinian Cinderella? Evita’s humble origins
If you do some research, you’ll see that many people often refer to Eva as the Argentinian Cinderella because she came from humble origins and became one of the most powerful women in the world. She was born in a small town in Las Pampas in 1919. She was the fifth daughter of a very wealthy and prominent local man, Juan Duarte, and Juana Ibarguren, his mistress. At the time, it was common in rural towns for influential men to have more than one family, and the town knew who they were (they called the children Duarte’s bastards). Growing up being publicly shamed and ostracized for her origins would have a huge impact in her life and eventually made her want to rise to the top of Argentinian society.
Moving to Buenos Aires to live the dream
Dreaming of becoming a great actress as the ones she saw on the television, Evita knew she had to move to Buenos Aires to pursue her dream. She saw her opportunity when she met a tango musician called Agustín Magaldi with whom she decided to run away to the big city when she was only fifteen years old. Quite soon after they arrived in Buenos Aires, their relationship ended, and she focused on her career. She was a beautiful girl and had no problem getting low-paying modeling jobs, and here is where the controversy surrounding her begins. It’s said that during this time of her life she dated several men in the industry only to get parts and jobs. Eventually, she was cast in several movies and even got hired to host a radio show.
Love at first sight: meeting Juan Perón
In 1944, when she was 24, Eva was recognized for raising money to help the victims of a terrible earthquake that devastated the city of San Juan. At this event, she met Juan Domingo Perón, a 48-year-old high-ranking official, and, as the story goes, they fell madly in love. Perón was absolutely fascinated by her, and, according to the rumors at the time, they left the event together later that night. They soon started a relationship that was highly beneficial for Eva because many producers would give her the best roles when they found out she was going out with Juan. They soon started living together.
The happy couple decides to pursue a joint political goal
At the time, Perón was a prominent colonel with great political ambitions. It’s said that, despite the fact that he was just the Labor Minister, he was one of the most influential and powerful men in the country. This was a cause for concern for the government, who saw that, with his influence on the working class, he could eventually outshine the president, and thus, he was arrested in October 1945. Only a couple of days later, thousands gathered outside the famous Casa Rosada to demand Perón’s release, so they had to agree. Moreover, the people asked for elections to choose a new president, and Perón, naturally, became one of the favorite candidates. Later, after his release, Eva and Juan married in a discreet ceremony and together started working on Perón’s political campaign.
For the first time in the history of the country, a woman toured with her candidate husband, and she even gave speeches, sharing her humble origins to make the people relate to her in a more personal way. However, Eva’s participation in the presidential campaign provoked mixed feelings. On one hand, the upper class was outraged and claimed that it was offensive for a woman to be that involved in politics. However, for the people, they were a happy couple fighting for a joint cause.
Rising up from humiliation
Juan Perón was elected president in 1946 by a large majority of votes. Since the campaign started, Eva tried to learn as much as possible about politics, and Juan was happy to be her tutor. In 1947, the presidential couple was invited by Spain’s leader, Francisco Franco, to a state visit. Argentina had just been released from a wartime quarantine and gotten a sit in the recently founded UN, so they knew that Juan meeting with one of the remaining fascist leaders wasn’t going to be the best idea for his image. They agreed that Eva should be the one going to maintain the political and economic alliance with Spain, but also arranged state visits to other European countries to show a more neutral attitude. This tour wasn’t as great as they had expected, and Eva got tons of backlash for having met with Franco.
In Switzerland, she was thrown stones and tomatoes at her public appearances, and the British King, George VI, publicly claimed that he would not welcome her. Eva, as ambitious and smart and she was, decided to take this humiliation as a personal lesson. She went back to Argentina and started dressing in more conservative outfits to give a more demure image as the country’s First Lady. Nonetheless, it would take a bit more than that to be respected. It was the norm for the First Lady to be president of the Sociedad de Beneficencia, a charity created in the nineteenth century and ruled by aristocratic ladies. They decided not to elect her since her origins as the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man would only give a bad example to the orphans and the general population. As a result, she decided to create her own foundation, called simply the Eva Perón Foundation, which after a couple of years became quite profitable.
Saint Evita, Mother of Argentina!
It’s said that she spent many hours working for the foundation. She built schools, hospitals, and would also give money to those in need. Some historians believe that she wanted to create a messianic image of herself by even kissing and hugging people with leprosy. Whether this is true or not, what matters is that her foundation really cared about those in need and helped them like no other organization had. In addition, even before meeting Perón, she had already proved to be good at gathering people when she founded the Argentinian Radio Syndicate. And she’s also credited with being the one that encouraged the women’s right to vote and created the Female Peronist Party. In 1951, Perón announced his intention to run for a second presidential term; with the support of the new voters, it was basically a certain victory.
With a lot of people supporting her, Evita runs for vice-president
Before the election, Eva was seen as the perfect candidate to run for the vice-presidency, something her detractors saw as extremely risky since it would mean that if Perón died, as Argentinian law indicated, she would succeed him, meaning the country would have a woman president. Still, not caring what people thought, she started campaigning for the job with millions supporting her in this endeavor.
Her declining health put an end to her aspirations
Unfortunately, soon later, her health started dramatically declining. She was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer. Some claim that she had refused to get a hysterectomy because she wanted to have a child with Perón (after all, she was considered to be Argentina’s mother). However, her health was getting worse and worse, to the point that she had to be held when giving public speeches, so she finally agreed to the procedure, but the cancer had already spread. According to some sources, she felt so bad that she had a lobotomy to reduce the pain, but didn’t work. She had to give up for her political aspirations of becoming the next vice-president. In 1952, Perón was reelected, and in a parade to celebrate his victory, she had to be held up by a wire. It was just a matter of time now.
Don’t cry for me, Argentina
Some days after the parade she was given the title of “Spiritual Leader of the Nation,” a title she would enjoy for a short time, since she died in July of that same year. The entire country was paralyzed when the news was broadcasted in every outlet. For the funeral, millions gathered in Buenos Aires. It was a massive and chaotic event: hundreds of people were injured and eight died trying to take a last look at the First Lady. It was decided that her body would be embalmed to preserve her beauty, and a huge monument would be erected in her honor (it was supposed to be even bigger than the Statue of Liberty). However, only a couple years after her death, a coup forced Perón to flee to Spain, and he had no time to take care of Eva’s body. It went missing for sixteen years until, in 1971, it was revealed that she had been buried in a cemetery in Milan under the name of María Maggi. Perón, who had married the decade before, sent for the body, so he could display it in his dining room. In 1973, he returned to Argentina as president for a third term. His wife Isabel Perón was elected vice-president, and the following year, when Perón died, she became the first female president in the Western hemisphere. She knew the importance of Eva, so she brought her body to rest in her home country.
Whether she was a saint or a whore, what's true is that she became an iconic character in history, shattering all those complexes she had ingrained when growing up. With her power and influence, she made efforts to change the laws that shamed and ostracized “natural” children and encouraged laws to empower women (even if, as many of her detractors claim, they were only to facilitate her way through power). The impact and influence she had in her country were exceptional, perhaps like no one will ever have in a long time, to the point that there are tons of monuments honoring her and a city built in the shape of her profile. Who has that?!
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