Perón, Eva "Evita": 1919

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Eva "Evita" Perón: 19191952: Political leader

Of all the figures of twentieth-century history, few have inspired as many passionate debates as the life and myth of Eva Perón. From her origins as an illegitimate girl in the Argentine provinces, she pursued a career as a film and radio actress in Buenos Aires before meeting, and subsequently marrying, the man who would make her the First Lady of Argentina, Juan Domingo Perón. Although she held no official government role during Perón's terms in office, Eva Perón became one of the most powerful political figures in the country and an influential ambassador for Argentina throughout the world. After her tragic, early death from cancer at the age of thirty-three, the woman whom millions called "Evita" had already made a lasting impact on her homeland. Few could have foreseen that a half-century later, her life would continue to inspire, provoke, and challenge those who live in the shadow of her memory.

Although she later claimed a birth date of 1922 under the name Eva Duarte, María Eva Ibarguren was actually born on May 7, 1919 near the provincial town of Los Toldos, Argentina, about one-hundred fifty miles west of the nation's capital, Buenos Aires. She was the last of five children born to Juana Ibarguren and Juan Duarte. Duarte, who worked as an agricultural estate manager near Los Toldos, kept his wife and three other children in a nearby town and never formalized his relationship with Ibarguren, who insisted on using the surname Duarte for herself and her children. In 1920 Juan Duarte returned to live with his wife. Juana Ibarguren Duarte, now in desperate financial straits, moved into a modest home in Los Toldos where she supported her family as a seamstress. When Juan Duarte died in a car accident in 1926, his "second family" was barred from the cemetery. It was a humiliation that young Eva Duarte would remember for the rest of her life.

Worked as an Actress

Juana Ibarguren Duarte moved her family to Junín, where one of her older daughters had secured a job in the post office, in 1930. Juana Duarte ran a small boardinghouse in Junín; despite the improved economic circumstances, however, young Eva Duarte felt stifled by life in the small town. From her weekly visits to the cinema, she dreamed of becoming an actress like her idol, Norma Shearer, who had also escaped a poverty-stricken childhood. After completing her secondary studies in Junín, fifteen-year-old Eva Duarte traveled to Buenos Aires to look for work on one of the popular radio serials that dominated the airwaves. Although her enemies later claimed that the young woman had seduced a famous tango singer to make her way to the capital, it is more likely that her mother accompanied her on her initial foray into Buenos Aires. Either way, Eva Duarte was soon living on her own in the capital and within weeks had joined the theater company of Eva Franco. The following year she found more work with the traveling theater company of José Franco and in 1937 made her film debut in the movie Segundos afuera and her radio theater debut in the soap opera Oro blanco.

At a Glance . . .

Born María Eva Ibarguren Duarte on May 7, 1919, in Los Toldos, Argentina; died July 16, 1952; married Juan Perón on October 22, 1945. Education: Completed secondary school in Junín, Argentina. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Women's Peronist Party.

Career: Eva Franco theatrical company, 1935; José Franco theatrical company, 1936; film and radio work from 1937 onward; spokesperson, Association of Argentine Radio, 1943; unofficial representative, Department of Labor and Welfare, 1946; chair, María Eva Duarte de Perón Foundation, 1948; published My Mission in Life, 1951.

Although she acted in twenty plays and five movies, Duarte's work as a radio actress in at least two-dozen soap operas and historical dramas made her famous throughout Argentina by the late 1930s. She appeared regularly in the fan magazines and earned a considerable salary of five thousand pesos a month in 1943. When the Association of Argentine Radio was founded in August of 1943, Duarte was chosen to be its spokesperson. Yet her life took an abrupt turn on January 22, 1944, when she met Colonel Juan Domingo Perón at a benefit concert for earthquake victims that he had organized in his capacity as the country's secretary of labor and welfare.

Born in 1895, Perón had entered the Army in 1915 and slowly made his way through the ranks. Left a widower by his first wife's death of uterine cancer in 1938, Perón had traveled to Europe, where he became an admirer of the Italian Fascist government of Benito Mussolini. After a military coup in June of 1943, Perón used his political and propaganda skills to emerge as one of the leaders of the new government. One month after meeting Eva Duarte, Perón helped engineer the removal of the sitting president and secured the position of minister of war, a crucial office given Argentina's declared neutrality during World War II.

The couple began sharing adjoining apartments almost immediately and Duarte continued her film and radio work. In September of 1945, however, Perón was forced out of office and eventually jailed in an attempted military coup. Conservative business interests, upset at the government's policies that included establishing a minimum wage, paid holidays, and medical care for workers, had organized the coup and remained hostile to Perón throughout his career. In the month after the attempted coup, however, Perón had rallied enough support from the military establishment and organized labor to make a triumphant return to Buenos Aires. His appearance at Casa Rosada, the president's official residence, on October 17, 1945 in front of a crowd of 200,000 supporters marked the beginning of Perón's domination of Argentine politics for the next ten years.

As Perón was immediately declared the front-runner for the presidential elections set for May of 1946, the couple sealed their relationship in a civil ceremony on October 22, 1945. The marriage was followed by a religious ceremony in December, and the Peróns set off together on the campaign trail. Eva Perón's appearances were the first time a candidate's wife had taken an active role in the political arena in the country. Abandoning her entertainment career, Perón quickly learned to use her performing skills as a passionate orator and striking public figure. While the upper classes derided her ostentatious style, she immediately became the country's biggest celebrity.

Became Political Leader

Although Eva Perón never held an official title in her husband's administration, her work through the Department of Labor and Welfare demonstrated her commitment to improving the lives of the poorest segments of Argentine society. Fueled in part by memories of her own mistreatment during her youth and a political shrewdness that capitalized on her husband's support by the country's working classes, Perón championed the cause of the "descamidados," (literally, "shirtless ones") in a number of ways. After setting up the María Eva Duarte de Perón Foundation in 1948, an estimated three billion pesos were spent on new houses, hospitals, clinics, and household items for the poor. The fact that the foundation's funds came from other government programs and in some cases, outright extortion of businesses, fueled charges that the Perónist government was corrupt. Indeed, to her critics Perón's actions were designed merely to increase support for her husband'regime at the expense of any sustainable long-term reforms.

Her goodwill trip to Europe in the summer of 1947 also demonstrated the conflicting images that Eva Perón presented to the public. While she was greeted like a movie star in Spain, her expensive dresses and jewelsas well as the growing political repression in Argentinacaused a public uproar in Italy, where charges of fascism against her husband's government were revived. Her European tour, however, put the finishing touches on the First Lady's public persona. Simply dressed, her dyed-blond hair pulled back into two coiled braids, and rarely without jewels, Eva Perón was an original creation that combined aspects of the faithful political wife and independent social activist. For her part, Perón claimed that her work merely reflected her admiration of her husbandoften speaking about him in Christ-like termsand her dedication to the descamisados.

Death Moved a Nation

Despite pressure from some groups to run as the vice-presidential candidate in 1952, Perón eventually deflected such suggestions at her husband's insistence. In fact, the popularity of Eva Perón had greatly aided public support of the Perón government in a way that no elective office could compare. In addition, she was gravely ill and by the time her husband was sworn in to a second term as president in June of 1952, Eva Perón could barely stand unassisted. Debilitated by uterine cancer made worse by her initial refusal to undergo a hysterectomy, Perón's last public appearance came at her husband's inauguration.

While her illness had been reported in general terms in the media, Eva Perón's death on July 16, 1952 plunged Argentina into a period of unprecedented national mourning. It also initiated the gradual erosion of support for the Perón government, which had badly managed the country's finances while Argentina lost ground to its international trade rivals. In 1955 President Perón was ousted in another military coup and fled to Spain. He returned to Argentina in 1973 after another military coup installed him once again as president, and died while in office in July of 1974.

Since the time of her death, the myth of Eva Perón has continued to permeate Argentina's political, social, and historical landscapes. Viewed by some as a near-divine figure who died to redeem the country's sins, Perón has also been described as a corrupt, power-hungry, and egomaniacal figure by her detractors. While most observers agree that her commitment to social justice was genuine, her unyielding opposition to the slightest criticism of her husband's government made her motivations seem less than idealistic. Books on Perón's life continue to fill the bestseller lists in Argentina, and the 1997 movie adaptation of the play based loosely on her life, Evita, introduced the iconic Eva Perón as played by Madonna to a new generation around the world.


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France, Miranda, Bad Times in Buenos Aires: A Writer's Adventures in Argentina, Ecco Press, 1998.

Fraser, Nicholas and Marysa Navarro, Evita: The Real Life of Evita Perón, W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Guillermoprieto, Alma, Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, Pantheon Books, 2001.

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Page, Joseph, Perón: A Biography, Random House, 1983.

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Timothy Borden