Perón, Eva (1919–1952)

views updated

Perón, Eva (1919–1952)

Argentine social activist and wife of Juan Domingo Perón who represented the revolutionary potential of Peronism and pushed the involvement of women in the nation's politics. Name variations: Eva María Ibarguren; Eva María Duarte de Perón; Evita. Pronunciation: A-vah Pay-RONE. Born Eva María Ibarguren on May 7, 1919, in Los Toldos, a village in the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina; died on July 26, 1952, of cancer in Buenos Aires; illegitimate daughter of Juan Duarte (a landowner) and Juana Ibarguren, his mistress; attended elementary school; married Juan Domingo Perón, on October 22, 1945; no children.

Left her family in Junin and made her way to the capital of Buenos Aires intent on a career in the theater (1934); became a radio personality and actress; married Juan Domingo Perón (1945); went on European "Rainbow Tour" (1947); pushed a social agenda for Argentine workers and the disadvantaged; failed in bid to run for office of vice-president (1951).

In the middle of October 1945, Eva Duarte's dreams appeared to be in shambles. The man to whom she had tied her star, Juan Domingo Perón, was in prison, his political eclipse an accomplished fact. But, according to Peronist accounts of the 17th of October, it was Eva, also known as Evita, who then went to work, rallied the forces of labor and made possible the triumphal return of Perón, to the utter discomfort of his enemies. In the words of her biographers Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro :

For those who have loved her, there has been a faithful, suffering Evita who by her example inspired people to rise up on Perón's behalf; and for those who have hated her, a liar, a scheming woman who drags Perón back to fulfil her desires for power and revenge. But Perón in either case has been considered of little importance; it is Evita who has saved him in the hour of defeat.

Neither perception is accurate. But such were the lives of Evita and Juan Perón, encapsulated in multiple myths that reflect a fanatical love or equally fanatical hate. Indeed, so entrenched are the myths about the Peróns that they have come to assume a separate reality. In Evita's case, they inspired J.M. Taylor to entitle her book Eva Perón: The Myths of a Woman.

One myth noted that Eva Perón was born on October 17, 1945, the day she "rescued" Juan; an anonymous account assured readers that Eva Perón, like Venus, "who emerged from the sea," combined in "immortal synthesis" art and beauty at the moment of her birth. She did not emerge from the sea, but from the Province of Buenos Aires; and she was not born on October 17, 1945, or even on May 7, 1922, as is noted on her marriage contract, but on May 7, 1919.

Eva's unwed mother, Juana Ibarguren , lived in the small village of Los Toldos and was the mistress of Juan Duarte, an estate manager with some political connections, from Chivilcoy, 20 miles distant. Early in the morning of May 7, assisted by an Indian midwife, she gave birth to a fifth illegitimate child by Duarte, a girl named Eva María. For reasons of "propriety," the baby was denied the surname of the father even though she was called Eva María Duarte.

When Duarte died in an automobile accident in 1926, the two mothers of his children, only one of whom was his legal wife, mourned him. Writes Taylor:

Six-year old Eva arrived at her father's wake accompanied by her mother and her four older siblings, all illegitimate children of Duarte. The society of Chivilcoy had also turned out to pay respects to the brother-in-law of their mayor. This gathering of upright citizens suddenly found itself in the arena of violent confrontation between the family of the deceased wife and that of his concubine…. A quarrel broke out and continued … until the mayor himself finally intervened, allowing the outcasts a last glimpse of lover and father and the privilege of accompanying the coffin to the cemetery.

Gossip, shame and scandal dogged the young Eva; before his death, her father had abandoned his informal family in 1920, which reduced them to poverty and rendered them the objects of scorn. Eva began attending school at age eight and was remembered as an average student. At age 12, her family moved to the larger city of Junin with perhaps 20,000 inhabitants. Eva's eldest sister, Elisa, had been given a good job there and the family followed. In Junin, Eva attended school and dreamed about the better life she saw on screen in the local movie houses. By 1935, at age 15, she was convinced that she wanted a career as an actress and caught a train for the glamour of Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina. The story, repeated in film biographies of Evita's life and in the musical Evita, that she seduced tango singer Agustin Magaldi into taking her to Buenos Aires is probably untrue.

In Buenos Aires, in the words of biographers Fraser and Navarro, "she tried the stage

but only managed to obtain walk-on parts or minuscule roles in second-rate plays, and her attempts to break into films gave her minor parts in three forgettable movies." She had better luck with radio parts, however, enjoying a modestly successful career after 1938; by 1943, she was a recognized soap opera star with her own company. It was also in 1943 that the Argentine military seized power and Eva Duarte, according to historian Joseph Page, "ever mindful of the need to cultivate useful contacts, turned her attention to the men in the braided uniforms." Soon she would come to the attention of Colonel Juan Domingo Perón.

They met at a benefit for the earthquake victims of San Juan, and it was likely Eva who nurtured her relationship with the smiling Colonel Perón. They moved into adjoining apartments and, perhaps because of Perón's influence, her artistic career prospered. She starred in the radio production of a series called "Heroines of History" and in 1944 was given a role in the movie Circus Cavalcade at which time she bleached her brunette hair and would forever remain a blonde.

Juan Perón's vision of political power would intimately involve Eva Duarte and Argentina's workers. In 1944, he held two posts, undersecretary of war and secretary of labor, in the government of General Pedro Pablo Ramírez. Perón met daily with labor leaders and increasingly identified with the aspirations of the rank-and-file workers; he delivered on his promises and gave labor a status it had never before enjoyed. Perón began to gather a host of supporters—and enemies.

[L]ife has its real value … when one surrenders oneself, completely and fanatically, to an ideal that has more value than life itself. I say yes, I am fanatically for Perón and the descamisados [disadvantaged] of the nation.

—Eva Perón

Evita was 24 when she became Perón's mistress. But he did not keep her closeted away. On the contrary, according to Fraser and Navarro, "Perón did not isolate her from his public life; he introduced her to his fellow officers, went to visit her in Radio Belgrano when she was at work, and in fact treated her as if she were his wife." The relationship produced volumes of gossip. When some follow officers questioned the propriety of keeping company with an "actress," a very low-prestige occupation, Perón quipped: "Would you rather I keep the company of an actor?"

Over the course of the next year, Perón maneuvered himself into a position of power in the military government but in the process made many more enemies. They struck in October 1945 and removed him from his three offices—vice-president, minister of war, and secretary of labor and welfare. While Perón appeared to have been neutralized in his bid for complete power and languished in a prison on an island in the middle of the Rio de la Plata, Peronist myth insists that it was Evita who mobilized the workers on Perón's behalf and engineered his return to power. Such was not the case, for at the time her influence was minimal. But the events of the 17th, and especially the outpouring of labor support, refocused her life in a decidedly radical direction. Four days later, on October 22, she married Juan Perón; in November, he announced his candidacy for the forthcoming presidential elections and Evita, the actress of obscure origins, was catapulted into the forefront of Argentine politics.

Perón won the presidential election of 1946 with support from across the political spectrum. Eva, as Argentina's new first lady, would have many roles to play. In 1946, she campaigned over the radio for women's suffrage and began to make her first appearances before labor groups. Her interest in social welfare issues soon earned her the title "Lady of Hope." And in June 1947, she was given the opportunity to represent Argentina to Europe's heads of state.

The visit was apparently suggested to President Perón by Spain's fascist leader Francisco Franco. Following the defeat of Germany and Italy, Franco's Spain was considered a pariah, although its relations with Argentina were excellent. But a visit by President Perón was out of the question. Argentina, itself isolated because of its wartime neutrality, needed to mend its international fences and a state visit to Spain was perceived by the Argentine foreign minister as an unwarranted risk. Eva Perón, however, informed her husband that she would travel to Europe. The trip, which came to be known as the "Rainbow Tour," offers insights into what lay behind her decision.

Page notes that "it is necessary to keep in mind the duality of her roles as first lady and political figure." Certainly one of her goals in traveling to Europe was vindication "in the form of proving to her social superiors that she could beat them at their own game." But vindication of her childhood rejection as well as the cold hostility of the Argentine elite "overlooks the political Evita." She would contribute both to the emerging Peronist Revolution and to her own sense of history. "As a radio actress she had played a number of great women. Now she would join their ranks."

For political reasons, Evita's itinerary was expanded to include Italy, Portugal and France. Even British officials noted that she would be welcome. Her tour through Spain was a personal success, and she made a generally favorable impression in Italy, Portugal and France. The visit to Great Britain never occurred, however, which Evita took as a personal slight. Because the timing of her visit had changed, it would no longer be possible to meet Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon ,

wife of George VI. Evita reportedly told the Argentine ambassador: "Tell the Queen that if she isn't capable of inviting me officially, I don't want to see her."

Upon her return to Argentina, Evita became ever more closely involved with Perón's efforts to create a "New Argentina." In that he purported to be the leader of all Argentines, it made sense for him to entrust his special relationship with labor to Evita, who developed her own charisma with the descamisados (literally, "the shirtless ones," implying "those without suitcoats"). Evita, through the new Ministry of Labor, became labor's liaison with President Perón. According to Fraser and Navarro:

Evita's incorporation into the political structure, albeit in an informal way, allowed Perón to maintain close contact with the rank and file, to strengthen his control of the labor movement, and to continue to be responsible for its gains. It also permitted him to retain his leadership with the descamisados by avoiding sharing with another man. As a woman and his wife, Evita represented no danger to him.

Under the heading of social justice, strikes were settled in favor of workers, who won significant increases in their hourly wages. Taken together, the social welfare measures that assisted the disadvantaged were subsumed under the doctrine of Justicialismo (justice) which proclaimed the emergence of a "New Argentina." Evita aided the cause with the creation in 1948 of the María Eva Duarte de Perón Foundation, which dispensed money and largesse to the poor. Despite charges of wholesale corruption, in part because no books were kept, the record of the Foundation was impressive. Page writes that it "built homes for orphans, unwed mothers and the elderly; shelters for working women; lunch facilities for schoolchildren; children's hospitals; vacation colonies for workers; low-cost housing; schools for nurses." Often-seen banners carried by workers proclaimed that while Perón Cumple (Perón Delivers the Goods), Evita Dignificá (Evita Dignifies).

By 1950, Eva commanded an extraordinary presence in the Peronist movement. Officials of whom she disapproved were removed, while those who maintained her favor prospered. In July 1949, she was named president of the women's branch of the Peronist Party which initiated a widespread membership drive and asserted its demand that women appear on Peronist slates for office. At the end of 1950, there were rumors that Juan Perón was prepared to name her as his vice-presidential candidate for the next presidential election. He had already amended the Constitution of 1853 to allow him to run for another six-year term and reaffirmed the right, granted in 1947, of women to vote in national elections. Perón won the 1951 election handily, although he failed in the attempt to have Evita as his running mate. Powerful elements in the military resisted the further elevation of "that woman," who would become commander-in-chief in the event of Perón's incapacitation or death. But it was Evita who was dying. The cancer that would kill her made its presence felt in 1950.

The disease in no way slowed the ever-accelerating pace of Evita's contribution to the Peronist Revolution and her largesse to friends and the poor. During 1950 and 1951, in the opinion of Fraser and Navarro, she became progressively idealized which came not only "from her beauty and her power but also from this habit of giving." The revolutionary in Evita also emerged in full armor at this time. When it was still widely believed that she would be Perón's vice-presidential candidate, she gave a speech that Page describes as:

a classic in its rhythmic cadences, violent imagery and naked passion…. The fires with in her invested her voice with a chilling power…. Her hyperbole reached its zenith in the peroration, when she invoked her "spiritual authority" to proclaim Perón the victor in the coming elections.

As death approached, Evita grew progressively weaker but still worked beyond what seemed possible. On September 24, 1951, Perón was told that his wife was suffering from an advanced case of cancer of the uterus. Just four days later, while she was receiving a blood transfusion, an abortive coup signaled a growing and dangerous opposition within the armed forces. On her own authority, Evita decided to arm the workers and had money diverted from her Foundation to purchase automatic weapons. President Perón, however, was not willing to go to this extreme and did not allow the creation of a workers' militia.

On October 17, a frail Evita addressed the masses assembled in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and urged their vigilance on Perón's behalf. "I ask one thing, comrades. We must all now swear in public to defend Perón and fight to the death on his behalf." In the same month, Evita's ghostwritten autobiography, La Razón de mi Vida, translated in English as My Mission in Life, appeared. A combination of unabashed adulation for Juan Perón, autobiography and emotion, the book became required reading for Argentine schoolchildren. Her identification with Perón and Peronism was complete. As death neared, her speeches grew more impassioned, violent, and apocalyptic. Public appearances by Evita became less frequent and at 8:25 pm on July 26, 1952, a cancer-ravaged Eva Perón died.

What followed was an outpouring of genuine grief accompanied by, in one critic's words, a "bacchanal of necrophilia." The body lay in state for days while the faithful filed past her bier and was finally taken from public display only after it began to decompose. Millions silently and tearfully watched the funeral procession and some hoped and prayed for Evita's canonization. Doubtless, her death dealt a crushing blow to Perón and to his movement and represented a loss, in Page's words, akin to "amputation."

With Perón's ouster in 1955, Evita's body, which had been lying in a tomb in CGT (the national union) headquarters while a gigantic mausoleum was being constructed, vanished. It had been spirited away by the military so as not to become a rallying point for Peronism and was eventually interred in Milan, Italy. The remains were returned to Argentina by order of Isabel Perón in 1974 and laid to rest next to Juan's in the Olivos chapel.


Fraser, Nicholas, and Marysa Navarro. Eva Peron. NY: W.W. Norton, 1987.

Page, Joseph A. Peron: A Biography. NY: Random House, 1983.

Perón, Eva. My Mission in Life. NY: Vantage Press, 1952.

Taylor, J.M. Eva Perón: The Myths of a Woman. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Turner, Frederick C., and José Enrique Miguens, eds. Juan Peron and the Reshaping of Argentina. Pittsburgh, PA: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983.

suggested reading:

Ortiz, Alicia Dujovne. Eva Péron: A Biography. Trans. by Shawn Fields. St. Martin's, 1996.

Rock, David, ed. Argentina in the Twentieth Century. Pittsburgh, PA: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975.

related media:

Eva Peron (film), starring Esther Goris , nominated by the National Cinema Institute for Best Foreign Film, 1997.

Evita (musical) by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, opened in London on June 21, 1979, starring Elaine Page , David Essex, and Joss Ackland, directed by Hal Prince; opened on Broadway on September 25, 1979, starring Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, directed by Hal Prince.

Evita (film), starring Madonna , Jonathan Pryce, and Antonio Banderas, directed by Alan Parker, Hollywood Pictures, 1996.

Paul B. Goodwin , Jr., Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut