Biography of María Eva "Evita" Perón

Argentina's Greatest First Lady

Evita Perón. Public domain image

María Eva "Evita" Duarte Perón was the wife of populist Argentine president Juan Perón during the 1940's and 1950's. Evita was a very important part of her husband's power: although he was beloved by the poor and working classes, she was even more so. A gifted speaker and tireless worker, she dedicated her life to making Argentina a better place for the disenfranchised, and they responded by creating a cult of personality to her that exists to this day.

Early life

Eva's father, Juan Duarte, had two families: one with his legal wife, Adela D'Huart, and another with his mistress. María Eva was the fifth child born to the mistress, Juana Ibarguren. Duarte did not hide the fact that he had two families and divided his time between them more or less equally for a time, although he eventually abandoned his mistress and their children, leaving them with nothing more than a paper formally recognizing the children as his. He died in a car accident when Evita was only six years old, and the illegitimate family, blocked out of any inheritance by the legitimate one, fell on hard times. At the age of fifteen, Evita went to Buenos Aires to seek her fortune.

Actress and Radio Star

Attractive and charming, Evita quickly found work as an actress. Her first part was in a play called The Perez Mistresses in 1935: Evita was only sixteen. She landed small roles in low-budget movies, performing well if not memorably.

Later she found stable work in the booming business of radio drama. She gave each part her all and became popular among radio listeners for her enthusiasm. She worked for Radio Belgrano and specialized in dramatizations of historical figures. She was particularly known for her voice portrayal of Polish Countess Maria Walewska (1786-1817), mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte.

She was able to earn enough doing her radio work to have her own apartment and live comfortably by the early 1940's.

Juan Perón

Evita met Colonel Juan Perón on January 22, 1944 at the Luna Park stadium in Buenos Aires. By then Perón was a rising political and military power in Argentina. In June of 1943 he had been one of the military leaders in charge of overthrowing the civilian government: he was rewarded with being placed in charge of the Ministry of Labor, where he improved rights for agricultural workers. In 1945, the government threw him in jail, fearful of his rising popularity. A few days later, on October 17, hundreds of thousands of workers (roused in part by Evita, who had spoken to some of the more important unions in the city) flooded the Plaza de Mayo to demand his release. October 17 is still celebrated by Peronistas, who refer to it as "Día de la lealtad" or "day of loyalty." Less than a week later, Juan and Evita were formally married.

Evita and Perón

By then, the two had moved in together in a house in the northern part of the city. Living with an unmarried woman (who was a lot younger than he was) caused some problems for Perón until they married in 1945. Part of the romance certainly must have been the fact that they saw eye-to-eye politically: Evita and Juan agreed that the time had come for the disenfranchised of Argentina, the "descamisados" ("Shirtless ones") to get their fair share of Argentina's prosperity.

1946 Election Campaign

Seizing the moment, Perón decided to run for president. He selected Juan Hortensio Quijano, a well-known politician from the Radical Party, as his running mate. Opposing them were José Tamborini and Enrique Mosca of the Democratic Union alliance. Evita campaigned tirelessly for her husband, both in her radio shows and on the campaign trail. She accompanied him on his campaign stops and often appeared with him publicly, becoming the first political wife to do so in Argentina. Perón and Quijano won the election with 52% of the votes. It was about this time that she became known to the public simply as "Evita."

Visit to Europe

Evita’s fame and charm had spread across the Atlantic, and in 1947 she visited Europe. In Spain, she was the guest of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and was awarded the Order of Isabel the Catholic, a great honor. In Italy, she met the pope, visited the tomb of St. Peter and received more awards, including the Cross of St. Gregory. She met the presidents of France and Portugal and the Prince of Monaco.

She would often speak at the places she visited. Her message: “We are fighting to have less rich people and less poor people. You should do the same.” Evita was criticised for her fashion sense by the European press, and when she returned to Argentina, she brought a wardrobe full of the latest Paris fashions with her.

At Notre Dame, she was received by Bishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who would go on to become Pope John XXIII. The Bishop was very impressed with this elegant but frail woman who worked so tirelessly on behalf of the poor. According to Argentine writer Abel Posse, Roncalli later sent her a letter that she would treasure, and even kept it with her on her deathbed. Part of the letter read: “Señora, continue in your fight for the poor, but remember that when this fight is fought in earnest, it ends on the cross.”

As an interesting side note, Evita was the cover story of Time magazine while in Europe.

Although the article had a positive spin on the Argentine first lady, it also reported that she had been born illegitimate. As a result, the magazine was banned in Argentina for a while.

Law 13,010

Not long after the election, Argentine law 13,010 was passed, granting women the right to vote. The notion of women’s suffrage was not new to Argentina: a movement in favor of it had begun as early as 1910.

Law 13,010 did not pass without a fight, but Perón and Evita put all of their political weight behind it and the law passed with relative ease. All around the nation, women believed that they had Evita to thank for their right to vote, and Evita wasted no time in founding the Female Peronist Party. Women registered in droves, and not surprisingly, this new voting bloc re-elected Perón in 1952, this time in a landslide: he received 63% of the vote.

The Eva Perón Foundation

Since 1823, charitable works in Buenos Aires had been carried out almost exclusively by the stodgy Society of Beneficence, a group of elderly, wealthy society ladies. Traditionally, the Argentine first lady was invited to be the head of the society, but in 1946 they snubbed Evita, saying she was too young. Outraged, Evita essentially crushed the society, first by removing their government funding and later by establishing her own foundation.

In 1948 the charitable Eva Perón Foundation was established, its first 10,000 peso donation coming from Evita personally. It was later supported by the government, the unions and private donations. More so than anything else she did, the Foundation would be responsible for the great Evita legend and myth.

The Foundation provided an unprecedented amount of relief for Argentina’s poor: by 1950 it was giving away annually hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes, cooking pots and sewing machines. It provided pensions for the elderly, homes for the poor, any number of schools and libraries and even an entire neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Evita City.

The foundation became a huge enterprise, employing thousands of workers. The unions and others looking for political favor with Perón lined up to donate money, and later a percentage of lottery and cinema tickets went to the foundation as well. The Catholic Church supported it wholeheartedly.

Along with finance minister Ramón Cereijo, Eva personally oversaw the foundation, working tirelessly to raise more money or personally meet with the poor that came begging for help.

There were few restraints on what Evita could do with the money: much of it she simply gave away personally to anyone whose sad story touched her. Having once been poor herself, Evita had a realistic understanding of what the people were going through. Even as her health deteriorated, Evita continued to work 20-hour days at the foundation, deaf to the pleas of her doctors, priest and husband, who urged her to rest.

The Election of 1952

Perón came up for re-election in 1952. In 1951, he had to select a running mate and Evita wanted it to be her. The working class of Argentina was overwhelmingly in favor of Evita as vice-president, although the military and upper classes were aghast at the thought of an illegitimate former actress running the nation if her husband died. Even Perón was surprised at the amount of support for Evita: it showed him how important she had become to his presidency.

At a rally on August 22, 1951, hundreds of thousands chanted her name, hoping she would run. Eventually, however, she bowed out, telling the adoring masses that her sole ambitions were to help her husband and serve the poor. In reality, her decision to not run was probably due to a combination of pressure from the military and upper classes and her own failing health.

Perón once again chose Hortensio Quijano as his running mate, and they easily won the election. Ironically, Quijano himself was in poor health and died before Evita did. Admiral Alberto Tessaire would eventually fill the post.

Decline and Death

In 1950, Evita had been diagnosed with uterine cancer, ironically the same disease that had claimed Perón’s first wife, Aurelia Tizón. Aggressive treatment, including a hysterectomy, could not halt the advance of the illness and by 1951 she was obviously very ill, occasionally fainting and needing support at public appearances.

In June of 1952 she was awarded the title “Spiritual Leader of the Nation.” Everyone knew the end was near – Evita did not deny it in her public appearances – and the nation prepared itself for her loss. She died on July 26, 1952 at 8:37 in the evening. She was 33 years old. An announcement was made on the radio, and the nation went into a period of mourning unlike any the world has seen since the days of pharaohs and emperors.

Flowers were piled high on the streets, people crowded the presidential palace, filling the streets for blocks around and she was given a funeral fit for a head of state.

Evita’s Body

Without a doubt, the creepiest part of Evita’s story has to do with her mortal remains. After she died, a devastated Perón brought in Dr. Pedro Ara, a well-known Spanish preservation expert, who mummified Evita’s body by replacing her fluids with glycerine. Perón planned an elaborate memorial to her, where her body would be displayed, and work on it was started but never completed. When Perón was removed from power in 1955 by a military coup, he was forced to flee without her. The opposition, not knowing what to do with her but not wanting to risk offending the thousands who still loved her, shipped the body to Italy, where it spent sixteen years in a crypt under a false name. Perón recovered the body in 1971 and brought it back to Argentina with him. When he died in 1974, their bodies were displayed side-by-side for a while before Evita was sent to her present home, Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

Evita’s Legacy

Without Evita, Perón was removed from power in Argentina after three years. He returned in 1973, with his new wife Isabel as his running mate, the part that Evita was destined never to play.

He won the elections and died soon after, leaving Isabel as the first female president in the western hemisphere. Peronism is still a powerful political movement in Argentina, and is still very much associated with Juan and Evita. Current president Cristina Kirchner, herself the wife of a former president, is a Peronist and often referred to as “the new Evita,” although she herself downplays any comparison, admitting only that she, like many other Argentine women, found great inspiration in Evita.

Today in Argentina, Evita is considered a sort of quasi-saint by the poor that adored her so. The Vatican has received several requests to have her canonized. The honors given to her in Argentina are too long to list: she has appeared on stamps and coins, there are schools and hospitals named after her, etc.

Every year, thousands of Argentines and foreigners visit her tomb in Recoleta cemetery, walking past the graves of presidents, statesmen and poets to get to her, and they leave flowers, cards and presents. There is a museum in Buenos Aires dedicated to her memory which has become popular with tourists and locals alike.

Evita has been immortalized in any number of books, movies, poems, paintings and other works of art. Perhaps the most successful and well-known is the 1978 musical Evita, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, winner of several Tony Awards and later (1996) made into a movie with Madonna in the lead role.

Evita’s impact on Argentine politics cannot be understated. Peronism is one of the most important political ideologies in the nation, and she was a key element of her husband’s success. She has served as an inspiration for millions, and her legend grows. She is often compared with Ché Guevara, another idealistic Argentine who died young.

Source: Sabsay, Fernando. Protagonistas de América Latina, Vol. 2. Buenos Aires: Editorial El Ateneo, 2006.