Eva Perón: Biography of Evita, First Lady of Argentina

Picture of Argentinia's first lady, Eva Peron (Evita).
Promotional headshot portrait of Argentinean singer, actress, and first lady, Eva Duarte Peron. (circa 1940s). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Eva Perón, the wife of Argentine president Juan Perón, was the first lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death in 1952. As the first lady, Eva Perón, fondly called “Evita” by many, played a major role in her husband's administration. She is widely remembered for her efforts to help the poor and for her role in getting women the vote.

Although Eva Perón was adored by the masses, some Argentines intensely disliked her, believing Eva's actions were driven by a ruthless ambition to succeed at all costs. Eva Perón's life was cut short when she died of cancer at the age of 33.

Dates: May 7, 1919 – July 26, 1952

Also Known As: Maria Eva Duarte (born as), Eva Duarte de Perón, Evita

Famous Quote: "One cannot accomplish anything without fanaticism."

Eva's Childhood

Maria Eva Duarte was born in Los Toldos, Argentina on May 7, 1919, to Juan Duarte and Juana Ibarguren, an unmarried couple. The youngest of five children, Eva, as she came to be known, had three older sisters and a brother.

Juan Duarte worked as the estate manager of a large, successful farm and the family lived in a house on the main street of their small town. However, Juana and the children shared Juan Duarte's income with his "first family," a wife and three daughters who lived in the nearby town of Chivilcoy.

Not long after Eva's birth, the central government, which had previously been run by wealthy and corrupt landowners, came under the control of the Radical Party, made up of middle-class citizens who favored reform.

Juan Duarte, who had benefited greatly from his friendships with those landowners, soon found himself without a job. He returned to his hometown of Chivilcoy to join his other family. When he left, Juan turned his back on Juana and their five children. Eva was not yet a year old.

Juana and her children were forced to leave their home and move into a tiny house near the railroad tracks, where Juana made a meager living from sewing clothes for the townspeople. Eva and her siblings had few friends; they were ostracized because their illegitimacy was considered scandalous.

In 1926, when Eva was six years old, her father was killed in a car accident. Juana and the children traveled to Chivilcoy for his funeral and were treated like outcasts by Juan's "first family."

Dreams of Being a Star

Juana moved her family to a larger town, Junin, in 1930, seeking more opportunities for her children. The older siblings found jobs and Eva and her sister enrolled in school. As was the case in Los Toldos, other children were warned to stay away from the Duartes, whose mother was deemed less than respectable.

As a teenager, young Eva became fascinated with the world of movies; in particular, she loved American movie stars. Eva made it her mission to one day leave her small town and life of poverty and move to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, to become a famous actress.

Against her mother's wishes, Eva made the move to Buenos Aires in 1935 when she was only 15 years old. The actual details of her departure remain cloaked in mystery.

In one version of the story, Eva traveled to the capital on a train with her mother, ostensibly to audition for a radio station. When Eva succeeded in finding a job in radio, her angry mother then returned to Junin without her.

In the other version, Eva met a popular male singer in Junin and convinced him to take her with him to Buenos Aires.

In either case, Eva's move to Buenos Aires was permanent. She only returned to Junin for short visits to her family. Older brother Juan, who had already moved to the capital city, was charged with keeping an eye on his sister.

(When Eva later became famous, many of the details of her early years were difficult to confirm. Even her birth records mysteriously vanished in the 1940s.)

Life in Buenos Aires

Eva arrived in Buenos Aires at a time of great political change. The Radical Party had fallen out of power by 1935, replaced by a coalition of conservatives and wealthy landowners known as the Concordancia.

This group removed reformists from government positions and gave their jobs to their own friends and followers. Those who resisted or complained were often sent to prison. Poor people and the working class felt powerless against the wealthy minority.

With few material possessions and little money, Eva Duarte found herself among the poor, but she never lost her determination to succeed. After her job at the radio station ended, she found work as an actress in a troupe that traveled to small towns throughout Argentina. Although she earned little, Eva made certain she sent money to her mother and siblings.

After gaining some acting experience on the road, Eva worked as a radio soap opera actress and even secured a few small film roles. In 1939, she and a business partner started their own business, the Company of the Theater of the Air, which produced radio soap operas and a series of biographies about famous women.

By 1943, although she could not claim movie star status, 24-year-old Eva Duarte had become successful and fairly well-off. She lived in an apartment in an upscale neighborhood, having escaped the shame of her impoverished childhood. By sheer will and determination, Eva had made her adolescent dream something of a reality.

Meeting Juan Perón

On January 15, 1944, 600 miles from Buenos Aires, a massive earthquake struck western Argentina, killing 6,000 people. Argentines across the country wanted to help their fellow countrymen. In Buenos Aires, the effort was led by 48-year-old Army Colonel Juan Domingo Perón, the head of the nation's labor department.

Perón asked Argentina's performers to use their fame to promote his cause. Actors, singers, and others (including Eva Duarte) walked the streets of Buenos Aires to collect money for earthquake victims. The fundraising effort culminated in a benefit held at a local stadium. There, on January 22, 1944, Eva Duarte met Colonel Juan Perón.

Born on October 8, 1895, Perón had been raised on a farm in Patagonia in southern Argentina. He had joined the army at the age of 16 and had risen through the ranks to become a colonel. When the military took control of the Argentine government in 1943, overthrowing the conservatives in power, Perón was well-positioned to become one of its key leaders.

Perón distinguished himself as labor secretary by encouraging laborers to form unions, thereby giving them the freedom to organize and strike. By doing so, he also gained their loyalty.

Perón, a widower whose wife had died of cancer in 1938, was immediately drawn to Eva Duarte. The two became inseparable and very soon, Eva proved herself Juan Perón's most ardent supporter. She used her position at the radio station to feature broadcasts that praised Juan Perón as a benevolent government figure.

In what amounted to propaganda, Eva made nightly announcements about the wonderful services the government was providing for its poor people. She even staged and acted in skits which supported her claims.

The Arrest of Juan Perón

Perón enjoyed the support of many of the poor and those living in rural areas. Wealthy landowners, however, did not trust him and feared he wielded too much power. By 1945, Perón had achieved the lofty positions of minister of war and vice president and was, in fact, more powerful than President Edelmiro Farrell.

Several groups—including the Radical Party, the Communist Party, and conservative factions—opposed Perón. They accused him of dictatorial behaviors, such as censorship of the media and brutality against university students during a peaceful demonstration.

The final straw came when Perón appointed a friend of Eva's as secretary of communications, enraging those in government who believed Eva Duarte had become too involved in affairs of state.

Perón was forced by a group of army officers to resign on October 8, 1945, and taken into custody. President Farrell —- under pressure from the military -— then ordered that Perón be held on an island off the coast of Buenos Aires.

Eva appealed to a judge to get Perón released but to no avail. Perón himself wrote a letter to the president demanding his release and the letter was leaked to newspapers. Members of the working class, Perón's staunchest supporters, came together to protest Perón's incarceration.

On the morning of October 17, workers all over Buenos Aires refused to go to work. Shops, factories, and restaurants stayed closed, as employees took to the streets, chanting " Perón!" The protestors brought the capital to a grinding halt, forcing the government to release Juan Perón. (For years after, October 17 was observed as a national holiday.)

Just four days later, on October 21, 1945, 50-year-old Juan Perón married 26-year-old Eva Duarte in a simple civil ceremony.

President and First Lady

Encouraged by the strong show of support, Perón announced that he would run for president in the 1946 election. As the wife of a presidential candidate, Eva came under close scrutiny. Ashamed of her illegitimacy and childhood poverty, Eva was not always forthcoming with her answers when questioned by the press.

Her secrecy contributed to her legacy: the "white myth" and the "black myth" of Eva Perón. In the white myth, Eva was a saint-like, compassionate woman who helped the poor and disadvantaged. In the black myth, the Eva Perón with the questionable past was depicted as ruthless and ambitious, willing to do anything to advance her husband's career.

Eva quit her radio job and joined her husband on the campaign trail. Perón did not affiliate himself with a particular political party; instead, he formed a coalition of supporters from different parties, made up primarily of workers and union leaders. Perón supporters were known as descamisados, or "shirtless ones," referring to the working class, in contrast to the wealthy class, who would be attired in suits and ties.

Perón won the election and was sworn in on June 5, 1946. Eva Perón, who had been raised in poverty in a small town, had made the unlikely leap to the first lady of Argentina. (Pictures of Evita)

"Evita" Helps Her People

Juan Perón inherited a country with a strong economy. Following World War II, many European nations, in dire financial circumstances, borrowed money from Argentina and some were forced to import wheat and beef from Argentina as well. Perón's government profited from the arrangement, charging interest on the loans and fees on the exports from ranchers and farmers.

Eva, who preferred to be called the affectionate name Evita ("Little Eva") by the working class, embraced her role as the first lady. She installed members of her family in high government positions in areas such as the postal service, education, and customs.

Eva visited workers and union leaders at factories, questioning them about their needs and inviting their suggestions. She also used these visits to give speeches in support of her husband.

Eva Perón saw herself as a dual persona; as Eva, she performed her ceremonial duties in the role of the first lady; as "Evita," champion of the descamisados, she served her people face-to-face, working to fill their needs. Eva opened offices in the Ministry of Labor and sat at a desk, greeting working-class people in need of help.

She used her position to get help for those who came in with urgent requests. If a mother could not find adequate medical care for her child, Eva saw to it that the child was taken care of. If a family lived in squalor, she arranged for better living quarters.

Eva Perón Tours Europe

Despite her good deeds, Eva Perón had many critics. They accused Eva of overstepping her role and interfering in government affairs. This skepticism toward the first lady was reflected in negative reports about Eva in the press.

In an effort to better control her image, Eva purchased her own newspaper, the Democracia. The newspaper gave heavy coverage to Eva, publishing favorable stories about her and printing glamorous photos of her attending galas. Newspaper sales soared.

In June 1947, Eva traveled to Spain at the invitation of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Argentina was the only nation that maintained a diplomatic relationship with Spain following WWII and had given financial aid to the struggling country.

But Juan Perón would not consider making the trip, lest he be perceived as fascist; he did, however, allow his wife to go. It was Eva's first trip on an airplane.

Upon her arrival in Madrid, Eva was welcomed by more than three million people. After 15 days in Spain, Eva went on to tour Italy, Portugal, France, and Switzerland. After becoming well-known in Europe, Eva Perón was also featured on the cover of Time magazine in July 1947.

Perón is Re-elected

Juan Perón's policies became known as "Perónism," a system that promoted social justice and patriotism as its priorities. President Perón 's government took control of many businesses and industries, ostensibly to improve their production.

Eva played a major role in helping to keep her husband in power. She spoke at large gatherings and on the radio, singing the praises of President Perón and citing all of the things he had done to help the working class. Eva also rallied working women of Argentina after the Argentine Congress gave women the vote in 1947. She created the Perónist Women's Party in 1949.

The efforts of the newly-formed party paid off for Perón during the 1951 election. Nearly four million women voted for the first time, helping to re-elect Juan Perón.

But much had changed since Perón's first election five years earlier. Perón had become increasingly authoritarian, placing restrictions upon what the press could print, and firing—even imprisoning—those who opposed his policies.

Evita's Foundation

By early 1948, Eva Perón was receiving thousands of letters a day from needy people requesting food, clothing, and other necessities. In order to manage so many requests, Eva knew she needed a more formalized organization. She created the Eva Perón Foundation in July 1948 and acted as its sole leader and decision-maker.

The foundation received donations from businesses, unions, and workers, but these donations were often coerced. People and organizations faced fines and even jail time if they did not contribute. Eva kept no written record of her expenditures, claiming that she was too busy giving the money away to the poor to stop and count it.

Many people, having seen newspaper photos of Eva dressed in expensive dresses and jewels, suspected her of keeping some of the money for herself, but these charges could not be proven.

Despite suspicions about Eva, the foundation did accomplish many important goals, awarding scholarships and building houses, schools, and hospitals.

An Early Death

Eva worked tirelessly for her foundation and therefore was not surprised that she was feeling exhausted in early 1951. She also had aspirations to run for vice president alongside her husband in the upcoming November election. Eva attended a rally supporting her candidacy on August 22, 1951. The following day, she collapsed.

For weeks thereafter, Eva suffered abdominal pain, but at first, refused to let doctors perform tests. Eventually, she agreed to exploratory surgery and was diagnosed with inoperable uterine cancer. Eva Perón was forced to withdraw from the election.

On election day in November, a ballot was brought to her hospital bed and Eva voted for the first time. Perón won the election. Eva appeared only once more in public, very thin and obviously ill, at her husband's inaugural parade.

Eva Perón died on July 26, 1952, at the age of 33. Following the funeral, Juan Perón had Eva's body preserved and was planning to put it on display. However, Perón was forced into exile when the army staged a coup in 1955. Amidst the chaos, Eva's body disappeared.

Not until 1970 was it learned that soldiers in the new government, fearing that Eva could remain a symbolic figure for the poor—even in death—had removed her body and buried her in Italy. Eva's body was eventually returned and re-buried in her family’s crypt in Buenos Aires in 1976.

Juan Perón, along with third wife Isabel, returned from exile in Spain to Argentina in 1973. He ran again for president that same year and won for the third time. He died one year later.