Miami Herald, October, 1996
Maria Eva Duarte de Peron might have been an actress of modest talents and unexceptional beauty, but her Evita was a masterpiece.
A woman wielding power — decisive power — disrupted the established order, sparked deep loves and hatreds, aroused mixed desires and profound fears — especially as she came wrapped in layers of myth. Evita transcended the politics of Argentina.
She made Eva Duarte immortal.
Making a comeback
In fact, Evita is now re-entering the world stage in grand fashion, as the subject of biographies, works of fiction and, in her most curious success yet, starring in a Hollywood movie, brought to life by another actress of modest talents and unexceptional beauty — also daring, determined and brilliant at inventing herself.
Maria Eva Duarte was born illegitimate in a small town in the provinces, arrived in Buenos Aires still a teenager, poorly educated, penniless and with a dream of being a star. She clawed her way to small roles in theater, radio and the movies, met then-Col. Juan Domingo Peron, a man of influence and in clear ascent in Argentina’s political life, became his companion, then his wife and quickly remade herself into a political figure and social activist, operating within and without the bureaucracy in matters ranging from labor to welfare.
By the time she died of cancer at age 33 on July 26, 1952, Eva Peron not only was one of the most powerful women in the world but had become simply Evita, a semi-religious popular icon.
It was an extraordinary creation.
‘Responded to history’
“She had always wanted to be an actress and, suddenly, she finds herself the wife of the president and doing something completely different from what she expected to do,” says Marysa Navarro, professor of history at Dartmouth University and Evita’s biographer. “She didn’t look for what history gave her, and what is extraordinary is how Evita responded to history.”
Such was her power as both presence and symbol that at her death, Peron ordered the embalming of her body. After his toppling by a military coup in September 1955, the corpse became an extremely delicate political issue, was secreted away from Argentina and buried at an undisclosed place. It was returned 16 years later, a malicious gift from the military junta in power at the time to Peron as he re-entered political life in Argentina.
It lies now in the Duarte family mausoleum in an exclusive cemetery in Buenos Aires.
Her story was the stuff of fairy tales and radionovelas wrapped in state propaganda — and she wielded it like a blunt instrument, attacking her enemies and fearlessly promoting the cause of the working class, the dispossessed, the cabecitas negras, the poor, uneducated, brown-skinned Argentines of the interior, despised by the more urbane, European-looking porteños, the inhabitants of cultured, cosmopolitan Buenos Aires.
Tomas Eloy Martinez, a former journalist, author of The Peron Novel and the just-published Santa Evita, concedes he approached Evita with fascination but also the notion that “she had many of the qualities I detest in any human being: authoritarianism, intolerance, fanaticism. But little by little
I saw certain sincerity and absolute commitment to a mission she believed in. Class resentment might have been her great engine, but there was also a will to do good. She ended up earning my respect and admiration.”
Fact blurs to fiction
In Eva Peron’s life, fact routinely blurs into fiction. It is fitting than Madonna will be playing her in the upcoming movie musical Evita, especially when considering some of Evita’s myths were of her own making — from the confusion surrounding her date and place of birth and her ghostwritten autobiography, to her Hollywood-esque peroxide blond hair and austere fashion style late in her life. Her speechwriter had been the librettist of her radio soap operas.
And there was the state’s propaganda machine, manipulating popular sentiment through elementary school textbooks, semi- official vehicles such as the newspaper Democracia and rather creative skullduggery, even after her death.
Martinez recently recalled a conversation with a cab driver in Buenos Aires. The man was furious with the current Peronist president but was going to vote for his re-election anyway. Because of Evita, he explained, his grandmother had a cement floor in her bedroom and, before she died, she got to sleep on a bed rather than on a dirt floor. She promised that her family would always vote Peronist.
“But I asked him some basic follow-up questions and I figured this gift incident had happened between September and December of 1952. Evita couldn’t have gone in person to her house. She had died in July,” says Martinez. “What happened was that the (Eva Peron) foundation truck showed up to deliver goods with women dressed like Evita. Even two years after her death, people would still get letters signed by Eva. It was Eva multiplied.”
Still, not all aspects of Evita, the myth, were so manipulated.
For the poorest of the poor, for women, for the disenfranchised, the symbolism of her mere presence in the highest reaches of power struck a chord then and still does.
“History is something traditionally men make, men write, men tangle and untangle,” says Navarro. “Women suffered history, at least in those days. Evita, instead, was a woman who knew where she was and, in time, learned who she was and used what destiny, life, history gave her. That is exceptional.”
Because of her achievements, Eva Peron has the potential to become a feminist icon in North America. Navarro scoffs at the notion. “She is not a feminist. She hated feminists. Feminist Evita is an oxymoron. But if what we women want is to have a more conscious participation in the world around us, be it at home or public life, then Evita is truly important.”
In some respects, Evita’s life resembles that of Mexican painter Frida Khalo, a strong Latina who, improbably, years after her death, did become an object of adoration and a symbol of feminism for many younger women in the United States. Both Khalo, whose stormy marriage to muralist Diego Rivera became the subject of much fascination, and Eva Peron, emerged from the shadows of their husbands to establish a distinctive identity of their own. Both were strong women who defied the established gender roles in their societies.
Art critic Amalia Mesa Bains, director of visual and public arts at California State University at Monterrey Bay, who was instrumental in sparking the Frida Khalo phenomenon in the United States, is not surprised that Evita’s appeal transcends national and even cultural borders.
“For all the efforts of the feminist movement there is a real lack of a sense of women as powerful figures,” she says. “I immediately saw a parallel (between Khalo and Peron). Both had strong husbands, both were scandalous for their time, both were resilient. There is a parallel even in their suffering, both social and physical.
“There are reasons why people search out these myths. Myths are another form of history and they stand in for the legitimate history we, as women, don’t have access to.”
It is a theme Martinez takes up and develops in yet another direction.
“The myths are forms of popular wisdom,” he says. “Eva is an embodiment of Cinderella. She is also the servant who marries the all powerful patron in the soaps. Then in death she becomes
Sleeping Beauty, waiting for the kiss of the prince to wake up. Her body disappears.”
But Martinez also brings Eva Peron back to more earthbound concerns, with profound political implications.
Distribution of wealth
“There is a change in the philosophy of giving that she instigates (with the foundation) and it is very valuable,” says Martinez. “Until Eva, charity, giving, made you bigger, superior to those who received. Eva says no. She says the humiliated, the poor, have earned their place in the world and have a right to make demands. They are not receiving gifts but what is theirs. In some fashion, she proposes a greater justice in the distribution of wealth.”
It is this, a more complex, perhaps revolutionary, side of Evita that many observers fear will be inevitably trivialized in the rush to cash in Evita as pop icon.
It is something Mesa Bains has seen happen before.
“The perverse thing in these kind of phenomena is that, in a way, they reaffirm the most negative images of women — the sufferer, the victim, the scandalous, the outrageous — and not other aspects like being an intellectual or politically astute.
“Frida made contributions as writer and cultural leader in a period of important change in Mexico. But it doesn’t matter anymore,” says Mesa Bains. “I fear the same thing will happen to Evita: everyone will go around with hair dyed blonde in a chignon, wearing ’40s clothes and trying to look good — as if that’s all she did.”
But Eva Peron’s case might not be so clear-cut.
As an actress and politician, skilled in all matters of hype and image, Evita would certainly understand that those who live by myth can also die by myth.