Image via WikipediaAfter a wonderful weekend in Uruguay, land of chivito and Diego Forlán, I returned to Buenos Aires eagerly awaiting Monday. I am not a Monday-hater but I don't look forward to waking up early after the weekend particularly either. But this Monday I wanted to see a local Argentine tradition. It was July 26th and 85 years back Eva Peron passed away from cancer.
Her remains lay in the Recoleta Cemetery, five blocks from where I currently live, and since her death people have placed dozens of bouquets, roses and funeral arrangements by her tomb. Whether her body was there or not.
See, Eva Peron was a fascinating and incredibly powerful woman. So powerful in fact, that after she died and her husband Juan Peron was overthrown from the presidency by a military coup, her cadaver was removed from its display at the headquarters of Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT), a labor union, and ordered hidden under another name in a grave in Milan, Italy.
The CGT was the party led by Peron, the party of the workers and poor citizens that wanted rights and services from government. The party for which Evita, a nickname given to her by the people, became a mother- almost a saint.
Evita was born Eva Duarte in May of 1919, to an unmarried mother and into a humble family. At the tender age of 15 she moved from the rural village of Los Toldos to the grand city, Buenos Aires, to become an actress. Ten years after working in the industry and becoming a small star she met Juan Peron, a then colonel growing politically, and they married a year later. The second marriage for Juan, the first for Evita. Perhaps Juan saw potential in Evita, the eagerness to become somebody and be noticed, or perhaps they were madly in love, since many endearing love letters have been found from him to her.
Whatever the reason may have been one thing is sure, Juan hit the jackpot. He found a semi-famous, attractive, outspoken young woman who would look good next to him as president. But what he didn't know for sure was how his new wife would become bigger than him.
Evita assumed his role of first lady to a tee after Peron, as he is commonly referred to, became president in 1946. She would give political speeches, lobby for social justice, encourage women and the elderly to become politically involved, always looking fabulous. And I do think that this passion she showed for reinventing her country and helping those in need was not a complete act. Yes she lived in opulence, but she also met, and touched, and spoke with commoners and kings alike. I think Evita really had no consciousness of how her actions were shaping her image, she was becoming a princess of the people long before the concept became popular with Lady Di.
And so, by 28, Evita was adored by the proletariat who were supporting her husband to get what they rightly deserved and what she promoted. When it came time to battle critiquers she was the first to round the troops as well. The most interesting story I've heard so far about her power to rally the masses was when Peron got arrested in 1945, when he was vice president of Argentina, by the opposing party who thought he was too socialist. Evita urged the "Peronistas," or followers of Peron, to take arms, rally for him, defend their country against the opposition and, in secret, asked for an arsenal from a neighboring country to fight for her man. The great thing is that people actually listened to her. Thousands took to the streets to protest Peron's arrest; they sat outside the jail where he was held; and Evita got her guns.
The opposition caved in and released Peron on October 17, a day now honored as Loyalty Day. After this it was settled, Peron and Evita were the leaders of the nation and change was inevitable. Obviously opposition was still present, looking for a way to overthrow Peron. But it wasn't until Evita became ill with cervical cancer that his enemies found their answer. After a fast rise to fame and a dramatic goodbye to her people, the "descamisados" or shirtless as the poor were called, she passed away. She was 33 and her followers went as far as comparing her to Jesus, who also died at that age according to the Bible.
The haters went far too, posting signs saying "Viva el cancer," or hail cancer. Two years later, Peron was overthrown and the new regime wanted so much to leave no trace of Peronismo that they outlawed naming Juan or Eva Peron (a la Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter). They also took Eva's embalmed body from the headquarters of the CGT, since a tomb hadn't been built yet it was being kept htere, and sent it to Europe.
For 16 years the whereabouts of her remains were a mystery and until the military faced new challengers was her location disclosed. It turned out she had been buried in Italy under the name of "Maria Maggi" and several wax sculptures had been made through the years to tip off those seeking her body. Weird right? This nation has a relationship with necrophilia, that in more ways that one I like... but that's another story. Evita was returned to Argentina, her embalmed body beat up and showing signs of abuse. Since the intended monument/tomb that Peron wanted to build for her was never finished, she was buried in her family's tomb in Recoleta and here's where we come back the beginning of this post.
Every year the alley in which her tomb is found gets filled with flowers and visitors, the Recoleta Cemetery is like a little city invaded by mausoleums left and right so the "alleys" are like streets dividing sections of this city of the dead. Tourists, Peronistas and the elderly who still remember seeing Evita when they were mere kids stop by to say a prayer, to look at her tomb or to pass fliers proclaiming the eternal leader.
That's not what shocked me the most, even if I was expecting to see tourists invading the area and a few lowers here and there. The blatant inability or lack of desire to let go is what left me at awe. The people, her followers, her fans, still rave of Evita as if she had died yesterday. And in common chats people, my age not just older, are passionate when they talk of Peron and his magnificent wife. For all she did, she was and is still either loved or hated because of a possible hypocrisy in her agenda. However, people today have more tact than to say "Thank God she died of cancer." But the sentiment is still there. You either love Evita or you hate Evita.
In my time here I've noticed this is true in other subjects. People either love Maradona or they hate Maradona. They love Kirchner or they hate Kirchner. They love mate (a local tea drink) or they hate mate. There's no gray here, and for a person who always hailed being a "yes" or "no" decision maker...I gotta say this has changed my views. I suddenly like gray because there's so much to choose from here. In regards to comments or stands about politics, economy, futbol or art. Yet, I still wonder what Evita must have imagined.
Did she dream she'd be the icon of millions, even after her death? Did she dream she'd be known world-wide, not for her history but because Madonna realized hers was one hot story to tell? Did she even imagine that after almost 50 years, people would still compare her to a goddess or a devil and praise or curse her name?
I can only imagine being her, an being scared silly to go through what she went through. At my age (25) she was already in the public eye, and maybe I could deal with that but she was about to meet a very controversial man and become his woman. In two short years (28) I would have to be in a campaign, promoting ideas that maybe, or maybe not, were in cue to what I believed. Just two years after that (30) I would have to address my fellow citizens, neighbors, friends, frenemies, family members, church goers, day after day as a first lady. Finally two years after that (almost 33) I'd be dying.
Maybe it is because I've grown up, taught to enjoy youth and become "serious" until I know what it is I want to do with my life. But when do we really know what "it" is? Why can't we join those few brave souls and live without a regular kind of job, facing what's in front of us and taking advantage of a bad situation, seeing it as an opportunity, more often?
I guess I see Evita as a mastermind, who took what was in front of her and seized the chance to make her dreams come true, slowly realizing that her dreams also affected the dreams of those around her. But maybe she didn't . Maybe Evita never really understood the wonder of it all, of her image, her power, what she left behind. Maybe she was just always dreaming.