It is July 26, 1952 and a group of Argentinean aristocrats toast to the news of the death of one of their great enemies, first lady Eva Perón. (Larson) But on the streets of small, rural towns and in the homes of the people, there was mourning; because first lady Eva Peron was much more than a fearless political leader, she was the spiritual leader of a nation. Not only did she single-handedly gain for woman the right to vote, but she became a popular movie actress, proved that woman could be in roles of power, and is one of the most loved people in Argentinean history. Throughout her life, she did things that had never been done before by a woman from her background. Eva changed the world. Her story begins in the tiny Argentinean town of Los Toldos. (Sanavarro)
On November 21, 1919, Maria Eva Duarte was born the fifth of five children of Juana Ibarguren. Until a time shortly after Evita’s birth, her father, Juan Duarte, was a fairly successful landowner. Duarte was never married to Juana Ibarguren, however, and had another family in a nearby town. After a shift of local power from conservatives to radicals (two political parties of the state), the family was faced with economic difficulties. Her father abandoned Juana and his children to return to his “real” family, forcing them from a comfortable home to a two-room shack and a life of poverty. Frequently moving and always unsure of weather a meal would come, growing up was a constant struggle for Eva.
Unlike her older siblings, Eva and Erminda- the fourth born child of Juana- never enjoyed their father’s prosperous times and knew of nothing but scarcity. It was through these hard times that Eva and Erminda became very close. They were inseparable playmates, playing tag, hide-and-go-seek, hopscotch, and using homemade costumes to dress up. (Larson)
Becoming another person was a great way for Eva to escape all the stress of life. She would even participate in Erminda’s school performances when she herself was too young even to attend school. When she did come of age to “don the Argentinean schoolchild’s white smock” (Radison), however, the school theater was where Evita flourished, and she soon found a love of singing and acting. Her older sisters, Elisa and Blanca, encouraged her imagination with elaborate bedtime stories and her eldest brother, Juan, created playhouses for Eva and Erminda as well as built them the toys they could not afford.
But as time passed, Juan soon found work at the town’s pharmacy, Blanca began to teach at the local school, and Elisa became engaged to Commander of the Military District, Major Alfredo Arrieta. Even Erminda sought a job and a fiancée. Faced with the decision of whether to settle down in Junín or leave, she chose to desert her small town for the bright lights of Buenos Aires in pursuit of her dream to become an actress. Being on her own changed Eva from a naive girl into a self-directed woman, but “the impact of the discovery that there are poor and rich in the world and the emotional indignation felt when faced with injustice, these were things she would always keep.” (“To be Evita”)
After five years of struggle, she finally hit the big time and gained her own radio show with Radiolandia. In an interview with Radiolandia, she explained how she felt about her success: “I am not an adventuress, although some (those who never forgive a young woman for succeeding) make me out to be one. I have spent more than five years dedicated to what is in me a firmly-rooted vocation: the arts. These have been five years of troubles, of noble struggles when I’ve known the uncertainty of adversity as well as the gratification of success” (qtd. in “To be Evita”)
It was at a charity concert for earthquake victims where she first met Juan Domingo Perón. They fell in love ‘at first sight’ and Eva quickly recognized her relationship with Juan as an “in” to Argentina’s world of politics. She became determined to make a difference for the poor families of her country, such as hers was. Eva used her immense charisma to get huge support from the poor and working classes of Argentina. And when Juan Perón was arrested due to political unrest around the end of World War II, Eva’s precious discamisetos (Spanish for ‘shirtless’) didn’t let her down. Huge crowds rose in protest and within a week, Perón was released and promptly married Eva, thus beginning her life as the wife of a politician. (Eva Perón: A brief Biography)
On March 28, 1946, Juan Perón was elected as President of the republic of Argentina. (Pettinger) For Evita, this meant the start of the fight for woman’s suffrage and justice for those living in poverty. Heading rallies, speeches, and meetings, Eva was inspiring huge crowds of her supporters with her dream of a future where the women of the nation had rights and the poor were helped by the rich. With time, and a lot of work on Evita’s part, these dreams would come true.
Eva was constantly working to improve the world on a larger scale. She devoted several hours every day to visits with the poor, hospitals, orphanages, and factories. She started her own charity, The Maria Eva Duarte Foundation in June 1947. Eva even had her own office in Buenos Aires where anyone with financial difficulties could walk in and ask for her help. Daily, huge crowds flocked to her office and Evita would help each and every one of them. In what little free time she had, Eva would raise support for her woman’s rights movement, which finally paid off on September 9, 1947 when Law 13,010 was passed, establishing the equality of political rights between men and women. President Perón immediately wrote up a decree stating that women had the right to vote. He symbolically gave it to Eva, implying it was her accomplishment and hers to share with the people. She announced with joy to the woman of Argentina their new found rights:
“I can feel my hands tremble with joy as I grasp the laurel proclaiming victory.” (qtd. in “Eva Perón Biography”) Eva became even more politically active in taking up the role of secretary of labor. This gave her the reputation of being more than just the first lady, but an active member of Argentinean government. However, through all of this Eva was gaining more and more enemies from the oligarchy and upper-class of Argentinean society as well as military and political opponents. Many of them attempted to tarnish her image by creating myths and spreading false rumors.
To ensure that other countries would not receive this image of her, Juan and Eva embarked on the “rainbow tour” in 1947. (Larson) They began by visiting Spain, where she was accepted warmly. She was not quite so welcome on their next stop, Rome, where Evita visited and received a rosary from the pope. Then, after traveling to France, Eva and Perón began to gain huge national attention- even appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Biographers Fraser and Navarro wrote an official account of Eva and Juan’s entire trip and had nothing but good things to say about Evita. As she traveled through the poverty-stricken streets of some European towns, Eva passed out100-peseta notes to many poor children and their families. The people seemed to love her. Next, they departed for Switzerland. There, she was rather un-popular. People threw tomatoes at the Perón’s car and booed them. After a stone was thrown at her through a window, Eva had had enough and returned to Argentina.
Upon their return, another false rumor was spread about Eva hiding secret funds in a Swiss bank account. Yet her loyal supporters were not any less enthusiastic or endearing, and Juan was re-elected by an increased 64% percent of the vote (the first time he ran he only won by 53%). And this time, Eva was put forward for vice-presidential candidacy by the newly developed ‘peronist’ party and accepted. (“Eva Perón Biography”)Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with cancer and died before she was elected, which it was supposed she would have been because of her vast popularity and adoration by the people. A huge funeral with over 1.000.000 guests honored her death.
Even after her death, Eva Perón’s legacy lives on. Her strong support for the poor and working classes sparked a political reform movement and her visits to other countries also inspired change. Celebrating her love of the theatre, the life of Eva Perón was developed into a musical, Evita, by Alan Parker and was released in 1996, to become a huge hit. Madonna starred as Evita and the script was ensured to be based off of and closely follow real events in the life of Eva Perón. Her role her country’s government was never forgotten either, and her picture and name are still used as symbols of the desire for justice and equality today. (Fraser) In only 80 years, Argentinean women went from having no rights whatsoever to having their first female president. In October 2007, Cristina Fernandez was elected. Fernandez used the symbol of Evita in many of her campaigns and admits that she owes much of her success in politics to Eva.
Eva Duarte Perón affected the lives of millions of people in Argentina, and throughout the world. “Both her friends and enemies agreed she was a person of great personal charm.” (Radisson) She became so much more than just Eva Perón, the first lady. She was a saint, a soldier, and a savior to her people. It was by the unwavering sprit that burned within her since her beginnings as an actress and through the thousands of kind deed s she did out of compassion that she became forever Evita.
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