Evita at 100

One hundred years ago on this day, Eva María Ibarguren was born, the youngest of five children in a small town in the Argentine pampas called Los Toldos. The bastard daughter of a wealthy landowner and his impoverished mistress, by the time Eva María was one years old, her single mother had been abandoned by her lover and had to move with five children to a slum in the city of Junin. On June 4, 1946, Eva María at the age of 27, under the name of María Eva Duarte de Perón, would become Argentina’s most popular and most controversial first lady, Evita.

Adored and despised, to this day her face seems to be everywhere in the City of Buenos Aires (and not just on the 100 peso bills). It is likely that there will not be much if any official celebration of Evita’s birth as: 1) Spanish language cultures tends to hold bigger celebrations on death anniversaries than on birth anniversaries, and 2) the current government is “anti-Peronist” and would be happy to erase the memory and legacy of Evita and Perón.

Here at BA City Guide though, in honor of her centennial, we offer a few relatively factual details about the mythic Evita.

❶ At the age of 15, in 1934, she ran away from home to the big city of Buenos Aires. In reality, Evita was not just one young girl leaving her impoverished hometown, but rather part of a constant migration of poor people leaving farming towns to look for work and fortune in the big cities after the global economic crisis. The upper classes referred to these poor migrants as cabecitas negras (“little black heads”), a derogatory term that carried racism and classicism. For Peronistas, the followers of Evita and her husband, President Juan Domingo Perón, having an identity as a cabecita negra would become a badge of working class honor.

❷ Though she dreamed of being a stage and screen actress when she arrived in Buenos Aires, Evita’s success came through the radio. A military coup in 1943, gave preference to radio dramas with historical content and opened a door for the struggling actress. After eight years of mostly minor roles, Evita became a radio star portraying strong women in period pieces for Radio Belgrano.

❸ The key moment for Juan Perón’s rise to power was the legendary workers march demanding the liberation of Perón on October 17, 1945, known to Peronists as “the Day of Loyalty”. The famous Lloyd-Webber musical builds the myth that gives Evita credit for organizing the march, but in reality there is little evidence to support this claim. In fact, the marches were organized by leaders of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) which helped put the Peron’s in power.

❹ From her beginnings as a First Lady, Evita was the center of controversy. Traditionally, the Society of Beneficence – a charitable organization that was run by society ladies and dated back to 1823 – elected the First Lady of the nation as the organization’s president, but in 1946 the members voted against Evita claiming she was too young. For many though, it was widely believe that because of her history of poverty and her work in the theater the society ladies believed that she would be an inappropriate role model. Evita’s “revenge” was to form the Eva Peron Foundation saying it was time for “social justice”. The Eva Peron Foundation’s mission went far beyond that of the Society of Beneficence. It aimed to “contribute or collaborate by any possible means to the creation of works tending to satisfy the basic needs for better life of the less privileged classes.” At its height, the Foundation provided employment for over 14,000 workers, and annually distributed 500,000 sewing machines, 400,000 paris of shoes and 200,000 cooking pots.

❺ Evita died on July 26, 1952, from cervical cancer. Just under three months before, on Workers Day she gave a farewell speech, speaking to her descamisados (“shirtless ones”), the poorest of the Peronists. Here is an excerpt:

I, after a long time of not having contact with the people as I am doing today, want to say these things to my “shirtless ones”, to the humble people who I carry so deep within my heart, that in the happy hours, in the hours of pain and in the hours of uncertainty, I have always lifted my gaze to them, because they are pure and in being pure see with the eyes of the soul and know how to appreciate extraordinary things, like General Perón. I want to speak today, even though the General has ask me to be brief, because I want the people to know that we are ready to die for Perón and I want the traitors to know that we will no longer come here to say “present” to Perón, like on September 28th, but rather that we are going to create justice with our very own hands.