Where I think out loud
What if you were a small town peasant, born out of marriage, at a time when being an illegitimate offspring was the same as having been born to a prostitute with ties to the devil? What if you jumped on a train and moved to the big city and became an actress, at a time when being an actress meant that you were – pure and simple – a prostitute… but, you don’t care about that anymore, because you come from a town where you were doomed to be a prostitute WITH ties to the Devil, anyway? What if you made it in the big city and met this charismatic-socialist-well spoken-handsome man with the destiny of a world leader? Well… I bet in those circumstances, by that time, you would have the balls to slip a piece of paper with your phone number and insinuate your availability for a tete-a-tete. … Or maybe not. But, that is what Eva Duarte (later Peron) did and that was the single moment that changed her life forever. A life that would divide a country, touch idolatry and be the target of passionate hatred, fostering enigmas and doing it all with the style of an icon. Broadway musical filled with errors included…
Evita – as she was called by her followers and then, by the rest of the world was born Eva Duarte on May 7th, 1919 in a small town called Los Toldos, 200 miles and a different planet away from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her father was a wealthy rancher from a nearby city with a family of his own and her mother, Juana, a poor country woman who sewed clothes for neighbors. Stigmatized as “the bastards”, Eva and her brother Juan, were ill-treated by their father’s wealthy family and thrown out of his funeral, in an act of cruelty that would scar Eva for the rest of her life. Her hatred for the rich and aristocrats can be traced back to that single event. In the midst of the harsh reality of a poor peasant bastard, Eva still dreamt with acting and being in movies and even though the circumstances are confusing and shrouded in secrecy as to how she did it, she did make it to the big city to pursue her dream of acting. She faced difficulties and extreme poverty, but made it into the theatre and eventually became a radio personality.
Enter Juan Domingo Peron. A high ranked colonel, he was the Minister of Labor and in the summer of 1944, he was organizing an “artistic fundraising gala” for the victims of a devastating earthquake, that had hit a far western province of Argentina. At this gala, Eva and Juan met. He was 48 years old and a widower, she was 24 and her past, already so heavy on her shoulders, that it had to be rewritten for different purposes from then on. She became his mistress, at a time when a politician wouldn’t even dream of being photographed next to an actress with a dubious past. It was a meeting of two controversial, passionate visionaries, who needed of one another to change the course of history. Peron had found what he later called his: “second “I”. Eva had met her destiny and was cast in the role of a lifetime. For his leap of faith in her, Eva would work herself out for Peron and enthrall the masses to his worship.
Her true nature, her metaphor and legacy, was work. Work validated her. Work was her cause. She worked tirelessly. She worked herself to death, some said. She found a religion within the confusing and cynical hallways of politics, a game she learned how to change. A game change that would bring her the adoration of thousands and thousands of poor working class people like herself, who proclaimed her a saint (and they meant it) as well as the ardent hatred of the right-wing upper classes, who claimed she was a “whore” and an evil manipulator of masses (and they meant it too).
Either way: She did change the course of history, even though, her megalomania and paranoid control of affairs, caught her wearing expensive designer clothes and indulging in vanity, she did turn the tables on the country’s politics forever.
She didn’t only get women’s vote approved, but she also engaged them in politics by creating the Women Peronist Party. When not invited, as it was traditionally expected for a First Lady, to lead the Women’s Society of Beneficence, because its aristocratic members didn’t approve of her background and past, Eva cut the government funding for the Society and created the Eva Peron Foundation, instead. With that money and more, raised in tireless “fundraising opportunities”, where she is said to have forced donations from the rich, she helped the unemployed, the homeless and the poor. She worked 22 hour days. She organized unions, created laws that protected children born outside of marriage, campaigned for civil right equality in marriage, legal job rules and regulations, she helped passed a law for free and mandatory elementary schools throughout the country and many more social and minority oriented laws, as she inaugurated hospital after hospital and school after school. All this, while fighting against the aristocratic class, dealing with political conspiracies within her own house. Her passion was such that it surpassed her gender and even her own principles, turning her into a tyrant towards those who opposed her and her views. Her almost mystical belief in the working class’s need for her, was the card she played against any obstacle, no matter who had to die, go to jail or leave the country on the way. But her power became too dangerous and when asked by the unions and the citizens to run as Vice President in Peron’s second term campaign, she had to resign the honor, forced by the strong opposition of the military, the congress and Peron’s fear to lose support. In her speech to turn down the Vice Presidency, tears of impotence break her voice and she can be seen crying on Peron’s shoulder. She was loosing her battle with cancer and with the opposition. In her weakest moment, defeated by her enemies, she tells the people over and over, to stand against Peron’s enemies, the enemies of the poor, her enemies…
But every human saint has to have a dark side, right? Evita’s demagogic idea of justice, her lavish lifestyle and dress code or her brutal hatred for whoever opposed her, are a child’s game compared to her (and Peron’s) foreign policy. A policy based as much in nationalism and megalomania as in unscrupulous greed. Now, many decades later and when almost anyone that can be held accountable has died, documents of her ties to fascism and Nazism are being released. Documents that recount her well publicized trip to Spain, where she bonded with Franco and her not so well publicized trip to Italy, France and Switzerland. These documents describe her negotiations to help Nazis “emigrate” in safety to Argentina in exchange for their looted treasures. Treasures that were owned by unnamed jewish victims and war torn european citizens, with which many Nazi’s paid for their escape from justice and a new life in South America.
Eva died when she was 33 in 1952, at the very top of her popularity, consumed by uterine cancer and a possible inept doctor. She weighed 36 kilos (some 80 lbs) and kept a working desk, a radio, daily newspapers and microphones to give out speeches in her deathbed until the very end. The sadness of those who loved her was unbearable and they demanded sainthood for “Evita” to calm the desolation. Peron was said to have been devastated and some very intimate household workers saw him crying by her side at the time she passed. But he was a mastermind politician nonetheless, and saw the need to preserve her image for those who cried for her and voted for him, hypnotized by Evita’s passion. So, he decided to embalm her body. He called on renowned Spaniard pathologist Dr. Ara, a man whose work on embalmed bodies was famous around the world. Dr. Ara worked on her body for the State Funeral, but is said to have worked on it for more than a year after that. In his dairies, he recounts how he extracted her blood and replaced it with alcohol and after that with glycerine and paraffin wax, to preserve the body with all its organs and the skin’s translucency. He was paid $100,000 and nervously guarded the body until Peron would transfer it to a mausoleum in her honor.
A State Funeral that lasted for days was organized and the nation cried by the mummified body of their “Saint Evita”. The silence of those who hated her, was what built the macabre story that came ahead. Expressions of hatred were heard in the palaces and estancias of the rich. The middle class, who opposed her, made their views heard as well, and graffiti reading: “Long Live Cancer!” were scattered throughout Buenos Aires. In the 1955 military coup they had their chance to spit on the memory of Evita and see Peron in exile. “Peronism” was banned, the image of Evita removed from every household, school or hospital. Peron escaped to Spain before finishing a mausoleum for Eva’s memory, where her body would be placed and her memory honored for centuries. Instead, the military dictators took the body from Dr. Ara’s hands and hid it, afraid to bury it and to exhibit it. Afraid to raise fanatics against the regime. Afraid of Eva even more than when she was alive. The next chapter is obscure and macabre. It involves necrophilia and the tragic death of everyone who ever handled the corpse.
When the news of the body’s disappearance broke, hundreds of citizens, union workers, women and children took the streets appalled by the sacrilege of disturbing Evita’s eternal sleep, claiming for the return of the body. The de facto President Aramburu, who had given the order to take the mummified corpse, afraid of the people’s fury, went back on his orders and the men who had taken it were stranded in hiding, never to be contacted by the president again. Strange happenings were reported. Everywhere the body was hid, candles and flowers showed up mysteriously, as if some fervent admirer of Evita was following them. The major in charge of the body, Colonel Koering took to drinking and was said to be “in love” with the dead Eva and went into long rants against “the bitch”, that alternated with sexual infatuation with whom he called “my woman”. His behavior was so out of control, that it got back to the president’s ears, who immediately took him off duty and put someone else in charge of the corpse. This new colonel, not knowing what else to do with “the hot potato”, shipped it to Italy. When officials in Italy opened the wooden box to corroborate that it was, in fact, the body of Eva Peron, they all fell to their knees, yelling “Milacoro! Milacoro!”. It took several minutes for the Argentinean commission to convince them that it was only Eva’s body with a masterful mummification makeover…..
From then on, it is not clear what happened to Eva’s corpse. In the early 70’s the military dictatorship was failing. The “peronists” were back and in a revolutionary episode that touches terrorism, they kidnaped and killed president Aramburu. Peron was to return to Argentina, claimed by the people as the new president. In an attempt to regain peace, he asked the Montoneros (extreme peronists – armed- but peronists) for Aramburu’s body; in exchange, he would be granted Evita’s body for proper burial.
A few more years went by. Peace tried. Peron died. His third wife, Isabel, another actress – now allowed to be Vice President, but not the shadow of who Evita was – kept the body. A new military dictatorship, with an even deadlier agenda came along. In 1976, before they massacred 30,000 civilians and anhiliated the country’s civil rights, they buried Eva Peron’s body at the Recoleta Cemetry. It is buried 8 feet under. Sealed in marble and forever in mystery.
Eva wrote her autobiography. An invention of her politically correct self, but a passionate exposition of her philosophy and legacy.
Another book on her life, death and the journey of her body, was written by and argentinean journalist and author Tomas Eloy Martinez in 1995. “Santa Evita” tells another part of Eva’s world wide known Cinderella story. An epitaph if you wish. The fictionalized, yet well researched, story of her embalmed stolen body, that was said to carry a curse and was smuggled halfway around the world, before it was properly buried 20 years after her death. The grotesque episode involves politicians, military officials and thugs from three countries. It was even suspected that it is not really Evita’s body the one that rests in the famous Recoleta Cementery, in Buenos Aires, where every year thousands of tourists come for a glimpse.