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Eva Peron was born into poverty to unwed parents in 1919. Named Maria Eva Duarte, she wouldn’t have been a likely choice to become the First Lady of Argentina. But fate intervened. Not only did Eva Peron become the most powerful woman in her country’s history at the time, but she used her platform as the wife of Argentinian president Juan Peron to champion women’s suffrage and the rights of laborers.
Though she maintained a glamorous public image, she was a polarizing force. Eva Peron was adored by some, while others reviled her. Even after her untimely death in 1952, people went to great lengths to protect her corpse from those who wished to do her harm. But the life she led between her humble birth and her painful death from cervical cancer was only the beginning.
Hers is a classic tale of rags to riches, with a splash of celebrity worship and a pinch of feminism to round out the story. As fate would have it, Evita became a legend, not only in Argentina, but throughout Latin America and the world.
Her early struggle
Maria Eva Duarte grew up in Junin, a province of Buenos Aires. Her father, Juan Duarte, was a wealthy rancher. Her mother, Juana Ibaguren, was not Duarte’s wife. In fact, Duarte had another family. Eva was the youngest of five children born to Juana. She had suffered through poverty, due to her family’s situation and the uncertainty of Argentinian politics. But she didn’t want to stay stuck in a small town, barely surviving as she’d watched her mother do.
Eva decided to pursue a career as an actor for the stage, radio, and film at age 15. She worked as a model, did some B-movies, and toured with a theater company. She didn’t achieve a high level of success on the screen. However she could support herself and gained a wealth of experience in the public eye.
At age 22, Eva Duarte met Colonel Juan Peron, at a charity fundraiser gala for recent earthquake victims. Undeniably taken with each other, they immediately began a relationship. It would last for the rest of her life, and some might argue, his as well.
It was 1945, and rapid political upheaval was the order of the day. With his military background, Juan Peron eventually became president. But he was constantly inspired by Evita, and hoping to mold her to follow his lead. Her impoverished childhood and subsequent success as an entertainer captivated the Argentinian people. She was relatable, especially to those in the labor force, who weren’t born into wealth. They saw an element of themselves in her. In turn, Juan Peron saw an advantage in reaching those who could help his career.
Juan Peron had become Labor Minister by 1945. His growing power and support from the nation’s laborers was viewed as a threat to President Edelmilo Farrell. In October, Peron was arrested. Within six days, hundreds of thousands of Argentinians assembled to demand his release. It was granted.
He married Eva the next day, despite her illegitimate childhood and questionable reputation gained from supporting herself as an entertainer. This was the beginning of a power couple.
The following year, with Eva by his side, campaigning for him and discussing his attributes with anyone who would listen, Juan Peron was elected president of Argentina in a landslide victory.
Now known as Evita, Eva Peron was beloved in much the same way Americans would later embrace Jacqueline Kennedy. She was stylish, relatable, and often requested to speak or attend important functions in place of her husband.
But not everyone adored her. Many in the political and aristocratic circles looked down on Evita for her humble beginnings. It’s customary that the First Lady be elected to head the Society of Beneficence. This charity group, ironically, supported orphans and homeless women, which was nearly Maria Eva Duarte’s fate. However, the ladies of the Society disapproved of Evita. They refused to name her as their president. So, she put up 10,000 pesos of her own money and created the Eva Peron Foundation.
Over the years, the foundation purchased and distributed shoes, cooking pots, and sewing machines. It provided jobs, gave out scholarships, and built homes and hospitals. Of course, there were allegations that money from the foundation was used for political gain. But as a figurehead, Evita went above and beyond her foundation’s efforts, often devoting time and personal attention to her country’s most destitute.
She was known to embrace the leprous and touch the wounds of the injured. It was this personal touch, literally and figuratively, t
hat made Evita so beloved by the common people of Argentina.
She later championed women’s suffrage, and helped create the first large women’s political party, the Female Peronist Party. It encouraged women, who, like Evita, had no previous desire or means to enter politics, to consider the opportunity for the first time.
Her life in politics
In 1951, she sought to become elected as vice president. Again, there was a considerable backlash among the military and aristocracy. They were unhappy with the idea that an actress of humble birth might one day run their country, in the event of Juan Peron’s death. But the working class, historically the most solid of Peron’s supporters, thanks to Evita, were eager to make it happen. They demanded she be put on the ballot. She ultimately declined, but it was a testament to her broad, undeniable appeal.
It’s been said that Evita turned down the vice presidency because Juan Peron didn’t want her to enter the race. Also because she knew it would be upsetting to the military and aristocracy. But it’s likely that another factor was her declining health. Though the true diagnosis was kept from her for some time, Evita had cervical cancer. She was weak and bleeding heavily. She had a hysterectomy and was the first Argentine to receive chemotherapy. Unfortunately, it was too late. Evita’s cancer had metastasized and was inoperable. She couldn’t stand without support, and when her husband was re-elected as president in 1952, her appearances were excruciatingly painful. She died about six weeks later, on July 26, 1952. Evita was just 33 years old.
After her death
The outpouring of grief by Argentines was overwhelming. Flower shops in Buenos Aires ran out of stock. People lined up for blocks to see her corpse, fittingly lying in state at the Ministry of Labor. Evita was embalmed and plans were underway to construct a memorial for her, with her body to be buried at its base. However, in the two years it took to construct the monument, Juan Peron was overthrown in a military coup. He fled the country in 1955, and in his haste, he was unable to secure Evita’s body. The new leaders removed Evita’s body from display.
Peronism was banned, making it illegal to possess pictures of Juan or Evita Peron, or even speak their names. In 1971, it was revealed that Evita’s body had been buried in an Italian crypt, under an assumed name, and allegedly with covert assistance from the Vatican. Her body, which had been carefully preserved during the embalming process, was damaged, although it is unclear whether it was intentional or due to carelessness.
Juan Peron was now living in Spain and had remarried. Evita’s body was exhumed and brought to him. His wife, Isabel, carefully cleaned the body, which was then restored by an expert. Even 16 years after Peron had been forced into exile, this association could have dangerous political consequences. The restoration expert received many threats and worked in secret.
In 1973, Juan Peron returned to Argentina and was elected president again, and his new wife, Isabel, became vice president. In 1974, Juan Peron died suddenly. It was Isabel Peron who oversaw the process of bringing Evita’s body back to Argentina. Once properly restored, it was displayed alongside the closed casket of Juan Peron.
In October 1976, 31 years after she married Juan Peron, and nearly a quarter of a century after her death, Evita was finally laid to rest. Safe in her family’s mausoleum in Buenos Aires, Evita’s crypt is well fortified. At long last, her fate as the symbol of Argentina’s people is secure.