But who is this Santa Evita?
Why all this howling, hysterical sorrow?
What kind of goddess has lived among us?
How will we ever get by without her?

“Oh What a Circus” Evita

In 1996, when I was in high school, a film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Broadway play Evita was released. Starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas, and Jonathan Pryce, it was a musical version of the story of Eva Duarte de Peron, wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron. Featuring the iconic song “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” it captured me almost instantly, making me desire to learn more, and ultimately inspiring a visit to Buenos Aires almost thirty years later. In fact, the songs of the show/film have been running nearly constantly in my head as I explore this incredible city.

A photograph of Evita Peron in Museo Evita

But as Che (Antonio Banderas’ character) asks, who is Eva Peron, known by all as Evita? How much truth is there in the film? And how is this woman, who became a political and cultural icon in her short life, known here today? If the film is to be believed, she wasn’t exceptionally wonderful as a person.

She had her moments, she had some style
The best show in town was the crowd
Outside the Casa Rosada crying, “Eva Peron”
But that’s all gone now
As soon as the smoke from the funeral clears
We’re all gonna see and how, she did nothing for years

“Oh What a Circus” Evita

Eva Duarte was born in a tiny rural Argentine town in 1919. She moved to Buenos Aires at the age of fifteen to pursue a career in acting and modeling. The film claims that she traveled there with the singer Agustin Magaldi, but her supposed affair with him doesn’t appear to be rooted in fact, as he didn’t play in her town in 1934.

After some initial struggles, the bleach-blonde Duarte found her footing as a model and radio actress, becoming one of the top paid radio stars by 1944, when she met Juan Peron. Both Eva and Colonel Juan Peron appeared at a charity benefit for victims of an earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people in the city of San Juan. The two apparently instantly connected, despite him being 48 and she only 24. Peron was deeply ambitious, and he claimed in his memoirs that he chose Eva specifically for the role she would play in his rise to power.

A film starring Eva Duarte, in Museo Evita

The couple’s rise to power is documented both in the film and here in Buenos Aires, where Museo Evita in the upscale Palermo district chronicles her life through her memoirs, artifacts, videos, and political propaganda. I’ll shorten the Juan Peron side of things, as those will be covered fully in a future article about his political legacy here in Argentina, and focus on her role, as the museum does. Peron was jailed briefly in 1945 for his actions against the currently-in-power regime. He married Evita after being released, and together, they emerged as forces with a political base of largely uneducated unionized workers. Evita herself was a champion of unions in Argentina, helping radio actors to unionize earlier in her life.

Museo Evita

In 1946, Peron was elected President of Argentina in a landslide. After his inauguration, both he and Evita spoke from the balcony at the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace on Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo. It is here that the film has her sing “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.” Apparently, getting permission to film in Casa Rosada proved to be challenging. Given the musical portrayal of Evita as being a bit more, shall we say, sexually liberated than a conservative Catholic country was comfortable with, as well as the reputation of Madonna, the Argentine government initially denied the filmmakers’ requests to film at Casa Rosada, so a mock-up was constructed in soundstages. However, permission was granted shortly before the cast and crew were set to leave the country, so Madonna did lip-sync from the balcony to an adoring crowd of 4,000 extras.

Juan and Evita Peron, in Museo Evita

High flying, adored
What happens now, where do you go from here?
For someone on top of the world
The view is not exactly clear
A shame you did it all at twenty-six

“High Flying Adored” Evita

Evita herself, only 26 at the time of the election, became very involved with a series of political initiatives. Through her foundation, she helped to open orphanages, championed women’s voting rights, and donated needed items to Argentina’s working poor. It was also rumored that the foundation, which kept almost no accounting records, siphoned off large amounts of money into Swiss bank accounts for the Perons and into money for bribes and other political favors. The museum covers only the positives, with no mention of even rumor of the rest.

Another photo from Museo Evita

In January 1950, Evita fainted during a public appearance, and after a short and brutal battle with cervical cancer, she died in 1952. The museum shows a looping video of some of her funeral procession, after which more than three million Argentines viewed her body lying in state, and flowers sold out both in Argentina and neighboring countries. She was only 33.

Evita Peron is buried in the Duarte family crypt, a modest – by the gaudy standards of the famous Recoleta Cemetery – stone temple inside of the most beautiful cemetery in Buenos Aires, in an off-the-beaten-path row of similar crypts. Maps that come with admission to the cemetery will guide you to her final resting place, and Google maps has the spot marked as well.

The Duarte crypt

Evita’s legacy is still strong more than 70 years after her death. It is said she is the second most popular woman in Latin American history, following only the Virgin of Guadalupe. Here in Argentina, she certainly is, with a city named for her, as well as public infrastructure. Her face appears on currency, and there is a lovely statue of her outside the National Library.

A statue of Evita outside the National Library

The contrasts between the portrayal of her life as saintly here in Buenos Aires and the depiction of her in the film are interesting, and as always, the truth is somewhere between. She did a lot of good, and some not so good. But there is no doubt that Evita Peron is one of the most famous Argentines of all time, and coming to Buenos Aires offers a great chance to experience some of her life firsthand.

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