Thursday, April 14, 2016

Eva Perón, Political Leader, Feminist, First Lady of Argentina

Waving to supporters in Buenos Aires, 1951
Eva Perón was an Argentinean actress who became a powerful political leader during her husband's presidency. She fought for the lower economic classes and worked tirelessly to help the country's most needy.

"A man of action is one who triumphs over the rest. A woman of action is one who triumphs for the rest." ~ Eva Perón

Eva Perón was born on May 7th, 1919 in Los Toldos, Buenos Aires, the fifth child of Juana Ibaguren and Juan Duarte.

Eva's father worked as a Justice of the Peace but he had two families and two wives, so money was scarce; a situation that only grew worse when he died in a car crash on January 8th, 1926.

After his death, sister Erminda remembers how their survival "became a struggle which took on a new aspect each day" (My Sister Evita, 1972). Their mother Juana suffered from ulcers and varicose veins in her legs but would sit at the sewing machine for hours on end, working to earn enough money.

Recalls Erminda: "Each morning we had to help her get out of bed. It cost her a great deal to get up, but she bore her suffering stoically and never stopped working. We were witnesses and participants in her struggle. She never complained. She never put her need to rest above our need to survive. When the doctor recommended rest as a prerequisite for healing, she responded forcefully, 'I don’t have time. If I rest, how will I work, how will we live?'"

It was an example absorbed by her children and that would be played out by Eva in her political life. Decades later, when her mother told her she was burning herself out by working from early morning until late at night and she must rest, Eva would tell her mother staunchly, "I can't, Mother. I don't have the time."

Career as an actress

Eva left school by the sixth grade to follow her aspiration to become an actress. As she would state in her book In My Own Words, she was not afraid of going out on her own when seeking her own destiny.

"I have always lived in freedom. Like the birds, I have always liked the free air of the forests. I have not even been able to tolerate that servitude that comes with being in your parents’ house or the town of your birth. I have wanted to live on my own and I have lived on my own" (1951).

Eva spent years in the city of Buenos Aires working as an actress in the theater, then in radio and film. She lived in boarding houses on the outskirts of town when first starting out, then worked her way up to an apartment in the city center. By 1939 she had her own radio company, and in 1943 her own radio show.

In 1944 she met and fell in love with Colonel Juan Perón.

Juan Perón

The courtship of Juan Perón and Eva was certainly an unusual one, but so was the political and social climate they were in at the time. They met at a charity event for a local disaster: on January 15th, 1944 an earthquake destroyed 90% of the city of San Juan, and 7,000 people died, with 12,000 more left injured. A national relief effort was organized by Juan Perón. Eva Duarte was one of the stars who agreed to participate, and their relationship began.

In May of 1944 Eva was elected President of the Agrupación Radial Argentina, a union she had founded a year prior. Juan had been designated Vice President of Argentina, but by October of 1945 his opposition succeeded in obtaining his resignation, and had him arrested.

Workers who supported Juan Perón and his labor policies heard of his arrest, and on the morning of October 17th they set down their tools and walked down to the Plaza de Mayo, shouting and cheering for their Colonel (Juan Perón) to appear. He appeared on the balcony and announced that new elections would be held soon.

Eva's participation in that day's events and the degree to which she organized the demonstration is debated by historians, but she was certainly present. She herself never claimed to be a leader of the event, writing later that "the light came only from the people."

Perón promised Eva they would be married when he was released from jail; he made good on his promise in a civil ceremony on October 22nd, and a religious ceremony on December 10th.

In February 1946 Juan Perón was elected President of Argentina.

The President's Wife

After Peron became president, Eva consciously decided that she had to redefine herself, and who she was. So far she had experienced only the resentment of the oligarchy, and she mused about why that was.

Official portrait of Juan and Evita, by Numa Ayrinhac
in 1948. Juan was the only Argentine President
accompanied by the First Lady in his official portrait.
"I could have been a President's wife in the same way that others were. It is a simple and agreeable role: appear on holidays, receive honors, 'dress up' and follow protocol which is almost what I did before, and I believe more or less well, in the theater and the cinema. As far as the hostility of the oligarchs goes, I can't help but smile.

"And I ask: why would the oligarchs reject me? Because of my humble origins? Because of my career as an actress? But has that class of persons ever taken those reasons into account, here or in any part of the world, when it is the case of the wife of the President? The oligarchy was never hostile to anyone who could be useful. Power and money are never bad advantages for a genuine oligarch... But I was not just the spouse of the President of the Republic, I was also the wife of the leader of the Argentine people.

"Perón had a double personality and I would need to have one also: I am Eva Perón, the wife of the President, whose work is simple and agreeable ... and I am also Evita, the wife of the leader of a people who have deposited in him all their faith, hope and love."

Evita: Leader for the People

In her role as Evita in the years 1946-1952, Perón threw herself into her work for the needy and sectors that had never received much attention before.

She visited factories and tended to labor disputes, helping workers to obtain higher wages. She made trips to poor neighborhoods to see their conditions for herself, and hear directly from those who were suffering. She found many issues that were worthy of her time, and many places she was needed.

"And we began," she said in her book The Reason for My Life, "Little by little. I couldn't tell you on what exact day. I can tell you that at first I took care of everything myself. Then I had to ask for help. Finally I had to organize the work which in just a few weeks had become extraordinary."

She described how she would gather information about each situation, consult with the groups necessary, examine various solutions; complete with analysis of possible economic and social repercussions - all this along with meeting people with the "most urgent needs" at her residence in the morning. By 1947 she was working from "early morning" until 10PM.

Even towards the end of her life when she got sick and was advised to reduce her workload, Evita would inevitably respond: "I don't have time; I have too much to do."

Eva meeting with the public in her Foundation's office 
She wasn't kidding. Some of her works included the distributing clothes, food, and goods to needy families; visiting slum neighborhoods and arranging for healthcare, clinics, and better housing; negotiating better terms in the contracts of workers.

Her goal from the beginning was what she called "direct social help." She accomplished this by creating immediate solutions.

Women's Rights

Women's suffrage had been going on in Argentina since the early 1900s, and Evita lent support to the cause in 1946-47. On January 17, 1947 she addressed a delegation of women educators, stating "I'm fighting for women's right to vote and I won't cease in my struggle until that right becomes a reality."

Ten days later, she would broadcast a message from her residence urging all women to join in and "fight twice as hard" so they could quickly obtain their legal right to vote.

On September 23rd, the law was passed. In 1951 nearly 4 million women voted. 23 women were elected to be deputies of the state, 6 were elected to Congress.

Still, Eva acknowledged the pervasive nature of sexism, writing "Everything, absolutely everything in our contemporary world, has been tailored to the measure of men."

Peronista Party

By 1947 Evita and her supporters had created a Peronista Party (reorganized in 1949 under the name Peronista Women's Party). The objective of this group was to support the President and his policies  - they would be the campaign headquarters during the election campaign of 1951 - but also to provide social services.

Evita was elected President, and describes this undertaking:

"The organization of the Partido Peronista Feminino has been for me one of the most difficult enterprises which I have undertaken. With no precedent in the country - something which I believe has been to my good fortune - and without any other resource but a heart placed at the service of a great cause, I called together one day a small group of women. There were only about thirty.

"All were very young. I had known them as infatigable collaborators in my work of social help, as fervent Peronistas, fanatics in the cause of Perón. I had to ask great sacrifices of them: to leave their homes and their jobs, to set aside one lifestyle and take up a more difficult and intense one. I needed women like them: untiring, fervent, fanatical. It was necessary to conduct a census of the women of the whole country to find those who believed in our cause. This undertaking would require intrepid women who were willing to work day and night."

With this group, Evita identified the needs of different communities that were in crisis across the country and determined how to get them immediate help. She provided funds, food, donations of clothing and goods, jobs, and housing.

Still, this wasn't enough, and on June 19th, 1948 the María Eva Duarte de Perón Foundation came into being, obtaining non-profit status three weeks later. From September 25, 1950 until it was dismantled by the military coup in 1955, it was known as the Eva Perón Foundation.

The goal of the Foundation: to act as a safety net for those who were not already covered by governmental programs, in recognition of the fact that government can be slow, and sometimes the creation of organizations that can respond more quickly are exactly what is needed.

The Foundation started by addressing the needs of the elderly, children, and women. The group created a Declaration of the rights of Senior Citizens, and had it added to the National Constitution. The Children's City was created to house children who were orphans, and Student City was created to give students who were visiting the city somewhere safe to stay. Health care was provided by the Children's Hospital and Epidemiology Center. The Children's Competitions were established to allow kids to play sports, and provided medical check-ups to about 300,000 children.

These programs and more were established and run by the Eva Perón Foundation.


In 1951, Juan Perón was again asked by his party to be President, but this time, the people wanted Evita to be Vice-President.

On August 22nd, 1951, a huge crowd of people gathered in the streets and cheered for Evita's candidacy. She addressed the crowd, but avoided giving an answer.

Evita responding to the millions before her

The crowd insisted that she put her name forward.

She begged for more time to make the decision, but the people would not leave until she said, "Friends! As General Perón said, "I will do as the people ask."

Nine days later in a public broadcast, Evita would renounce the decision to be Vice President, calling it an "irrevocable decision."

In November 1951, Juan Perón won the Presidency. By this time, Evita was dying of cancer. She voted from her bed in the clinic where she was being treated, and would accompany Juan during his second inauguration. It would be her last public appearance.

After death

Evita left such a formidable impression upon the people of Argentina that after she died, her followers sought to have her canonized. In rejection of this, after Juan Perón was overthrown in 1955 those who opposed Evita's memory stole her embalmed body from the Labor Union headquarters in Buenos Aires.

Evita's mother and sisters campaigned for the return of her body but with no result, and in 1957 the military buried Eva's body in the Cementerio Maggiore in Milan, Italy, under the name of María Maggi de Magistris in an effort to keep it hidden.

The body's location remained a secret until 1971 when the military government gave in to demands of Perón supporters and turned it over to Juan Perón, who was exiled in Madrid. After its recovery, the full wrath of those who had stolen the body away during the coup of 1955 was revealed; Eva's body had been disfigured with hammer blows, her throat and body slashed with a knife or sword, her knees broken, her nose crushed, and her entire body covered and burned with quicklime (calcium oxide; commonly used around that time for decomposing human remains).

Her body was transported to the Durate family crypt in Recoleta cemetary, where it was finally left in peace.

After her death, Evita's Foundation continued to operate, but without the same effectiveness or accomplishments. Perón tried to take her place at the head but was unsuccessful.

Her memory and work would live on in the countless people whose lives she had improved.

A recollection of Eva from her sister, Erminda Duarte:

In an interesting insight into the day-to-day transactions, in her 1972 book “My Sister Evita”, Ermina Duarte recalls a time a handicapped child was brought before Eva at the Secretaría de Trabajo y Previsión.

Addressing her writing to Eva, Erminda describes: "Perched in his father’s arms, he looked at you while his eyes begged you to help him walk. The child had infantile paralysis and his father, a very poor man, asked you to help him send his son to the United States, to a nurse who had become famous for her successful physical therapy.

"Dr. Oscar Ivanisevich was there and you asked for his opinion. He was opposed to the trip and he gave you his assessment in these words, 'Señora, it’s useless. Nothing can be done because the spinal cord is damaged. There is no cure and nothing would be gained by sending him.'

"And then something occurred to you, as it always did in the face of the impossible. In your childhood and adolescence one of the dominant characteristics of your personality was always to find a solution for everything; ever since your childhood, you refused to accept the possibility that anything could be unsolvable. Even when everything seemed hopeless, you always tried to save something.

"Without a moment’s hesitation, you replied to Dr. Ivanisevich: 'I’m going to send him anyway. Do you know why, Doctor? Because if I don’t, this poor father will be left with the sadness of thinking that because he didn’t have the means, his son was left paralyzed for life. On the other hand, if he goes and there they convince him that nothing can more be done for his son, he will at least return with the tranquility of knowing that everything that could be done was done and he will have the strength to carry this heavy burden. Don’t you agree?'

"Who could match the sensitivity of your feelings? No one had realized that in the midst of all the hopelessness, there was someone who could be saved. You couldn’t save the son, but in some way you saved his father. You were never limited to the problem in itself, and you perceived that behind one sorrowful face were others touched by the same sorrow."

Quotes from Eva Perón:

"I demanded more rights for women because I know what women had to put up with."

"When the rich think about the poor, they have poor ideas."

"One cannot accomplish anything without fanaticism."

"Time is my greatest enemy."

"Keeping books on social aid is capitalistic nonsense. I just use the money for the poor. I can't stop to count it."


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