Eva Perón

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Eva Perón’s partnership with her husband, president Juan D. Perón, brought the laboring masses of Argentina into politics for the first time but also laid the foundation for a corrupt and brutal dictatorship.

Early Life

Eva “Evita” Maria Duarte de Perón was born María Eva Duarte in 1919 in the small rural town of Los Toldos, located some one hundred miles east of the Argentine capital city of Buenos Aires. She was the fifth and last child of Juan Duarte, an agricultural estate manager, and his mistress, Juana Ibarguren. At the time of Eva’s birth, Duarte was already married to another woman by whom he had three daughters, and none of his children with Juana was legitimate. One year later he returned to his wife, and Juana was left alone to raise the children while bearing the brunt of neighborhood gossip. A critical turning point in Eva’s life came with the death of her father in 1926. Duarte’s legal family forbade Juana and her children from attending the funeral mass, and the attendant at the church would only allow them to follow the procession to the cemetery at a “respectable” distance from the heirs. The shame and trauma associated with this snub may have ignited Eva’s identification with the poor and excluded.

Eva received little formal education, and her exposure to the world outside of Los Toldos came chiefly through the cinema. At age sixteen she migrated to Buenos Aires. Her physical beauty made her stand out in the city then known as the Paris of South America. Her most prominent feature was her platinum-blond hair, so important in a nation whose elite claimed descent from European conquerors. The girl’s constitution was frail, however, and her voice was soft but distinctive. In the company of others she was a natural conversationalist who was little intimidated by rank or money, yet her illegitimate birth made her distrustful of strangers and gave her a marked tendency toward paranoia.

Staying in flophouses and tenements, Eva worked with small theater companies performing in forgettable productions. Her big break came in 1940 when her brother Juan landed her a job as an actress on a radio soap opera. Eva soon became nationally famous, but her ventures into cinema, while granting her greater public exposure, were not commercially successful, and she seemed destined to spend her life playing mediocre roles.

Life’s Work

Eva’s turn from show business to politics came almost by chance. On January 15, 1944, a powerful earthquake struck the northeastern town of San Juan, killing an estimated ten thousand people. Colonel Juan Domingo Perón, a prominent member of the military junta that ruled Argentina, was put in charge of organizing a national charity drive to aid the survivors. Perón asked artists and entertainers to help collect funds for the relief effort, and it was in his office in Buenos Aires a few days after the earthquake that the forty-nine-year-old army officer and the radio actress first met. Perón later recalled that what he immediately noticed about Eva, then twenty-five years old, was her intelligence and determination in trying to help the unfortunate. While this account sounds self-serving, there were solid political as well as personal reasons for Perón to link himself to this young woman.

Perón had played a minor role in the coup d’état that had brought the armed forces to power in 1943. Whereas his fellow officers took lucrative positions in the new regime, however, he claimed the post of minister of labor and social welfare. Argentina’s trade unions, ravaged by years of government persecution and the aftershocks of the global depression of 1929, counted for little with the military but could still mobilize millions of members. Perón, eager to run for president once civilian rule was restored, used his office to get close to the country’s impoverished day laborers, los descamisados (“the shirtless ones”), figuring he could rely on their votes. However, as an officer serving a repressive government, he was distrusted by the union rank and file. The colonel needed a political ally well known to the urban masses who could speak to them in their own language. Eva fit the bill perfectly: She was an established media personality, and her own life served as a powerful symbol of how Argentina’s forgotten ones could triumph over adversity. What she saw in Perón was the redeemer and avenger of Argentina’s working class against the oligarchy of landowners, capitalists, and nouveaux riche who stomped on the dreams of the poor. Making their first joint appearance at an outdoor rally for the earthquake victims, the new “power couple” of Buenos Aires began to live together in mid-1944.

Eva soon threw herself back into radio work, this time with a political mission; when Perón assumed the additional offices of vice president and minister of war in 1945, she made broadcasts on behalf of her lover, the self-proclaimed champion of Argentina’s workers, soldiers, wives, and mothers. Perón...

(The entire section is 2085 words.)