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Evita paved the way for the world’s first female President

By Karin Schill

(25/11/2016) Eva Perón died more than 60 years ago. Yet when you visit Buenos Aires her legacy still looms large over the city. Her face is on buildings, museums, statues and busts. But who was this woman who has meant so much to Argentina?

Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina, with 17 million people living in its greater area it’s a metropolitan buzzing with life. Big avenues, lots of traffic, tourist buses, palm trees, parks and alleys of trees mixed with its theatre district and grand old buildings that give the city a flavor of its European heritage. To most tourists the city is famous for its tango shows at La Boca, football player Maradona, the Presidential Palace Casa Rosada and if you have watched the Madonna movie Evita (1996) or watched the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical it’s based on, you’ll know that the city was home to this legend as well.

For tourists arriving in Buenos Aires curious to learn more about the real Evita you don’t have to look far to find that her presence still looms large over the city. Her face adorns the ministry of health building, which is located in the middle of the widest avenue in the entire South America. In a park you can pose with a statue of Eva and Juan Peron and one of their dogs by sitting down on a park bench next to them. At the Casa Rosada there are paintings of the Perons and you can walk through their apartment where they lived and stand on the balcony where Evita stood when she addressed the people of Argentina. You can visit the Casa Rosada for free on weekends.

Another interesting place to visit is Evita’s final resting place which can be found at the Duarte’s family grave at the Recoleta Cemetery. This place holds a certain mystique as the cemetery is like no other in the world, as with its many grand mausoleums it resembles of a ghost town where its citizens are long gone. Another place that you must visit is the Evita museum where you can watch her clothes, a bust, magazine clippings, TV clips and learn more about this fascinating woman. But be careful when discussing Evita with the local people because the Peronist movement is still a force to be reckoned with in Argentine politics and has divided the people’s opinion of her. Even if most people seem to adore Evita there are still people who hate what the Perons stood for as well. Either way Evita is undoubtedly still a part of the collective consciousness of the Argentine people. But who was the woman who has meant so much to the Argentine people and also continued to fascinate the world more than 60 years after her death?

Maria Eva Duarte de Perón was the second wife of Argentine President Juan Perón (1895-1974) and served as the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death in 1952. She is affectively referred to as Evita. She was born on May 7, 1919 in the rural town of Los Toldos, in the Pampas. She was born illegitimate and was given the name Eva Maria Ibarguren. She was the youngest of five children who was raised just by her mother. Before her father died he admitted the children were his and thus gave them the right to use his surname. In 1934, at the age of 15 Evita left her hometown and moved to the capital of Buenos Aires to pursue a career as a stage, radio and film actress. After making a name for herself in the city she met Colonel Juan Perón on 22 January, 1944 during a charity event held in favor of the earthquake victims of San Juan in Argentina. The couple started dating but ran into trouble in October 1945 when Juan was arrested due to his rising popularity. A couple of days later approx 300 000 people gathered in front of Casa Rosada to demand his release. It’s been disputed whether Evita’s celebrity status helped mobilize the people or if it was done by the labor unions. Regardless of who was behind the rally it worked and Juan Peron was released from prison on 17th October, 1945. One of the first things he did after he was released was to marry Eva Duarte. She then campaigned heavily for him in the 1946 Presidential Election, which helped him win the Presidency.

One of the first thing Eva Perón did as first lady of Argentina was to go on a much publicized rainbow tour in Europe in 1947. The new first lady was very popular and was well received everywhere she went. Then after she returned to Argentina she became a powerful force to be reckoned with on the political scene in her native country. During her 6 years she served her country as First lady she worked tirelessly for the pro-Peronist trade unions to improve the life of the working class. She ran the Ministries of Labor and Health, ran the charitable Eva Perón Foundation, championed women’s suffrage in Argentina. Then after the female vote was won she founded and ran the nation’s first large-scale female political party, the Female Peronist Party. Evita had her heart set on becoming the Vice President of Argentina and in 1951 she announced her candidacy. Unfortunately ill-health prevented her from ever achieving this goal, as she was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer. Despite undergoing a hysterectomy and chemo-treatments her life could not be saved and in 1952 shortly before she died she was given the title of “Spiritual Leader of the Nation” by the Argentine Congress instead.

Eva Perón died from cancer on July 26, 1952. She was only 33 years old and left her nation heartbroken. The nation mourned her for two day when nobody was working. People took to the streets and queues for hours to sign condolence books and see her casket to pay tribute to her. The florists ran out of flowers and Evita was given a state funeral. After her death there was plans to build a memorial to her but before the monument could be completed Juan Peron was overthrown by a military coup in 1955 and was forced to flee the country. The new dictator forbid Peronism and removed Evita’s body from public display and her remains disappeared for many years. In 1971 her body was retrieved from its resting place in Milan, Italy and flown to Juan Peron’s home in Spain. Juan had by then remarried to a woman named Isabel. In 1973 they came out of exile and moved back to Argentina where Juan Peron was elected president for the third time. After he died in office in 1974, his third wife Isabel Peron, who was his vice-president, succeeded him and thus became the world first female president, a feat which would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the popularity of Evita. To show her gratitude to the woman who she owed so much Isabel made arrangements for Evita’s body to return to Argentina and had it displayed next to her husband’s for a short period of time before it found its final resting place in the Duarte Family tomb at the Recoleta Cemetery.