Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Influential Immortal: Eva Perón

Read this most classic tale of rags to riches and weep for the life of an artist, movie-star and the unifying political figure that is Eva. Uncover the story of how a champion of the Patagonian people became the First Lady of Argentina.

Written by H.E Maria Isabel Rendon, Ambassador of Argentina to Malaysia (2014).

The story of Eva Perón is probably one of history’s greatest rags-to-riches stories. There is something almost magical about the farmer’s daughter from Junín, Argentina, who chartered a meteoric rise from model to movie star and finally First Lady.

Evita was born in a small town in the countryside in 1919, the youngest of 5 siblings. Fueled by a fervent desire “to be someone”, a yearning stoked by a childhood of poverty and shame, she hungered for the respect and acceptance denied her as an illegitimate child. The stigma of illegitimacy held grave societal consequences back then in a fiercely Catholic country, but she was equally fiercely determined to change her lot in life. Leaving rural Argentina where opportunities were scarce, for the big city of Buenos Aires at the tender age of 15, she did whatever it took to put food on her plate and clothes on her back. And she rose, one splendid step at a time, to being a beautiful, sought-after movie star who mixed with the right social networks, and to finally met the man she knew would make the most impactful difference in her life.

Her life – and the course of Argentina’s politics – changed with the fateful encounter she had in 1944 with influential army officer and Labour Minister, General Juan Domingo Perón, considered one of the most powerful men in the Argentine government of the time. There was instant chemistry between two equally ambitious people, who were the perfect match for each other, and Argentine politics would never be the same again.

They were married in December 1945, and in 1946, General Perón became the elected President of Argentina. Eva Perón, who had hitherto not shown any interest in politics or political knowledge, had already imbibed Peron’s political ideas and not only shared them, but decided to strongly support him as a leader of the country.

Once Juan Perón was in power, Evita began to play a central role in the government without holding any official position other than the usual title of First Lady. Such was her impact in Argentina’s political life, many historians and writers consider that Perón and Perónism wouldn’t have been the same without her. In order to oppose the way powerful women of the time were doing charitable work, she established Fundacion Eva Perón an NGO to help the needy, focusing on children, women and the elderly. Her work at the helm of her Fundacion helped to profile her as a caring leader from her husband’s government, one who put the needs of the poor and the comprehensive welfare of the workers at the centre of its policies. In the end it was a decisive change of direction, from charitable work to social justice.

Evita, who famously said, “I am my own woman,” has left a legacy that still inspires women and men, in society and politics. She tirelessly fought in support of women’s right to vote and managed to convince the government to introduce the bill in 1946. It was finally passed into law by the Congress in 1947, and affirmed the equality of political rights between women and men. “I demanded more rights for women because I know what women have to put up with,” she said.

Evita was also instrumental in the creation of the Women’s Perónist Party that soon after being established, accounted for up to half a million members across the country, becoming the first extended female political party in Argentine history. She inspired women to do more by telling them, “I know that, like every woman of the people, I have more strength than I appear to have.” They believed her, and they started believing in themselves too.

As a result of her profound engagement with the unions, supporting the implementation of laws that benefited them, in a country that was following a fast industrialisation process, Evita claimed a special position in the heart and minds of the working class, so that she was often referred to as the “flag bearer of the humble people”. In her own words, “I had watched for many years and saw how a few rich families held much of Argentina’s wealth and power in their hands. So Peron and the government brought in an eight-hour working day, sickness pay and fair wages to give poor workers a fair go.”

In January 1950, Evita experienced the first symptoms of cervical cancer that would take her life one year and a half later. The eighteen or nineteen-hour days she had been putting in overseeing the foundation and making public appearances, coupled with the exhausting work of helping her husband campaign for a second term in office, had made Evita ignore the aches and pains she had been experiencing for the best part of two years. By the time her aides finally convinced her to take some time off for a check-up, it was too late to do anything to treat the cancer.

As much as she suffered, the people of Argentina suffered with her. Masses were said, vigils were held, daily health updates were printed in the newspapers. She made her last public appearance on the 4th of June 1952 standing by her husband’s side as he was sworn in as President of Argentina for another six years. Juan Perón had won by a landslide, with sixty-six percent of the popular vote. But it was much more Eva’s triumph than Juan’s. Perón’s support had come from the fact that for the first time in Argentina’s history, women were allowed to vote, thanks in part to the First Lady’s constant lobbying. Many of these first-time voters voted for the First Lady, not the President. And throughout the presidential swearing-in, the entire chamber could hear the sound of one hundred thousand spectators outside chanting “Viva Evita!” The re-elected President’s name was hardly mentioned at all.

This was the point, immortalised by the epic hit, Don’t Cry For me Argentina, written by Andrew Llyod Webber and Tim Rice for the 1978 musical Evita, and sung from the famous balcony of Casa Rosada (the house of government).

The words and haunting melody best encapsulate Evita’s life, her love for her people, and the love they had for her, and her terrible sadness to leave all that she had built and loved behind (with an inference to the honour of being conferred Vice-President, an honour she had to decline due to her failing health).

“The actress hasn’t learned the lines you’d like to hearShe’s sad for her country, sad to be defeated
By her own weak body
(Crowd chants “Evita, Evita”)

I want to tell the people of Argentina
I’ve decided I should decline all the honours
And titles you’ve pressed me to take, for I’m contented
Let me simply go on as the woman
Who brings her people to the heart of Peron”

And as for fortune, and as for fame
I never invited them in
Though it seemed to the world they were all I desired
They are illusions
They are not the solutions they promised to be
The answer was here all the time
I love you and hope you love me”

At the age of 33, she died at 8.25pm, on the 26th of July 1952. Though she struggled valiantly against it, as she did against every other obstacle in her life, death was not her greatest fear – which was that she would be forgotten by her people, and become the ‘nothing’ she started life as.

Her descamisados (the shirtless ones, the common people) did not forget her. The nation mourned like never before. For thirteen days, during which time the rain never ceased, Evita’s body lay on view. Three million Argentines waited in line up to 15 hours to file past her casket, at a rate of nearly 65,000 a day, for one last look. Some stopped to kiss the glass cover, many would faint and many more would weep uncontrollably. At intervals, workers had to remove the glass cover to clean inside, despite the air that constantly circulated through the casket, in order to prevent the glass from fogging. Nurses stood by to attend the 3,900 who required medical attention, and sixteen died in the crush of people, several from heart attacks. Thousands of torches burned throughout the land, extinguished each night at 8:25. The smell from the thousands of flowers, piled 20 feet high against the walls of the Ministry of Labour building, permeated the streets. Every day for many years, the radio would remind everyone “It’s 8.25pm, the time when Eva Perón entered immortality.”

Eva Perón loved the people because they loved her; and they loved her, because she loved them. Evita, who kissed and hugged people suffering from tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, leprosy and syphilis, never really cared about her own health.

This incredible woman had a profound impact on Argentina and her people, but especially the women for whom she fought so hard and so long. When she said, “I will come again, and I will be millions,” I believe she knew exactly what she was thinking – that she has entered our history forever as the greatest legend of our time, and she lives on in millions of our hearts.

– Evita, 1978

Contributor Profile
H.E. Maria Isabel Rendon
Ambassador of Argentina to Malaysia

The appeal of a successful career in the diplomatic Corp is the opportunity to represent one’s country in nations far and wide, and the career of Ambassador Rendon is no exception. She continues to serve her South American homeland proudly, with a string of distinguished international appointments to her name.

With a Bachelor of Political Science and International Relations from the Catholic University of Cordoba, Ambassador Rendon served in the Argentine Embassy in Peru, before a spell in Italy as Secretary and Counsel of the Argentine Embassy, and later the Directorate of South America. She would stay on in Europe to become the Deputy Chief of Mission in Denmark, before becoming the Chief of Cabinet and the Subsecretariat and Undersecretary of Foreign Policy in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs back home. Fast forward to the present – past positions in Italy and China – and she has been the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Malaysia since 2009, holding the same position for Brunei since 2011.

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