As I sit here at my computer, I am at a standstill trying to decide where to start. How do you condense a person into ten short pages, and still enable the reader to ‘get to know’ them. I have decided that the task is nearly impossible, even in the telling of a life that was tragically so short.
Evita, as the people affectionately knew her, entered into this world with nothing and left with everything. From a poor peasant girl growing up in the pampas, to a popular media personality, to the First Lady of Argentina. In her short period on this earth she definitely made her mark. To this day, she is still a controversial figure in her native Argentina. She was beloved by the working classes and shunned by the aristocracy.
When Eva Perón died in 1952 of cancer, a group of anti-Perónist tried to erase all physical evidence relating to Evita. Her personal notes, diaries, and photos were burned in public demonstrations. Her monuments were torn down and destroyed. Eva’s body disappeared for sixteen years, in hopes that without the physical body, Eva would be soon forgotten.
A group sprang up soon after and flourished in Argentina, the ‘Saint Evita’ cult. Posters of Evita were on every street corner, in all the villages, and in the people’s hearts. The president, who took office after Juan Perón was overthrown, was kidnapped and murdered by Saint Evita followers who wanted him to reveal where her body had been hidden. Finally, in 1976, Eva Duarte-Perón was interred in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentine. For the first time since her death, she had come home again.
Who is this woman, who even in death can incite such devotion? Just as mysteries surrounded Eva in death, so did they shadow her life. The Evita of the Argentine people is straightforward, and there are very few secrets. It is Eva’s life before Perón that is obscured and shadowy. It is this part of Eva’s life that I find the most intriguing. This is the time of Eva’s life that helped define who she was. These are the events that made her ‘Evita’.
There are many small villages breaking up the plains of the Argentine pampa. If you went to sleep in one village and woke up in another, it is doubtful you would notice right away. An Argentine writer, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, made this observation:
“It is not so much that the houses are small, as the fact that they are dwarfed by the immensity of their surroundings. The smallness is an optical illusion; it is the pampa that makes them seem so.
These villages are like meteorites…fallen to earth in the countryside. One can enter one of them and believe one is entering the village one has just left…. There is no real distinction between the village and the countryside; the village just depends on the latter and that is all. It is there but it could be to the right or to the left, indeed, it could even not be there at all…”
The unsurfaced streets of Los Toldos were hot and dusty in the dry season and impossible to navigate during the rains. Surrounding the plaza of Los Toldos was the church and two stores. The village stopped about four blocks, in all directions, from the plaza. The houses tended to all look alike and were made from brick. They were boxes all laid out in a perfect grid pattern. Outside the village boundaries, cattle grazed on the fertile grasses of the pampa.
Juana Ibarguren had lived in this village all of her life, her mother had been born here too. On 7 May 1919, her youngest daughter, Eva made her appearance in Los Toldos.
Juana met Juan Duarte when she was fifteen years old, and fell madly in love. It did not matter to Juana that Duarte had a wife and children in another town. Together Duarte and Juana had five children, Eva being the youngest. To this day, no records of Eva’s birth or baptism can be located. It is believed they were destroyed prior to her marriage to Juan Perón to cover up the fact that Eva was illegitimate.
When Eva was less than a year old, her father left her mother to return to his legal family in Chivilcoy. His departure left his ‘other’ family impoverished. In order to feed her children, Juana began sewing clothes for people in the village. Rumors and innuendo about Eva’s mother and her ‘kept’ status were a continuing shadow to Juana.
When Eva was six years old her father Juan Duarte was killed in an automobile accident. Packing up all of the children, Doña Juana headed off to Chivilcoy to attend the funeral. After arriving at the door of the ‘legal’ widow of Duarte, she was summarily dismissed and sent on her way. Doña Juana went to the wife’s brother and pleaded with him to let her children view their father. In the end the children were allowed to enter the house and pay their respects. During the funeral procession they were given permission to walk at the rear, behind all of the other mourners. This event probably opened Eva eyes to her own illegitimacy. It is said that neither her, nor any of her sisters, was able to accept that they were illegitimate. In 1972 one of the sisters wrote that her mother and father were married and together at the time of his death. She even went so far as to say he was there to kiss them goodnight the evening before his accident.
Although Eva was too young to understand everything that was happening during this time, she would probably never forget what it was like to view her family through the eyes of others. I think that this event influenced Eva for the rest of her life. Eva became determined to be somebody different than what other people expected her to become. A bastard child of a dead man wasn’t going to go anywhere in the world, so Eva reinvented her history in order to shatter her perceived destiny.
When Eva was ten years old, her mother found a new ‘protector’ and moved the family to the provincial town of Junin. Junin was a city compared to Los Toldos with its paved streets, shops, and cinema. When the local children were not in school, they would run down to the railway station to watch the Buenos Aires locomotive arrive or go to the cinema.
Even in Junin, the children of Juan Duarte could not escape their past. Eva did find one kindred soul in her best friend Elsa. Elsa was an orphan who was raised by her two aunts. In speaking about Eva in later years, Elsa said that Eva was ‘sweet, very loving’ but the other girls were told not to speak to Eva because of ‘what her mother was’. Like most children of twelve, this rejection was hard on Eva, and helped fire her determination later to wipe out all vestiges of her past humiliations.
On Tuesdays the local cinemas would run special discounted rates. Many times Eva saved her money to spend it on a matinee. The imports from Europe and America were the favorites. They always seemed so glamorous, and depicted stories that appealed to the young ladies. The films were full of elegant clothing and beautiful people. It was a world any young girl would want to be a part of. Eva was not immune to the lure of the silver screen.
Eva’s first break into the acting scene happened at the tender age of thirteen. She was cast in a small part in the local school production of Arriba Estudiantes (Student Arise). From that time on, her only goal was to leave Junin and become a great film actress.
There were several film magazines for Eva to read and study. A popular tabloid of the time was the Sintonía. Eva and her friends would cut the pictures out and trade them. One of Eva’s favorite movie stars at the time was Norma Shearer, a poor Canadian who made it big in Hollywood.
In later years Eva would be quoted saying:
In the place where I spent my childhood, there were more poor people than rich, but I made myself believe that there were other places in my country and in the world where things could happen in some other way…I imagined, for instance, that large cities were marvelous places where only wealth existed; and everything I heard about them from other people confirmed that belief. They talked about the great city as if it were a wonderful paradise where everything was beautiful…I seemed to feel, from what they said that people there were more really people than those I saw around me in my town.
Eva knew that the only place she could realistically become a star, was 150 miles across the pampas, in Buenos Aires. At fifteen she was determined to ‘shake the pampas dust from her shoes’ and head to the concrete paradise of her dreams. Her chance came in the form of a young handsome tango singer named Agustin Magaldi. Magaldi was in Junin performing at the local theatre. The story from there is a bit sketchy. Some say they became lovers, other theories are tamer and suggest that Magaldi just gave Eva a lift. Either way, Eva made it to her city of dreams – Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires in the 1930’s was a ‘kaleidoscope of opportunity’ for an aspiring actress. It was the ‘Paris of Latin America’. The city contained twenty-five theatres, nine radio stations, and three film companies.
On her first day in the city she found a room in a cheap hotel in the middle of the theatre district. Her new home was just off of Calle Corrientes, a street known for its nightlife by the locals.
The first few months in Buenos Aires were tough for the country girl. With no references or experience it was difficult to even get in to see an agent. Eva was not as particular about her appearance either. Subsisting on a diet of sandwiches and coffee, or less, became the norm. Her brother Juan tried to persuade Eva to return home but her determination and stubbornness won out. She was not about to quit before she even got started. Eva told everyone she met that she was ‘going to be Argentina’s leading actress’.
In March of 1935 Eva got a break. She was offered a small part in La Senora de Perez, at the Comedia Theatre. It was there that she met Pascual Pelliciota, a fellow cast member. This was the beginning of a series of bit parts and affairs with bit players.
In July Eva was in a production of There’s a World In Every Home. Eva was dropped from the production when the play went on tour. Once again she found herself beating the pavement for another job.
Eva’s first touring role was in the production of The Mortal Kiss. Unfortunately she was fired halfway through the trip. After this episode Eva struggled to regain her health. She never gave up and became even more determined than ever to work. She drove agents, friends, and anyone who could possibly help her, mad soliciting for parts. A contemporary of Eva’s, Pierina Dealessi, recalls:
“…Evita was a plain girl, very thin, black hair. I asked her if she ever worked on the stage before. She told me that she was just back from a provincial tour. We took her on at a miserable salary – 180 pesos a month. There were no rest days; besides which we gave four shows on Sunday…She looked so thin and delicate that I used to add a little milk to her maté to give her some nourishment. She weighed nothing at all…time and time again I told her – “eat more; don’t stay up late…” She told me she had to moonlight other jobs in order to sent her mother 700 pesos per month. That was a lot of money in those days. Poor Evita.”
Throughout the time that Eva had been struggling to become an actress, she is noted to have had many affairs. Usually with men who might possibly help her in her career. When she was eighteen she had a romance with the owner of Sintonia Magazine , Emilio Kartulovic. Hunger became a thing of the past and Eva was getting jobs. She appeared in a few forgettable films , performed bit parts for radio and stage, and even a few modeling assignments. After a few set backs here and there , her finances stabilized enough for her to move out of her dreary digs into a better hotel.
Real stardom for Eva came in the form of a wealthy soap manufacturer. He fell in love and gave Eva a radio program of her own. Cesar Marino, head producer at Radio Argentina, remembers his boss called him into his office and introduced him to Eva Duarte.
“She had obtained the backing of the Radical Soap Company and was looking for a station to put her show on the air. [The boss] was more interested in the advertiser than the actress…”she is going to be our leading star.” I didn’t know where to begin, as the kid was a very, very poor actress. But she was docile, well behaved, nicely mannered and serious…”
Eva’s radio work kept her busy; she had a show on another radio station, Radio El Mundo. The ‘Soap’ opera format used for the radio shows in the 1930’s were the misty-eyed love stories with titles like Love Was born When I Met You, Love Promises, or My Kingdom of Love.
After appearing on the cover of Antena twice Eva was, if not the leading actress in Argentina, a very well know actress. In the cover stories about the country girl from the pampas, Argentineans learned that she loved dancing and Greer Garson films. Eva confessed in an interview that she was a ‘tranquil woman, a homemaker, one who loved family life.’
In 1943 her salary jumped from 150 pesos a month to 5,000 at Radio Belgrano. The owner, Jaime Yankelevich, had discovered that Eva’s current boyfriend was Colonel Anibal Imbert , the Minister of Communications. Yankelevich figured that the girlfriend of an official, who controlled his very existence, was worth a raise. Not only had Eva risen in the entertainment field, to become a popular radio star, but she was beginning to socialize in more political circles too.
History took a sharp turn on January 15, 1944. An earthquake struck 500 miles west of Buenos Aires. Thousands of people were killed, and many were left without homes. National sympathy prompted a huge fund raising drive and all of the personalities of the day came to lend their support. Eva’s date for the evening was Colonel Imbert. This event would not only change the lives of the victims of San Juan, but of Eva Duarte, the actress.
Colonel Juan Perón was also in attendance that night. Eva knew who he was and arranged an introduction. It was love at first sight for Eva, and she made sure that Colonel Perón was not lonely during the gala. Eva’s description of ‘the marvelous day’ that she met Perón probably sums up her feelings best:
‘I put myself at his side. Perhaps this drew his attention to me and when he had time to listen to me I spoke up as best I could: “If, as you say, the cause of the people is your own cause, however great the sacrifice I will never leave your side until I die.”’
Eva was true to her word, and from that day on she became inseparable from Juan Perón. Throughout his rise in the military, through his arrest, and through his election Eva stood by his side. Eva was going to become a new woman, Evita. No longer the poor country girl, no longer the struggling actress, but the right-hand of the President of Argentina. A First Lady.
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