Evita (little Eva) Peron’s beginnings were about as humble as a person could get in Argentina. Her father, Juan Duarte, was a rancher who already had a wife and children. He took Evita’s mother, Juana Ibarguaren, as his mistress and started a second illegitimate family that he kept on the edge of poverty in the little town of Junin. Her name wasn’t Evita back then. It might have been Eva Maria, or Maria Eva. It’s difficult to say for sure because when Evita was about to marry Juan Peron, she forged a new birth certificate that shifted her first two names and moved her birth year
from 1919 to 1922.
At the tender age of fifteen, she took up with a rogue musician and moved to Buenos Aires. Her love affair didn’t last much longer than it took her to start getting modeling and acting jobs, which wasn’t very long at all. By the mid 1930’s she was a popular B-grade movie star.
Her love affair with Juan (there were a lot of Juans in Evita’s life) Peron started with a devastating earthquake—where else but San Juan, Argentina. Peron was the secretary of labor at the time and organized an entertainment benefit for the earthquake victims. Shortly after the affair began, Evita was elected president of the only actors labor union recognized in Argentina. She launched her career in politics with a daily drama featuring—you guessed it—the accomplishments of Juan Peron.
With Eva’s help, Peron became popular among the labor unions and the poor and disenfranchised of Argentina. When he was arrested by enemies within the government, 250,000 supporters known as the descomisados (shirtless ones) gathered in front of Argentina’s government house and demanded his release.
Juan married Eva and ran for president with her by his side at public appearances. This
had never been done before in Argentina, but the openly acknowledged love between the two contributed to his landslide election in 1946. After Peron’s inauguration she toured Europe, representing her government in a way first ladies had never done before and haven’t done since. She was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
When the traditional charity of Argentina (The Society of Beneficence) snubbed Evita she cut off their government funding and started The Eva Peron Foundation. Her charity built entire communities (e.g. Evita City), funded scholarships, and supported equal access to health care. These activities fuelled her popularity.
Eva Peron was incensed that women in Argentina did not have the right to vote and headed a relentless campaign for women’s suffrage. When the bill finally passed in 1947, she signed it along side her husband, President Juan Peron. Evita then went on to establish the Women’s Peronist Party, the largest female political party in the nation.
There was a huge public movement in support for Evita to run for vice president of Argentina in the 1951 election. The military was determined this would not happen, and
Evita declined the nomination in spite of the huge public demonstrations urging her to move forward. She announced her decision in a radio broadcast, and revealed publicly for the first time that her health had taken a serious turn for the worse.
Evita underwent a series of surgeries for cervical cancer, including a hysterectomy and probably a prefrontal lobotomy to reduce pain and anxiety. She was too weak to stand unaided after Juan Peron’s inauguration. A few days later, she was given the title, “Spiritual Leader of the Nation”. When she died in June of 1952 (33 years old) she weighed 79 pounds. When Evita’s death was announced, all activities in Argentina came to a stop. Millions of people gathered in the streets to mourn her.
A monument was planned. A statue of a descomisado (shirtless one) taller than the Statue of Liberty was to stand over the preserved body of Evita. Before Juan Peron could accomplish this, his government was overthrown and he was forced to flee to Spain and leave the body of Evita behind.
Evita Peron’s corpse disappeared mysteriously and was not seen by the pubic again for sixteen years. Legends surrounded the missing body. There were rumors of necrophilia, of an attack on the corpse with a hammer, of wax copies being distributed around the world to collectors and admirers.
During the military dictatorship that displaced Peron, displaying Evita’s picture or even saying her name was a crime. But even Evita’s enemies would not defile her body. They had her buried in Milan under the name Maria Maggi.
She remained in Italy until 1971, when Juan Peron had her exhumed and moved to his Spanish residence. Evita lay in state in Peron’s dining room on a platform near the table. It remained until Peron returned to Argentina and became President for the third time. He died in office and his body was displayed along side Evitas for a short time. She was finally interned in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires in the Duarte family tomb.