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The legend of Evita lives on

February 5, 2011

A South American travel essay

Tour guide at the grave of Evita.

A gaggle of tourists winds its way through the labyrinth of mausoleums secluded behind the high walls of Buenos Aires’s La Recoleta cemetery. Great mounds of mortar and marble dwarf the passers-by who gawk at the graves of the city’s great ones – generals, priests, politicians, diplomats. Here too lie the city’s famous writers and poets. Few notice the grave of Juan Benito, a freed black slave-boy who was the first to be interred in this quiet corner of one of the city’s upper-class neighbourhoods. They stop at grave number 114 on the 10-peso cemetery map. Here rests Eva Duarte de Peron.

“Who was she anyway?” a North American woman whispers to a traveling companion. She looks puzzled as the guide, an Albert Einstein look-a-like, begins to explain the story behind the stone, bronze plaques and flowers of this particular mausoleum.

Einstein rolls his tired eyes almost imperceptibly. He has heard the question many times before. He provides the easy answer: “She was the wife of former president Juan Peron.” Then he adds that “some say she was a Good Samaritan.” Keep it simple. Don’t get too involved? The tourists probably don’t care anyway. Besides, you never know who might be listening. The graves may have ears.

She died in 1952 of uterine cancer at age 33. The ideology she espoused, called Peronism, may be moribund but new adherents always seem to revive it. They and their political rivals could be ready to pounce on dissenters as they once did. Memories of her are long and complicated and subject to revision.

In her day, trade unionists actively supported Peronism and they especially liked Eva Peron. She was their voice in the quest for workplace justice and fairness. They even wanted her to become the country’s vice-president, but she declined the honour in her famous 1951 ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ speech. She was also the voice of the poor, orphans, the infirm and the elderly. Depending on whom you talked to, she was a woman of the people or so it seemed. That was the image that was shaped and reshaped to meet Peronism’s needs.

Fresh off their cruise liners, the tourists have come to La Recoleta because it is mentioned in all the tourist guides. But they could be just as content to have a café con leche at one of BA’s scores of literary cafes. They have read about Café Tortoni and London City or La Biela across the park from the cemetery. There the snooty waiters will insult them and then make them pay extra for the experience or the privilege of being seated at a table in the sun.

They will shop along Florida street where hundreds of street vendors have laid out their wares on blankets that some of them slept on the night before – handmade jewellery, cheap leather purses, tourist trinketry of all kinds. The expensive stuff is in the fancy big-name shops that somehow continue to co-exist along the Rodeo Drive of Argentina.

Eva Peron might have shopped here for the many gorgeous outfits the people saw her wearing in her celebrated public appearances. It is said that she once painted her legs with makeup to appear to be wearing nylon stockings that she couldn’t afford. Florida street is a long way from Los Toldos or Junin where she grew up.

Some of the tourists may try on a fedora like the one famous tango singer Carlos Gardel wore in the milongas (dance halls) of the Peron era. They might pay $100 to dine at a tango club like the ones she frequented with another tango singer before she met and married Colonel Peron. Maybe there will be time for a three-hour dance lesson at the old Confiteria Ideal milonga. Not far away they might see a plaque on an old apartment building. It says that Jorge Luis Borges, said by many to be the country’s greatest writer, once lived and wrote here. “He is buried in Switzerland,” Einstein says, “not at La Recoleta.”

“If you want to know more about Eva Peron,” he adds. “There is a museum near the Plaza Italia…”. His voice trails off. Few in this group are interested enough or have time enough to taxi over to Palermo, another tony neighbourhood where Museo Evita finds a home. It is “a place where people can feel, know and understand” the life and work of Eva Peron or so claims the museum brochure.

Guido’s Bar, a block away, wouldn’t be this crowd’s cup of tea, with its three small sidewalk tables, its kitschy interior festooned with Hollywood memories, and its posters of Evita when she was Eva Duarte, the young film and radio star. That was before she got the role of a lifetime as Evita, a rags-to-riches tale worthy of, well, a novel called Santa Evita. Author Tomas Eloy Martinez, an Argentinean transplanted to the United States, mined her short life for everything it could yield. In 16 chapters and 369 pages he fleshes out every known detail about the legend, filling in the blanks with fiction.

And then there is the 1972 essay by author V.S. Naipaul. In contrast to the purist’s secular saint image portrayed at Museo Evita, he is brutally frank in his assessment of her life. He will have no truck with the uncritical hero-worshipping of those who once took hope from her, mostly the elderly now. The younger generation disregards her. It all happened before their time. It’s history and they are disinterested in history. They prefer to play video games at up-and-coming Boedo, send text messages on their cell phones in tourist-infested La Boca or drink chopp (draft beer) at an outdoor bar in working-class San Telmo’s Plaza Dorrego.

“She was illegitimate; she was poor; and she lived for the first ten years of her life in a one-room house, which still stands,” Naipaul tells us. “When she was fifteen she went to Buenos Aires to become an actress. Her speech was bad; she had a country girl’s taste in clothes; her breasts were very small, her calves were heavy, and her ankles thickish. But within three months she had got her first job. And thereafter she charmed her way up. When she was twenty-five she met Peron; the following year they married.”

Thus Naipaul lays bare the facts of her life. Then he offers this view: “Her commonness, her beauty, her success: they contribute to her sainthood. And her sexiness…. She was the macho’s ideal victim-woman – don’t those red lips still speak to the Argentine macho of her reputed skill in fellatio? But very soon she was beyond sex, and pure again. At twenty-nine she was dying from cancer of the uterus, and hemorrhaging through the vagina; and her plumpish body began to waste away. Toward the end she weighed eighty pounds.”

Here the story gets murkier, cluttered with messy politics and unsolved mysteries, and way beyond anything that Einstein can contribute to his audience of tourists thirsty for pisco sours, not past glories.

“You might recall the movie Evita,” he tries again to enlighten the group. But he sees mostly blank faces. “Madonna?” Eyes light up. “She played the role of this famous Argentinean woman.” He leaves it at that, but there is so much more than he could tell them. About her achieving the vote for women in the late 1940s or creating a school for nurses or feeding the hungry with her own version of CARE packages. Not all of it is glamourous, not all costume balls and speaking at mass rallies in Plaza de Mayo and waving at the adoring masses. But there are so many reasons why Evita is still a presence in the hearts and minds of some Argentineans.

The movie doesn’t talk about the long disappearance of the legend’s heavily embalmed body. Said to be a work of art, it had been secreted away to Europe when the anti-Peronists took power and exiled the dictator Juan Peron only to replace him with another dictatorship. Sixteen years would pass before the body was returned to him while he was in exile in Spain.

It is said that he kept the body on his dining room table as if she were still lying in state. It is said that his third wife, Isabel, lay with the body so that she might soak up some of the legend’s power. Perhaps it worked for she became president of her country after her husband’s death. But she was no Evita. She would become no legend.

It is said, too, that bandits disinterred the grave of Juan Peron and cut off his hands, hoping to use the fingerprints to gain access to millions of pesos said to be squirreled away in a Swiss bank account. Eva, it was also said, made deposits during her triumphal tour of Europe at the height of her power and popularity. It is said that they stole the peoples’ money for themselves. No one knows the truth anymore. Not even the snoopy Naipaul could uncover it. It is buried forever, waiting to be resurrected or reinvented at the next opportunity.

The hot southern sun is creating dark shadows on the narrow walkways of La Recoleta as tourists shuffle to the next mausoleum. No tears are shed as they leave the Duarte family crypt. They listen to Einstein tell them about another statue by another famous sculptor that most of them have never heard of. It’s sitting atop another tomb of someone they have never known. But now they know that one of those tombs contains a legend.

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