Don't Cry for Me, Argentina: The Life and Times of Eva Perón
Today the whole team went to the Teatro de Colon, on Avenida Nuevo de Julio, to celebrate our last day in Argentina. We were here to watch a performance, specifically geared towards children, of "Barber of Seville," an opera set in Spain that, now speaking Spanish, we all understood quite well.
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In the theater, amongst the rustling of students and kids around us and the onstage singing of the powdered, costumed performers, I thought of how dramatic one must be to be willing to get up on stage in front of other people. "Bravo! Bravo!" I cheered in between acts, and thought of another era, fifty years ago in Buenos Aires, when a young Argentinian woman fulfilled her dreams of becoming a famous actress, and more.
Eva Duarte was born the youngest of five on May 7, 1919, in Los Toldos, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Her father was Juan Duarte, a once wealthy landowner who fell on hard times as Eva was growing up. He died in a car accident when she was seven.
As a child, Eva loved to play, act, sing, and dance. Eventually, she realized she didn't want to marry or become a teacher, and she didn't want to live in Los Toldos all her life. At age 26, she decided to become an actress, and she moved to the big city and built up her career, quickly becoming a hugely popular celebrity in theaters, on film, and as a radio voice.
One famous day in history, January 22, 1944, changed her life forever. A serious earthquake had damaged San Juan, a little city in the mountains, and Colonel Juan Perón, then working at the Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare, decided to host a benefit concert. He invited stars like Eva Duarte to perform for charity for the 19,000 San Juan residents who had been affected by the disaster. And of course, Juan Perón and Eva Duarte met and fell in love, and eventually married!
In the Words of Evita
"I was not only the wife of the President of the Republic, I was also the woman of the conductor of the Argentinians.
"Perón had a double personality and I would need to have one also: that of Eva Perón, the wife of the President, whose work is simple and agreeable, who works on holidays, while receiving honors, and at state functions; and the other, that of Evita, the wife of the Leader of a people who have deposited in him all their faith, all their hope and all their love.
"A few days of the year, I represent Eva Perón, and in this role, I think that each time I play it, it is better because it doesn't appear to me to be difficult nor disagreeable.
"Most of the time, however, I am Evita, a bridge between the hopes of the people and the realizing arms of Perón, the first Perónista of Argentina, and this for me is a difficult role, one in which I am never completely satisfied with myself."
"...yo no era solamente la esposa del Presidente de la Republica, era tambien la mujer del conductor de los argentinos.
A la doble personalidad de Perón debia corresponder una doble personalidad en mi: una, la de Eva Perón, mujer del Presidente, cuyo trabajo es sencillo y agradable, trabajo de los dias de fiesta, de recibir honores, de funciones de gala; y otra, la de Evita, mujer del Lider de un pueblo que ha depositado en el toda su fe, toda su esperanza y todo su amor.
Unos pocos dias al ano, represento el papel de Eva Perón, y en ese papel creo que me desempeno cada vez mejor pues no me parece dificil ni desagradable.
La inmensa mayoria de los dias soy en cambio Evita, puente tendido entre las esperanzas del pueblo y las manos realizado a de Perón, primera Perónista Argentina, y este si que me resulta un papel dificil, y en el que nunca estoy totalmente contenta de mi."
From "La Razon de mi Vida," Eva Perón's autobiography, Reconstruction Edition, Buenos Aires, 1973.
As Eva became more and more of a star, Perón's political stature grew. He eventually became President of Argentina in 1946, famously supported by the descamisados, or "those without shirts," the blue collar workers.
Many think that much of Perón's success had to do with Eva, also called "Evita," whose popularity with the general public only increased when she became First Lady of Argentina.
She founded the María Eva Duarte de Perón Foundation on June 19, 1948, and worked tirelessly to help children, the poor, and the needy. Some of the amazing projects she began:
- She set up a tourism plan for children to learn more about the countryside
- She helped distribute clothes, food, shoes, medicine, sewing machines (and even pots, pans, and footballs), to families stricken by poverty
- She designed medical care and social welfare services for whole "villages," even creating a "Ciudad Evita" with neighborhoods designed for maximum community involvement
- She sent off a "Tren Sanitario," a medical train that traveled the country offering inoculations, x-rays, and medicines
- She constructed 12 hospitals throughout Argentina and a School of Nursing
- She developed "hogar-escuelas" (school houses) for orphaned or abandoned children to live in and attend classes, building 1,000 schools in seven years
- She also encouraged senior citizens to take control of their future in her Homes for Seniors, retirement groups where older adults could learn a new trade and make new friends
The government of Spain, inspired by her efforts, invited her to tour Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Monaco, Brazil, and Uruguay to talk about her efforts at social change in Argentina. She also crusaded for women's voting rights, claiming that Argentina was behind the world's other modern countries in not allowing women a voice in the election process. Because of her ceaseless dedication, she was adored by her people.
Perón ran for President again in 1951, and this time the people wanted Evita as his running mate. On August 22, more than a million people lined up on Avenida Nuevo de Julio, the city's main throughfare (where we watched the opera today), clamoring for Evita to run for Vice-President.
I thought of all the people filling the wide city street to cheer for her. She wanted time to think about this big step, to think about running on a Perón-Perón ticket. She asked for "at least four days..." but the crowd wouldn't let her talk, chanting, "No! Now!" She then asked for "one day..." and "two hours...," but the crowd continued to interrupt her, yelling "No! No!...," lighting candles and calling "Evita! Evita!" until she finally relented, declaring, "I will do as the people ask." But she changed her mind nine days later, and announced that she wouldn't run with her husband on the ticket.
Juan Perón won the election, and Evita accompanied her husband to his second inauguration as President in 1952. That proved to be her last public performance.
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She died at age 33, on July 26, 1952, at 8:25 P.M. After her death, thousands of mourners lined city blocks to pay homage to her legacy as their beloved "Evita."
As we left the theater and walked down the Avenida de Julio, I could imagine those throngs of people shouting her name and, like in the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, I imagined this strong, beautiful, and much-loved woman singing, "Don't cry for me, Argentina... The truth is, I never left you."
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