THE ENDURING LEGACY OF EVA PERON
by Alexandra Kathryn Mosca
"Santa Evita!" the massive crowd assembled
outside the Casa Rosada, wailed plaintively. Sobs and shrieks of
anguish pierced the inky blackness of the August night, winter in
Argentina. The crowd kept a vigil, refusing at first, to believe
that their beloved Evita, the first lady of their land, could be
gone from them forever at the age of 33. To the descamisados (an
endearing term for Argentina's poor) Evita Peron, the woman from
humble beginnings, much like their own, was thought to be
saint-like. But to the oligarchs, Argentina's elite; the people
she had taken every opportunity to displace in the name of, as she
put it, "redistributing the nation's wealth", she was
more like Satan incarnate. In reality, she was one of the most
complex, paradoxical and enigmatic woman in history, who, more
than most, embodied a litany of extreme opposites - earthy/
ethereal -sacred/profane -good/evil -puritanical/ promiscuous.
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 a child of
illegitimacy when such a stigma held grave societal consequences.
In fact, so deep was the wound, that in an official act, Eva Peron
removed the notation of "illegitimate", which had until
then been scrawled across one's birth certificate like the
proverbial scarlet letter.
Unlike so many others, she achieved her dreams of greatness.
Improbable as it seems, while working as a mediocre actress, Eva
Duarte met and married General Juan Peron, the future president of
Argentina. As the wife of Argentina's president, she was afforded
great respect and wielded much power, a perfect position from
which to avenge the many deprivations, slights and humiliations
she had suffered at the very same hands of the people she now
Often, it is difficult to reconcile the disparate Evita's
which seemed to inhabit her being. Her complicity in offering
asylum to the heinous Nazi's, a commiseration born more out of
greed than a shared ideology, contrasted dramatically with the
unabashed tenderness and utter lack of concern for her own health,
when allowing a leper or tubercular to kiss her face, or when
comforting a sick or orphaned child.
Her supporters stand firm that Evita used her power for the
good of the country and did many things to improve life in
Argentina. Elevating the status of the poor and down-trodden and
gaining the vote for women. Her charitable foundation granted
favors for the needy and built many hospitals. Yet, as she
championed these very human causes, her detractors point out that
she simultaneously helped herself to vast sums of money and
precious gems; obviously not having a conflict of conscience and
ambition. Still, she was an object of fascination the
world over and, many believe, the driving power behind
General Juan Peron. Her ambitions were as grand as her bejeweled
and bedecked presence. She envisioned one day being VP on her
husbands presidential ticket. A position that would enable her to
further her many visions for her beloved country and satisfy her
fever for power. But that was never to be. Cancer became her most
persistent and fearsome enemy. One, in all her formidity, she
could neither control nor conquer, as she had all so many other
obstacles in her life, by sheer will and determination. At last,
she had come up against something she had no power over; something
which would ultimately take her life.
Always physically fragile, the first signs of illness were
evident on January 9, 1950 when she fainted at an official
function. Three days later, during an appendectomy, a doctor
diagnosed uterine can, ironically the very disease that had taken
the life of Peron's first wife. At first declining further
surgery, she continued her grueling schedule, refusing to cut back
on her duties, as if she considered herself invincible. Dr. Jorge
Albertelli, her personal physician, gave her radiation and moved
into the couple's residence, where he lived until her death. Dr.
George Pack, an eminent cancer surgeon from Memorial Sloan Cancer
Center in New York City, was summoned to be part of her medical
team and in November he performed a hysterectomy. A procedure
which bought her some time and for which he accepted no fee.
On November 11, 1951 a gravely ill, bedridden Evita voted by
her bedside, the electoral ballot box brought to her. An
auspicious day for both Eva and the country, as it was the first
time in Argentine history that women participated in an election.
The cause Evita had championed so ardently had indeed become law.
Her health rebounded at Christmas, enabling her to resume her
cherished duties of distributing millions of gifts to needy
children. But the rebound was brief and her suffering returned,
excruciatingly so, causing her, ever the pragmatist, to try to
bargain with God in a way that was pure Evita. "If you'd give
me back my health, I will never wear jewels or beautiful dresses
again. Nothing but a skirt and a blouse." But she knew her
time was short and made use of that time by completing her
autobiography and supervising the plans for what she thought would
be her permanent monument, while Juan Peron made plans for her
funeral. Masses were said and prayer vigils held around the
country; health updates appeared daily in the Argentine
Evita's last public appearance was at her husband's second
inauguration on June 4, 1952. She weighed 82 lbs., and was pumped
up with morphine and propped up by a plaster support concealed by
her fur coat. Seven weeks later, on July 26th, she was dead. Her
last words were to her sister Elisa, "Eva se va." (Eva
is leaving) The time of her death was listed as 8:25 P.M., a more
fanciful than actual hour, given that it was the time of her
marriage. Nevertheless, 8:25 became the official time and
beginning July 26th, until the fall of Peron's regime, the news
was interrupted each evening to remind the country, "It is
8:25 P.M,, the time when Eva Peron entered immortality."
Evita's death and the subsequent preparations were as
dramatic and grandiose as her life had been. A
period of national mourning was decreed for one month. All
Peronists were ordered to wear a black tie or armband, accepted
signs of mourning. Flags were at half-mast and draped in black as
were lamp-posts in every city, town and village. Tributes poured
in from world dignitaries, including President Truman and
Britain's Queen Elizabeth. Business virtually shut down for three
days in all of Argentina; Buenos Aires, the capital city, closed
down completely. Only florists remained open.
While the country mourned publicly, behind the closed doors
of the Casa Rosada, Dr. Pedro Ara, a distinguished Spanish
pathologist, working as an embalmer, began his extensive
preparation of Eva's body. This was no ordinary embalming process.
Dr. Ara had spent much of his life perfecting a process to
preserve corpses for an indefinite period of time. This procedure
entailed replacing blood with absolute alcohol, then replacing the
alcohol with glycerine that had been heated to 140 degrees. The
alcohol would draw the water from the tissues and the glycerine
would replace the water, filling out the body to its lifelike
state. This process was thought to preserve even the internal
organs. Interestingly, Dr Ara's technique required only two
incisions, one in the neck and the other at the heel. A process so
precise and contained, it was unnecessary to even remove her
undergarments. Dr. Ara, along with an assistant worked through the
night, in the morning declaring his work "definitely
With the embalming complete, it was time for the finishing
touches. This, her last public appearance, was as carefully
planned as any of her previous personal appearances had been.
Her dressmaker, like Dr. Ara, had also worked through the
night, fashioning an ivory-colored tunic for her to wear. Her
personal hairdresser, who had styled her hair daily for her entire
adult life, applied a fresh wash of color, then fashioned her hair
into her trademark chignon for the last time. Next came her
manicurist, who removed the crimson polish Eva usually wore and
replaced it with a pale color, as Eva had instructed shortly
before her death.
With the aesthetic preparation at an end, the undertakers
brought in the casket that had been kept ready. Constructed at a
cost of $30,000 by the Lynch Metalworking firm of Connecticut, the
casket was made of Bronze with an inch thick crystal cover,
similar to one the company had produced for Mother Cabrini. The
rosary beads of silver and mother-of-pearl, given to her by Pope
Pius XII, were entwined in her hands and she was draped by
Argentina's blue and white flag. Then the casket was soldered shut
and taken to the Ministry of Labour building, where Evita would
lie in state, following a Mass celebrated by the Archbishop of
Buenos Aires, Monsignor Manuel Tato and Eva's personal priest,
Father Hernan Benitez.
The military acted as honor guards as hysteria gripped the
entire country. For thirteen days, during which time the rain
never ceased, Evita's body lay on view. Three million Argentines
waited in line 15 hours to file past her casket, at a rate of
nearly 65,000 a day, for one last look at "La Senora",
as she was reverently referred. 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 throughout the
casket, in order to prevent the glass from fogging. Nurses stood
by to attend the 3,900 who required medical attention, still
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 up the walls of the ministry of labour building
permeated the streets.
On Saturday, August 9th, Eva's casket was placed atop a
special gun carriage, and taken to the Congress building for an
additional day of public viewing. The next day, Sunday, after a
funeral Mass and many eulogies, the flag-draped casket was again
placed on the gun carriage. A military band played Chopin's
funeral march as 39 white-shirted, trade-union officials led the
vehicle down Rivadavia Street between an honor guard and the two
million Argentine's who lined the streets. President Juan Peron,
his Cabinet and Eva's family followed. As the cortege passed
street after street, flowers were thrown from balconies and
windows, while squadrons of Air Force planes flew overhead. Three
hours later, they reached the CGT building, which would be Eva's
temporary resting place, while
her permanent monument was being built. Her body was taken
to Dr. Ara's third floor laboratory, so that in the meantime he
might continue the preservation of her remains. A procedure he
kept mum about, but said to be an ancient method of "Spanish
mummification" in which preservatives are distributed
throughout the entire circulatory system, all the way to the
capillaries. In addition, certain areas of the body were filled
with wax and then the whole body was covered with a layer of wax.
His ministration's, which took an entire year, were complete in
July of 1953; however the mausoleum was not, so Eva's body
remained, perfectly preserved, at the GCT building. Eva's mother
and three sisters came regularly, and from time to time a
designated few were allowed to see her. And all the while, the
building remained covered by flowers.
The myth of Saint Evita remained so strong than more
than 100,000 requests to canonize her poured into the Vatican.
Requests that were denied.
On September 16th of 1955, Juan Peron's regime was
overthrown. The new regime, afraid Evita's body, which was still
housed in the Ministry of Labour building, would become a shrine
for the Peronists, had it removed. The body was stashed in various
implausible places, including a truck parked on the street, before
making the rounds of various military structures.
With no body now visible to inspire the devotion of the
Peronists, the new regime set about to erase the memory of the
Perons. Soon, every item with the 'Eva Peron Foundation'
inscription on it was ordered burned. And while the Press was
forbidden to utter Peron or Evita's name, the poorest ranchero had
a personal shrine in his home to Evita. In lieu of a grave in
which to pay their respects, the faithful worshiped their beloved
mythical mother at a bust of Evita, which they regularly covered
with flowers. The revolution replaced this with a trash can.
Undeterred, the flowers were then simply placed on the can. It
seemed that although the new regime tried so thoroughly to
obliterate Evita from the collective hearts and minds of
Argentina, her being proved to be immutable.
In the meantime, the exiled Juan Peron had, shortly
after being granted political asylum in Spain, met and married a
Panamanian dancer, named Isabela Estela. In a cruelly ironic twist
of fate, Isabel was, after the death of Peron, to live Evita's
unrealized dream of running the country.
While back in Argentina, Peronists loyal to Evita's memory
became increasingly vocal with their demands to know the
whereabouts of her remains. All they received by way of answers
was silence. It was in fact, encased in a wooden box inside a
warehouse at military intelligence headquarters. After a year,
"Operation Europe" was implemented, which necessitated
secret negotiations with Pope Pius XII to ensure a safe burial
place for Evita. In 1957, it was agreed that she would be buried
in Milan's Musocco Cemetery under the assumed name of Maria Maggi.
And it was there she remained for 14 years until July of 1971.
Following a bloody, civil unrest in Argentina, it was believed
that the symbolism of her remains would restore calm, called for
the return of her body to General Peron. An Argentine General,
agreed to set in motion the transfer of her remains to Spain. And
on September 22nd, he made good on that promise when a van,
containing the casketed remains of Eva Peron drove up to the Peron
villa in the Puerta de Hierro suburb of Madrid. Dr. Ara, also
living in Madrid, was summoned. Upon opening the casket, he
discovered just how well his work had held up; any damage was
superficial and easily repaired. Isabel combed and restyled her
long, blond hair and she was dressed in a new outfit, before being
placed in a makeshift chapel in the attic.
A year later, Juan Peron returned to Argentina along with
Isabel to resume power; Eva's body was left behind in Spain.
Peron's new reign was short, he died in July of 1974 and in
November of that year Isabel sent an ambassador to bring
Eva's body home at last to Argentina. For a brief time her
body was displayed alongside the closed casket of Juan Peron, in
the chapel of the Olivos residence.
Then in 1976 came the coup. Isabel Peron was
ousted, and the newly elected President of Argentina, certainly not
wanting to share his residence with two corpses, allowed them to be
buried. On October 22, 1976 Eva Peron was entombed, without fanfare,
inside the Duarte family mausoleum in the Cementerio de la Recoleta,
Buenos Aires eminent cemetery. Her gravesite, on which a plaque is
inscribed with the words, "Don't Cry For Me" in Spanish,
is positioned among the most famous names in Argentina's history,
including thirteen Presidents and continues to be a prominent
tourist attraction. It is a peculiar irony that her body now lies
eternally surrounded by Argentina's oligarchs, the very people she
so hated in life.
The myth of Evita persists until today, almost fifty years
after her death. Kept alive by a spate of books, a play, a movie, a
song and by an enduring interest in this passionate woman who lived
a short life of stunning contradictions and loomed larger than life.
The world's attention she had captured during her lifetime, now
eclipsed only by the iconic status she has realized since her death.
(c) 2001 by Kates-Boylston Publications, Inc.