When visiting the Recoleta Cemetery where the graves of Argentina’s powerful are located including Evita Peron’s, it was interesting to see all the flowers and handwritten notes for a woman who was a very controversial figure in Argentina. Today, 68 years after her death, she still evokes a lot discussion and emotion from people.
Her husband, Juan Peron, is infamously credited with totalitarianism and bankrupting a rich country. At the time that Peron became President of Argentina in 1946, Argentina was the richest country in South America and one of the richest countries in the world. Britain owed Argentina $2B after WWII. Interested to learn more about South American politics and this female icon of Argentina, I read Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro. Evita published an autobiography before she died in 1952, but I was looking for a third party perspective.
This biography is a fast and engaging read about Evita- the person, the actress, the wife of Argentina’s President, Juan Peron, women’s rights and political activist. Maria Eva Duarte (Evita) was a poor and illegitimate child. In 1935, she left home at sixteen traveling to Buenos Aires with aspirations to become an actress. Before marrying Peron, she became one of the best paid, radio soap opera stars. However, controversy surrounded Eva while she was an actress as well. Since actors and actresses were paid poorly at that time in Argentina, prostitution was a common way to supplement one’s income.
Early in her career, Eva had no interest in politics. However, at a festival to raise money for victims of an earthquake in Argentina, Evita and Peron met. Then, she marries Peron after living with him for a period and becomes First Lady of Argentina at 26.
At the start of her role as First Lady, it appears she struggled, and it took her some time to mature into the position. Once she matured into the role sometime after an historic trip to Europe, Evita developed some missions and fought for women’s suffrage and the poor. In 1947, Argentine women were finally given the right to vote after a series of bills failed from 1911 to 1946. (Women’s right to vote in the US was ratified in 1919.) Then from about 1946 until she died in 1952, Evita worked tirelessly for the poor. Initially, she distributed clothes and food to the poor, and eventually, leveraged her position to secure donations from workers and companies, to the point, where a sizable Foundation (estimated at over $3B pesos or over $200 million at the exchange rate at the time) was established. In 1948, the Maria Eva Duarte de Peron Foundation was created and given legal rights by her husband, the President; however, the name was eventually changed to Foundation for Social Assistance. The achievements of the Foundation are significant. For example, 12 hospitals and 1,000 schools were built in the poorest areas of the country. Evita took a very personal and hands-on approach to the Foundation and engaging with the people. There is one story about a visit she made to a poor neighborhood where she is approached by a crying women with eight children asking for a home. After Evita verified the women was in need, a check was written for a home and basic necessities for this family. Unfortunately, the achievements are not without controversy, especially in terms of how the money for the Foundation was acquired. There were allegations of extortion. Many other interesting details, some controversial and some not, about Evita and her husband are covered in this book as well.
Nonetheless, the way in which the book is written makes for a quick and enjoyable read (if sometimes general and high level) about a fascinating woman who played a substantial and controversial role in Argentine history. Unfortunately, she was likely not able to achieve her full potential. She died at the very young age of 33 after suffering from cancer.