Who she was: Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, affectionately known as Evita, was the second wife of Argentine President Juan Peron, First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until she died of cervical cancer in 1952 at age 32.
Eva became the first lady shortly after her marriage to Juan Peron, and in time became a powerful leader in her own right. From humble roots herself, Eva Peron worked toward social justice, women's suffrage and a more powerful voice for women in government. Peron founded the Female Peronist Party, the first women's political party in Argentina. Eva Peron announced her candidacy for vice president in 1951 but was strongly opposed by military and wealthy Argentinians and withdrew her nomination due to this opposition, combined with her own failing health.
Three days after Juan Peron's reelection and shortly before Eva Peron's death in 1952 the Argentine Congress gave her the title, "Spiritual Leader of the Nation." The First Lady was given a state funeral, unusual for anyone who was not a head of state, and is still beloved by many Argentinians, elevated to the position of saint in the minds of many.
Background: Maria Eva Duarte was born 7 May 1919 in rural Argentina, in the village of Los Toldos. At age 15, Eva traveled to Buenos Aires to pursue an acting career and met Colonel Juan Peron in 1944 at a charity event to benefit earthquake victims in San Juan, Argentina. Shortly after their marriage the next year, Juan Peron was elected president of Argentina.
Although Eva Peron wrote an autobiography, La Razon de mi Vida, she included nothing about her childhood, nor even her name at birth. Civil records contain a birth certificate for Maria Eva Duarte, born in Junin, in the Buenos Aires province where she grew up. Eva's parents were Juan Duarte and Juana Ibarguren, both descended from Basque immigrants to Argentina. Her father was a wealthy rancher who had another family in Chivilcoy, not a rare occurrence at that time. When Eva was one year old Juan Duarte abandoned her mother and his five children, with no means of support. Juana moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Junin in severe poverty, ostracized because of her illegitimate children, and began working, with her daughters, as cooks for wealthy families. The children retained their father's name.
As a child, Eva pursued her dream of acting by participating in school plays and at age 15 moved to Buenos Aires to further her career, where she lived with family friends, the Bustamontes. Due to the Great Depression, great numbers of immigrants were flooding the cities, yet Eva got a break in March 1935 when she was chosen for a role in the play, "The Perezes Misses," a comedy. Peron went on to tour the nation in 1936 with a theater company and worked as a model. Eva Duarte secured regular work in 1942 with a role in a daily radio drama called "Muy bien" on Radio El Mundo, or World Radio. Eva played Elizabeth I of England, Sarah Berhardt and the last Tsarina of Russia with Radio Belgrano's program, "Great Women of History" and eventually became co-owner of the radio company.
With her increased income, Eva Duarte moved into her own apartment and became involved in politics as a founder of the Argentine Radio Syndicate, ARA. When a massive earthquake killed six thousand people in San Juan, Argentina on 15 January 1944, the country's Secretary of Labor, Juan Peron, organized a fundraiser consisting of artistic contributions, culminating in a gala in Buenos Aires. During that gala Juan Peron and Eva Duarte were first introduced, and left the gala together that night. She was 24 and he was 48. Shortly thereafter the couple moved in together, scandalous in the minds of Peron's circle of influential friends. Not only were the two living together while unmarried but artists and musicians were considered of a different, lower class than politicians. Nonetheless, Juan Duarte began to invite Eva into his political life.
When broadcast performers were forced to unionize in 1944, Eva Duarte was elected the union's president. Duarte created a daily radio show called "Toward a Better Future," which was organized as a soap opera touting Peron's achievements.
When Peron was arrested by then President Ramirez, Eva Duarte organized protests that turned out between 250,000 and 350,000 people in front of the presidential residence, the Casa Rosada. When the people's demand was met and Peron was released, Eva Duarte addressed the crowd in a powerfully dramatic, historical speech from the balcony of the Casa Rosada. Thus began the people's love affair with Evita.
This version of history, although made popular in the musical "Evita" by Andrew Lloyd Weber, is unlikely true, according to many historians. Eva Duarte was at the time an actress, they remind, had no political clout and was not even liked by Peron's advisors. It is more likely the rallies were organized by unionists and as evidence, the rally's date, 17 October, is still celebrated as Loyalty Day (Dia de la Lealtad) by Justicialist Party members of Argentina.
On 9 December 1945 Eva Duarte and Juan Peron were married in a church; they had been privately married in a civil ceremony on 18 October 1945.
Throughout Peron's presidency Eva Peron held the public's attention promoting issues of social justice, working for women's suffrage and acting as ambassador of the Argentine government throughout the world. The cover of Time magazine in 1947, titled "Eva Peron: Between two worlds, an Argentine rainbow" referred to her Rainbow Tour of Europe. Never before or since Eva's photo appeared on Time's cover has a first lady from South America been featured.
Eva's Fundacion Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, created in July 1948 grew in financial worth to more than three billion pesos and was criticized by many opponents of the Perons as a money-laundering facility to move Argentine money into to Swiss bank accounts. Nonetheless, the foundation, entirely under Evita's supervision, facilitated healthcare for the first time to poor people, and 14,000 workers in the late 1940s. It distributed personal items, built schools, hospitals, homes and institutions and even entire communities. Evita was known to meet personally, many hours each day, with children and poor people leading many in the Roman Catholic nation to consider her a saint.
Eva Peron's work toward women's suffrage came to fruition when Law 13,010 was finally passed unanimously by Argentina's House of Representatives on 9 September 1947, establishing universal suffrage in the country. Peron created the Female Peronist Party thereafter, which boasted 500,000 members in 1951, creating a base of women active in politics for the first time in the nation's history.
A massive rally of two million people in August 1951 demanded Evita publicly announce her candidacy as vice president although the country's military leaders vehemently opposed it. Ultimately, Eva Peron announced she would not run for the office but would support her husband's presidency. Her declining health at the time had become apparent and when she fainted in public on 9 January 1950, surgery revealed she had advanced cervical cancer. A radical hysterectomy several months later was ultimately unsuccessful in curbing the disease. Although she accompanied the re-elected president in a celebratory parade on 4 June 1952, she was too ill to stand on her own. Several days later she was given the official title "Spiritual Leader of the Nation" in a ceremony just after Peron's inauguration.
Eva Peron underwent chemotherapy treatment to no avail. On 26 July 1952, Evita died. The nation went into a period of mourning as all activity ceased and a radio broadcast interrupted normal broadcasting schedules. Evita was given a full Roman Catholic requiem mass and a state funeral, and her body lay in state in the Congress Building for public viewing. Throngs of people filled the streets ten blocks deep, causing injuries to 2,000 people who attempted to get near her body as she was being transported, and eight people crushed to death.
Evita was embalmed, likely at Juan Peron's request, and her body lay on display in her former office for nearly two years while a monument was built. With Peron was overthrown in a military coup he fled the country having made no arrangements for the care of Evita's body. The military dictatorship that took control of the country moved her body to a secret location for 16 years, until the location in Milan Italy was revealed in 1971. The body was then flown to Juan and Isabel Peron's home in Spain, where it was kept in their dining room. After Peron's death in 1974, then-Vice President Isabel Peron had Evita's body returned to Argentina, briefly displayed publicly next to Juan's, and finally given a resting place in the Duarte family tomb at La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires in a secret compartment two levels below a trapdoor.