During her short life, Eva Perón (born Duarte) was quite controversial. But one thing is undisputable: she is likely the most famous Argentine in the world.
She was as loved as she was hated. But historians now say that 60 years after her untimely death, at age 33, is when her legacy is more appreciated.
"Evita now is a character accepted nationwide much more than 20 years ago. Many people who don't think like Evita, admire her," historian Felipe Pigna told The Associated Press.
"Even from parts of Argentine society you wouldn't expect — I don't know if they vindicate her, but they respect her," said Pigna. "There has been a transformation in Argentine society."
Argentina's iconic first lady helped bolster the popularity of her husband, Juan Domingo Perón, one of the country's most polarizing politicians, during their short marriage and his first presidency.
Even from parts of Argentine society you wouldn't expect — I don't know if they vindicate her, but they respect her. There has been a transformation in Argentine society.
- Felipe Pigna, historian
Born in rural Argentina in 1919, María Eva Duarte sought fame as an actress in Buenos Aires at 15. She met Perón in 1942 and married him in 1945 in the Church of San Francisco in La Plata just outside of Buenos Aires.
Perón ran for president in 1946 and, with Eva by his side, became one of the most beloved and controversial presidents of Argentina. During this time, she created the Eva Perón Foundation, which aimed to eradicate poverty and societal inequalities in Argentina. One interesting government program, which still lives on today, is the Chapadmalal resort to the south of Mar del Plata where workers can go vacation at the beach at very little cost.
Memorials to Eva’s life, legacy and death can be seen throughout Buenos Aires and Argentina. The Evita Museum in Buenos Aires tells the story of her life and death with exhibits and movies.
The most famous memorial is the Duarte family tomb in Recoleta Cemetery where tourists trek every day to snap up photos and pay homage to Eva Perón. The newest memorial is a two sided ‘mural’ on the Ministry of Health building, where Eva looms ever-large and ever-present over the widest street in the world, 9 de Julio. The strangest and largest memorial is the town Ciudad Evita, whose streets were designed to show her profile as people flew into the nearby Ezeiza International Airport.
Every week, tourists visit both the Casa Rosada and Congreso, where they are lead through the halls of the government buildings. The Eva Perón Salon opened in 1948 is where women could convene away from men and discuss matters important to them.
In the touristy areas of La Boca, San Telmo and Recoleta, keen observers will notice smaller monuments. In San Telmo, the CGT (the most powerful Perónist union) building has a mural with an eternal flame on the corner as this is where her embalmed body lay 1952-1955.
A few blocks away, is the engineering school, which housed the Eva Perón Foundation. On a balcony in La Boca, life-sized puppets of Juan and Eva Perón and soccer icon Diego Maradona wave to the tourists below. In Recoleta, there is a bronze statue of her by Argentine sculptor Ricardo Gianetti in Plaza Evita. The plaza is just beneath the National Library at the site where Juan Perón lived before his ousting in 1955.
Perón has even been immortalized by the government of Cristina Fernandez, who traces her political activism directly to Evita and misses few opportunities to draw comparisons between their governments. Fernandez unveiled a new 100-peso bill honoring Evita Wednesday night, and said she would mark Thursday's anniversary by inaugurating a new public housing project.
"She would have liked that," Fernandez said of Evita.
Critics saw the young former dancer as a power-hungry tramp. Many were so furious at the way the foundation she created took from the rich and gave to the poor that they refused to mention her by name, calling her "that woman."
As first lady, Evita swiftly took control of two pillars of her husband's government: the relationship with unions and handing government aid to poor citizens, many of whom idolized her. While he focused on politics, she dominated the media with talk of improving living conditions for her "shirtless ones."
Pigna says his investigation determined that Evita was never told she had uterine cancer, a disease that in the late 1940s would have opened her to accusations of promiscuity, damaging the first lady's image. If she suspected, she chose to deny it, focusing instead on her campaign for women's suffrage.
The combined pressure of Juan Perón and his glamorous wife persuaded Congress to give women the right to vote, just ahead of his reelection campaign. Evita cast the ballot for her husband from her hospital bed in 1951. Eight months later, she was dead.
"It's not that Eva was a saint. It's not that she didn't make mistakes," Fernandez said Wednesday night. "What made her into an immortal character was, having been a humble woman from a small town, she made the decision to change things in favor of the people, at the cost of her own life."
Contains material from The Associated Press.