"[Eva Perón] ceased to be what she said and what she did to become what people say she said and what people say she did."
-- Tomás Eloy Martínez
If a celebrity's impact can be measured by the power and longevity of the myths she spawns, then Evita must be considered one of the superstars of the 20th century. "Many people see Eva Perón as either a saint or the incarnation of Satan," observed Madonna when she was cast in the title role of Alan Parker's film Evita. And from the distorted perceptions of non-Argentines -- whose exposure to Eva Perón generally comes from the musical and sensationalistic British biographies -- the American pop star is right. Even more interesting myths come from Eva's own country, where textbooks approved by her husband's regime once offered prayers to the Little Mother of Perónism, and where Eva is credited with political efforts from women's suffrage to providing schools, hospitals, libraries and athletic equipment to the poorest citizens of Argentina.
The definitive biography of Eva Perón may never be written, for so many strong emotions and the fortunes of so many are tied to her legend. There is little about Eva that cannot be described in superlatives, from her impoverished childhood to her rise as B-movie actress to her political ascendancy. She had become first lady of her country at 26, was dead of cancer at 33, then her corpse embarked on a transcontinental odyssey that would last nearly as long as her life. Evita's image enabled Perón's third wife to become the first female president of Argentina, and continues to influence politics, culture, and religion in that country to this day.
I am not from Argentina and cannot read Spanish, so my own view of Eva Perón is distorted by the filters of translation, interpretation and distance. Like many English speakers, my first exposure to her mythology came from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita (MCA, 1976). The musical portrays Eva as growing up in squalor, sleeping with a series of powerful men in the entertainment industry, becoming attracted to the power of would-be dictator Juan Perón, spearheading his rise, and manipulating adoring Argentines who worshipped her as a saint. Composer Lloyd Webber and lyricist Rice make passing note of the fact that Eva played a role in the nationalization of industries and the closing of businesses from their own home, Britain. They blame Eva's hatred for the wealthy residents of Argentina not on decades of class resentment so much as Eva's personal fury at being refused an invitation to Buckingham Palace.
Evita's title character is shadowed by a working-class rebel, Che; in stage productions before the 1996 film, he was often characterized as a youthful version of Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara, whose own myth as a Marxist hero provides a powerful foil for Eva Perón's alleged fascism. Rice's Che mocks Eva's ambitions, her opportunistic sexuality, her inability to appreciate her youthful fame, her transformation into a fashion icon and ultimately her failure to triumph over cancer -- "You were supposed to have been immortal." He implies that her work with the poor served solely to elevate her image, disgrace the charities run by upper-class matrons and enable her to hide away a small fortune in cash and jewels. Yet as he dances around her, spitting contempt at her policies, it becomes evident that Che is in love with her.
Thus, ironically, the musical captures Eva's charisma even as it embellishes notorious rumors about her. Evita wins the hearts of the Argentines while standing on the balcony of the President's residence, singing her passion in the stirring anthem "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina." Though she ostensibly performs for an onstage throng, the theatrical audience in the orchestra and mezzanine are the real targets of her pleas. The musical remains heavily critical of the Peróns, yet from this point it swings sentiment in Eva's favor. If later lyrics suggest that she is a selfish fraud, stealing from public funds and suppressing free speech, Lloyd Webber and Rice still fail to convince their audience that she does not love her country and its people.
The real Eva made no secret of her ambitions even in her official autobiography, La Razon De Mi Vida (Ediciones Peuser, 1952), though she presented them in the guise of wanting to help other Argentines of common breeding like herself. Doubt has been cast upon the authenticity of La Razon De Mi Vida and In My Own Words: Evita (New Press, 1996), a document purportedly narrated by Eva on her deathbed; both may have been reworked substantially by Perón's advisors after Eva's death, yet the style and tone closely reflect those of Eva's speeches and it is widely believed that Eva followed her husband's wishes in her public addresses. The Eva in these pages insists that any fame and power that appear to be her own only reflect from Perón or from the love of the downtrodden. She speaks of Perónism as a religion rather than a political movement, tied intrinsically to the fate of the poor and the working people of her country -- a revolutionary combination of Catholicism and social commitment.
Reports of Eva's work with the injured and ill leave little doubt of her empathy for the suffering of others. Once she became first lady, she could have shielded herself from patients with contagious diseases and from filthy, illiterate peasants, yet she left her escorts to embrace and offer support to hundreds of destitute citizens. Rather than trying to hide her illegitimacy and humble origins, she made them a point of community, though various stories told by both admirers and detractors have hidden the facts of her early life -- at what age she left Los Toldos for Junín, how she broke into show business, when and where she met her future husband. Tomás de Elia and Juan Pablo Quieroz's magnificent photo biography Evita: An Intimate Portrait of Eva Perón provides new material, including Eva's sister's photos from their childhood, yet the history of the woman in the photos remains obscured by the fables surrounding every aspect of her life.
Raised a devout Catholic, Eva was so thrilled to meet the Pope on a trip to Europe that she died with a rosary he gave her, even though his failure to decorate her irked Argentines who perceived the Vatican's decision as a slight. Eva had an active premarital sex life for a woman of her era, but there is no evidence -- as biographies like Mary Main's Evita: The Woman With the Whip (Dodd Mead, 1980) and Paul Montgomery's Eva, Evita (Pocket, 1983) imply -- that she worked as a prostitute or career mistress of powerful men. In The Return of Eva Perón, V.S. Naipaul ponders rumors of Eva's submissiveness to men in the bedroom as an aspect of the sinner-saint dichotomy that plagues her reputation. Did she work her way through a series of powerful lovers ending with Perón? We may never know, but quotes from Eva's private writings in Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro's Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron illustrate how deeply Eva loved her husband; she wrote him passionate letters, and her speeches on his behalf became all the more fervent as she grew ill with cancer.
The Eva of the musical is strikingly empowered for a woman in politics of her era, despite only cursory mentions of real accomplishments like suffrage and the diminishment of corruption in the military. Lloyd Webber and Rice suggest that Eva was responsible for her husband's rise and made important policy decisions, and though both the positive and negative aspects of this involvement are exaggerated from historical reality, they bolster her image as a woman with direct political power of a sort rare for women in the U.S. and Britain of that era. Perón may have governed as an autocrat, but he was voted into office in free elections. When he ran for a second term, Eva seriously considered running as vice president. Rumors that the Peróns received large sums of money from fleeing Nazis, using them to fund their stranglehold on Argentine politics, have never been substantiated, though comments in Evita link Perón to Mussolini. The worst excesses of Perón's regime took place when he was struggling to maintain his power after he no longer had Eva to make speeches for him. Though biographers have tried to credit her with arming the people against their own military, it hardly seems logical that she would have wielded such power more than two years after she died.
José Pablo Feinmann's screenplay for Juan Carlos Desanzo's Academy Award-nominated film Eva Perón (Aleph Producciones, 1996) offers a more balanced view of the first lady and her pragmatic president, even as it puts forth clear political messages about the class system of Argentina. Feinmann's Eva champions the poor; she fights the aristocracy, the military and even on occasion her own husband in her quest for respect that is both social and personal. She enjoys the wealth and benefits that come with her position even as she fights the corrupt system of privilege that allow the wife of the president such benefits. This fiery-tempered, sarcastic Eva is no saint, but a pushy, demanding woman whose empathy for the disenfranchised comes across more in her anger than compassion. Though it's illuminating to see her as a secular heroine, it is not a complete picture of her impact on the psyche and spirit of her followers.
In literature, however, Eva's role has been explored with greater complexity and perhaps more ambivalence. Not long after Evita took the stage, American novelist Lois Gould published La Presidenta (Simon & Schuster, 1981), the fictional story of the wife of a Latin American president whose rise to fame eclipses a childhood of horrific poverty and abuse. Not long before the book was published, Gould published an article entitled, "Who Is Eva Perón and Why Has She Come Back Singing?", demonstrating her own familiarity with the popular legend and coming across as very critical of the Peronist regime.
In Gould's novel, however, Eva Perón has been transformed into the sympathetic and tragic Rosa Montero, known to her devoted followers as La Senora. She is not the saint her followers believe her to be -- raped by her own father and the local priest in her childhood, she hides within her body a secret that could ruin her politically and ultimately does destroy her health. But she resembles statues of the weeping Virgin, and her ability to transform herself into whomever her lovers wish to see wins her allies -- a powerful lesbian who teaches her to act the part of a lady, a series of male lovers who can never possess her, and ultimately would-be-President Montero, whose desire for power parallels her desire for the love of the people.
As a young actress, Rosa sings of her love for Montero, and he falls in love with the hero of her song. Together they use their magnetic appeal to create illusions about themselves so powerful that no one -- not even Rosa's enemies -- can really bear to see the sad truths behind the legends. Rosa herself never forgets her origins, for they are what enabled her to shape herself into La Lloradora, the adored icon who understands the people who love her. Her politics are more radical than even Montero realizes, but her past catches up with her before she can become La Presidenta. When, years after Rosa's death, Montero meets Blanca, the woman who will become his next wife and after him the president of their country, she seduces Montero with the illusion that she could be Rosa, giving him the strength to retake his former glory.
Tomás Eloy Martínez plays with history even more directly in The Perón Novel (Pantheon, 1989) and Santa Evita (Knopf, 1996). The former, writes the author, "is a novel where everything is true...I decided that the truths of this book could not be expressed except in the language of the imagination." The story begins on the day Perón left exile to fly home, resuming power after a nearly 20 year absence. Evita, whose body had been embalmed upon her death, hidden in a European graveyard and exhumed for repatriation, is now a corpse and ghost in his house. His third wife, Isabel Martínez Perón, speaks and dresses like Evita and dreams of becoming one with her, by possession if necessary, so she can replace the first lady who nearly became vice president of Argentina. Over the course of a week, the stories of Perón's past and present are retold from numerous points of view. The cast of characters includes a political advisor who moonlights as a sorcerer, the Communists and Democrats who oppose Perón, and the military officers who no longer know what to hope for. The dead Evita hovers among them all.
The chapter "If Evita Were Alive" begins with Perón lamenting that his wife earned more accolades in a week in Madrid than he could in a decade. In his recollection of meeting the woman often credited with inventing him, he retells the story so that he invents her: "I made her what she was and she stole most of my glory." He recalls her sobbing as she spoke of her childhood, thanking him for existing, calling him by his titles rather than his name. Yet during her lifetime he had decided that his wife's glory was for them all: "She is Argentina." A C.I.A. note claims that he never set foot in her bedroom from the time she became ill, superstitiously fearing that her cancer might be contagious. Yet she has already infected him, and her legend makes it impossible for him ever to become what he wants to be -- the ascendant leader, the rainbow that does not fade.
Santa Evita tells the even stranger story of Eva's corpse. Though she was never canonized by the Vatican, she was revered as a saint upon her death, her body embalmed by a master artist and treated as a holy relic. When Perón fled to exile, the effigy became the biggest threat to the stability of the new government -- indeed, to sanity. "What are the elements that went into the making of the myth of Evita?" asks Eloy Martínez in the eighth chapter, "A Woman Reaches Her Eternity." He cites her Cinderella-like rise, her early death, her love of the poor and hatred of the rich, her passionate romance with a powerful man, her miraculous gifts that gave hope to the destitute. Then he mentions Jorge Luis Borges' "The Simulacrum," a text in which a husband mourns over a beautiful doll; Copi's play Eva Perón in which a transvestite played Eva on the verge of a nervous breakdown says, "I am the Christ of erotic Peronism...Fuck me however you like"; and of course Lloyd Webber and Rice's Evita, "the compassionate hyena who declaims from the balconies of the beyond."
For the narrator, however, Eva remains a very real ghost that haunts his past and present. "I go on...advancing along the razor-thin edge between what is mythical and what is true...I lose myself in these folds, and she always finds me." He has painstakingly reconstructed the path of Eva's corpse, and of her legend, working from her death both forward and backward in time, yet he cannot construct a narrative about what it means. He mixes fragments of real interviews with fictional ones; he constructs a pretend screenplay to discuss as well as the real musical. The corpse is said to breathe, to smell of flowers, to speak. It is a text upon which a thousand legends can be inscribed -- the body politic, the beatification of sainthood, the passivity of a giant doll, the erotic form of a woman in her prime.
There are those who would molest each of those icons, and do. Yet the corruptible corpse of Evita is not Evita, any more than the thousand legends about her are Evita. After all, as one character in the novel reflects, only in death can one become immortal. Eva is preserved in corporeal legends the narrator believes she would have deplored -- sexual legends about her kinky ability to please Perón after her illness made lovemaking impossible, social legends about miracles she performed for the poor, funerary legends about vapors coming from her nose long after death. Still the title character remains utterly elusive even to those who have spent years conjuring her, trying to construct a coherent version of her story.
After Eva's death, Perón quickly lost his passionate hold on a majority of Argentines and was deposed by a coup. He fled to Europe via Paraguay, meeting and marrying Isabel, who at one point was given the macabre task of caring for Eva's embalmed corpse. The Peróns returned to Argentina in triumph in the 1970s, with Isabel becoming Vice-President and, after Perón's death, President. Set in these later years, Luisa Valenzuela's The Lizard's Tail (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1983) brings a much darker perspective to the legends of Eva, Juan and Isabel then Gould's. Valenzuela was born in Buenos Aires and narrates from the point of view of a man called The Sorcerer, who is based on Jose López Rega -- a minister in the administration of Juan and Isabel Perón's regimes who was a well-known occultist and astrologer.
López Rega founded the Anticommunist Association of Argentina, the organization responsible for the torture and killing of yet-uncounted scores of Argentines. Post-Perón Argentina was a place where death squads made people "disappear" based only on the vaguest rumors of dissent; Valenzuela writes that living in such a climate, the line between fiction and fact becomes extremely tenuous. Her novel captures the mood of the Argentina of the Dirty War, with the insane, sadistic Sorcerer plotting to control the nation, laying the groundwork for the divine son he believes he has conceived within his own body. Christ and the Virgin cannot protect the people, and the cult of the dead Eva, "La Muerta," bolsters the necromancer's powers. The prophecy which opens the novel is written in a voice reminiscent of Eva's angriest speeches: "A river of blood will flow," it warns, and the bleak prediction plays out, though not in the manner that the would-be wizard imagines.
Yet in recent magical realism from Latin America -- the work of Borges and Allende as well as Eloy Martinez -- individual imagination has the power to influence history. In Lawrence Thornton's Imagining Argentina (Doubleday, 1987), the desaparacidos can speak through the visions of a playwright who discovers only after losing his own wife that he has an odd talent for seeing the fates of other victims. The visions become more important to the families of the missing than the distant government turbulence behind the climate of terror; the imagined Argentina occupies an emotional space bereft in reality, the same space Eva was able to claim and fill as a quasi-religious figure. Thornton, Valenzuela, and Eloy Martínez have in common the suggestion that how Eva Perón and her country are imagined and immortalized matters more now in a real, political sense than discovering the factual truths of her life.
Half a century after her death, Eva's legend continues to influence Argentina. The Peronist party has enjoyed a popular resurgence despite the absence of a Perón at the head. Shrines and charities pay tribute to Evita, the uncanonized saint of the poor. It's been quite a journey for the poor girl from Los Toldos -- not only her own remarkable life and death, but the transformation in the fantasies of millions, into a figure whose mythical dimension grows with time.
The following were also referred to while writing this review:
John Barnes, Evita--First Lady (Grove, 1979)
Tomás de Elia and Juan Pablo Quieroz, Evita: An Intimate Portrait of Eva Perón (Rizzoli, 1997)
Alicia Dujovne Ortiz, Eva Peron (St. Martin's Press, 1997)
Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro, Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron (Norton 1986)
Mary Main, Evita: The Woman With the Whip (Dodd Mead, 1980)
Paul Montgomery, Eva, Evita (Pocket, 1983)
V.S. Naipul, The Return of Eva Perón (Random House, 1980)
Eva Perón, La Razon De Mi Vida (Ediciones Peuser, 1952)
Eva Perón, In My Own Words: Evita (New Press, 1996)
Julie M. Taylor, Eva Peron: The Myths of a Woman (University of Chicago, 1979)
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