Viva Evita in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jan 17, 2012


Eva Pern once said, “I will come again, and I will be millions.” It was a rallying cry to her followers and a threat to her enemies, but mostly it was a promise to herself because, to Evita, being forgotten was a fate worse than death. She need not have worried,
for Argentina has not forgotten the first lady who, clad in designer garb and shod in killer spikes, ruled society with a velvet glove before dying of cancer in 1952, at the age of 33. Evita was never vice-president nor even a cabinet minister. In fact, she held no official post, yet was given a state funeral attended by millions. After just a few years in the national spotlight, she had managed to seize control of the public consciousness like none before or after. By the time she died, she had gathered a legion of followers – and as many enemies. And the legend of Evita – that of saint, actress, wife, political leader, social worker, tyrant and fashion icon – has continued to grow and today has morphed into a marketing brand, its logo the iconic profile of a woman with blonde hair pulled back into that trademark chignon.

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In Buenos Aires her image looms large – literally. Last July, two 31m-high murals of Evita, made of metal and inspired by the Che Guevara mural in Havana, Cuba, were unveiled on the northern and southern sides of the Social Development Ministry building. Her image is everywhere – on T-shirts, postcards and magazines in street stalls and on mementos at the famous flea market of San Telmo, while billboards in the streets proclaim, politically, Evita vive! (Evita lives!). Her propagandistic autobiography, La Razon de mi Vida (my mission in life) is on sale in bookshops. This enduring presence, undoubtedly boosted by the musical Evita, is remarkable given that in 1956 the military junta tried to forcibly erase the memory of her by issuing decree 4161, which banned all references to the Perns, including photos, art work – even the mere mention of their names. Offenders faced jail for up to six years.

Evita’s image has since become a money-spinner, while her glamour retains its pulling power. Look beyond the souvenirs, however, and you will find a city whose very soul seems to be infused with her energy, passion and sense of drama. The grand – if tarnished – old buildings and tree-lined avenues, and the slightly shabby monuments and plazas, are reminders of a Buenos Aires where a penniless teenager called Mara Eva Duarte arrived at Retiro train station in 1934, seeking fame as an actress. Today, the faded charm of this city pays homage to the power, style and wealth that she found as Evita. Buenos Aires is full of places that are key to the Evita story – backdrops to events that helped launch the legend and create the personality cult that follows her to this day.

Museo Evita
2988 Lafinur Street, Palermo.
+54 11 4807 0306.
The Eva Pern Foundation was said to be the largest social welfare organisation in the world (and, if you believe her opponents, Evita’s private slush fund and money-laundering operation). In 1948 the foundation took over a mansion in the wealthy suburb of Palermo and turned it over to homeless women and children. Evita would often pay surprise visits to check on things (as she was wont to do with her many other institutions). The stately refuge was shut down after the Pern regime was toppled in 1955 and reopened as the Museo Evita (Evita Museum) in 2002, the 50th anniversary of her death. It’s where I start my search for Evita – in a darkened room where footage of her spectacular funeral is screened and where her silver funeral mask is lit eerily in a glass case sitting in the corner.

The exhibition is a tribute to a woman who was young, fragile, vivacious, wealthy, famous and driven. On display are some of her glamorous evening gowns and also the sharp business suits she wore as her power increased and her image changed to match. In fact, these suits became her uniform in the personal war she waged against the oligarchs. At the same time, she assumed the streamlined name Eva Pern, instead of the traditional Mara Eva Duarte de Pern. “Eva Pern” and “Evita” – the people’s nickname for her – became her brand names.

The Evita Museum does not seek to shine light on the dark side of its subject – her reputed narcissism and megalomania – and it does not investigate claims of the regime’s links to fascism and the brutal suppression of those who opposed it. In short, the museum, run by Evita’s great-niece, Mara Cristina Alvarez Rodriguez of the Eva Pern National Institute of Historical Research, was created simply to celebrate the brief life of Evita.
Open: Tue-Sun 11am-7pm.

9 de Julio Avenue & Corrientes, Congreso.
If ever there were a symbol of a society’s machismo, it is this 68m-high phallus, inaugurated in 1936 to mark the 400th anniversary of the city’s founding.The obelisk was a landmark during Evita’s life when, further up the avenue, on August 22, 1951, hundreds of thousands of people cheered at a rally – which was choreographed to almost Nuremberg proportions, with banners, flags, strobing spotlights and a huge stage – as Juan Pern accepted the nomination for re-election as president.

The crowd called for Evita to stand as vice-president, but in those frenzied moments she neither accepted nor rejected the nomination. Over shouts of Ahora! Evita. Ahora! (“Now! Evita. Now!”) she placated the crowd by promising to announce her decision in the coming days.
Standing on the stage, with a view of the obelisk, she no doubt felt the sharp pangs of defeat, for she could not ignore the opposition she faced, most dangerously from the military, which threatened revolt. As vice-president, in the event of Pern’s death, Evita would become president and chief of the military – an intolerable prospect for the generals. A few days later, Evita went on the radio and declared she would decline the nomination, claiming she had no ambition other than to remain, simply, Evita.

Casa Rosada
Plaza de Mayo, Microcentro.
+51 11 4344 3802.
The balcony of the salmon-coloured government house, Casa Rosada (pink house) became Evita’s personal stage where the starlet turned political figure would regularly appear before thousands of cheering workers. She delivered what was probably her most famous speech on Loyalty Day, October 17, 1951, an event that inspired the scene in the musical Evita in which her character sings Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

In 1951, Evita, weak from illness – Pern stood behind her, holding her up by the waist – but still strong on melodrama, declared, “My glory is and always will be the shield of Pern and the banner of my people, and even if I leave shreds of my life on the wayside I know that you will gather them up in my name and carry them like a flag to victory.” At the end of this speech Evita turned and cried into Pern’s shoulder, a moment that was captured by a photographer.

It remains one of the most poignant images of her life. On May 1 the following year, Evita gave her last speech from the balcony. She was very ill, yet remained her usual incendiary self, vowing to “leave no brick standing that is not standing for Pern”. She fought to the end.
Today I stroll in through the front door of the Casa Rosada – it’s a Sunday and there’s no apparent security – and stumble upon a tour group. I join it and weave my way through the public rooms and into the grand office of the current president, Cristina Fernndez de Kirchner (whose party is part of the political movement begun by Pern and Evita) her desk guarded at either end by grenadiers. Finally I go out on to the balcony.
Open: Tours Sat-Sun and holidays 10am-6pm.

Plaza de Mayo
From the balcony of the Casa Rosada I look down at the Plaza de Mayo. In 2010 it was the 200th anniversary of the revolution that took place in the plaza on May 25, 1810, which led to independence from Spain, and the government of Argentina marked the anniversary by naming Evita Woman of the Bicentenary for her fight for women’s rights. Here, every week, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still gather to honour the memory of the children who “disappeared” – among an estimated 30,000 – during the junta’s reign of terror from the mid-1970s to early ’80s.

Legislatura de Buenos Aires
Plaza de Mayo, Microcentro.
+51 11 4338 3000.
Initially, Evita had an office in the Central Post Office (located at Avenida Leandro N Alem and Avenida Corrientes), one of Buenos Aires’ most glorious edifices, before moving to the landmark building with the clock tower, off the Plaza de Mayo, which for some time housed the Labour ministry during Pern’s rule. This sumptuous building – its Golden Salon is based on the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles – is now the City of Buenos Aires Legislature. Visitors can visit the Eva Pern Saln, which features her ornate desk.
Open: daily tours (except Thu).

Avenida de Mayo
Plaza de Mayo to Congreso
Evita drove down the impressive tree-lined Avenida de Mayo many times, most notably in a convertible, next to Pern, on the way to his second swearing-in – and then, a few weeks later, in a coffin on top of a gun carriage.The avenue, flanked with buildings in the neo-baroque and neoclassical style, today looks not unlike it did in Evita’s era.

On a Sunday, when the shops are closed, this normally busy avenue is almost peaceful, although red paint splattered on a building suggests passion and protest are never too far from the surface.I pass the building that once housed La Prensa, the influential newspaper that opposed the Perns’ iron grip on Argentina – that is, until the regime expropriated it and handed it to the Confederacion General del Trabajo (General Confederation of Labour or CGT). It was later returned to its original owners.

Evita’s foundation built Hogar de la Empleada (Home of the Employees) at number 869 for women workers to make the transition from small town to large city – as she herself had done. The building is now government offices, but outside the front door is a plaque to commemorate its historic past.

Congreso de la Nacin Argentina
Western end of Avenida de Mayo, Balvanera.
Evita, desperately ill and dosed up on morphine, was in the national congress, a white neoclassical marble monolith, for Pern’s second swearing-in on June 4, 1952. She died on July 26, soon after being declared Spiritual Leader of the Nation by congress.

On August 9, her embalmed body was transported to congress in a glass-topped casket, watched by several million spectators. There it lay in state in the ornate room called the Saln de los Pasos Perdidos in preparation for her funeral the next day. Hysteria broke out when the casket was taken into the street and thousands of people were treated in hospital and several killed in the melee.
Open: guided tours Mon-Tue, Thu-Fri 11am, 4pm; Evita exhibition Mon-Fri 9am-7pm.

Confederacin General del Trabajo
802 Azopardo, Monserrat.
Evita’s powerbase was the union movement, corralled through the CGT. Today the organisation, as pro-Pernist as ever, occupies the same building that Evita and Pern inaugurated in 1950. On the second floor is the room where Evita’s body lay in state after the funeral, between bouts of mummification work in a lab set up in the building. It’s now a virtual shrine to Evita, complete with artefacts.
Open: inquire at building.

Cementerio de la Recoleta
1790 Calle Junin,
Plaza Francia, Recoleta.
In 1976, Evita’s body was finally buried in the Recoleta cemetery, reportedly under trapdoors and sheets of steel, in a vault bearing the plaque “Familia Duarte” – the surname of the man who fathered the illegitimate girl who would become Evita.

Despite the labyrinth of tombs, I locate it easily because people are having their photos taken in front of the metal grille adorned with plastic flowers. Evita is buried with her mother, brother and sisters, while her remaining sister lives in Buenos Aires. Evita’s present-day disciples say the tomb is too humble for their saint, but they’re probably lucky she’s there at all, considering the corpse went missing for almost two decades, during which it was shunted in secret around Buenos Aires and buried under an assumed name in Italy.
The rest of the 6ha cemetery is an outstanding array of 19th and 20th-century funerary art and architecture, a veritable cornucopia of private family crypts and mausoleums.
Open: daily 8am-6pm

Source Qantas The Australian Way February 2012

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