Before flying into South America, I could probably be able to name you THREE Argentine personalities – Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and
Madonna, I mean Evita.
From the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita (yes… ha ha! TW watched the lousy Madonna flick), I know that Eva Duarte was a poor country girl who became a star and subsequently married Juan Domingo Perón, who became the dictator/President of Argentina at that time. I also know that she was really popular among the poorer folks of Argentina because (I might be slightly off the mark here) she dressed like a material girl and sang “Don’t Cry for me Argentina” from a balcony.
But it was only when we reached Buenos Aires that we were really able to feel the impact that one woman still managed to have on the entire Argentine psyche even 60 years after her death.
When I say 60 years after her death, I meant it quite literally.
Through serendipity or plain dumb luck, we were in town on the 60th Anniversary of the death of Eva Perón. In fact, because we had decided to go back for a second day of La Recoleta Cemetery awesomeness (aka the free English guided tour), we were actually at her final resting place (for now) that very day.
Where the cemetery was relatively peaceful, empty and quiet the day before, it was PACKED when we got there on Day 2.
True, there was a new “resident” moving into La Recoleta Cemetery, but most of the people were there to pay their respects to Eva.
It was strange (for us) to see the outpouring of grief for a woman who had been gone for 60 years. Flowers, wreaths and candles were scattered all around Lot No 88, the Duarte family crypt.
There were so many homage items that they overflowed onto the neighbouring mausoleums.
Old ladies would kneel down on crickety knees to kiss her portrait, young men encouraged EVERYONE around them to shout “VIVA EVITA!” with them.
In death, she evoked just as many raw emotions as she did in life. This “charisma” of her presence was also the reason why they took 20 years to properly place the body of Evita in the Duarte family crypt.
In spite of the cancer that had ravaged her body, Juan Perón managed to get Evita embalmed a la Ho Chi Minh and Lenin. There were also plans to build a Mausoleum “bigger than the Statue of Liberty” where people could go to pay their respect to the “Spiritual Leader of the Nation”.
Unfortunately, a military junta successfully staged a coup two years after the death of Evita. Juan Perón was forced to abandon her body and went into exile in Spain.
The new military leadership did not want to destroy her body nor bury it, for fear that such an action would rally the Perónist supporters. No one wanted to take ownership of it so she was moved from site to site to avoid detection. These sites allegedly included an unmarked van parked around the capital, the city’s sewer system, behind the screen of a Buenos Aires cinema and the office of the Military Intelligence (where soldiers on duty supposedly got involved in some necrophiliac nastiness). Unfailingly, however, the site where the body is hidden would be discovered, and lighted candles and flowers would mysteriously turn up around these hiding places. The body of Eva Perón remained a strong rallying point for the Perónist resistance movement.
She was eventually shipped covertly to Italy where she was buried under the pseudonym of “Maria Maggi”.
She would have remained there for all eternity, but Juan Perón was invited back to run for President of Argentina in 1973. One of his non-negotiable demands was that he get Eva’s body back. He kept his end of the bargain by winning the Presidential election and promptly dying the year after. During the year however, he proudly displayed Eva on the dining table of his new house. He also had his (third) wife Isabel comb Eva’s hair daily and made her lie on top of Evita so that she could absorb her “charisma”.
The “absorbing” thing probably didn’t work so well, because even though Isabel Perón succeeded Juan as President, she was overthrown herself in 1976. The new new military leadership believed they’d learnt from the old one’s experience, and had Eva interred 5 metres underground in the Duarte family crypt in La Recoleta Cemetery under concrete and three steel plates. It is believed that this new resting place would be able to withstand a nuclear attack.
Evita had been on display beside Juan Perón prior to the big move.
Juan was moved to the Perón family crypt in Chacarita cemetery. (Interesting fact: Grave robbers broke into Juan’s crypt too and sawed off his hands. Initial deductions was that the the hands would be held for ransom, but since no ransom demand came along, the speculations were that somebody sawed off the hands to try to access Juan’s secret Swiss bank accounts – Suck that, George Clooney!)
Regardless, there is no denying the effect she had on the Argentines. To commemorate the 60th anniversary of her death, the Argentine mint were putting into circulation new 100 Argentine peso notes with her face on it (it’s the first time a woman’s face had adorned any Argentine currency).
I think our Recoleta tour guide, Maria said it best when she said that, “Everybody either loves her or hates her. There is no middle ground.”
And I think that there is no other way she would have wanted it.