Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Looking for the Real Eva Peron

I'm about half through the first draft of my third South American historical mystery. Research continues, but one aspect of the history—the most difficult one—is becoming a bit clearer: who was the real Evita?

The little girl, born a bastard child who grew up with her Mother's maiden name—Ibaguren, later took her father's name, Duarte. At the age of fifteen, she left the small, sad, remote town where she had grown up, and moved to Buenos Aires to pursue her dream, born of childhood trips to the movies and an addiction to movie magazines: to become an actress. After some minor roles in plays and movies that barely kept her alive, she finally achieved some success as an actress in radio soap operas. Then, she met Juan Peron, and eventually became the first lady of Argentina and the most famous woman in the world.

Depending on where one looks, one finds very different Evitas. I have found three. Two are extreme:

Evita the Whore: the young woman who slept her way into roles in the theater and movies. In this characterization, she is the embodiment of an ambitious bitch, without morals, who will do anything to get ahead and stay ahead. She ultimately reached the pinnacle of Argentinean fame and fortune by becoming the mistress of Juan Peron, the most powerful man in the country. This is the Evita one finds in contemporary accounts in places like Time Magazine, in British anti-Peronist polemics, and in the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical: Evita.

Evita the Saint: This is the Eva, great benefactress of the poor, who worked tirelessly once she became First Lady. She kissed the sick, even lepers, who came to her for charity. This is the passionate supporter of the man she thought the only hope for the lowest level workers. She was a she-wolf, a relentless enemy of the oppressive oligarchy and all members of the idle ruling class.

Which one of these two extremes was the real historical Evita?

To me, it's beginning to seem as if they are both real. There is no doubt that Eva Duarte lived with Juan Peron for almost two years before they were married. It is also quite possible that she slept with directors or producers of plays and movies when she was a teenager, desperate for a break. I imagine such a thing was often required of a starving girl with stars in her eyes. Though cohabitation out of wedlock is hardly considered a reason to call a woman a whore these days, and few would call the casting couch a form of prostitution, in the 1940's and 50's, lots of people would have thought so. Her real behaviors would have been an excuse for anyone who hated her enough to discredit her.

Nor is there any doubt that Evita spent huge amounts of her time listening to and trying to ameliorate the problems of the poorest in Argentina. She did kiss them, even if they were sick. That she died a very painful death of cancer when she was only thirty-three made it easy for those who wanted to canonize her to make their case.

But a third Evita is also emerging from the pages of the books I am studying. An energetic, dynamic, ill-educated young woman with a chip on her shoulder about how the upper classes treated her and her family when she was a child. A dreamer without any reason to hope who, against all odds, wanted to be somebody. A girl whose powerful (from her poverty-stricken point of view) father had abandoned her family, who longed for a truly powerful man to take care of her (and the rest of the poor). A politically naïve, but charismatic young person with a talent for mass-communication who was easily manipulated by a cool, withdrawn, massively ambitious politician who, at the moment when he met her, sorely needed an attractive mouthpiece.

Evita’s story is fascinating. And thereby hangs my next tale.

Annamaria Alfieri

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