If there's one time of day that holds special significance for older Argentineans, it's probably 8:25 p.m. At that minute, on July 26, 1952, Eva Peron died of cancer at the age of 33. Immediately, news of her death began to broadcast throughout the country, and hundreds of thousands of people in the capital city, Buenos Aires, and beyond made their way to the presidential residence to mourn their beloved Evita. The lines to visit her body lying in state at the Ministry of Labor building stretched in multiple directions around city blocks. After 13 days of citizens filing through, touching, kissing and even collapsing on her coffin, the government had to call the public viewing to an end for fear that the exposure would damage her corpse.
Yet, she wouldn't be permanently buried for more than 24 years.
In popular culture, Eva Peron's name evokes scenes of Madonna bellowing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" from the musical biopic "Evita." In reality, Eva Duarte Peron was an incredibly effective politician who climbed her way from impoverished child of the Argentine pampas, or plains, to the first lady. After her husband Juan Peron won the presidential election in 1946, Eva assumed control of the Ministry of Labor. From that position -- meeting with union leaders, workers, teachers and others -- she generously doled out wage increases, promises of government-funded housing and suffrage for women. In exchange, the working class gave Eva its unwavering loyalty and devotion.
Standing on the balcony of the presidential residence, Casa Rosada, Eva Peron would address the crowds below as los descamisados, or "the shirtless ones." That slang term for the working class used to be an insult wielded by opposition political parties, but the die-hard Peronists reclaimed it as a symbol of labor pride [source: Fraser and Navarro]. Those swooning supporters began referring to her affectionately as "Evita."
World War II had benefitted the Argentine coffers. Argentina emerged as one of the world's wealthiest countries due to its robust beef and wheat industries that exported to severely weakened countries, such as Great Britain [source: Barnes]. Capitalizing on the handicapped European economies, Argentina inflated its export prices, and the other countries had no choice but to pay up. But the Peron administration didn't take advantage of the healthy economy only to help the poor. It also financed a lavish lifestyle that included Eva's penchant for couture clothing and jewelry. In 1947, Eva set off without her husband for a publicity tour of Europe, including visits to meet fascist Gen. Francisco Franco in Spain and the Pope in Italy. During that "rainbow tour," as she referred to it, Evita from the pampas made her global debut.
Back home, Argentina under Juan Peron was anything but a democratic nation. Peron was heavily influenced by the fascist and nationalist political parties that dominated the Axis powers during the war. However, the dictatorship that he built -- with Eva's help -- didn't act as a vise grip, clamping down on people's daily lives. Citizens were allowed to do as they pleased, but the social and cultural establishments were tightly controlled. For instance, the government outlawed student political activism on campuses. Some opposition parties were dissolved, and anti-Peronists were silenced. The state controlled the major newspapers and radio stations, while closely monitoring the others.
Eva also manipulated this authoritarian rule for her own purposes. She ensured that enormous, smiling portraits of her face were plastered in prominent public spaces. On outings, a photographer rarely left her side, ready to capture the attractive first lady kissing babies or cutting ribbons. One of Eva's most successful ventures that won her even more recognition was the creation of the Eva Peron Foundation. Before that, the Sociedad de Beneficia was the leading charity in the country. But the upper-class women who ran the organization bristled at Eva's humble background and denied her the ceremonial director position. In response, Eva crippled the charity by eliminating its government funding and replacing it with her own foundation that financed the construction of schools, orphanages, hospitals and other social services.
By 1951, Eva's hectic pace drove her to the sickbed. After becoming first lady at 27, she had suffered from occasional fainting spells and stomach pains. But after doctors diagnosed her with uterine cancer, Eva's health quickly deteriorated. Her public appearances became scarce, and she became drastically thin and bedridden at barely 33 years of age.
Evita's Preservation and Preparation for Travel
As soon as Eva Peron's death appeared imminent in July 1952, Juan Peron summoned Spanish pathologist Dr. Pedro Ara. Ara was commissioned with the task of embalming the first lady's corpse, and to ensure the highest-quality embalming, he had to begin the process within hours after her death. While Ara prepared the body for lying in state, Eva's hairstylist dyed her hair blond one last time, and her personal manicurist painted her fingernails with clear polish. Unlike most embalmed corpses, Ara left Eva's internal organs intact.
Those 13 days of exposure during the public visitation worried Ara because he hadn't yet prepared the corpse for permanent preservation. Afterward, a military convoy transported the body to a guarded room at the headquarters of the National Confederation of Labor. There, Ara commenced to mummify Eva Peron's body, pumping it full of alcohol, glycerin and preservative chemicals and sealing the skin with a plasticlike film. Accounts of people who later saw and touched Eva's embalmed corpse marveled at its softness and its petite size, which likely resulted from the drastic weight loss caused by the cancer. Testifying to Ara's meticulous handling of the corpse, it took a year to embalm it completely, costing the government a reported $100,000 [source: Quigley].
By that time, Juan Peron's government was on the verge of collapse. The postwar industrial boom spurred a vast migration of workers from the plains into the cities, giving way to sprawling slums. Drought sapped the country's wheat supply, which hurt cattle production as well. Without ample supply of those commodities to trade for natural resources, such as coal and oil, the economic infrastructure was crumbling, and unemployment was on the rise [source: Barnes].
In 1955, an anti-Peron military group led by Gen. Pedro Eugenion Aramburu overthrew Peron's government, and Juan Peron was exiled to Spain. Following the coup, the revolutionaries sought to destroy all signs of the Perons' tenure, including the early stages of Eva's burial monument.
The corpse, which was still under Dr. Ara's obsessively diligent care, posed a particular problem for the military leaders. If the pro-Peron factions got their hands on Eva's corpse, they could use it to rally the masses against the new government. Even in death, Evita's cult of personality remained a potent political force.
Evita's 24-Year Journey to the Grave
In order to prevent any uprisings, the Aramburu government decided to steal the body and bury it in an unmarked spot in Buenos Aires' largest cemetery, Chacarita [source: Fraser and Navarro]. Burial duty fell to Col. Carlos Eugenio Moori Koening. Koening said later that he never ended up burying the coffin due to eerie circumstances involved with the attempted burial, most notably mysterious flowers and candles appearing beside the parked truck in which he was transporting the coffin [source: Fraser and Navarro]. Instead, he hid the coffin for a year in the attic of the military intelligence building. Another story claims that he hid the coffin in his deputy's apartment, and that deputy accidentally shot his pregnant wife after thinking he heard an intruder breaking in to steal the body [source: Barnes].
Once officials realized that Koening hadn't fulfilled his orders, Eva went on the move again. But this time, it was overseas to Italy. First, officials sent out decoy coffins with fake cadavers to various Argentina embassies in Europe. The real Eva sailed to Italy in 1957, where the casket was buried under the name "Maggi" in a small cemetery near Rome [source: Sims]. It stayed there until 1971, when a military coup overthrew the Argentine government again. In exchange for Juan Peron's blessing for the new leadership, the government agreed to hold free elections and relocate Eva's body to Peron's villa in Spain, among other conditions.
The institution of free elections brought Peron back into power in 1974, but Evita stayed in Spain. Peron's rule was short, though, since he died the same year, and his wife Isabella assumed the presidency. In order to quell the public's anxieties about the unstable political situation, Isabella brought Evita back to Argentina for the final time. There, the well-traveled casket lay next to Juan Peron's in the presidential palace -- but only for a short while. The presence of Eva's body couldn't prevent yet another military coup in 1976.
This time, the officials buried Evita's body for good -- 26 years after her death -- in the Duarte family tomb in the Reloceta cemetery of Buenos Aires. The tomb itself was built by a company that specialized in bank vaults and was constructed to resist any burglary attempts. As an extra precaution, Eva's sister was given the only key. Sealed 20 feet (6 meters) underground, Eva Peron was finally laid to rest in a glass-covered coffin. If Dr. Ara is correct, her body remains perfectly preserved, even able to withstand fire and bombing [source: Quigley].
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More Great Links
- Barnes, John. "Evita First Lady." Grove Press, Inc. 1978.
- Fraser, Nicholas and Navarro, Marysa. "Evita." W.W. Norton & Company. 1996.
- Quigly, Christine. "Modern Mummies." McFarland. 1998. (Jan. 22, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=ZOqU-9BTZO4C
- Rotella, Sebastian. "No Chance to Rest in Peace in Argentina." Los Angeles Times. Sept. 10, 1999.
- Sims, Calvin. "Eva Peron's Corpse Continues to Haunt Argentina." The New York Times. July 30, 1995.