Maria Eva Duarte was born in 1919 to a wealthy rancher and a woman he was not married to. Her father abandoned her, her mother, and her four siblings when she was one year old, leaving them to poverty and the shame of being cast off and illegitimate.
As they struggled to make ends meet, Eva performed in every play and concert put on by her school, and became determined to be a famous actress when she grew up. In 1935, when she was 15 years old, Eva moved to Buenos Aires to pursue her dreams.
15 year-old Eva
There, she found some success on the stage, and acted in a few B-List movies. However, her true success was to be found on the radio. By the early 1940’s she had starring roles in radio dramas which aired on the most important stations in Argentina, and was one of the highest paid radio actresses in the nation.
Her success on the airwaves put her political career into motion. You will remember that Juan Person headed the relief efforts after the 1944 San Juan earthquake. He organized an arts festival is part of the relief efforts which was to be attended by film and radio actors. The event culminated in gala, and it was there that Duarte, 24, met Peron, 48.
They began living together almost immediately, scandalizing the upper classes. Peron also began to involve her in his political career, angering in his inner circle. As he involved her in politics, she began her transformation from famous actress to voice of the people.
In 1944 she became president of the newly organized radio performer’s union, and in the aftermath of Juan Peron’s 1945 arrest, Eva spoke to the crowd off of the balcony of the Casa Rosada. These two events were instrumental in the transformation of the people’s perception of her.
After his release from prison, on October 18, 1945 to be precise, Juan and Eva were married in a secret civil ceremony; they had a second, public wedding on December 9, 1945. It was also shortly after his release that Juan decided to run for president.
Eva and Juan on their wedding day
Eva joined in the campaign, and used her impoverished background as a way to align both herself and Juan with the poor. She was the first woman in Argentina to publicly campaign, a fact which further offended the upper classes. However, it further endeared her to the general population who granted her the nickname of “Evita,” or “Little Eva.”
In 1947, Eva embarked on a grand tour of Europe on her husband’s behalf. It was publicly billed as a goodwill tour as opposed to a political one, and Eva called it her “Rainbow Tour.” She met with Francisco Franco, Pope Pius XII, and Charles De Gaulle. However, King George VI declined to accept her, and the Swiss people threw rocks at her car, and tomatoes at her while she was meeting with the Foreign Minister. She returned home following that incident.
Those experiences showed Eva that she had to look the part if she was to be taken seriously in her role as the First Lady of Argentina. Understanding that appearing in glamorous ball gowns was no longer appropriate, she began appearing demure, yet stylish skirt suits in order to reflect her new public persona.
From glamorous movie star in Europe to under-stated voice of the people back home
This shift in pubic presentation was accompanied by a renewed commitment to charitable works and feminist causes. In 1948, she founded the Eva Peron Foundation. By 1950, the Foundation had over $200 million in assets, distributed hundreds of thousands of goods per year to those in need, founded hospitals, and built homes.
Part of her work with the foundation involved meeting with the poor. The manner in which she interacted with them was highly evocative of how Roman Catholic Saints purportedly treated the poor; she would kiss them, let them kiss her, and touch their wounds. Because Argentina was heavily Catholic, this is further indicated that she was very conscious of how she presented herself to the public.
Eva greeting the people
Eva also devoted herself to women’s rights and suffrage; she has been credited with winning Argentinian women the right to vote. Though she did not have the power to pass laws, when Juan signed the bill into law on September 9, 1947, he handed it to Eva, symbolically making it her victory. She declared that “the nation’s government has just handed me the bill that grants us our civil rights….I am accepting this on behalf of all Argentinean women, and I can feel my hands tremble with joy as they grasp the laurel proclaiming victory.”
Eva speaking about the rights of the women, and the impoverished
Eva then founded the Female Peronist Party. By 1951, the Party had 500,000 members. In the same year, the people began nominated her to run for the vice-president with her husband. She received such intense public support that even Juan was surprised by it. On August 22, two million people gathered outside of the Casa Rosada, calling on her to accept the nomination. She asked them for more time and promised to announce her decision over the radio.
The crowd, calling for Eva to accept the nomination
Eva responding to them; by this time, she was having trouble standing without assistance
She declined the nomination, saying that she was merely “a simple woman who lives to serve Peron and my people.” However, the reality of her decision was that her health had been rapidly declining, and though Juan was withholding her diagnosis from her, they both knew that she was in no condition to run for office.
In 1950, doctors found that she had developed advanced cervical cancer. By 1951, she was having trouble standing without assistance. She had a hysterectomy in the late months of that year, but it returned in the early months of 1952 and spread to her lungs.
As Juan was re-elected in June of 1952, and as Eva was given the official title of “Spiritual Leader of the Nation,” she was undergoing chemotherapy, could not stand without support, and was over-dosing on pain medication.
She continued to rapidly deteriorate, and died on July 26, 1952. She was 33 years old.