Eva Peron – The Princess Diana of Argentina?

The latest news about the return of the famous Broadway musical Evita with Ricky Martin in a starring role has the entertainment press whipped into a frenzy. However, many of us are still wondering who Evita is, what she did, and why she deserves her own musical.

Maria Eva Duarte de Peron (1919-1952) was the second wife and political partner of President Juan Peron (1895’1974) of Argentina. She’s also popularly known by the affectionate Spanish diminutive Evita, which translates into “Little Eva”. Still a hugely popular figure in Argentina and a worldwide icon due to books, movies and musicals based on her life, many consider her comparable to another global superstar, England’s Princess Diana. Here we look at the similarities and differences of both women to see if the comparison is justified.

It’s fair to say that both Evita and Diana, despite living almost 50 years apart on different continents, had similarities;

– Both married powerful men, Diana with Prince Charles and Evita with Colonel Juan Peron. They met in 1943 when Peron had assumed the post of secretary of labor and social welfare in the military government that had recently come to power. Two years later they were married in 1945 when Evita assisted Peron with his release from prison after his incarceration by military opposition. Peron’s presidency in 1946 assumed soon after, and Evita’s close relationship with Peron gave her access to a lot of power.

– Both Diana and Evita shared an affinity for the poor and sick; during the 1946 Presidential campaign Evita directed her efforts towards the “descamisados” (shirtless poor) and her efforts for woman’s suffrage saw laws passed in 1947 that allowed women to vote in the 1951 elections for the first time in history. She also devoted several hours every day to meeting with poor people and visiting hospitals, orphanages, and factories. Additionally, she supervised the newly created Ministry of Health, which built many new hospitals and established a successful program to fight different diseases.

– Much like Diana, Evita was a figure constantly in the public eye. As a result she, like Diana, was immensely fashion-conscious. Her clothes and hairstyle were avidly studied, commented upon and copied.

– Both women died young, Evita of cervical cancer at the age of 33. In both cases, there were huge outpouring of public grief. All activity in Argentina ceased; movies stopped playing; restaurants were closed and patrons were shown to the door. The crowd outside of the official presidential residence after the announcement of her death was so dense that the streets were congesting for ten blocks in each direction. The streets of Buenos Aires overflowed with flowers that were stacked in huge piles, and within one day of Evita’s death, all flower shops in Buenos Aires had sold out.

– Just as Diana’s legacy and reputation has endured after her death, Evita’s passing doesn’t seem to have stopped her international fame. In 1980, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Timothy Rice’s Musical “Evita” won a major award and started the ball rolling for a surge in her popularity. After a nearly 20-year production delay, Madonna was cast in the title role for the film version, which brought Evita as a figure to the international public eye more than 50 years after her death.

However, for all the similarity, Diana and Evita shared some fundamental differences;

– Born into an unmarried family of 5 children, Evita’s background was humble to say the least. Her father left her mother a year after her birth and as a result of the impoverishment following the loss of his supporting income, the family moved to the poorest area of their city. In order to support herself and her children, Evita’s mother sewed clothes for neighbors. The family was stigmatized by the abandonment of the father, especially since Argentine law frowned upon illegitimate children.

– Evita’s strong political involvement throughout the majority of her public life stands her significantly apart from Diana. Despite using it as a platform for humanitarian agendas, it also opened her up to criticism, as the Peron administration was viewed by many as fascist, ruthlessly suppressing political opposition from an authoritarian centralized government.

– Diana was well known for raising money for charitable causes, just as Evita did, but questions surrounded the money that Evita raised for some causes. Many claim that she extracted large sums from wealthy businessmen by intimidation. She was also accused of keeping amounts for her own ends, buying jewelery and dresses. Her European tour in 1947, a much publicised affair in which Evita visited various heads of state, was derided by some as an excuse to deposit funds in a Swiss bank account, some of which was supposed to be earmarked for charitable donations.

Whatever the comparisons, Evita certainly stands alone as a unique historical figure that managed to achieve near-sainthood and phenomenal popularity with the Argentinian lower classes; visitors to Argentina can still see the enduring effect of Evita on the country. It is said that in many homes, the image of Evita is on the wall next to the Virgin Mary. On 26 July 2002, the 50th anniversary of Eva Peron’s death, a museum opened in Buenos Aires in her honor called “Museo Evita”. The museum, which was created by her great-niece Cristina Alvarez Rodriquez, houses many of Eva Peron’s clothes, portraits, and artistic renderings of her life.