María Eva "Evita" Duarte Perón was the wife of populist Argentine president Juan Perón during the 1940's and 1950's. Evita was a very important part of her husband's power: although he was beloved by the poor and working classes, she was even more so. A gifted speaker and tireless worker, she dedicated her life to making Argentina a better place for the disenfranchised, and they responded by creating a cult of personality to her that exists to this day.
Eva's father, Juan Duarte, had two families: one with his legal wife, Adela D'Huart, and another with his mistress. María Eva was the fifth child born to the mistress, Juana Ibarguren. Duarte did not hide the fact that he had two families and divided his time between them more or less equally for a time, although he eventually abandoned his mistress and their children, leaving them with nothing more than a paper formally recognizing the children as his. He died in a car accident when Evita was only six years old, and the illegitimate family, blocked out of any inheritance by the legitimate one, fell on hard times. At the age of fifteen, Evita went to Buenos Aires to seek her fortune.
Actress and Radio Star
Attractive and charming, Evita quickly found work as an actress. Her first part was in a play called The Perez Mistresses in 1935: Evita was only sixteen. She landed small roles in low-budget movies, performing well if not memorably. Later she found stable work in the booming business of radio drama. She gave each part her all and became popular among radio listeners for her enthusiasm. She worked for Radio Belgrano and specialized in dramatizations of historical figures. She was particularly known for her voice portrayal of Polish Countess Maria Walewska (1786-1817), mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte. She was able to earn enough doing her radio work to have her own apartment and live comfortably by the early 1940's.
Evita met Colonel Juan Perón on January 22, 1944 at the Luna Park stadium in Buenos Aires. By then Perón was a rising political and military power in Argentina. In June of 1943 he had been one of the military leaders in charge of overthrowing the civilian government: he was rewarded with being placed in charge of the Ministry of Labor, where he improved rights for agricultural workers. In 1945, the government threw him in jail, fearful of his rising popularity. A few days later, on October 17, hundreds of thousands of workers (roused in part by Evita, who had spoken to some of the more important unions in the city) flooded the Plaza de Mayo to demand his release. October 17 is still celebrated by Peronistas, who refer to it as "Día de la lealtad" or "day of loyalty." Less than a week later, Juan and Evita were formally married.
Evita and Perón
By then, the two had moved in together in a house in the northern part of the city. Living with an unmarried woman (who was a lot younger than he was) caused some problems for Perón until they married in 1945. Part of the romance certainly must have been the fact that they saw eye-to-eye politically: Evita and Juan agreed that the time had come for the disenfranchised of Argentina, the "descamisados" ("Shirtless ones") to get their fair share of Argentina's prosperity.
1946 Election Campaign
Seizing the moment, Perón decided to run for president. He selected Juan Hortensio Quijano, a well-known politician from the Radical Party, as his running mate. Opposing them were José Tamborini and Enrique Mosca of the Democratic Union alliance. Evita campaigned tirelessly for her husband, both in her radio shows and on the campaign trail. She accompanied him on his campaign stops and often appeared with him publicly, becoming the first political wife to do so in Argentina. Perón and Quijano won the election with 52% of the votes. It was about this time that she became known to the public simply as "Evita."