The Election of 1952
Perón came up for re-election in 1952. In 1951, he had to select a running mate and Evita wanted it to be her. The working class of Argentina was overwhelmingly in favor of Evita as vice-president, although the military and upper classes were aghast at the thought of an illegitimate former actress running the nation if her husband died. Even Perón was surprised at the amount of support for Evita: it showed him how important she had become to his presidency. At a rally on August 22, 1951, hundreds of thousands chanted her name, hoping she would run. Eventually, however, she bowed out, telling the adoring masses that her sole ambitions were to help her husband and serve the poor. In reality, her decision to not run was probably due to a combination of pressure from the military and upper classes and her own failing health.
Perón once again chose Hortensio Quijano as his running mate, and they easily won the election. Ironically, Quijano himself was in poor health and died before Evita did. Admiral Alberto Tessaire would eventually fill the post.
Decline and Death
In 1950, Evita had been diagnosed with uterine cancer, ironically the same disease that had claimed Perón’s first wife, Aurelia Tizón. Aggressive treatment, including a hysterectomy, could not halt the advance of the illness and by 1951 she was obviously very ill, occasionally fainting and needing support at public appearances. In June of 1952 she was awarded the title “Spiritual Leader of the Nation.” Everyone knew the end was near – Evita did not deny it in her public appearances – and the nation prepared itself for her loss. She died on July 26, 1952 at 8:37 in the evening. She was 33 years old. An announcement was made on the radio, and the nation went into a period of mourning unlike any the world has seen since the days of pharaohs and emperors. Flowers were piled high on the streets, people crowded the presidential palace, filling the streets for blocks around and she was given a funeral fit for a head of state.
Without a doubt, the creepiest part of Evita’s story has to do with her mortal remains. After she died, a devastated Perón brought in Dr. Pedro Ara, a well-known Spanish preservation expert, who mummified Evita’s body by replacing her fluids with glycerine. Perón planned an elaborate memorial to her, where her body would be displayed, and work on it was started but never completed. When Perón was removed from power in 1955 by a military coup, he was forced to flee without her. The opposition, not knowing what to do with her but not wanting to risk offending the thousands who still loved her, shipped the body to Italy, where it spent sixteen years in a crypt under a false name. Perón recovered the body in 1971 and brought it back to Argentina with him. When he died in 1974, their bodies were displayed side-by-side for a while before Evita was sent to her present home, Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.
Without Evita, Perón was removed from power in Argentina after three years. He returned in 1973, with his new wife Isabel as his running mate, the part that Evita was destined never to play. He won the elections and died soon after, leaving Isabel as the first female president in the western hemisphere. Peronism is still a powerful political movement in Argentina, and is still very much associated with Juan and Evita. Current president Cristina Kirchner, herself the wife of a former president, is a Peronist and often referred to as “the new Evita,” although she herself downplays any comparison, admitting only that she, like many other Argentine women, found great inspiration in Evita.
Today in Argentina, Evita is considered a sort of quasi-saint by the poor that adored her so. The Vatican has received several requests to have her canonized. The honors given to her in Argentina are too long to list: she has appeared on stamps and coins, there are schools and hospitals named after her, etc. Every year, thousands of Argentines and foreigners visit her tomb in Recoleta cemetery, walking past the graves of presidents, statesmen and poets to get to her, and they leave flowers, cards and presents. There is a museum in Buenos Aires dedicated to her memory which has become popular with tourists and locals alike.
Evita has been immortalized in any number of books, movies, poems, paintings and other works of art. Perhaps the most successful and well-known is the 1978 musical Evita, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, winner of several Tony Awards and later (1996) made into a movie with Madonna in the lead role.
Evita’s impact on Argentine politics cannot be understated. Peronism is one of the most important political ideologies in the nation, and she was a key element of her husband’s success. She has served as an inspiration for millions, and her legend grows. She is often compared with Ché Guevara, another idealistic Argentine who died young.
Source: Sabsay, Fernando. Protagonistas de América Latina, Vol. 2. Buenos Aires: Editorial El Ateneo, 2006.