A museum for Eva

Dedication

A museum for Eva

The Eva  Perón Museum in Argentina is a testimony to the adoration the actress and revolutionary invoked, as she improved the lives of the poor and children there, writes Maya Jayapal

The words of the pale, bestubbled and passionate young man echoed in my ears long after we had left the museum. “You may love her, you may hate her, you may agree with her views, you may disagree with her, you may think she is an angel come to earth, you may think she is hypocritical. But...” he thundered, “...you cannot ignore her.”He was referring to the charismatic actress, Eva Perón, long dead, who married Juan Perón, captured the hearts of many Argentineans and has continued to be a controversial figure. 

She fascinated me from the moment when, as a child of about 10 years, I read an issue of Life magazine devoted only to her. Her aura, her clothes, her shoes, her smile, her hats, her speeches and gestures, all contributed to the adoration she invoked. It was only recently that I realised that behind the glamour was a figure who revolutionised Argentinean society. And the Perónist ideas that remain are contributed to as much by her as by her husband.

The Eva Perón Museum is housed in a colonial building constructed for a well-known family during the first decade of the twentieth century; Italian Renaissance comes to mind. It was put to good use by the lady herself when The Eva Perón Foundation bought, restored and designated the mansion as a temporary home for women and children with no resources. Her words were: “(it) ...shelters those in need and those who have no home... for as long as necessary...” This home, which once resounded with the voices of children, now houses the museum — a fitting tribute. It was inaugurated in 2002, fifty years after her tragic death.

It is fitting that the musical Evita came to be conceived about her, for it was the stuff of which history and tragedy and inspiration are made. 

Radical change

In seven short years, through legislation and debate, she improved the lives of the poor and the workers of the country forever. She made sure that the children who were otherwise not eligible or had insufficient means got educated in various institutions. She spearheaded Home Schools, the Children’s City, the Students’ City, University Cities and through the ‘one thousand schools’ plan, improved education facilities. Her plans and thoughts were path-breaking and innovative. 

Her own origin and struggles as the illegitimate child of a poor family may have spurred her on to improve the fate of others. She made sure that quality health care was available to the poor. Senior citizens were offered homes where they could be productive, working women in Buenos Aires were offered help. In short, she met more needs than any other person in South America had. It is said that she was behind getting women the right to vote in 1951.

Tragic death

Tragedy struck when she was only 33. She died of cervical cancer, shortly after Perón’s re-election, for which she campaigned tirelessly. The documentary showing her funeral was moving, the heart of Argentina showing up to say farewell to her embalmed corpse. Soon after that, Perón was overthrown, and her corpse, perhaps confiscated by the military, disappeared. The documentary showed a desecrated body, with scars on her forehead and cheeks. But it was obtained in 1976.

And now she lies in a modest tomb in Nicolette Cemetery, inside a concrete vault, 27 feet under layers of steel in the mausoleum of her father’s family. Even now her influence still exists in the Perónist Party. It is said that a few politicians still acknowledge and follow the guidelines she set down.

She seemed a much more realistic figure in the Museum than she did in Madonna’s musical Evita.

A beautiful cemetery

The cemetery itself is worth visiting for it has been described as among the ten most beautiful cemeteries in the world. Laid out in neat sections, with tree-lined walkways and winding side streets, it has thousands of vaults of famous people — politicians, former Presidents, musicians — with marble angels and statuary, sometimes a bit too baroque and ornamental, symbolising perhaps that the vanity of man lives on after his death. It was a place which invoked romantic decay.

It was both captivating and disturbing. Stone women wept, stone angels spread their wings and raised their arms. Elsewhere a stone dog stared on with detached eyes.I was relieved to see Eva’s modest burial place with no sculptures but a bronze door with ornamental plaques. Bouquets of fresh and wilted flowers lay in front.

Her mystique continues long after her death.

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