In Evita’s Footsteps

  

 

Not many of us know the name of the wife of a foreign head of state, unless he happens to be the President of the United States. But even then, Andrew Lloyd Webber never wrote a musical about Hilary Clinton or Michele Obama and Madonna never portrayed them on film. After such exposure, it’s inevitable that Evita Perón has become the pop face of Argentina.

However, there aren’t many places in Buenos Aires where you can trace the steps of a figure that’s still controversial – and I’ve been to all three of them.

The easiest to get to is the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace facing the vast Plaza de Mayo. Most tourists keep outside and take pictures of the pink façade, but stay in Buenos Aires over a weekend and you’ll be able to visit the palace yourself (Sat–Sun 10am–6pm; free).

Once inside, the atmosphere is very jovial and low-key. The Presidential Guard, presumably specially chosen for their chiselled features or brawny physique, mix freely and pose smiling next to curious tourists. There is a chapel and two side patios: one commemorating the Falklands War and another opposite, full of palm trees and presidential busts.

But it’s the central hall, that will be the focus of your visit. Named the Gallery of Honour it contains portraits of popular Latin American figures: Salvador Allende, Oscar Romero, Che Guevara, Getulio Vargas.. and, at last, Evita. Portrayed smiling with long, flowing hair, unlike the short crops, bobs and chignons favoured in the 1940s and 1950s, she’s the one getting all the selfies. A short description identifies her as ‘Popular Leader’ and underlines her main claim to history: in 1947 she campaigned for the women’s vote and won. Her opponents counter that this right was long overdue: Chile, Brazil, Uruguay had all adopted women’s suffrage by then.

 

 

Such ambiguity regarding her legacy is expanded on in the new Evita Museum (Lafinur 2988, metro Plaza Italia; Tue–Sun 11am–7pm; AR$40), housed in an early 20th century neo-colonial mansion with heavily ornate wrought iron gates and flamboyant interiors. Evita’s also been here; in 1948, the house was acquired by her Social Assistance Foundation to be used as a women’s refuge. When Perón was deposed in 1955, the foundation’s assets were confiscated and government departments moved in. In 1999 it was declared a historic monument and in 2002 turned into a museum.

Inside, Evita’s history is detailed in pictures and objects. There are nineteen rooms overall, with scenes from Evita’s early films – she stopped after she married Juan Perón snippets from her melodramatic speeches and photographs with children and workers. What amazed me most is a photograph of hers age 14. Appearing, beautiful and sophisticated, she knew how to pose; I can’t help wondering what Madonna looked like at that age. There’s even a picture of her kicking a football – in a tight two-piece business costume. A seamstress by profession, she certainly knew how to spin the news, too.

She also had a knack on how to appear chic. By far the best reason to visit the museum is to marvel at Evita’s original dresses, shoes and hats. You know them all from the film, because Madonna wore copies, rendering to them a currency that is as pop as it is morbid: her clothes stand there ghostly, without a presence. Visitors surround them to study every feature, take pictures from the front, the back and sides, comment on the colours and try to work out her height. You can somehow picture her alive.

After all such detail, her last filmed speech, where she indirectly reveals to the crowds that she won’t be around much longer, punches a strong emotional impact. Whatever she was in life – a saintly presence or a dictator’s moll – she was certainly redeemed by her early death. By the time you read the trials and tribulations of her remains that suffered an embalming, a kidnap, a flight to Italy, a secret reburial, a disinterment and a very public return to Buenos Aires in a saga that lasted 20 years, you’re ready to forgive her everything.

And thus to Recoleta cemetery (7am-6pm daily; free, but there is talk of introducing a charge) where she finally rests in her paternal mausoleum and listed on the map under her maiden name, Eva Duarte. At only 100-odd yards left from the main entrance she’s very easy to find, so tourists don’t venture further in. A pity, because the cemetery feels like a grand museum with sculptures adorning tombs of astonishing opulence.

If it’s only Evita you’ve come to see, you’ll be disappointed. You can’t get her tomb in a photo unless you have a super wide lens because the path in front is very narrow. Most visitors just snap the plaque that confirms her whereabouts and grumble: “Why do they keep her there? Why not have a bigger monument?”

Well, not only do ‘they’ keep her here, but they’ve made sure she rests five metres below ground in a concrete bunker that should survive a thermonuclear explosion. One thing is sure: she won’t be disturbed again, because the myth surrounding her is thorny and very, very complex.

 

You can get Argentina included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world or the 4 Continent Explorer round the world or there are cheaper options via Latin America here