Eva Peron, usually referred to as Evita (1919 – 1952), was the wife of Argentine president Juan Peron, and First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death. An illegitimate child, born and raised in grinding poverty in rural Argentina, Evita remembered her origins, and did not turn her back on the poor and disadvantaged after rising to power. She became a popular political leader, revered by the lower classes.
Evita’s mother was the mistress of a wealthy and married rancher, who fathered five illegitimate offspring upon her, and maintained her and their children as a second family. Evita was the last of them, but shortly after her birth, her father abandoned his mistress and illegitimate brood, and returned to his legal family. As a result, Evita grew up in abject poverty, and from an early age was put to work as a serving girl in nearby ranches.
While toiling, she dreamt of becoming a famous actress, and at age 15, she ran away with a musician to Buenos Aires to pursue her dreams. The Argentine Capital was known as the “Paris of South America”, with a vibrant cultural scene featuring theaters, cafes, and cinemas. It also featured unemployment, poverty, and hunger, and many new arrivals such as Evita were forced to live in crowded slums and shantytowns referred to as villas miserias (“misery villages”).
Evita eventually broke into the acting world, and landed gigs on the stage, in radio productions, and finally made it to the silver screen. She attracted the attention of a rising political star, Colonel Juan Peron, and the two married in 1945. The following year, he ran for president, and Evita played a prominent role in the campaign. Unlike other political wives, who were nearly all drawn from Argentina’s bourgeoisie and wealthy elites, Evita knew and connected with the lower classes, having been born and raised as one of them. As a result, she became wildly popular with the masses, particularly the poor and working-class, often referred to as descamisados, or “shirtless ones”.
After her husband was elected president in 1946, Evita ran the Argentine Ministries of Health and Labor. She spoke up for labor rights and built a power base within Argentina’s trade union movement. She also advocated for women’s rights and women’s suffrage and founded Argentina’s first female political party. Her instincts and politics were with the underdog, which made her immensely popular with wide swathes of the Argentine public.
In 1951, Evita announced her candidacy for Argentina’s vice presidency and seemed a shoo in because of her widespread popularity with the Peronist base. However, she was diagnosed with cancer, and between that and vehement opposition from Argentina’s upper classes and the military, she withdrew her candidacy. The following year, shortly before cancer claimed her life at age 33, Argentina’s Congress bestowed upon Eva Peron the title “Spiritual Leader of the Nation”.