Embalming Evita

All the talk on the radio about embalming the remains of Hugo Chavez has brought to mind the amazing story I learned in researching Blood Tango,* about the aftermath of Evita’s demise.

As with the death of Chavez (and Chairman Mao and Lenin), something had to be done to keep Evita alive in the minds of the public.  The popularity of Argentina’s First Lady was the lynchpin of Juan Perón’s regime.  Even before she died at the age of only 33 in June of 1952, Perón was planning to preserve her remains.  As soon as her death looked imminent, Perón engaged Dr.  Pedro Ara to embalm her corpse.

Work began only a few hours after she died.   The plan, as with the other political icons, was to keep her body on permanent display in a grand monument---in this case,  a statue of a poor worker, larger than the Statue of Liberty.

The funeral (sans burial) turned into an astonishing outpouring of love and grief.  You can see a film of it here:  

While the monument was under construction, Evita was displayed in her former office—where she had received the poor and worked to grant their wishes.  Her corpse stayed there for two years.

But then the plans began to crumble.  In 1955, a military coup overthrew Perón, who hastily fled to Spain.  The new rulers took great pains to erase the memory of Perón and especially Evita—who was still beloved by millions of the working class.  The new rulers banned all pictures of her.  It was against the law to speak her name, even in the privacy of one’s home.  Her body was stored in a garage for a while (I guess as much as the generals detested Evita, they did not have the nerve to desecrate her remains.)  And then the corpse disappeared.  For sixteen years.

In 1971, it was found in a crypt in Milan interred under the name María Maggi.  Evita was then brought to Spain and remained there with Juan and his third wife, Isabel, on their dining room table!  (No novelist would get away with making this stuff up!)

Then, in 1973, Perón returned from exile and became President again.  When he died in office a year later, Isabel took his place.  She finally put Evita to rest in the Duarte family tomb in La Recoleta Cemetery.  (Duarte was Evita’s maiden name, sort of.  But that’s a story for a different post.)

I have visited Evita’s mausoleum two times, fifteen years apart.  On both occasions, while no one much was looking at the nearby tombs of some of Argentina’s most illustrious dead, there was a crowd in front of Evita’s resting place.  In history and myth, the once and future Evita lives on.

Memorial wreath at the door if Evita's tomb.
Annamaria Alfieri

*Blood Tango, a mystery set in Buenos Aires in October of 1945 launches this coming June 25!