Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro’s biography Evita is a cogent work that incorporates the childhood, acting career, political emergence, and subsequent adoration of the Argentine populace. Arguing that Evita’s underprivileged childhood is the explanatory variable for her future actions, goals, and ambitions, the authors assert that Evita shou7ldered the burden of Argentina’s poor workers, or descamisados, and by doing so, solidified the regime of her husband Juan Peron.
Utilizing a thematic and chronological style, Fraser and Navarro clearly demonstrate that politically, socially, and economically Evita Maria Duarte de Peron strove her entire life to overcome the scarring poverty induced by her childhood and prevent others from suffering a similar fate. Evita was born on the featureless pampas in the hinterland of Argentina in 1919 a bastard child.
Such a “second marriage” between her mother and an already married public servant were not unusual in the era,1 yet her father Juan Duarte’s return to his first family in a neighboring town impoverished mother dona Juana and her five illegitimate children. 2 Determining to abandon such a dismal life, and the unpromising future that poverty on the pampas entailed, Eva left her small town of Junin in 1935 to pursue a dream of becoming an actress when she was merely fifteen. Evita, even at this tender age, was ambitious, for she “… ad no money, little education, and no proven talents, but she wanted to conquer the city and be a star. “3 Experiencing little success, Evita scraped by as a mediocre actress in theatre, radio soap operas, and even starred ina few motion pictures until her star crossed with that of Juan Peron, an up and coming military officer in the military government that had ousted civilian rule in 1943. They met during a fundraiser for the destitute families of an Andean earthquake that had rocked the western city of San Juan, and she shortly thereafter became his mistress.
Evita The Woman Behind The Myth
Again demonstrating her resolve and desire to “make something of herself,” Evita had merely loaded up a truck with her own possessions, took them to Peron’s apartment, and told the girl who was living with the colonel to leave. 4 Again and again, as the authors demonstrate, Evita sought to alter her prescribed position in the social strata of Argentina. So, as it was, “for the first year and a half of their life together Peron and Evita lived not as collaborators, but as colonel and mistress,”5 which was not an approved action by Peron’s military contacts.
This unsavory relationship contributed Evita to become a liability, both militarily and politically, and even led to Peron’s brief imprisonment by the Navy in 1945. However, the authors point out that, even at this early stage of Peronism, Evita was becoming an integral part of Peron’s propaganda machine, using the experience and contacts garnered through radio to slant the media’s portrayal of events in a favorable light towards her lover. 6
When Peron and Evita emerged victorious overlooking the crowd of “shirtless” working-class supporters in the Plaza de Mayo in 1945, Evita achieved the dream of shedding her past. She was soon married to Peron (for no Argentinean head of state had ever blatantly lived with a mistress), president of one of the richest nations that arose out of the ashes of the Second World War. Evita even doctored her birth and marriage certificates to hide her illegitimacy, thus fully transforming herself from rags to riches. She consciously wore extravagant jewelry and clothing in an effort to convey this image. As the woman once said to a critic, “Look, they want to see me beautiful. Poor people don’t want someone to protect them who is old and dowdy. They all have their dreams about me and I don’t want to let them down. “8 Evita took this personal belief even further by using her influence with Peron and his new labor party to help out the destitute. After returning from a highly publicized tour of Europe (further signifying her socio-economic transformation), Evita began to take a greater interest in the politic of her husband’s regime.
Actively seeking to become the “Bridge of Love” between Peron and his constituency, she established the Eva Peron Foundation, funded by the government, to aid the destitute. 9 It is the role that she had the most lasting political influence, for the system of patronage that Evita established continually delivered the working class vote to Peron. By virtually forcing unions to donate “gifts” to her foundation, Evita gained a considerable amount of capital for her social programs – an estimated 200 million (USD) in 1973.
In fact, “giving was so widespread that it had to be viewed as an alternative form of taxation. “10 Some of this money was given as “direct aid” to those that wrote her and came to her office,11 some for basic necessities like shoes and pots,12 and some was used for ambitious projects like nursing homes and primary schools in Buenos Aires’s poorest barrios. 13 However, all were used to further the political career of Peron, even though Evita was genuinely concerned about the welfare of the masses. For example, Peron’s image was on each wall of every hospital or home built by the Foundation. 4 Yet the results were undeniable, for many citizens entered what Fraser and Navarro deemed the “New Argentina” through these ambitious programs.
Through a personal desire to eradicate poverty based on her own childhood circumstances, Eva became the integral link between unions, the masses and Peron, and was thus just as integral to Peronism as Peron himself. Evita Peron’s life and political ambitions of becoming vice president were cut short, however, in 1952 by cancer of the uterus. Millions idolized their beloved Evita and her death even spurred one union to lobby Rome for her canonization. 5 There is much strength in Fraser and Navarro’s book, one being the relative objective stance taken by the authors. Making not drastic claims about their subject, the authors avoided both the deification and vilification of the women. They accurately portray Evita as a multi-faceted person who struggled with her past, was mesianically devoted to her husband, yet also erred, completely recreating her past and blatantly lying in her autobiography. Fraser and Navarro do not “choose sides” in the sinner/saint debate, but merely distill the myths from the truths.
For example, the authors carefully noted that Evita, during her acting career, had on one rare occasion slept with the producer to obtain a role. 16 But she became quite successful by 1939 out of hard work and establishing “connections” at the office of a movie magazine, not by becoming a putita. 17 Another example of the authors’ carefully weighing of the historical evidence is the book’s treatment of her slow demise. Evita’s increasingly disjointed public utterances toward the end of her life were not a call for the use of political violence as some critics claim, but merely because of the pain induced by her cancer. 8 Fraser and Navarro do not merely produce a one-sided, polarized debate on the life of Evita, but a nuanced, balanced, and accurate portrayal of her rise to international fame. Additionally, the authors sustain their argument from the introduction to the epilogue. Although each chapter deals with a specific theme or era in the life of Evita, all address the woman’s desire to change her social status. Not only do the authors construct a cogent argument about the life of Evita, but also give the reader a holistic picture of post-World War Two Argentina.
Through the protagonist, her husband, descriptions of the international political setting, Argentina’s ISI economic model, and the class and political alliances developed during Peronism, all facets of Argentine society are addressed. The life of Evita is admirably not portrayed in an economic, political, or sociological vacuum. Another laudable feature of the biography is the style. The diction is easily understood and is not packed with convoluted academic jargon that leads to confusion (most likely due to Fraser’s journalistic background). The authors are direct, clear, and animated.
For example, the aforementioned quote concerning Evita’s “Cinderella” portrayal paints a vivid portrait in the reader’s mind of the woman’s determination to transform herself. Additionally, the assigning of individual chapters specific categories (such as “wife of the President” or “the gift of giving”) creates a work that allows the reader to focus on one issue at a time and thus understand the isolated chronology of her childhood, struggles in Buenos Aires, and political contributions that does not sacrifice the reader’s perception of historical time.
Other features of the book aid the reader, namely the addition of an index, illustrations, and a concise bibliography for those interested in a more in depth study of the subject. Perhaps the greatest asset of the work is Fraser and Navarro’s use of sources. They use first hand accounts like priest’s conversations with Evita, newspaper articles of the era, personal interviews conducted by the authors, and original documents written by Evita and Juan Peron. In short, the reader can be assured that Evita is a reliable and scholarly work. The authors took great pains to be thorough and researched many different kinds of sources.
The book is not without its flaws however. In my opinion, the authors treatment of the world’s reaction to Evita, particularly that of other Latin American nations, was neglected. Although it may be beyond the scope of the biography, it would have been useful to compare Evita with other Latin American women who achieved considerable political power or who were involved with mass movements. It would have also been useful for Navarro and Fraser to further develop Evita’s personal life beyond extreme devotion to Peron, for they merely state: “she was perpetually on guard on Peron’s behalf”19 and that “she was loyal to him because she loved him.
The biography does not deal with, save the character of Lilian, any of Evita’s relationships besides that of her husband. Interaction with her family, confidants, and inner circle of friends are largely ignored. However, the aforementioned criticisms do not detract from the quality of this biography. It is an intriguing work that should be read by all those interested in Latin American history. It is a stellar academic source of Eva Peron that has separated out the truth from the myth and accurately depicts Argentine society in the mid twentieth century.