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December 30, 1997


Farzana Versey

Material Girl

Evita Peron I don't think it will happen here, but when women in the west start aping the blood-red lips, fur on the collar and flounces at the waist fashion of the 40s via Madonna's celluloid version of Evita, they would, in fact, be consolidating the marketing genius of the woman who ruled Argentina.

Born in filthy surroundings to poor parents, Eva was a plain-looking girl whose dreams would have easily gone down the drain but for the fact that she discovered the virtue of deceit. And, in the 33 years that she lived, she packed in a full life and a good deal of hate. As she said, "From each year, I keep the memory of some injustice that roused me to rebellion, rending me inwardly."

Now that the film has been feted, what, besides Madonna's performance, will be questioned is the very basis of recreating a saga that stank of ostentation and corruption. History is cruel. Evita deserves better than a mere dismissal of her political role. She was not a politician nor a wannabe. She was a woman trying hard to like herself. And, in a world where self-esteem depends on how others view you, she was merely making use of opportunities.

They said Eva had no talent, but she did come to be feted in the theatre circuit. They said she was a frump; she came to represent the ultimate in sophistication. They said the dames of the salons had no use for her, but they saw in her a tough career woman who headed the Peronista Feminine Party in a country where the women had no vote, could not get a divorce, were their husband's properties and had to reconcile themselves to sharing their lives with mistresses. (Therefore, Eva knew "it was almost impossible for her to escape except by the use of a man.") They said the poor -- "the shirtless ones" to her -- would not identity with such a floozy; it was this woman who enlivened their lives, often with thunderous words like, "I leave you my woman's heart and I tell you once again that your companion Evita prefers to be Evita rather than the wife of the President….."

So what is all this -- theatrics? Or that you can fool all the people all the time? Or were her screams merely a ruse to keep the roller-coaster tumbling? She may have told an acquaintance that one should always use one's head, but poor little Eva did use her heart, even if with devious intent.

She latched on to Colonel Juan Peron, at that time a shadowy figure, because she saw the potential in him. But soon enough, the tables turned. She became a front for his excesses. As one biography mentions, "the difference between them as that, while Eva wanted only recognition, he wanted popularity".

This is a very crucial demarcation, for it was on this that their relationship thrived. So while he was the one who idolised Hitler, she became the dictator! While she was exhorting the people to give generously to charity, she came home to find an ermine coat. Which saint was it from? she wondered aloud. Her husband grinned from the doorway, "San Juan (Saint John)!" While she was trying to be the lady of hope and compassion, she was also providing him with a halo. "I cannot conceive of heaven without General Peron," she told her people. She also compared him with Christ.

And it was a most Christian gesture on his part when, following her speech from the Casa Rosada when she was ill with cancer of the uterus, that he declared October 18 as "Santa Evita's Day". Hardly the sort of thing a material girl aspires to. Isabelita, who later married Person after Eva's death, received the latter's body "as of it had been a holy relic". She had reason to worship her predecessor. On Juan's death, she became president of Argentina. But, however hard she tried to imitate Evita, she did not have that one essential ingredient -- the ability to take risks. Evita was hated and loved for one reason alone -- she was a powerful woman in a man's world.

It is easy to laugh at what appears to be fake emotions on her part when she said her three great loves where "my homeland, my shirtless ones and my beloved general Peron!" But these very things fuelled her to realise herself and become a cult figure. As Mary Main commented, "There was no honour left but canonisation. The Pope refused her this, but Eva died believing herself a saint."

Not many people have the benefit of such strong belief in a dream. While most people would prolong sleep to wallow in it, or smile wryly at its hopelessness, Evita woke up and converted it into reality.

She was right. Why must Argentina cry for her? She had given them enough reasons to laugh.

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Farzana Versey