All this necrophilia recalls the sardonic observation of the late journalist and novelist Tomás Eloy Martínez (author of Santa Evita) that “We Argentines are cadaver cultists who commemorate our greatest our greatest figures not on the day of their birth, but on the day of their death.” History repeated itself again this past Thursday, the 60th anniversary of her death, when president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced the issuance of a new 100-peso banknote with Evita’s image.
Evita’s visage replaces that of President Julio Argentino Roca (1880-86; 1898-1904), a military man whose so-called Campaña del Desierto is widely considered to have been a genocidal campaign against the Mapuche of Patagonia. Roca is a polarizing figure, whose equestrian statues in Buenos Aires and Bariloche (pictured above) are often defaced with graffiti.
At the same time, Evita herself is one of the most polarizing figures in a country whose political motto seems to be “if you’re not with me, you’re against me.” This week, Henry Whitney of Olivos (a prosperous northern Buenos Aires suburb) wrote the English-language Buenos Aires Herald that, when he was a child, “We had her jammed down our throats every day in the class-room, newspapers, radio and signs everywhere. We had to use her autobiography La Razón de Mi Vida as our reading-book for the last two or three years of primary school.”
Even at home, there was a genuine paranoia, claims Whitney: “Our parents had to tell us repeatedly not to make any comments, even to our best friends, about [President Juan Domingo Perón or Evita] because ‘they’ might come after us. We were never to mention her name near the maids, even in English. We were warned that our telephones were tapped. We laughed about it, but we were also scared.”
I have heard anecdotes before from Anglo-Argentines who obliquely referred to Juan Domingo Perón as “Johnny Sunday,” a literal translation of his name. Certainly, the Peróns went out of their way to antagonize what they considered to be the “oligarchy,” especially outspoken opponents like the writer Victoria Ocampo (whom Perón imprisoned briefly in 1953, the year after Evita’s death). The thematic Palermo hotel Legado Mítico (pictured above) has rooms dedicated to both Evita and Victoria – ironically enough given that, if the two had ever confronted each other in the same room, only one might have left alive.