First Lady of Argentina (1946–52), Political Figure and Actress
By 1951, Eva Perón, better known as Evita, had transfixed a nation. Raised in poverty and abandoned by her father as a child, she built a successful radio and film career in Buenos Aires before marrying political hopeful Juan Perón, and soon after becoming the First Lady of Argentina.
During her husband’s 1946 presidential campaign, Perón took an active role, using her platform on the radio to popularize his message and appearing – unusually for the time – by his side at rallies. In 1947, she travelled alone to represent Argentina on a goodwill tour of Europe and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Perón also organized Argentina’s first political party for women, the Female Perónist Party, which later proved decisive for her husband (Argentinian women gained the vote in 1947). Soon, her popularity rivalled that of Juan, and she seriously considered running as his vice-president, as her fans hoped she would.
However, other forces were at work. Perón was suffering from an aggressive form of cervical cancer, and by the time she spoke before a group of supporters – known affectionately as ‘descamisados’, or the shirtless – on 17 October 1951, she could hardly stand without assistance. In a passionate speech she played up the themes that had won her the admiration of the poorer classes of Argentina: selflessness, loyalty to her husband’s vision and love for her people. ‘My descamisados: I wanted to tell you many things but the doctors have forbidden me from speaking,’ she said. ‘I have you in my hearts and tell you that it is certain my wish is that I will soon be back in the struggle, with more strength and love, to fight for this people which I love so much, as I love Perón.’
Speech to the Descamisados 1951
… What I say to Perón, who wanted to honor me with the highest distinction that could be granted a Perónist this evening, is that I will never cease repaying you and would give my life in gratitude for how good you have always been and are with me. Nothing I have, nothing I am, nothing I think is mine: it’s Perón’s. I will not tell you the usual lies: I won’t tell you that I don’t deserve this. Yes, I deserve this, my general. I deserve it for one thing alone, which is worth more than all the gold in the world: I deserve it for all I’ve done for the love of this people. I’m not important because of what I’ve done; I’m not important because of what I’ve renounced; I’m not important because of what I am or have. I have only one thing that matters, and I have it in my heart. It sets my soul aflame, it wounds my flesh and burns in my sinews: it’s love for this people and for Perón.
… Compañeros, I ask just one thing today: that all of us publicly vow to defend Perón and to fight for him until death. And our oath will be shouted for a minute so that our cry can reach the last corner of the earth: Our lives for Perón!
Let the enemies of the people, of Perón and the Fatherland come. I have never been afraid of them because I have always believed in the people…. Finally, compañeros, I thank you for all your prayers for my health; I thank you with all my heart…. My glory is and always will be to be Perón’s shield and the flag of my people, and though I leave shreds of my life along the road, I know that you will pick up my name and will carry it to victory as a banner. I know that God is with us because he is with the humble and despises the arrogance of the oligarchy. This is why victory will be ours. We will achieve it sooner or later, whatever the cost, whoever may fall.