She wore a wonderful hat. It was a brilliant example of fashion strategy. To the cameras trained on every move, every gesture, she was easily identified in a sea of dark clothes. To everyone else who came out that day, she looked like a haloed angel, parting the waters of giddy Compostelanos. They called her a goddess. She was beautiful, elegant, regal.
Evita had come to Spain.
It was 1947 when Gen. Franco invited the recently installed Juan Perón, President of Argentina, to visit him in Spain. For many reasons, some apparent at the time, some not even now, Perón declined the offer but chose to send his 28 year-old 2nd wife, Eva, in his place. It’s easy to characterize this decision as politically motivated or even politically naïve on his part, but Spain embraced Eva and Gen. Franco proclaimed she would be greeted during her visit to Spain as if she herself were the President of Argentina. It is doubtful either of these two men could have accurately gauged the overwhelming response to her visit. Argentina had become a real support to Franco’s regime by shipping tons of food to Spain in a time when post-Civil War food supplies were scarce. And a splashy visit to display the relationship between the two countries set the perfect tone of friendship between allies.
Eva arrived in Spain on June 7, 1947, meeting with Gen. Franco in Madrid the next day, apparently clashing with his wife, Carmen, and advocating for clemency on the part of a woman who was condemned to death in Spain. She spoke to a massive crowd of happy and grateful Madrileños, she spent 18 days touring the graves of the Catholic monarchs in Granada, watching a succession of local folk dance presentations every night, and dazzling each audience for her visit with her jewels, furs, and extravagant ball gowns. She arrived at Lavacolla on June 18, 1947.
At every corner of the city of Santiago de Compostela, she was met with shouts and enthusiastic applause. The local newspaper would call her La Peregrina. The Plaza Obradoiro was filled to the edges with happy people: women waving handkerchiefs, workers, local farmers politicians, and priests. After signing the register at the Pazo de Raxoi, she walked across the plaza to the zigzag western staircase of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, accompanied by vested clergy carrying her gift: she had brought a small statue of the Virgin of Luján, the patron saint of Argentina. She attended a special Mass in the Cathedral, filled with yet another crowd of exuberant supporters, and witnessed the Botafumeiro. The statue was installed in a niche on the left wall of the Capilla de San Andrés.
If you stand in the south transept, in the doorway out to the Plaza de las Platerías, you will be where Eva Perón exited the cathedral to stand at the top of the staircase, facing hundreds of her fans, screaming out her name and “We love you, Eva!” She would be met at the foot of the stairs by her car.
She continued down the Rua Villar to her hotel, the Hotel Compostela, where, in what would become one of her most iconic images, a kind of Evita trademark, she stepped out on the small balcony to wave at the people on the street below. She had been given bouquets of flowers which she took apart and tossed enthusiastically into the crowd, flower, by flower.
And she had taken off the broad-brimmed hat. It could just have been the heat or the irritation of her hat pins centering the hat on her blond hair, but to the crowd, she had suddenly become human. Not the goddess, or the angel with a halo, or the woman who was greeted as if she were the head of state. She was one of them, the hope of the poor. Her message was clear: “I am you. Anything is possible.”
The next day in one more ceremonial outing, she planted a tree in the Alameda Park, called, appropriately, La Perona. The daily newspaper recounted that she used dirt from the garden of the house in Padrón where Rosalía de Castro died. In all, she left several small gifts – the statue in the Cathedral chapel and the tree in the park – to look over the people of Santiago de Compostela in her absence. In her radio broadcast on the day she left Spain, she said “I leave part of my heart in Spain.”
During her broader European tour, Eva also visited Italy and France where she was met with more of a lukewarm embrace. She was denied a state visit to Buckingham Palace and abruptly canceled her trip to London. Clearly disappointed, she would ultimately cut short the tour, claiming exhaustion, and return to Argentina. In the next five years, she would go on to fight for women’s rights, children’s rights, and a better future for the poor workers who were called the descamisados, the shirtless. But she neglected her health and rejected treatment options, some say for political reasons, and she died of cancer in 1952. She was only 33 years old when she died. As recently as February 2019, there was a renewed effort to have her beatified by the Catholic Church. She is buried in Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires and remembered in every performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1976 Tony Award winning musical, “Evita.”
The final resting place of Eva Duarte Perón, Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo credit: the author)
Eva in Paris
Eva in Rome