Evita's Argentina Presence: Travelers to Buenos Aires will find signs of Eva Peron everywhere. In this capital city, the former first lady is still revered in death as she was in life.

December 29, 1996|By Richard Christiansen | Richard Christiansen,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

"I will return, and I will be millions."

-- Maria Eva Duarte de Peron

It does not take long for the visitor to Buenos Aires to realize how prophetic the dying Eva Peron was 44 years ago, when she promised her public that she would always be with them, even after death and more than ever.

One of the first directional markings on the expressway leading into the city from Ezeiza airport points to the Evita City housing project, named in her honor; and in the crowded, bustling center of Greater Buenos Aires, the signs of Evita are everywhere.

Her face adorns souvenir T-shirts; her autobiography is featured in every bookstore; her portrait hangs in government offices; her pictures are sold in the stalls of the flea market held every Sunday in the city's San Telmo district.

A new Argentine film, "Eva Peron," is playing in one of the big theaters that line the street of Calle Lavalle in the downtown district. In the many record stores up and down the central shopping area, the soundtrack album of the movie "Evita" can be found. And at the lavish two-hour tango production staged nightly in a huge supper club in San Telmo, the audience rises to its feet with applause as the show's entire cast sings their grand finale, a full-throated rendition of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," from the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical of "Evita."

Worldwide fame

The fame of Eva Peron will be further spread through the opening (Jan. 1 in Baltimore) of the much-delayed, much-awaited movie of "Evita," which stars Madonna in the title role. The movie company spent about six weeks on location in Buenos Aires earlier this year, and now that the movie is about to be released, many of the places associated with Evita will become familiar to people across the world.

Indeed, it is hard not to find any building or street of importance in Buenos Aires (also known as B.A., or the Big Apple) that does not have at least a small touch of Evita in it. In the six years between 1946 and 1952, when, as the wife of President Juan Peron, she was Argentina's adored first lady, she was everywhere in the city, rallying her followers, railing against her enemies in the army and high society, dispensing gifts to the poor and showing off her gowns and jewels at one grand gala after another.

The best, most obvious place to start a tour of Evita's Buenos Aires is the Casa Rosada (Pink House), the Presidential Palace, which forms the base of the grassy Plaza de Mayo. At every important juncture in their careers, Peron and Evita appeared on the Casa Rosada's balcony to receive the cheers of their beloved working-class disciples, the descamisados (the shirtless ones, or the workers). As a line from "Evita" puts it, their staged love fests made up "the best show in town."

Thousands of extras

For two nights last February, in the middle of Argentina's summer, thousands of extras were gathered here for the climactic balcony scene of the film "Evita," in which Madonna, her arms outstretched in the typical Evita style, sings "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." (For the filming, flags and bunting were artfully draped over the air-conditioning units that had been installed on the balcony after Evita's time.)

From the Casa Rosada, it's about a 12-block walk, straight up the Avenida de Mayo, the city's oldest official avenue, to the National Congress Building, a structure of classic design that is home to the nation's legislative body. Along the way stands the headquarters of La Prensa, the newspaper that became a leading symbol of resistance to the Peron government and that Evita at one point was able to shut down and take over through a bitter strike.

The Congress Building, which bears some resemblance to our Capitol in Washington, is where her embalmed body lay in state for one day after her death from cancer on July 26, 1952. Her small coffin had been carried there in a mile-long funeral procession, led by Peron and accompanied by government executives, nurses, students, laborers and officials of the Peronista Feminist Party she had founded.

Another principal Buenos Aires street, which intersects the Avenida de Mayo and cuts across the city east and west, is the Avenida 9 de Julio (the date in 1816 when Argentina declared its independence from Spain). At 425 feet and with eight crowded lanes of traffic in each direction, it is said to be the widest avenue in the world. It is bordered by many hotels, banks, shops and restaurants, and it contains a wealth of monuments and buildings associated with Evita.

The avenue is dominated at its halfway point, at the Plaza de la Republica, by the Obelisk, a 220-foot-high monument dedicated in 1936 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the city's founding.

Famous Obelisk

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