The Peron years and Argentine identity

February 03, 1997|By Jorge A. Goldstein

I WAS THREE YEARS OLD when Eva Peron died, and I can't say I remember too much of the event. I have a vague memory of rain and long lines of people around the Plaza del Congreso waiting to go in and catch a glimpse of her casket. Ah, and my father muttering under his breath something like: ''. . . about time!''

What I do remember is three years later, in 1955, when Juan (''El Pocho'') Peron, his regime under attack on several fronts for corruption and scandal (he was accused, among other things, of being a pedophile) was overthrown by a military junta and sent into exile in Spain.

The populace was out en masse, either demonstrating against the putsch or celebrating it. It was dangerous to be out on streets so full of passion and hatred. The corner grocery store, owned by a militant Peronista, was blown up that night by a bomb that shook the neighborhood.

I asked mother what the fuss was all about, and she, in a gesture that summarized her and the rest of the country's anxiety, said to me ''Nothing happened. . . . Nothing that a small boy needs to know about. It's time to go to sleep now.''

And as my mother, so the country. Overnight, the new junta, in TC gesture that Orwell might have appreciated, decreed that no one in Argentina could print or even publicly mouth the words ''Peron,'' or ''Evita.'' Another disconcerting rule decreed the renaming of all streets, parks, train stations and other public places named after one or another of the Perons. Statues and busts were removed from public display.

The result was that the city I had barely started to know was now reborn into a new identity. With one stroke of the junta's power, it was ordered that 12 years of Argentine history -- passionate history at that -- had not existed! All Argentines were small boys and girls now.

The establishment news media, under the threat of censure and closure -- or worse -- started the generous and liberal use of euphemisms to avoid the junta's mandate: ''The deposed dictator,'' ''the one who left,'' ''the one in Spain,'' ''the fallen tyrant,'' were but some of the many allusions to Pocho.

A week later, my first-grade teacher announced in class that the Ministry of Education had decreed that the last six pages of our textbooks had to be ripped out and disposed of. The Perons were all smiles, and the accompanying text -- which I never got to read -- no doubt praised their good works and our good fortune to have them as our leaders. The teacher led us through the ritual of removing the pages, and after collecting then took them from our classroom for ever.

My middle-class parents, European Jewish immigrants, disliked both Perons intensely. Evita and Pocho were rarely mentioned at home either before or after the coup d' etat of 1955, unless it was in some roundabout way. One of the reasons, no doubt, was the presence of our live-in maid.

She was a woman of the working class, and had a picture of Eva on her night table. She was assumed to be a Peronista, and it was best not to raise the subject. She might leave (and it was well known how hard it was to get good help in Buenos Aires in those days), or worse, she might denounce us.

My parents, wise to the habits of the fascist regimes of Europe they had escaped, followed a philosophy of self-preservation, best described in Argentine Spanish: ''No te metas.'' (Literally: ''Don't get in there.'') The country was not theirs: they were just spectators in the unfolding drama.

I had a high school anatomy professor who hated the Perons even more than my parents did, and he frightened me at times. He used every possible occasion to remind his class how the Peronistas had sacked him from his teaching position at the medical school where he could have achieved glory, and how he had never recovered the position. (He was in good company: Even the writer Borges lost his directorship of the library under Peron and was appointed a chicken inspector).

My professor swore that if Peron ever returned to Argentina he would personally wait for him at the airport with a high-powered rifle and pick him off. His favorite comment was about one of the nerves of the leg, the peroneal. Its Spanish name is ''perone,'' and Dr. Ramirez used to say with sarcasm that instead of the leg, the perone ought to be up the rectum.

Peron returned in 1972 with his new wife, Isabel, and with the embalmed body of Evita. His nickname now was ''el Viejo,'' the Old Man. Dr. Ramirez' threat to pick him off obviously never materialized. Many in my generation were no longer there to greet him, and many went into exile or lost their lives in the ensuing dirty war that followed Peron's death two years later, when yet another junta brought yet more carnage to the long-suffering country,

Argentina has always been a good candidate for collective psychoanalysis. The identity crises of its middle-class population are legendary: Are we Latin Americans or Europeans? Are we a developed country or a Third World nation? Is Buenos Aires not really the Paris of South America? (When asked that, I always like to respond with another question: Does it take a decade or more to get a telephone in Paris?) This Eurosnobbery has led to a lot of mischief and sorrow, and to deep class divisions, which Evita so skillfully exploited.

The collective pretense that middle-class Argentines are somehow different or superior to the rest of Latin America is rooted in denial. And denial was never exercised as much as in those years after the 1955 coup, when Evita and Pocho Peron disappeared from sight, as though they had never existed.

Jorge A. Goldstein is a patent lawyer in Washington.

Pub Date: 2/03/97

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