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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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"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

The Obelisk is one of Buenos Aires' signature sights, and two major Evita moments occurred at its base. In December 1945, before more than 100,000 supporters, the newly wed Peron, his wife standing at his side, offered himself to the masses as candidate for president under the banner of his Labor Party. And on Aug. 22, 1951, before 250,000 Argentines who had come from all over the country to a rally that had been organized to cheer Peron and Evita as candidates for president and vice president of the country, Peron accepted the presidential nomination once again.

The street that intersects 9 de Julio at the Obelisk is Avenida Corrientes, sometimes called the Broadway of Buenos Aires and another important passage in our Evita pilgrimage. When she first arrived in the Big Apple at age 15, brought there from her dusty little village of Los Toldos by the tango singer Agustin Migaldi, she made the rounds of the theatrical agencies that dot the street, and she rented a cheap room.

Met Peron in 1944

She worked in some of the theaters on the Corrientes and gained some fame as a radio soap opera actress. Then, on Jan. 15, 1944, Evita met her destiny in the Luna Park stadium, an otherwise undistinguished venue for concerts and boxing matches that stands at the base of Corrientes, where it nears the northern docks of the River Plata. That night, at a benefit for victims of an earthquake in San Juan province, Eva was introduced to Col. Juan Domingo Peron, an ambitious army officer.

A short distance from the Obelisk, near the intersection of 9 de Julio and the teeming pedestrian walkway of Lavalle, stands the Teatro Colon, one of the great opera houses of the world and, during Evita's time, a regular showplace for the Perons.

Finished in 1908, the Colon since then has welcomed virtually every international star of opera and ballet to its huge stage. The ceiling plaster in some nooks of its lobby is peeling a bit, but the main entrance hall, decorated in Italian marble and French stained glass, remains impressive. The lobby, the auditorium (a capacity of 3,000 customers) and the theater's vast workshops can be seen in daily (except Sunday) tours, in English, for $5. On Mondays, the Colon offers free chamber music concerts in one of its grand salons.

Because of its social prominence, the opera house was used by Juan and Eva Peron for some of their most glittering displays of medals, uniforms, jewels and gowns. Here, Evita held court on several occasions, dispensing largess from her charity funds to the pensioners, the laborers and the mothers and children who came to cheer her and to flutter down to her from their balcony roosts the little white pieces of paper on which they had written their pleas for aid.

In 1948, the Perons contended that they had uncovered a plot to assassinate them at a gala performance they planned to attend in the Colon.

The plot was never proven, but it gave the president and his first lady the opportunity to crack down on their enemies and to rally the faithful in yet another massive show of flag-waving support in the Plaza de Mayo, before the Casa Rosada.

When she returned to Buenos Aires harbor from her whirlwind "Rainbow Tour" of Europe in 1947, thousands of her beloved descamisados were there to greet her. Her ship came up the harbor front to La Boca (literally, the mouth, as in the mouth of the River Plata), the district where many immigrants first settled and where Evita briefly lived during the days when she was scrabbling for a living as an actress.

The scene, captured on film in the movie "Evita," was one of mass jubilation, as she made her triumphant return to Peron and Buenos Aires.

West of Buenos Aires' crowded and noisy downtown lies the Recoleta, the district where much of the wealth and sophistication of this great metropolis can be seen at its most attractive.

Burial place

At the peak of their powers, the Perons lived in the district, rising early in the morning and commuting to their government offices in the downtown area; and in the Recoleta Cemetery, burial ground for the wealthy and socially prominent portenos, Evita's body is now entombed.

She is shut up within the mausoleum, away from view, but visitors regularly bring fresh flowers to her, and these are entwined in the grillwork of the vault. On one side of the entrance are plaques placed there in her memory, emblazoned with her quotes.

One of them, of course, is "Don't cry for me." And the other, which will bring your visit to the Buenos Aires of Evita to a close, is, "I will return, and I will be millions."

If you go ...

Getting there: Aerolineas Argentinas, American Airlines and United offer direct service to Buenos Aires from the United States.

When to go: Seasons are switched in the Southern Hemisphere. Spring (October-December) and fall (March-May) are the best times to visit Buenos Aires.

Getting downtown: A taxi ride from the airport to downtown hotels can top $50. An alternative is the $14 bus ride offered by the Manuel Teinda Leon company.

Being careful: Buenos Aires has seen an increase in petty crimes such as purse snatching and pickpocketing in recent years as unemployment has risen. Carry a minimum of cash and jewelry and do not walk in areas you are not familiar with.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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