BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentines crowded around the tomb of Evita Peron on Thursday's 60th anniversary of her death, remembering the iconic first lady whose compassion and combativeness became key traits of the country's character.
Peron was so loved and hated when she was alive that for generations since then, passionate arguments about her personality and politics tended to drown out serious examinations of her legacy. Only now are many Argentines willing to acknowledge how much Gen. Juan Domingo Peron's firebrand wife shaped the society they live in, some historians say.
Setting aside the social-climber image fostered by the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and misogynistic biographers of years past, many now credit her activism for things that are central to Argentine culture, from widespread desires for social justice and equal rights to a shared assumption that society's poorest need and deserve the government's help.
"Evita now is a character accepted nationwide much more than 20 years ago. Many people who don't think like Evita, admire her," historian Felipe Pigna told The Associated Press.
"Even from parts of Argentine society you wouldn't expect — I don't know if they vindicate her, but they respect her," said Pigna. "There has been a transformation in Argentine society."
That transformation has been intensely promoted by the government of Cristina Fernandez, who traces her political activism directly to Evita and misses few opportunities to draw comparisons between their governments. Fernandez unveiled a new 100-peso bill honoring Evita Wednesday night, and was marking Thursday's anniversary by inaugurating a new public housing project. "She would have liked that," Fernandez said of Evita.
Others have never doubted their zeal for Evita, who died of uterine cancer at the age of 33.
She meant "everything," said Juana Marta Barro, 74, who laid flowers Thursday at Evita's tomb in the capital's elegant Recoleta cemetery.
Barro wiped away sobs as she recalled meeting Evita as a 12-year-old schoolgirl, when the first lady arrived by train to her remote village and handed out smocks and backpacks, beds and mattresses and sewing machines. "She was unforgettable," Barro said. And when she died so quickly thereafter, "I knew what we were losing."
Argentina had already broken with its past the day Evita asked to speak after Peron won his first presidential election in 1946 — something presidential wives had never done, Pigna said. She took the microphone and launched a campaign for woman's suffrage, saying "A woman cannot only be a spectator of political movements. She must take action; she must vote."
Critics saw the young former dancer as a power-hungry tramp. Many were so furious at the way the foundation she created took from the rich and gave to the poor that they refused to mention her by name, calling her "that woman".
As first lady, Evita swiftly took control of two pillars of her husband's government: the relationship with unions and handing government aid to poor citizens, many of whom idolized her. While he focused on politics, she dominated the media with talk of improving living conditions for her "shirtless ones."
"Evita gave form to today's Argentina in terms of working-class consciousness, respect for workers no matter their rank, awareness that workers have rights and that they must be respected. Before, workers lacked any rights and there was hardly any social legislation," said Pigna, whose book "Evita, Shreds of her Life" was just published. "This really set Argentina apart from the rest of Latin America."
Eva Duarte Peron was born illegitimate, raised poor and was barely educated. She became an actress at a time when high society scorned the profession. Understanding how a woman with so many strikes against her managed to become such a transcendent historical figure is more relevant than ever now that Fernandez occupies the presidency, said Araceli Bellota, whose book "Eva and Cristina, the Reason of their Lives," also was recently published.
"There's a political continuity, because Cristina occupies a public space that Eva opened when she burst on the scene 55 years ago," Bellota said. Peronism "made it possible for a woman whose parents were workers, like Cristina, to attend a university and prepare for a career. And that's what enabled her to be president."
As with Fernandez today, Evita was accused of abusing her access to official propaganda, trying to control the mass media, persecuting opponents and fostering a personality cult, being authoritarian and treating anti-Peronists mercilessly. Both have been targets of insults that could never be printed in newspapers. Fernandez takes pride in the comparisons with Evita's story.
"Defending the humble ones and those who have the least is costly. And she paid with her life — happily at the cost of being remembered forever as the one who carried the banner of the poor," Fernandez said a year ago when she unveiled the huge metal sculptures that now hang from the Social Development Ministry, which towers over the city's wide 9th of July Avenue.
The south side's Evita, facing working-class districts, appears elegant and compassionate. But the profile that faces north, toward the wealthy neighborhoods that Evita herself often railed against, is combative and powerful.
In case anyone missed the message, Fernandez shows off a scale model of the building just behind her podium during many of her national addresses. Sometimes she shows the gentler Evita; at others, the one not to be messed with.
Pigna says his investigation determined that Evita was never told she had uterine cancer, a disease that in the late 1940s would have opened her to accusations of promiscuity, damaging the first lady's image. If she suspected, she chose to deny it, focusing instead on her campaign for women's suffrage.
"She decided she didn't have time to take care of it, and unfortunately this attitude gave a great advantage to the cancer. She could have saved herself," he said.
The combined pressure of Juan Peron and his glamorous wife persuaded Congress to give women the right to vote, just ahead of his reelection campaign. Evita cast the ballot for her husband from her hospital bed in 1951. Eight months later, she was dead.
"It's not that Eva was a saint. It's not that she didn't make mistakes," Fernandez said Wednesday night. "What made her into an immortal character was, having been a humble woman from a small town, she made the decision to change things in favor of the people, at the cost of her own life."
APTN cameraman Cristian Kovadloff in Buenos Aires contributed to this story.