Being a Latin American I have never been able to accept the musical. It took a while (I was 21) before I began to appreciate opera and much later for me to enjoy it. But the idea that people on stage or in film will suddenly stop talking and begin to sing is alien to me. An exception to this is any film of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The dance makes up for the singing!
But looking back at having seen Jesus Christ Superstar or (could it have been the film? ) Evita I cringe. It has taken me a while for me to figure out why. It has to do with my own, very personal views on both Christ and Evita. Of the former I will leave my religion in peace. Of the second I will explain what I mean by my personal view on Evita.
I am Argentine by birth. If you may want to ask me from where, the answer is that most likely, “From Buenos Aires.” Because I was born in 1942 I lived as a child the apogee of Juan Domingo Perón’s rule of Argentina and the sharing of his power with Eva Duarte de Perón until she died in 1952.
My grandmother, who had the talent for predicting turmoil would move before any crisis hit the place she was living in. She and her family, including my mother left Manila when she was a young widow for the Bronx. She left it to return to Manila when she knew things were not going to go well before the stock market crash. They immigrated to Argentina (Buenos Aires) in 1938 when she could smell the winds of war. And in 1954 she knew that Perón was going to fall and things would get nasty with a military takeover. We moved to Mexico City.
My native country has always been a polarized one. It has a been a division between the large Buenos Aires and the provinces. It has cleavedbetween the patrician landowners and the everyday working people. Until recently and even know power has been shared among the military, the Catholic Church, the wealthy (and very white) landowners and the moneyed aristocracy. A polarization between the left and the right has been ongoing since for reasons I cannot explain, the right wing government of Perón and his Peronist Party somehow became left-leaning.
There has been a polarization between the white aristocracy with fancy names like Beccar Varela, Alvear and Bulrich or the military family of Lanusse and those they deem as “cabecitas negras” (dark skinned, black haired descendants of Native Argentines). To anybody not living in Argentina it would be impossible to understand how that aristocracy or the then (30 years ago) white middle class treated the football player Diego Maradona. He was a “cabecita negra” not a patrician like tennis player Gabriela Sabatini. Lionel Messi, a white young man passed muster with all Argentines as did the original football export Alfredo Di Stéfano who was elegant, white and was nicknamed La Saeta Rubia (the blond arrow). Thankfully Francisco, the pope is white, too.
It with that background that I want to now write my feelings for Eva Duarte de Perón. Before she died I would hear my grandmother tell how Evita was expropriating lands from the rich; taking money from the rich and giving it all to the poor through her foundations. My grandmother saw her as something akin to that American epithet “poor man’s trash” who had improved herself by stepping over other people and marrying a general of the army.
As an 8-year-old boy in 1950 Evita was the woman who gave us wooden toys on Three Kings Day (Día de Los Reyes) on January 6. I wanted the very metallic Meccano or at the very least that American Erector Set. Only now, had I kept those execrable wooden toys would I own a little fortune! They are now rare and valuable.
Evita was the woman who would talk loudly with passion on national holidays like the 25 of May or 9thof July. Our neighbours in Coghlan were (so my father said, “Peronists”). They would play very loudly the radio broadcasts of the de rigueur military parades. Perón would shout until he lost his voice and then she would take over. I have never forgotten the sound of their voices.
When Evita died there was an outpouring of grief (her wake had the dramatic Argenine name of Capilla Ardiente or Burning Chapel that my grandmother found over the top). I remember seeing all the newsreels at the movies and listening to (my first taste) the classical funerary themes by Beethoven and Chopin. For years and until we left in 1954, radio programs (all of them) would interrupt at exactly 20:25 (Evita died at 20:23 but 25 was seen as a nicer sounding name) with: Son las 20:25, hora en que Eva Perón, Jefa Espiritual de la Nación pasó a la inmortalidad” or, It is 20:25 the hour in which Eva Perón, Spiritual Head of Our Nation assumed immortality.
I was much too young to have my own opinions so I held to my grandmother’s. My mother in our treks on Tram 35 from our Coghlan home to my grandmother’s home downtown would point out the prison on Las Heras and tell me, “That’s where your father spends time when he writes bad stuff about Perón for the Buenos Aires Herald. The funny thing is that I do not remember ever listening to my father give an opinion on Perón.
In school particularly in the early 50s we were told about Peron’s Plan Quinquenal (a five-year-economic-plan). I was much too young and naïve to find a parallel with similar plans by Stalin. In those years Peronism was everywhere. Parks had signs that said, “En la Argentina los Únicos Privilegiados Son los Niños,” or “In Argentina the only privileged ones are children.” We were told in school that Perón said we should save our money and the we should never deface a book as they were sacred. Trees were, too.
It was when Peronist henchmen (so we were told) began to burn churches and books that my grandmother told us to pack.
Only some years later, once in Mexico City did I recall that Eva Perón had come to our school to plant a tree. I remember that her voice was different from the one I had heard on the radio and that she was much smaller than I imagined her.
There is a story (many versions as to the exact words used) of a confrontation between the stellar Argentine actress Libertad Lamarqueand Evita. Lamarque called her a prostitute (many versions agree on the nasty word “puta”). The story also says that Evita smacked Lamarque who then had to quickly leave town. Lamarque, in exile in Mexico continued with her career unimpeded. I did not know this story when my grandmother told me that our new neighbour next door was a famous Argentine actress called…
Eva Perón is still (more so now, perhaps) an important figure in Argentine politics, history. Her times when Argentina was still basking in the influx of dollars and money after WWII when the country fed the war-ravaged Europe are seen with rosy glasses. The poor became less so and the Argentine middle class was the largest and growing in Latin America.
Unfortunately once Perón was removed and he left in a Paraguayan gunboat for exile he threatened to return. In the middle 1960s he did this twice and as an Argentine Navy conscript we were immediately called to barracks. He did eventually return. His new wife Isabelita (a dancer of sorts in Panamanian night clubs) attempted to latch on to Evita’s star but she never made it. Even hard core Peronists avoid speaking of her rule as President. Evita, one way, or another was one of a kind.
In the polarizing atmosphere of Argentina there have been many books written about her. Of the many that I have read, strangely enough, the most objective one is a novel, the 1995 Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martinez. I read both the Spanish original and an English translation — the latter, from all places, the Burnaby Public Library.
For anybody thinking about attending Vancouver Opera’s Evita I would consider the novel a good place to start in preparation for a musical for which for me once was enough.
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.