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The Virgin of the Descamisados

History Hans
August 28, 2021

Utilizing great speeches can lead to effective and engaging lessons for the language teacher. From Pericles in Ancient Athens to Martin Luther King in Washington DC, powerful orators still inspire and have changed the course of history. However, a casual perusal of a google search for great speeches in history rarely if ever highlights the voices of women leaders and even less so of female Latin Americans. Yet, one of the most potent examples of speech originated from an “illegitimately” born radio actress during machismo 1940s-50s Argentina. Perhaps the most revered of all on the Argentine pantheon (Carlos Gardel, Che, Maradona, Messi) is a woman of the most humble origins who inspired such love (and loathing) that there was and still is a movement to saint her. I am, of course, referring to Evita or Maria Eva Duarte de Peron. 

Evita’s story is fascinating. As one of six illegitimate (Argentina laws did not recognize children born out of wedlock) she survived a childhood of poverty and alienation in the provincial backlands of Argentina. At the age of 15 she pursued her dream of becoming an actress and moved to the big city of Buenos Aires in 1934 where she worked in theatre, a few films and eventually found her niche and relative success as a radio actress. After a decade in the capital, fate and a charity event for earthquake victims presented her to a 48 year old Labor Secretary and military colonel, Juan Peron. They were soon married; she was just 24. 

Like most Latin American nations, extreme inequality in both social class and gender was a reality in Argentina. Evita at first kept an inconspicuous and traditional role as wife of an aspiring politician, but she could not stay quiet, and Juan Peron detected that her wife’s natural appeal to the working poor and marginalized could expand his political base. When she spoke, the underclass understood correctly that she was one of them. Juan Peron became president in 1946, and within a year, Evita had garnered so much support that millions signed petitions for her to become vice president, though that was too much for the patriarchal establishment and the elite. The following years, before her unfortunate death from cancer in 1952, saw her become a prominent force in Argentine politics and society. Evita’s state supported charity became a massive organization that built countless hospitals and schools. She mesmerized state leaders on her Grand Tour of Europe. Her charisma was authentic and her energy seemingly limitless (she worked 20 hours a day at times).Through her influence, laws were enacted to support female political participation and legitimize children born out of wedlock. Although she dressed in the latest Paris fashions, she never forgot where she came from and the people (not the elite) loved her. And her love for the people was genuine (she even kissed lepers and syphilitics!!!).

Evita’s speeches were never full of flowery language or clever metaphors, but take a listen to them and you can see why over a million people showed up to a 1951 speech she gave while secretly suffering from cancer: “Speech to the Descamisados”, which most historians believe constitutes the largest gathering for a female orator in all of history!  Her voice bellows with soulful empathy; her raspy passion sings of pride, humanity, hope and justice. She died the next year. The outpouring of grief was otherworldly with over 3 million mourning through the streets of B.A.. It is very difficult to do justice while attempting to highlight her impact in Argentina and Latin America in such limited space, and of course there is much written about her and plenty of documentaries, a musical, and films, but Evita is still part of the collective consciousness of Argentina, a Virgin like Guadelupe, a Virgin of the Descamisados. 

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