“I hope that my car will be okay if I park it here,” Lylia muttered as we pulled up on Guido Street, parking behind another car with a sticker reading “Viva la Republica Argentina!” slapped on its bumper. “I hope I won’t have to bribe any policemen not to give me a parking ticket.”
Deciding to risk it, we got out of the car and walked through the entrance, a large, neoclassical vestibule with white Doric Greek columns labeled “R.I.P.” or “Requiescat in Pace” (Latin for “rest in peace.”) It was quiet inside the cemetery; the sounds of the city muffled as we walked along the lonely, ghost-ridden paths. The place felt detached from the pulse of the city that throbbed just beyond the wall. The cemetery was laid out on a grid, a small city with tall stone mausoleums for buildings.
“‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina, the truth is I never left you,’” sang Samantha softly as we walked through the mazelike grounds, passing a man staring at a cross etched into the stone wall of a mausoleum, his eyes full of sadness.
“Is that song from Evita, the musical starring Madonna?” Lylia asked suddenly.
“Yes,” Samantha replied, her face turning red.
“Some Argentines were really insulted by that movie, and others thought it was really funny that those people were insulted. It depends on who you ask, though. People who believe that Evita was a saint were furious when the producers cast Madonna, who’s anything but saintlike, as Evita. However, it really pleased the people who dislike Evita because they could laugh at the people who were upset over it.”
“I see . . . but how did you feel about it?” Samantha asked hesitatingly as passed a white marble statue of a weeping angel.
“Well, frankly, I don’t see Evita as a saint, but I don’t dislike her, either. So I really didn’t care much about the casting. But my opinion about Evita is quite rare. You will find that most people here either love Evita or hate her.”
As the morning grew warmer, droplets of sweat began to gather on my temples. I wiped them away, wishing for a fan.
Eva Duarte Perón, as Lylia explained to us as we walked, was the most famous first lady of Argentina who ever lived and had died tragically from cancer at thirty-three. Eva grew up in a poor family, moved to Buenos Aires as a young woman, and became an actress. She met her future husband and idol, Juan Peron, at a charity event in San Juan and he became president two years later in 1946. However, the upper class relentlessly taunted her about her earlier poverty.
Wanting to show those who taunted her that they had picked on the wrong woman, Eva sent officials to seize property and goods from the upper class, and in turn gave their possessions to the descamisados, the poor and underprivileged, whose existence many wealthy people ignored. The Argentine people still talk about her life, which was full of controversy and drama.
Despite opposition from powerful people, Eva was an advocate for labor rights and women’s suffrage, and she ran the Eva Perón Foundation, a charity organization that gave away goods for the poor each year.
Following Lylia, Isabella, and Samantha through the web of paved paths in the cemetery, I noticed that the coffin in many of the polished marble mausoleums was clearly visible. In Argentina, bodies were stored above ground in mausoleums or in niches of walls. Anniversaries of death dates were strictly observed and family members visited the graves of their deceased relatives on the dates of their deaths. Lylia also explained that it was very expensive to be buried in Recoleta Cemetery and that most of the mausoleums we were looking at belonged to very wealthy people, including several presidents and well-known scientists. Some of the tombs had cost up to two million U.S. dollars. Recoleta was a place for the rich to flaunt their wealth after death and rest in a place that was the essence of peace and quiet.
“It’s like a miniature city in here, a city of the dead,” Samantha commented quietly.
Even the trees lining the central paths seemed melancholy, in mourning for the souls in eternal rest all around them. Crosses, cherubs, owls, roses, and frozen-faced weeping angels guarded the mausoleums, all images of the afterlife. The owls, Lylia explained, represented wisdom; the roses, eternal life; the cherubs, angels, and crosses heaven. Jewel-colored stained glass windows decorated some tombs while faded family photographs adorned others.
The air was heavy with prayers and, despite the presence of several tourists besides Samantha and me, the cemetery was a deeply sorrowful and otherworldly place. Each mausoleum listed only the name and the date of death without a birth date. A few cats wandered about, living creatures among the nonliving, slipping between the tombs and disappearing out of sight. Because of the financial crisis, Lylia explained, many people had been dropping off their pets in cemeteries and parks, because they could no longer afford to take care of them. As a result, the number of cats in parks and cemeteries had skyrocketed, and no one was sure of the exact number.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at Evita’s tomb, the entrance of which was adorned with iron roses. Several bouquets of wilted flowers lay at the base of the mausoleum, probably put there that very morning but quickly withering in the midday heat, giving off a strong, sickly sweet smell like honey. Several brass plaques on Evita’s tomb caught my eye, and I leaned in closer to read one.
“I have an uncontrollable desire to burn up my life. If by burning it I can shed light on the way and the happiness of the Argentine people, I shall return and be millions.”
Another plaque read, “Don’t cry for me, I am neither far away nor lost but an essential part of your existence, all the love and pain were foreseen; I carried out a humble imitation of Christ; let it be an example to those who follow me.”
Because I had stumbled across a lot of information about Evita before coming to Argentina, I was fascinated by this larger-than-life woman. When Evita had fallen ill, thousands of Argentines had cried and whispered prayers outside the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, clutching photographs of her to their chests and holding dripping wax candles. In her honor, someone with unbelievable loyalty had fasted to death. Some people, believing that Evita’s death might cause the apocalypse (which I thought was crazy), had even committed suicide.
I was amazed that one woman could capture the hearts of so many people and induce such madness in her followers. After the mass panic surrounding her death, forty thousand people wrote tear-stained letters to the pope, requesting her canonization.
Even more interesting was what happened after the military coup of 1955 that overthrew Evita’s husband and sent him into exile in Europe. To bury the memory of the Peróns once and for all, the incoming government wanted to get rid of Evita’s embalmed body.
Juan Perón had paid a prestigious Spanish embalmer, Dr. Pedro Ara, one hundred thousand U.S. dollars to preserve Evita’s body. Ara worked on her body for a year, replacing her fluids with a mixture of glycerin and formaldehyde and coating her body with a thin layer of plastic. During this time, plans were made to build a monument in her honor. Evita’s body would be stored in the base of the monument and be displayed for the public. While the monument was being built, Evita’s embalmed body was displayed in her former office for nearly two years. The government wanted to get rid of her body but didn’t want to have a normal burial because of the madness that would surely ensue, so they appointed Colonel Moori Koenig of the Army Intelligence Service to guard the body and assigned him to find a secret burial place for it.
While he searched for an appropriate spot, he kept Evita’s body in the attic of an office building in Buenos Aires. However, something unexplainable and unsettling happened. The colonel let the affection of his soul take over, falling in love with the body and refusing to part with it. After rumors arose that he had performed inappropriate acts with it, the military dictatorship had to seize the body. He ended his days as a shadow of his former self, drifting through the back streets of Buenos Aires, sad and dreamy, raving about his lost love.
After that incident, rumors spread that the military had hidden Evita’s corpse in various places in Buenos Aires, including private houses, and even, for some weeks, behind the screen of a movie theater in Palermo.
In 1957, in a moment of clarity, the government finally figured out what to with Evita’s body and sent it to Rome to be buried there under the name of an Italian housewife. Pedro Aramburu, the president of Argentina at the time, arranged for the details of the burial to be written in a letter to be given to the next president in case of his death.
Eventually, the government returned Evita’s body to Argentina after eighteen years in Italy. News reports said that her nose was a bit squashed and she was slightly disheveled, but her golden hair was still beautiful, as smooth as silk and not a strand out of place. Rumor claimed that the only people with a key to her tomb were her family members, so it didn’t look like Evita would be leaving Argentina again. Some people believed that Evita’s body wasn’t even in the coffin in her mausoleum but stored in a vault three floors below it, with three different trap doors requiring three different keys to unlock them.
After leaving Evita’s tomb, we ventured to the outlying portions of the cemetery. There, the graves sat in ruins and a smell of life and death wafted through the stale air. Some bodies had been stored in niches in a wall, much like the layout of a morgue. Weeds poked their ugly heads through the lumpy soil among discarded trash. I wondered who these forgotten people had been and why their memories had been allowed to fade away.
This is an excerpt from Jamie Rockers new book, 6,000 Miles From Hollywood: A Tale of Wanderlust in South America coming soon to Amazon.com!