A half-deflated leather football, a box of marbles, a ragged doll and a handful of wind-up cars and trains line the display cabinets in the Evita Museum like ancient relics. But believe it or not, these worn-out toys played a vital role in the rise of Peronism in Argentina.
Long before politicians started using social media to influence public opinion, the political movement of Juan Perón and his second wife also sought to touch voters on a personal level: handing out toys to four m i l l i o n c h i l d r e n f r o m Argentina’s poorest families.
The practice was fundamental to the popularity and at times unconditional backing showered by Argentines on Peronism, which has persisted far beyond the deaths of Perón and wife Eva María Duarte, the woman more famously known as ‘Evita.’
To mark the 100th anniversary of her birth on May 7, 1919, the Evita Museum in Buenos Aires has inaugurated an exhibition titled Childhood and Peronism, the toys of the Eva Perón Foundation. It displays several dozen of the toys distributed by the party every Christmas Day and the Epiphany holiday (Reyes) between 1948 and 1955.
“Children were always given particular importance in Eva’s work, especially all matters concerning children’s rights,” Marcela Genés, the museum’s curator, told The Associated Press. “She herself had a very impoverished childhood and that stayed with her. Achieving justice for children was a particular focus for Eva.”
Juan Perón, an Army general, served as president for two different spans. He first took office in 1946 and won re-election in 1951 with a landslide victory of 63.4 percent of the votes. The beginning of his second term, in 1952, was overshadowed by Evita’s death at age 33 from uterine cancer.
Three years later, Perón was overthrown and forced into exile by a military coup. After 18 years, he returned and was elected president again in 1973. He served until his death in 1974 and was succeeded by his widow, Isabel Perón, who herself was ousted by the military in 1976.
Leaving behind humble beginnings, Evita arrived in Buenos Aires as a teenager. She worked as an actress until she met Perón at a festival held to raise funds for the victims of the San Juan earthquake in 1944. Once she had become first lady, she created the Eva Perón Foundation after being prevented from heading the Buenos Aires Charitable Society, an organisation formed by upper-class women who traditionally appointed the first lady as its honorary president.
TOYS AND GIFTS
Many children were delivered toys by Evita herself, while others picked up their gifts at post offices across the country.
One item in the museum exhibit is a tin-train set. Somewhat rusty, it has huge sentimental value for 80-year-old Saúl Macyszyn. Seven decades ago, it helped him recover after an accident left him without one arm and paralysed in the other arm and both legs.
Macyszyn chokes up when he recalls being visited in the hospital by Evita after undergoing a seventh surgery.
“I saw many doctors and nurses coming toward me. Evita was in the middle of them. With all the flashes from the photographers’ cameras, it looked like she had fallen from heaven,” he said.
First, Evita greeted his parents. She then approached his bedside and said: “Look, little Saúl, you will not be able to be a worker like your father. You will have to study. The foundation will give you a scholarship.”
Macyszyn said the accident had left him isolated, because an amputated arm was considered “monstrous” in those days. The train set he received from Evita served as a bridge with other children.
“Everyone in the neighbourhood would come, so I had lots of friends. I had a happy childhood,” he said.
The foundation continued after Evita’s death, until the coup toppled Perón.