Circa 1980, I found myself working in the Big Apple, New York City, on a programming contract with the Bank of New York. While there, I managed to take in two musical plays – Evita and A Chorus Line. I was fascinated with the music and story of Evita, and saw it twice more with Lori – the stage version in San Jose, and the Madonna film version.
While Eva Perón was a unique individual, I think her story resonates with all of us in many ways. She grew up in total poverty, made herself into a success, and eventually became the recognized “Spiritual Leader of the Nation of Argentina.” We each must invent and develop ourselves to grow from our roots and become… that which we each become. We aspire to greatness, or at least success, in our adult lives.
In this article, I will use a few quotes from the original version of Evita to write, and hopefully make you think, about what we can all learn from Evita’s story.
“Now Eva Perón had every disadvantage you need if you’re going to succeed. No money, no class, no father, no bright lights. There was nowhere she’d been at the age of fifteen…”
Eva grew up as the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Argentinean farmer. Juan Duarte supported Evita’s family, but returned to his own when Eva was just one year old. She grew up in the poorest section of a small town, but managed to get a decent public education. She started acting in school plays at 13, and decided she wanted to become a film actress. At the age of 15, she moved to Buenos Aires, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in South America at the time.
Evita’s story about growing up in poverty and becoming wealthy and famous was echoed in a story in Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Some of the most powerful and successful lawyers in New York City grew up in poor immigrant Jewish families. From this background they learned a strong work ethic, the importance of a good education, and to take any jobs they could find. These jobs included doing the paperwork for corporate takeovers and proxy fights, something the established “gentleman” law firms would not touch, but which became the most profitable legal field in the 1970’s and 80’s. Their impoverished, “second class citizen” backgrounds became the core of their success. They had “every disadvantage they needed to succeed.”
Eva Duarte became Evita – Champion of women and the working class – because of her poverty. If she had been raised in a middle class family, she would have lost the drive that made her powerful and famous.
“Eva, beware of the city. It’s hungry and cold, can’t be controlled, it is mad. Those who are fools are swallowed up whole, and those who are not, become what they should not – become changed; in short, they go bad.”
Hope is a start and an inspiration, but it is not enough by itself. Eva had to embrace her hope of a better life, visualize a way to make it happen, then take a tremendous risk to leave her old life behind and try to create a new one. You could say, “It wasn’t much of a life,” but we all have an attachment to the known and familiar, no matter how poor it might seem to others. Any real change involves real risk. Many poor people who moved to Buenos Aires in the 1930’s could not find work, and lived in tenements that were probably even worse than Eva’s humble origins.
Eva accepts that risk wholeheartedly. She sings, “What’s new, Buenos Aires? I’m new; I wanna say I’m just a little stuck on you… Fill me up with your heat, with your noise, with your dirt, overdo me. Let me dance to your beat, make it loud, let it hurt, run it through me.” You can’t go into a new environment fearfully. You must accept it, embrace it, make it yours, and make yourself part of it. That’s how you turn risk into opportunity.
Adapt and Communicate
“It seems crazy, but you must believe, there’s nothing calculated, nothing planned. Please forgive me if I seem naïve, I would never try to force your hand; but please understand, I’d be surprisingly good for you.”
After Eva has established herself in the big city – she became one of the best-paid and most successful radio performers – she is invited to a charity event to raise funds for victims of an earthquake in San Juan, Argentina. It is there that she meets Colonel Juan Perón, an ambitious military officer who is starting to become known in political circles. Eva has this one chance to break through and move up to a higher level in her life’s ambitions, and she seizes it.
Her introduction to Perón is a seduction, but it is also a negotiation. She makes it clear that she can help Perón with his political ambitions as well as in the bedroom. Perón leaves the party with her, dumps his mistress, and moves Evita into his house. This was considered a scandal; while public figures often had mistresses, they visited them in their own apartments. They didn’t treat them as wives.
Evita knew what Juan Perón desired, adapted to it, and communicated her ability to help him with his political ambitions. That, as much as sex, led to their enduring relationship.
Pursue Your Passion
“Now I am a worker; I’ve suffered the way that you do. I’ve been unemployed and I’ve starved and I’ve hated it too.”
Evita’s critics believed that she was entirely out for herself. She used and discarded men. She spent lavishly on clothing, jewelry, and perfume. No doubt she was a selfish person in many ways. But she was also driven by a higher purpose.
Growing up in poverty, and seeing the very real struggle for survival that people like her own family faced, Evita resolved to do something about it. Throughout her short life, she supported labor unions, created Argentina’s first real social services and welfare system, and worked to improve the lives of her country’s poor. As a woman who saw herself and other women treated as second-class citizens, she worked tirelessly to help other women through universal suffrage, education, and equal job opportunities.
At the end of her life, Eva Perón reportedly worked 20 and 22 hour days at her government-supported charity. This does not sound to me like the portrait of a self-centered prima donna who cared about nothing but her own success. This was a woman driven to help others and to make real change in her country. And that drive is what made Evita immortal. She could have continued on as a rich and moderately famous radio actress. But because she cared about her people, she became much more.
“I came from the people, they need to adore me, so Christian Dior me from my head to my toes. I need to be dazzling, I want to be Rainbow High! They must have excitement, and so must I… I’m their product, It’s vital you sell me, so Machiavell-me; make an Argentine rose!”
You’ve heard the phrase, “Dress for success.” In my generation, many people considered that a sell-out. Many successful young programmers and entrepreneurs – especially in Silicon Valley – prided themselves on being so secure that they could wear jeans and sandals into any restaurant or business meeting. In contrast, my brother worked for IBM in New York in the mid-70’s, and they had a strict dress code – black or navy blue suit, white shirt, narrow tie. To the Californians, these people were slaves to obsolete fashion rules.
But the most successful knew how to adapt to changing environments. Bill Gates did not see any reason to wear a coat and tie while he wrote software and started up Microsoft. But when he made the famous deal to develop computer operating systems for the IBM PC, he adapted to the IBM environment. On his way to the first meeting in Florida, Gates realized he had forgotten to pack a tie. Rather than “violate the dress code,” he stopped at a department store and bought a cheap tie. He knew that the IBM executives would not take him seriously if he insisted on following the West Coast un-dress code.
Evita took this principle completely to heart. She knew that she represented the idea of the poor country girl becoming a star, so she made sure she dressed the part. When she first became Argentina’s First Lady, she wore wild, dramatic outfits to “put on a show.” Later in her career, she adopted Paris designer fashion and wore more practical, but still very elegant, outfits. She was one of the first women in Argentina to sometimes wear pants instead of a skirt. By doing so, she promoted the message that women are equal to men and can do whatever men did. This was a very radical concept in the 1930’s!
Cut Like a Diamond
“She’s a diamond in their dull grey lives – and that’s the hardest kind of stone – It usually survives.”
“She’s not a bauble you can brush aside. She’s been out doing what we just talked about – Example: Gave us back our business, got the English out. And when you think about it, well why not do one or two of the things we promised to?”
Evita didn’t just talk the talk; she walked the walk. She knew that appearances are important, but so are accomplishments. While she was dazzling the aristocracy and the proletariat alike, she used her beauty and her passion to transform Argentinean society. In her 33 years of life, Eva Perón managed to create enduring changes far greater than most of us accomplish in much longer careers.
So think about it. Why not do… a few of the things that you could do? If Evita Perón could start with so little, yet accomplish so much… maybe each of us can find time to do something worthwhile for our communities, our nations, and the world.
To read more about the real Evita, check out this detailed Wikipedia article on Eva Perón.
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