Life and death in Recoleta

Recoleta Cemetery, home to Evita's grave

Recoleta is one of the liveliest neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires. At the epicentre of where Pueyrredon and Santa Fe intersect, its locale helps. A stone’s throw from bustling Retiro to the east (the gateway in and out of the city) and south of trendy Palermo which never sleeps, Recoleta is also a conduit for the capital’s best transport options. Yet the layout of this dynamic barrio is undoubtedly built around a place of peaceful sanctum and eternal rest. It is a paradox therefore that it is death that brings Recoleta to life.

The crowning jewel of this part of town, Recoleta Cemetery is a resting place for many distinguished authors of Argentina’s most illustrious past. As well as literally in the case of writers and poets various, the cemetery’s interned also include former presidents, army generals and Nobel Prize winners to name but a few. These fallen figureheads and geniuses make Recoleta Cemetery a popular attraction for tourists, although there is one deceased whose grave they all go to visit without exception and that is Eva María Duarte de Perón – or simply, Evita.

Born into poverty in Las Pampas, before moving to Buenos Aires and marrying Juan Perón the year before his election as president in 1946, Evita was a powerful symbol for the working classes. As Perón’s impeccable First Lady however she was revered by many other Argentines across the social spectrum as the darling of the nation until her premature death from cervical cancer six years later, when she was just 33 years old.

Exemplifying the feeling in the city following her death, thousands were injured, and eight people crushed to death when seeking to get as close as possible to her lifeless body as it was transported through Buenos Aires. Almost three million people attended the state funeral afforded to Evita amidst an extended period of widespread mourning.

Eventually laid to rest in the Familia Duarte mausoleum, the corpse of Evita had initially disappeared. After an extended quarantine in Europe orchestrated by the military dictatorship that had overthrown Perón, the corpse was finally repatriated some two decades after her death, in 1974. The first line of her plaque reads ‘No me llores pérdida ni lejana’. This translates roughly as ‘Do not cry for me nor my distance’, its corruption immortalised in popular culture ever since.

Taking all this fanfare and indeed everything that Evita represents into consideration, it could be said that her tomb is disarmingly modest. This is probably just conditioned by its context though. The surrounding marble statues and other displays of opulence nearby play for prominence with far more brazen conviction on behalf of their respective occupants.

Nowadays the bottom of the cemetery is overlooked by Recoleta Mall, four floors of shops flanked by stylish cafes and eateries. Walk through here, with your back to Evita and the cemetery, and you reach Avenida General Las Heras en route to the subway station. When I first moved here I mistook this for ‘Las Heridas’, meaning ‘The Injuries’. Such is the plentiful supply of medical assistance here (there are 6 Hs for Hospital marked within the boundaries of Recoleta on Google Maps) that this is a mistake that could be forgiven.

Captured perfectly by her meteoric flight and then subsequent untimely plight, Evita’s narrative of hope turning into despair is one that Argentinians have known all too well in recent years. Even death, the final injury, is a necessary reference point for life to flourish however, and Recoleta is a testimony to that.

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