BUENOS AIRES -- Our visit to Recoleta Cemetery was going to be short. We were going to find Eva Duarte Peron’s tomb and leave. We were not admirers, just curious U.S. tourists. But before what turned out to be a long visit had ended, we had been drawn in like so many others.
With its elaborate architecture representing styles from Art Deco and Art Nouveau to Baroque and Neo-Gothic — plus its free admission — the cemetery is a popular attraction, drawing more than half a million people a year. One of the city’s biggest open-air arts and crafts markets sets up just outside the gates. By late afternoon, street musicians perform, and vendors sell snacks by the white-columned entrance.
At least 18 Argentine presidents are buried among the 4,691 crypts, as are hundreds of other politicians, military leaders, writers, actors, athletes and others once prominent in Argentine society. Yet the mausoleum where Evita is entombed is by far the most popular site on the 14-acre grounds, which is still an active cemetery. Sixty years after her death, people — many, like my friend and me, who hadn’t even been born yet when she died — still bring flowers to lay at the door of the modest Duarte family mausoleum.
The former First Lady was a charismatic figure in her lifetime. In death, part of the mystique is the 24-year journey that her corpse took before arriving here. Her body was moved around Argentina the first few years after her death in 1952; then after her husband, Juan Peron, was overthrown as president, the military confiscated it and secretly sent it to be buried in Italy under a false name. Many years later, it was returned to Juan Peron, who by then was in exile in Madrid. He returned it to Argentina before his own death in 1974. Finally, in 1976, she was buried in a concrete vault 27 feet underground beneath layers of steel, in the mausoleum of her father’s family at Recoleta. Juan Peron is buried in another cemetery.
I had no interest in the rest of the cemetery. But that was before I stepped between the Greek columns at the entrance to el Cementerio de Recoleta, before I saw the elaborate mausoleums laid out in a neat grid, like miniature apartment buildings on tiny streets.
I was captivated. I had never been in a cemetery with mausoleums like these before, had never seen rows and rows of these narrow miniature stone buildings, some four or five stories tall, each different, topped with gilded domes or obelisks or steeples that looked like huge sorcerers’ hats, marked by ornate carvings and statuary, plaques, laurel wreaths fashioned from bronze, guarded by angels or birds with enormous wing spans. There were statues of nymphs, cherubs, babies, generals in uniforms and a bare-chested boxer in his robe.
We knew from looking at the big map by the entrance to the cemetery that the Duarte mausoleum was on the left side, about a third of the way back. But we gravitated to the wide “street” that ran up the center, where the oldest and most ostentatious mausoleums were. We wandered from one to the next, reading family names and recognizing some from Buenos Aires landmarks and street signs, becoming increasingly absorbed.
Here were, in addition to the many Argentine politicians and generals, the tombs of actress Zully Morena; poet Oliverio Girondo; Victoria Ocampo, a writer and the first woman admitted to the Argentine Academy of Letters; Luis Federico Leloir, Nobel-winning biochemist; and Armando Bó, actor and film director. A life-size replica of boxer Luis “Firpo” Angel, “the wild bull of the Pampas,” in his robe, stands outside his tomb.