Evita. Gardel. Maradona. The big three. No one in Argentina can deny these individuals the position on the golden pedestal society has placed them on. They aren’t just people, these are icons.
Mention Eva Peron to a Peronist who heard her speak and his eyes fill with tears. Her following was so great, so cult like, that upon her death she was mummified, preserving her image for all of eternity, and was sought after by psychotic followers turned lovers. Even today in the streets of Buenos Aires graffiti makes claim to Evita’s immortality: “Evita Lives!” and followers make diligent visits to her grave in Recoleta Cemetery. Her political predecessors make use of her image, addressing crowds carrying flags boasting her image with chesty claims of “Companeros! Companeras!” Love her as a Peronist, or hate her as an offensive, manipulative woman, there is no denying the power of Eva Peron. There is no denying Evita’s iconic status.
Carlos Gardel, whose rise and claim to fame came through his perfection of tango vocals and appearance in films. At a surface glance, his popularity is comparable to that of America’s Frank Sinatra. Gardel has not the same cult like following as Evita, but is recognized by Argentines as an important figure in Argentine music, Argentine culture, and Argentina’s image in the world.
Maradona… or should I shout “Maradoooo… Maradoooo…?” Maradona has unarguably the most cultish following of any of Argentina’s icons. Despite his rise and fall from the football pitch, forcing his departure in his darkest hour, addicted to cocaine, emotionally unstable, and suffering from eating disorders forcing him to balloon out to a sweating, walking, and barely talking waddling penguin. Even during this time he was prayed for, admired, and supported by the Argentine people. Today, over a decade since his last true football game and long since his feet and “hand of god” brought his teams to success in the World Cup, his praises are sung by drunk (and sober) portenos: “Argentina! Maradona! Nada Mas!” When most parents would turn their children’s heads and forbid the idealizing of a drug addict, Argentine parents and children alike took to his support. After rehabilitation and a remarkable recovery in the public world, Maradona is today more popular than ever.
Argentines may claim themselves to be tragic, fair-weather fans, but their unending support of these three figures leads to the notion that there is an additional thread running through Argentina. There is a need among Argentines to cling desperately to these figures and to cling so strongly so as to never let go, even after death or public disgrace. This past May 25th, a holiday equivalent to the United States’ July 4th, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the Plaza de Mayo, the symbolic home of Evita’s outreach to the people, to listen to their president evoke the image of Evita to a crowd carrying not national flags, but ones with the symbols of Juan and Eva Peron. The national pride associated with such a day that leads Americans to launch fireworks and hold parades was exchanged for the memory and praise of Evita Peron. The sporting of nationalism in Argentina appears to come only with the World Cup. And even then, unlike her northern neighbor’s, Argentines do not decorate their streets with flags, look up to the apartments that surround you in Buenos Aires and you’ll see more Brazilian flags hanging off of balconies than those of Argentina.
Guide books, history books, and the Argentine will explain to you how these three figures, Evita, Gardel, and Maradona explain Argentine politics, culture, and football. But no one will identify what in Argentina explains the cult following of these three icons. Few countries in the world have such followed figures from the twentieth century as Argentina, and those that can begin to compete boast far fewer than three (Great Britain and her Lady Di, for example). What explains this insecurity in nationalism that leads to the promotion of individuals over state in Argentina? What explains the need of the people to cling so dearly onto these individuals?
I know that I am raising questions I only hold hypotheses for, but I present these questions here for your thought as well as my own. And while I depart from Argentina in a few short days, this aspect of the country has made a deep impression on me, and I will scarce forget these questions upon my departure or will I end my quest for their answers.