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Evita or Madonna: whom will history remember?
Interview with Tomas Eloy Martinez

NPQ: In the old days, US imperialism meant appropriating Latin American resources such as copper or rubber. In these days, Hollywood is appropriating much more - the very myths of your national culture. No matter what Argentineans may think, from here on out won't the world know Evita as Madonna? Won't they see Argentine history as the film scenario rather than the real events? You may finally have the body of Evita there at La Recoleta cemetery, but we have the image here in Hollywood.

TOMAS ELOY MARTINEZ: Conquering Latin America was for North American imperialism, a question of force: the enslaving force of armies, of technology, of an aggressive diplomacy. Conquering the myths of Latin America will not be as easy.That conquest will not be won with money. It is a battle to prevail over the imagination of the people, which is not won through advertising saturation but through talent. There is an excellent example of what I'm talking about. In 1845, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento published a famous pamphlet, Facundo: Civilization or Barbarie? The book was a biography that denounced the savagery of Facundo Quiroga, a provincial caudillo. Many of Sarmiento's descriptions and historical examples contradicted the documented truth. The Argentines continue thinking that the authentic Facundo Quiroga is Sarmiento's, not the one described in the official records, because the character was narrated so forcefully, with such conviction and with such a richness of tone that the real Facundo was abolished by the imaginary Facundo. The same could happen with Madonna's Evita if Alan Parker's film creates a better and more moving mythical image than the image of Evita already installed within the culture of the Argentine people. This appropriation attempt by Hollywood has been heavy, almost overwhelming; for some months, the chignon hairstyle, the makeup, the outfits that Peronist iconography popularized to the point of nausea four decades ago today all bear the face of Madonna. At the end of 1996, the most famous of Eva Peron's prophecies - "I will return and I will be a million" -could be rewritten as "I will return and I will be Madonna." But if Evita is not a great film, all of these assaults from Hollywood will only be a trend, and within a few years, Madonna's transfiguration will be forgotten and will again give way to the real Evita. Latin American myths are more resistant than they seem to be. Not even the mass exodus of the Cuban raft people or the rapid decomposition and isolation of Fidel Castro's regime have eroded the triumphal myth of Che Guevara, which remains alive in the dreams of thousands of young people in Latin America, Africa and Europe.Che as well as Evita symbolize certain naive, but effective, beliefs: the hope for a better world; a life sacrificed on the altar of the disinherited, the humiliated, the poor of the earth. They are myths which somehow reproduce the image of Christ. And I doubt that all the money in Hollywood is enough to modify that situation. Evita's body remains invisible in the cemetery of La Recoleta and from there silently continues her battle against Madonna's body. Unless Alan Parker's movie is brilliant -something like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca or The Star Wars Trilogy - I think that Evita Peron, the body and its myth, will win this battle.

NPQ: When I asked this question of President Menem - who at first opposed Madonna playing the role - he responded by saying that many fine Argentine actresses were also portraying Evita in various performances.  That may be true. But aren't terms-of-trade stacked against Argentina? The faces of those local actresses will never see the light of history. They will be buried under the avalanche of celluloid and home videos of the Madonna version. Frank Zappa once said he thought Michael Jackson's warblings would be seen in the future as the classical music of this period - perhaps not by talent but due to the sheer volume of plastic albums and CD platinum circulating around the planet. Even after a nuclear holocaust, you'll still find plenty in the ruins.

MARTINEZ: The myth of the real Eva Peron will begin after the fires of the film have died down. Her image is already installed in history with such force and with as many lights and shadows as that of Henry the VIII, Marie Antoinette or JFK. The immortality of great personages begins when they become a metaphor with which people can identify. Evita is already several metaphors: she is the Robin Hood of the 20th century, she is the Cinderella of the tango and the Sleeping Beauty of Latin America. Broadway musicals and Hollywood films enrich those meanings, they don't erase them. President Menem's opinion on the aptitude of Argentine actresses to embody Evita seems to me to be a confirmation of the optimism which has always characterized the president. At the same time, the question that you ask is pessimistic to the point of exaggeration. You say the faces of those local actresses will never see the light of history. I would not be so final. Don't forget that Evita was precisely one of those actresses. When she arrived in Buenos Aires in 1934 and when she met Peron, 10 years later, she was an actress without any talent, who mispronounced words, and who was completely lacking in education. Her enemies - and Jorge Luis Borges was one of the most rancorous - believed that very thing; that she was unworthy of passing into history. Upon marrying Peron, Evita discovered the character of her life -herself - and acted it out brilliantly. Half a century later she continues to shine in the floodlights of history with such power that Hollywood is investing almost $100 million to present her life. It doesn't seem to me that for an Argentine actress, she did that badly.

NPQ: Some have suggested that since Argentina's experiment with free trade is going sour, perhaps it is time for a little of the old protectionism. Might this also be true in the realm of culture? After all, even the French speak of the right of nations to invoke the "cultural exception" when it comes to resisting Hollywood dominance.   There are rumors that the Madonna version of Evita may be banned in Argentina as a betrayal of the nation's heritage. Would you support that?

MARTINEZ: I don't believe in guardians or in protection by the state or in public authority when it comes to culture. The wider the embrace and the desire of a culture to imbibe voices from outside, the greater its possibilities to enrich itself. Hollywood has had a positive influence on the intellectual formation of our countries, on our imagination and on our mythology. I see no reason to fight against that. Some of the best Latin-American narratives of the last half-century are the fruit of the intensity and creative intelligence with which our creators absorbed and modified the lessons of Hollywood. Manuel Puig is a good example. He took from Hollywood the materia prima of his fiction and later sold it back to Hollywood as a manufactured product. That is the case with The Kiss of the Spider Woman. If I believe that, I couldn't be in agreement at all with any form of Argentine censorship against Alan Parker and Madonna's Evita. When President Menem opposed the project, I wrote several articles for my country's newspapers refuting the prejudices of the fanatic nationalistic Argentines. I have always believed in the freedom to create and I have always opposed all forms of censorship. I have no reason to change my opinion now.

TOMAS ELOY MARTINEZ is the acclaimed Argentine author of Santa Evita and The Peron novel.

New Perspectives Quarterly.'97