Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Q.E.P.D. (R.I.P)

Some of the city's best architecture is in its cemeteries, one of which is a top tourist attraction here. Home to the tombs of the rich and powerful, Recoleta cemetery is in Buenos Aires' toniest neighborhood. Its biggest draw? Evita's tomb.

Neither Evita nor her husband, Juan Perón, the Argentine leader who spawned a political movement, have rested in anything close to peace.

Evita died in 1952. Her body was first sent to a secret location in Italy, then to Spain in 1971 and then back to Argentina a few years later.

Juan Perón died two decades after Evita. And what of his body? He ended up in Chacarita cemetery, halfway across the city from Recoleta. Befitting the man who drew his support from labor unions and the working class, the cemetery is populist, not the resting place for the wealthy that Recoleta is.

In 1987, Juan Perón's tomb was violated and his hands were removed. An anonymous letter demanded $8 million for the return of the hands. The judge investing the crime died when he lost control of his vehicle a year after the robbery and the investigation never regained traction.

In October 2006, Perón's body was moved to a grander mausoleum in the suburbs. Unfortunately, this didn't go so well. Protesters and onlookers were met with tear gas and rubber bullets from police as union members fought for access to his estate, location of the new tomb.

The new, grander mausoleum has room for Evita's body, too. But so far she has stayed put.

Chacarita, Perón's resting place until recently, is laid out like a small city with main roads and smaller paths lined with mausoleums one after another after another. In the center are underground crypts and toward the back are graves similar to what you would see in a U.S. cemetery. The most striking difference is that rather than being covered in grass, the ground is bare earth -- dry and cracked in the summer -- with neatly laid out patches of plants in front of the headstones.

Outside Recoleta cemetery stand souvenir hawkers. There's a mall and a movie theater just over the cemetery walls. Tour groups march through at all hours of the day. Some scattered tourists wander on their own. Everyone wants to know where Evita's tomb is but finding it isn't hard; just follow the crowds.

Yesterday, I walked around Chacarita cemetery for the first time in a year or so. It's vast and the tall walls that surround it block out the sounds of the city. Before Perón's body was moved, newspapers talked to bereft followers who insisted they visited the cemetery every day.

I don't need to go seven days a week. But I would take Chacarita over Recoleta any day.

No comments: