To say that Maradona is a big deal in Argentina is to state the obvious. He has a day in his honour, some institutions named after him, a postage stamp with his portrait, a documentary film about his life… and he is not Diego. Dr Esteban Maradona may have been overshadowed by the football star, but he does receive recognition from Argentinian society, especially from the medicine area and philanthropic organisations, almost 20 years after his death.
Maradona was born on July 4, 1895, in Esperanza, Santa Fe, into a large family with 14 siblings. He grew up in the countryside, but when he was a teenager his family moved to the capital. He graduated as a doctor from the University of Buenos Aires and it seemed like he was all set to get his own consulting room, but, as he admitted in several interviews recorded by his family, he was an adventurous man.
He started to work in a hospital treating poor children infected with leprosy. He then moved to Resistencia, Chaco. But after the coup d’état in 1930, which heralded the “infamous decade”, he started to give public speeches about work laws and was persecuted by the government. Then 37 years old, Esteban decided to get out of the country and go to Paraguay, but as soon as he crossed the border, he was imprisoned as a spy: Paraguay was at war with Bolivia. After some days, he was released and hired as a doctor on the battlefield, where he treated soldiers from both sides, as “pain has no frontiers”.
When the Chaco War ended (partially because of peace negotiations facilitated by him), Maradona decided to return to Buenos Aires. It seemed like he would finally find some stability as a normal doctor in the 1930s, as his family prepared a consulting room for him in an upper class area of the city, but that journey never ended; he never lived again in the capital. When his train made stopped in a little village called Estanislao del Campo, in Formosa, the neighbours asked urgently for a doctor. A pregnant woman had been in labour for a few days and her life was in danger. Maradona delivered the baby successfully, but when he got back to the station, the train was gone. The next one would pass again in three days. He stayed there 51 years. “A decision had to be made… and I took one. I stayed where I was needed”, he said.
Nicknamed Doctor God
Maradona settled in a small house, which was also his workplace. He slept, cooked and received patients in the same room. “At first, the indians were not amused with his presence, as a foreigner, but he earned their trust. You can try and search today for a negative opinion and you will find none”, says Lorenzo Boonman, a former priest who still lives in the town and had the chance to meet him closely. Even Maradona recognised that it was hard. “At first the indians tried to kill me, but I was never afraid.” The tribe healer felt threatened by this new doctor, but his firm attitude and good manners to everyone changed his mind
Maradona’s work wasn’t restricted to medical treatments. He lived with the indians, treating them as equals and showed true interest in their culture. He managed to get them federal lands and created an aboriginal settlement. He tried to improve their life quality in every aspect: socially, economically and in education. So much so, that those unfriendly stares evolved in admiration, until he earned the nickname “Doctor God”.
Boonman, who worked at the local school, highlights Maradona’s commitment to education. “He was always around, helping the kids, enjoying the science fair. He could have been anywhere else, getting rich and living comfortably, but he found happiness in service.”
His knowledge wasn’t only transmitted orally. In his book, Through the jungle, he narrated his initial experiences and reported the multiple abuses that the indians were suffering. He also elaborated a toba-pilagá dictionary, with more than 3,000 words translated into Spanish. But his real passion, as a naturalist, was the most prolific; he wrote more than 10 books about the local flora and fauna, illustrated with his own drawings.
His work was discovered by a journalist from the newspaper Primera Plana in 1967, following which he started to receive prizes and distinctions: a recognition from the provincial government, a honorary diploma and gold medal from the Formosa Medical Federation (both in 1975), a medical scholarship in his honour for low income students, the award for “country doctor of the year” by the Argentinian Medical Association (1980) were some of the awards, but none of them cheered him up.
“I stopped being an anonymous guy. If there’s any part of merit in my work, it is limited. I haven’t done anything else than to fulfil the classic Hippocratic oath”, said Maradona, who donated every penny that came with the prizes and rejected a life annuity offered in 1977 by the Formosa governor.
After half a century of work with the community, Esteban started to feel his age. At 91 years old, he could no longer walk the grounds as before. “One day I felt like I was dying, and realised that I was in my last years. I started to say goodbye to the indians, little by little. And I felt proud and happy, because I saw they had shoes, they were clothed, they had education. I think I didn’t do anything but to accomplish my duty”, he reflected years later. Boonman also remembered that moment: “One day he just left, without telling anyone. Then I visited him and I understood that it was part of his personality. He just liked the low profile.”
It was June 1986. While another Maradona was creating the “Hand of God” and winning worldwide fame, Doctor God was ending his journey in the jungle. He went back to Rosario, where he spent his last years surrounded by his family. The long hours on the road affected his health and he had to be hospitalised. He declined to go to a private clinic that his family offered and preferred to be in a public hospital, “where the poor people go”.
On recovery, he again received multiple awards: the title of doctor honoris causa by the University of Rosario (1993), a medal and honorary diploma from the National Congress as a Twentieth Century Hero Civic (1994) and two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize (1988 and 1993).
Still, Maradona’s health kept weakening. “I’m not sick. I’m old, and oldness does not have a cure”, he used to say when being treated by his family. He also had time to give some glimpses into his philosophy: “I like the poverty. The richness is enjoyed by any fool.”
José Maradona, 53, is one of the relatives who enjoyed being around the doctor in the final years. For him, the healthy life Maradona had was the key to living almost a century, even if he spent several years of his old age in a harsh place. “He passed away surrounded with affection. He was beloved by us and we took the most grateful and unforgettable memories. I wish we had more time together, we would enjoy much more with his presence.” Jose accepts that he would like his uncle to have more recognition, not to be forgotten, but he understands it as a natural thing, because of his attitude.
Esteban Maradona died on January 14, 1995 and was buried in Santa Fe, in the family mausoleum. He received funeral wreaths from all over the country and the tributes were multiplied, with streets and squares being renamed after him.
Every July the 4th his birth is commemorated on the Country Doctors National Day, but not many Argentinians are familiar with his story. According to the Santa Fe cemetery’s guardian, it is unusual if someone visits Maradona’s tomb.
Aida Arce, director of the Hogar Maradona Foundation, shows her devotion when she talks about the doctor, almost like she is referring to a saint. “It’s inexplicable. There is no one like him”, she assures me. Her husband, Julio Cantero, was a very close friend of Maradona in Formosa, and the president of the foundation until August, when he passed away. Aida is one the reasons why Hogar Maradona was created. She once arrived in Buenos Aires to do some errands, but she ran out of money. While she was waiting for her husband to send some more, she and her little baby had to sleep on the streets. As Maradona found out about this, he used his local influence and managed to get a house in the capital that today, 35 years later, still receives people from Formosa and other parts of Argentina (or even other countries) who need a roof, food or just some orientation. “It is a neighbourhood relic”, says Ana, a frequent visitor and contributor.
Arce doesn’t spare any kind words when she talks about Maradona, and she even defends him against some critics. “Nowadays I’ve heard people saying that he was crazy, living in the dirt. They are people who don’t know about humility and can’t understand how someone can leave everything to serve the rest of us”, she explains, as she constantly receives donations for the place, which runs without any official aid.
Dolly Rodriguez lives in Rosario, with her big family. She is 78 years old and was born in Estanislao del Campo with no medical assistance around; her mother was about to die, until Doctor God arrived just by chance. “I never got to meet him, because my family moved when I was a baby. Maybe I changed his life, but he saved mine and my mother’s. He was a role model of giving, a great man.”