Last week, I had the privilege of attending a Naturalization Ceremony. If you have never had the opportunity to be there when immigrants to our country take the oath of citizenship and exchange their Green Cards for their Naturalization Certificates, you are missing out on one of those special things that makes the United States of America a truly great place to be. Looking out across the crowd you can see people who began their lives in the far corners of the world sitting beside one another without regard for gender, race or national origin. It matters little where they came from, whether or not they once lived on one side of some armed border or the other, today they are Americans and the old hatreds, if not forgotten, are at least set aside. On that day, they are united in their desire to join in our great experiment, to offer their descendents to the great American melting pot in the hopes that they will blend seamlessly into the fabric of our nation in the same way that we, the descendants of so many who made that journey before them, have done.
The stories they tell are often powerful. We often think they come to our shores simply for freedom and to take advantage of the economic opportunity our country offers, but often they are here because we are an island of peace in a terrible world and because they have endured horrors that would keep most of us awake at night if we spent too long thinking about them. At the ceremony I attended the speaker, a young man from Rwanda, told of his childhood experiences hiding in a thorn bush to avoid being murdered and of walking over corpses so thick on the ground that he could not avoid stepping on them as he sought to escape his war ravaged land. Other people have spoken to me about poverty, hopelessness and, worst of all, what happens when your own government institutes a reign of terror and people begin to vanish. Such was the case in Argentina in the mid 1970s and, although the reign of terror is now ended and the situation improved, one icon of those times still strikes fear into the populace whenever it appears: the otherwise unremarkable Ford Falcon.
In 1961, Ford sent two examples of their recently introduced Falcon to Argentina in order to help their factory in La Boca set up a production line. Argentina was booming then and the newly emerging middle class finally had enough discretionary income to afford new cars. Naturally, the Ford company was hoping to put that country on wheels and the rugged and reliable Falcon seemed to be perfect for the task. The car was introduced for the 1962 model year and was a hit from almost the minute it went on the market. Argentines took to it as though it were their own Model T and made it the bestselling car in their history. The Falcon thrived and by 1973 had received several updates and was almost entirely built of locally sourced parts. But even as the Ford Falcon flourished, the nation was headed towards Chaos.
In 1976 the Argentine military seized control of the country and most of those who actively opposed its rule were murdered shortly thereafter. The military followed up those first murders with what is known as “The Dirty War,” a war they waged against their own people between 1976 and 1983 and during that time an estimated 30,000 people went missing. What happened to most of these people remains a mystery to this day, but one common thread to their disappearance is that many were last seen in the back of a dark green Ford Falcon.
Why the Argentine secret police chose the car is simple. The Falcon was already a proven police vehicle in service all over the country where it wore more-or-less standard black and white police livery so the secret police knew the car would be reliable. Why they decided on dark green is less clear, perhaps it was intentionally chosen because they hoped the dark color would elicit fear or because there were so many others around in that color and they thought it would blend in better, who knows? The end result, however, is that the dark green Falcon soon became feared on the streets and whenever one of the cars was spied cruising slowly along the block, people knew there was a good chance that someone in the area would likely not be returning home that night.
Those days have passed but live on in the memories of those who endured those horrific events and what should be a golden legacy for the Falcon has been tarnished by its fearful association. To many Argentines, the Falcon is simply an old car, one that their parents and grandparents may have owned, one that they may have ridden in during their childhood. To others they are a symbol of oppression and fear. For those people, the memories of what they endured and those that they lost will never go away. For them, even the mere sight of a Ford Falcon, especially one painted dark green, stirs those memories and causes the pain to begin again. It is a horrible legacy for what everyone agrees was an otherwise fine car.
We in the first world often live in ignorance of what happens outside of our borders. We see the events on the news, hear the talk of analysts and pundits, but seldom grasp the actual horror that is sometimes the norm in some of the Earth’s most terrible places. The next time someone tells you that they are a naturalized citizen, shake their hand and know that their presence strengthens our country. The next time you see a Ford Falcon, especially a dark green one, think for a moment about the 30,000 Argentines who vanished after their ride in a similar car and be thankful we are insulated from such things. There but for the grace of God, go us.
Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.