Chicana Literary Motifs

Against the Current, No. 8, March/April 1987

Alvina E. Quintana

MANY FEMINIST SCHOLARS argue that the problem with feminist theory today is that it focuses primarily on the differences between men and women, rather than on the differences among women. As the feminist preoccupation with male/female differences develops and expands, the gap between Anglo feminists and feminists of color widens. Although much of feminist thought claims to encompass diverse perspectives and to speak of universals, many women of color believe that feminist discourse is, in fact, only white in perspective, with little concern for issues of race, culture, and class.

Language has been dominated by male discourse and ideology, and therefore reflects the influence that men have over the roles and status of both women and men in our society. In an effort to rectify this imbalance, feminist theorists have appropriately begun to develop a discourse that addresses issues related to the subordination and control of women.

Since the voices of women of color are generally not represented in this array of theoretical positions, they, as a group with their own particular issues and concerns, become the suppressed text and remain on the margins of feminist discourse.

The experience of being marginal is nothing new to Chicanos and Chicanas. The sociological concept of the “marginal person” categorizes a person caught between two cultures, such as a Mexican-American.

For a Chicana, marginality is more complex because she not only experiences a conflict between the competing values of Mexican and American cultures, but she often also feels ambivalent towards race and gender in general. It is precisely this ambivalence, this tension between race and self, that has contributed to Chicana apathy towards the women’s movement and feminist theory.

In this article I will look at Chicana literature as a contribution to the process of challenge and counter­ challenge between Anglo and Chicana feminist thought. Because of the absence of theoretical writings about Chicanas, it is necessary to examine other forms of writing as theory. For Chicanas, literature provides a medium with which to voice female concerns, much as the dominant ideology of the United States provides the medium for male discourse. As Adrienne Rich points out:

“A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us; and how we can begin to see-and therefore live-afresh.”(1)

Women’s literature provides the voices to express, and the rituals to enact, the experiences of growing up female. Self-representation effectively cultural symbolic systems and allows the Chicana to express her own ambivalence towards her race and gender.

In this way, marginal individuals become the subjects Of their own discourse. Once a female child is born to Mexican parents living in the United States, she is more than just her parents’ daughter; she, like other female babies, is her mother’s daughter. Gender determines how this child will be socialized. At the same time, when females are born into this world they are not just their mothers’ daughters: they are more accurately the daughters of the ideology of their times. They are Mexicans first, and individuals second — female manchilds of the world in which they live, destined to search for identification and meaning because of their gender.

Freud asked “What do women want?” Women continue to ask in various ways, “Who are we?” Women exist in a vacuum within a male-defined world, but as they grow and question, their consciousness changes. New questions arise, and new developments occur, every time the familiar question regarding identity resurfaces.

In universities, through feminist and other scholarly theories, women learn that they are historical creatures. This realization should not be dismissed as insignificant or obvious, for once women examine their historicity in terms of the fashioning of a specific identity, they are well on the way to challenging the limitations that have maintained their subordinate status.

Chicana literature can be viewed as an allegory of the social dilemma Chicanas face regarding race and gender. Chicana literary voices resemble the feminist voices of the Anglo-American counterparts in that their political perspectives often appear to be in constant debate.

The Chicana literary text is analogous to a musical fugue because of its use of the polyphonic vocal principle of separate voices maintaining unified integrity throughout the musical (or literary) composition.

“A fugue begins with a theme, or ‘subject,’ on which each voice enters in turn, as if ‘imitating’ the preceding one. Each voice follows the subject with a ‘countersubject.’ The opening, called the ‘exposition,’ introduces the main material and all the voices. Then comes a ‘development,’ in which there are many ‘episodes,’ introducing new material, playing the voices against each other in various combinations, transforming the themes rhythmically and harmonically, taking the music far from the opening key or tonality.”(2)

The Chicana literary text opens in an apologetic chord, relying heavily on the pitch set by cultural or religious ideologies. Once this tonality has been established, setting the mood as it questions and clearly outlines how Chicanas position and identify themselves in cultural terms, it is followed by the counterpoint of the voices of rage and opposition. An exchange of these two modes introduces new material which transforms the original theme, moving Chicana discourse along in search of a knowledge of “self” in oppositional terms.

Once the oppositional tone has been established, new themes emerge which change the tone yet again, as the literature of struggle and identification adapts to variation and looks at the contemporary Chicana from different angles as a “woman” in her own right, a woman at the center.

But the rhythms and counter-rhythms do not stop here; rather they grow and move into the self-critical terrain of the literature of new-vision. This final mode, which focuses on broader issues concerning the survival of the species and of culture, is not final in the sense of closure; it simply represents another layer in the quest for critical understanding.

The literature at this stage is self-conscious and self-critical, oftentimes providing more questions than answers, as it draws from and parodies the earlier modes in the literary discourse. The stage of “new-vision” functions as the opening or springboard of another, more global, discussion of the gender-race dichotomy, as it attempts to make sense of the Chicana’s need for cultural and feminist identification. Within these four modes-the literature of apology, rage and opposition, struggle and identification, and new-vision-the stories and poetry of Chicana writers develop a new framework within which to view women.*

The Literature of Apology

The literature of apology is liberal in the sense that it argues that traditions and cultural values prevented women from developing their full potential. Contemporary Chicana writings represent a significant feminist reappropriation of history by inscribing the female experience, writing women into what has been the predominant patriarchal interpretation of history. Literature in this mode underscores how Chicanas have been subordinated by the need to assimilate through suppressing their own language and culture.

This realization is expressed in Lorna Dee Cervantes’ poem, “Refugee Ship:”

Like wet cornstarch, I slide
past my grandmother’s eyes. Bible
at her side, she removes her glasses.
The pudding thickens.

Mama raised me without language.
I’m orphaned from my Spanish name.
The words are foreign, stumbling
on my tongue. I see in the mirror
my reflection: bronzed skin, black hair.

I feel I am a captive aboard the refugee ship.
The ship that will never dock.(3)

Cervantes describes the alienation process, which begins with her feelings of isolation due to being “orphaned from [her] Spanish name,” a process that ultimately robs many Chicanos of a crucial part of their identity, reducing the language of a people to “foreign words, stumbling on my tongue.”

The literature of apology attempts to demolish myths and dominant codes in order to liberate women. Once the theme has been set, as in the musical fugue, additional voices enter, resonating with the initial theme as well as introducing different, sharper intervals or counter-rhythms by constructing new definitions of womanhood, and reinterpreting the history which has held women captive. Chicanas now challenged openly the virgin/whore dichotomy imposed by the male interpretation of culture, history, and language.

Sylvia Gonzales attacks the pervasive quality of patriarchal historical discourse in her poem “Chicana Evolution:”

I am Chicana
But while you developed
in the womb,
I was raped again.
I am Chicana
In a holocaust of sperm,
bitter fragments of fertilization
mankind’s victim, humankind’s burden.(4)

In language that directly associates men with genocide, “Chicana Evolution” alludes to the “original sin” — the rape of the Chicana archetypal mother, la Malinche, who is considered a traitor to Mexico in the male interpretation of history.** The poem also challenges masculine cultural imperialism and its byproduct, the Chicana legacy of betrayal. The literature of apology is filled with this kind of feminist reappropriation of historical figures which have dominated masculine discourse.

The Literature of Rage and Opposition

The literature of rage and opposition is characterized by its confident bold tone, no longer apologizing or rationalizing away women’s inequality, but rather, challenging and demanding equal rights for women. Numerous Chicanas have passionately denounced the Chicano’s use of la mujer, and even the movimiento, for his own ends. This literature reflects the rage Chicanas feel about the sexual domination and exploitation of women in the name of tradition.

Lorna Dee Cervantes decries the way RAZA rhetoric has glossed over this fact:


You cramp my style, baby
when you roll on top of me
shouting “Viva La Raza”
at the top of your prick.
You want me como un taco,
dripping grease,
or squeezing maza through my legs,
making tamales for you out of my daughters.
You “mija”
“mija” “mija” me
until I can scream
and then you tell me,
“Esa, I LOVE
this revolution!
Corne on Malinche,
gimme some more!”(5)

The Chicanas producing the literature of rage and opposition are revolutionaries who use their sharp words to confront rather than encircle issues of female exploitation. Their writings renounce and overthrow masculine domination in order to move the Chicana from subjugation to liberation. Although the Chicana has experienced economic, social, and racial oppression, the literature of rage and opposition concerns itself almost exclusively with sexual oppression.

Cherrie Moraga is a writer and social activist, whose writing falls well within the mode of rage and opposition. Her work [essays, poems and short stories] has a cutting edge, as it openly questions the role of men in Chicano culture. Her essay, “Lo Que Nunca Paso Por Sus Labios,” reads like a radical feminist manifesto, since all the radical feminist concepts are highlighted in her discourse. She writes of the institution of heterosexuality and its side effect, heterosexism. Although primarily concerned with sexuality, her work is fresh because she adds new dimensions of race and culture:

“Women of color have always known, although we have not always wanted to look at it, that our sexuality is not merely a physical response or drive, but holds a crucial relationship to our entire spiritual capacity. Patriarchal religions — whether brought to us by the colonizer’s cross and gun or emerging from our own people — have always known this. Why else would the female body be so associated with sin and disobedience? Simply put, if the spirit and sex have been linked in our oppression, then they must also be linked in the strategy toward our liberation.”(6)

Moraga’s work should be recognized as an important, provocative contribution to feminist literature in general, and specifically as an important contribution to Chicana literature, because it makes a serious attempt to free Chicanas from the phallo-centric literature of the 1960s. Her work ruptures some of the myths and taboos that up until recently have remained unchallenged and tucked away under a very intricate cultural cloak.

Cherrie Moraga’s writings place her in the front ranks of other racial writers because she writes of protest and liberation. She uses her skill with language to help bridge the gap between the literature of apology and the literature of struggle and identification.

The Literature of Struggle and Identification

The literature of struggle and identification carries forth the political implications of Marxist theory. In this mode, the writers are concerned with bringing women to the forefront. They are not preoccupied with the definition by negation of the literature of apology nor the definition by reversal of the literature of race and opposition; rather they focus on women as productive, self-sufficient, and complex human beings in their own right. Gina Valdes’ There Are No Madmen Here(7) offers a wonderful example of the kind of literature that focuses on women as resourceful’ human beings. Her story is about the life of Maria Portillo, who is introduced as a stereotypical married Mexican woman, exploited by her husband, living a life of loneliness, insecurity, and frustration in her traditional role of wife and mother.

Maria has feelings and emotions that often leave her questioning:

“She had not done what she wanted for so long that she was not sure of what she really wanted, but she knew that it was something other, better than what she had. She felt tired of thinking, of looking for work, of not finding it, of trying to figure out her husband’s moods and whereabouts, of waiting for him. At night, lying on the edge of the double bed, she often felt alone, more so than when she had been a single woman.”

Maria finds herself caught in a dilemma of either playing her traditional role, feeling lonely and unfulfilled, or pulling out, taking control of her own life, and raising her children without the help of her husband. She decides to take her life into her own hands by leaving Mexico and moving to the United States with her three daughters.

The novel makes a strong statement about the will and determination of this mother as she confronts all the frustrations of a foreign country and alien tongue. It is a story about oppression and Maria’s struggle for survival, but in a larger perspective, it is a story about the marginalization of a people.

Valdes also develops a subversive subtext that emphasizes the tension between tradition and modernity that many Third World novelists have grappled with. Maria watches as her family begins to sway between cultures. Valdes poses a riddle that focuses the issue:

“’Did you hear what she said? She’s ten years old and she can’t speak English.’ ‘Why should I speak English? I’m Mexican.’ ‘You live in the United States, you should speak English.’ ‘I don’t live here, I’m visiting.’ ‘Visiting? You’ve been visiting for three years.’ ‘At least I speak English better than you speak Spanish. What kind of Mexican are you?’ Tm not Mexican, I’m American, and so are you, we were born here.’ Maria saw her young niece running to her mother. ‘Mama! Louie says that I’m American because I was born here. Is that true?’ ‘Tell me, mihijita, if the kittens are born in the oven, are they kittens? Or are they biscuits?”

Madmen focuses on Maria as head of a household, managing her life, working so that her daughters will have a better life. In one sense, this is a success story in feminist terms, as Maria stops being a subordinate wife when she leaves her husband. But on another level, Maria’s liberation leaves a lot to be desired. As she soon discovers in the United States, she will always be subordinated because of her race, class and gender.

Maria takes a job in a sewing factory but finds it necessary to supplement her income by working in the family tequila-smuggling business. The author makes an effective commentary on the exploitation inherent in the segmented labor market in this country, as well as on the oppression brought about by organized religion. Maria has escaped one man but still hangs on tightly to Saint Anthony, Saint Jude, the Pope, and, of course, the Almighty Father.

She remains powerless, not because of her macho husband, but because of the capitalist system of production and corruption, which is directly related to the religious system that subordinates her. Both institutions trap Maria in a life of iron-dad inequality. In short, Maria’s oppression and exploitation have little to do with being married.

Gina Valdes’ novel forces women to take a look at the broader picture and to question what is at stake when considering levels of exploitation and discrimination; her novel also questions the social reproduction of organized religion within a culture.

Valdes is a powerful writer who challenges the exploitation of workers in the United States in many forms. Her poem, “Working Women,” reiterates some of the same issues that appear in Madmen:

Mi amigo, un cholo transplantado,
anda todo alocado con su Monte Carlo
amarillo con swivel bucket seats,
sun roof y quadrophonic sounds.
Me lleva low riding por El Cajon
a mirujear a las rucas on display
this working night, una con sus
tight red pants boogying on the curb,
fast gone, una gordita con su little
shirt hasta el ombligo y su fake fur,
otras dos waiting sentadas for a trick,
y el chota con sus two fast guns
acercandoseles a otras dos, y ahi into
Winchell’s Donuts entra el pimp con
sus red pants, white shirt y su
cocked felt hat, y yo no se que ando
aqui cruising so low, mirujeando
this working women’s scene, thinking
of what rucas and rucos do to pay
their rent and eat, I, a poet hustling
hot verbs, a teacher selling brainwaves
in the S.D. red light school district,
feeling only un poco mejor than these
rucas of the night, a little luckier,
just as worn, my ass grinded daily
in this big cathouse U S A, que a
todos nos USA, una puta mas in this
prostitution ring led by a heartless cowboy pimp.(8)

“Working Women” emphasizes the untenable position Chicanas find themselves in as they maneuver between two cultures: Mexican and Anglo-American. Although the negative side of this experience sometimes leads (as in Lorna Dee Cervantes’ poem “Refugee Ship”) to feelings of isolation and alienation from the Spanish language, on the more positive side of the bicultural experience lies the very real opportunity to experiment with two language systems.

Valdes’ poem beautifully illustrates how code-switching is a verbal interaction characteristic of bilingual populations in the midst of social change. But her poem moves far beyond code-switching as it demonstrates the irony and limitations of a system which either subordinates or reifies its subject population.

The Literature of New-Visions

My final category, the literature of new-vision, opens itself up to a multiplicity of voices and perspectives as it extracts elements of all other forms of Chicana literature. I call it the literature of new-vision because of its broader transformative view. Rather than limiting itself to issues related to an isolated form of oppression, it addresses a number of social problems without taking on an authoritarian tone or dictating a particular perspective.

The Chicana voices in this mode are varied, and yet speak, in relation to one another. These voices point to an array of theoretical positions. Together they hold the real possibility for social change and transformation.

Although the late Tomas Rivera divided Chicano literature into the following three stages-conversation which records and preserves deeds and people, rebellion and conflict, and invention and creation-a quick survey of Chicana literature reveals that his categories apply only to Chicano but not Chicana writings.(9)

Juan Felipe Herrera recognizes Chicana feminist literature as “the most visible and vital branch in contemporary Raza writing.” He contrasts their work with the conservative tendencies of Chicano writers, who have received recognition and whose works, consequently, have been included in college curricula. Having become very comfortable, they have “opted for the cool intellectualism typical of the North American literary voice, with hopes of accommodation by East Coast publishing centers.”(10)

Chicano writers have received recognition by shutting out the feminine interpretation of history. In this sense, their acceptance by academia becomes a vehicle for the containment of Chicana writers. Since Chicana writers are running up against the limits imposed on them by the Chicano interpretation of history, they are still writing with desire, still struggling against oppression. Theirs is a literature of passion and rebellion and they are becoming more visible through their language.

For Chicanas, writing brings power and change. Cherrie Moraga speaks of the importance of language in It’s the poverty:

I lack imagination you say
No. I lack language.
The language to clarify
my resistance to the literate.
Words are a war to me.
They threaten my family.
To gain the word
to describe the loss
I risk losing everything.
I may create a monster
the word’s length and body
swelling up colorful and thrilling
looming over my mother, characterized.
Her voice in the distance
unintelligible illiterate.
These are the monster’s words.(11)

It is very clear in the above poem just what is at stake when Chicanas speak out. Moraga unmasks the rewards as well as the penalties that come with the articulation of ideas. The poem shows the duality the oppressed must confront. This is undoubtedly a point of conflict. Paolo Freire explains how the conflict lies in

“the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting him; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices; between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world.”(12)

Cherrie Moraga’s words are of the utmost importance in this context. Like Freire, she raises questions about the pedagogy of the oppressed, but more importantly, she raises her questions by piercing through the limitations of the masculine discourse Freire aligns himself with, a discourse which equates testicles with power.

Sandra Cisneros has considered power in a different way. She writes about the relationship of writing, power, and liberation in The House on Mango Street:

“She listened to every book, every poem I read her. One day I read her one of my own. I came very close. I whispered it into the pillow:

I want to be
like the waves on the sea,
like the clouds in the wind,
but I’m me.

One day I’ll jump
out of my skin.
I’ll shake the sky
like a hundred violins.

That’s nice. That’s very good, she said in her tired voice. You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free, and I said yes, but at that time I didn’t know what she meant.”(13)

The literature of new-vision brings Chicanas full circle as it breaks through the source of our initial alienation from language. It breaks the bonds of religious and cultural oppression as it uses the word to press forward in the search for self-identification, while also providing a predominantly unrecognized form of self-representation, this kind of critical reading of the text which leads to the self-awareness necessary for transformation.

In closing, let me again stress that the four modes of Chicana literature I have outlined are not necessarily sequential. The intervals or modes of expression should be viewed as interdependent. Their correlation and movement, which are marked by a regulated succession of strong and weak elements, representing opposite or different conditions, in turn produce the whole musical score.

Some writers compose in all four categories, while others may limit themselves to one. In Lydia Camarillo’s poem, “Mi Reflejo,” it becomes clear how a single poem can include all four modes of expression.(14)

The poem begins by asking the question “Who goes there?” and responding “It is I.” This question and its response are repeated throughout the poem, and are used to evoke the spirits and stories of women -in Mexican history. Camarillo uses her poetry to reappropriate and reinscribe history in female terms, using both Spanish and English to develop a new discourse on identidad. She therefore begins with the conquest:

Conquistaste y colonizaste mi gente.
You alienated me from my people.
Me hiciste la ‘Vendida.’
Ya no te acuerdas de me?
I am Malinche.

The poem moves on to include Sor Juan Ines de la Cruz, Frida Kahlo, and la Virgen de Guadalupe in a chant-like form. As Camarillo’s poem progresses in dialectical terms, she moves through the mode of rage and opposition as she also establishes Mexican women’s history in a chronological sequence, setting the foundation for the representation of a point of view which, for the most part, has either been forgotten or suppressed. She closes her poetic/political discourse by stating that women today are reflections of the past:

Si somos espejos de cada una,
Soy Malinche,
Soy la Virgen de Guadalupe,
Soy Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz,
Soy Frida Kahlo
Soy Mujer.

Camarillo’s “Mi Reflejo” draws from all four modes of expression, though not in the sequence outlined in this essay. She reverses the final two modes, first stressing the mode of new-vision as she deduces that to be a woman is to be a combination of the historical and the present. Camarillo ends her discourse in the mode of struggle and identification, stating that as reflections of the past, women represent half of the struggle against oppression, and asserting that together with our companeros, “We are the Revolution.”

Chicana literature provides the voices, identifies the issues, and performs the rituals necessary for including Chicanas in the ongoing debate among other feminists. It bridges the gaps in thinking between masculine and feminine interpretations of history. It resembles music because it concerns itself with a combination of positions. Women’s literature in general, and Chicana literature in particular, provides one possible solution to the problem of challenge and counter-challenge between mainstream and marginal feminist theories.

*Tomas Ybarra has divided the Chicano literary process into three stages: a) genesis, b) subversion, and c) regeneration. (In a paper delivered at the National Association of Chicano Studies Meeting, Sacramento, 1985). The four modes I have delineated differ from Ybarra’s because they do not represent a linear/historical reading of the literary text. Ybarra’s final stage does, however, include what he calls the evolution of Chicana feminist thought based on the politics of language and colonization. Only in the late 1970s and early 1980s did women’s views begin to appear en masse in the literature on the politics of language and colonization.

**Traditional Mexican history normally introduces the story of la Malinche (or Dona Marina, as the Spanish baptized her) in either of three ways: 1) because she served as Cortez’s translator she is seen as a backdrop to his triumphant conquest over the Aztec empire; 2) she is singled out as the sole cause of the fall; 3) she is seen as the misguided and exploited victim of a tragic love affair with Cortez.


  1. Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Revision,” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, New York: Norton, 1979.
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  2. Sidney Finkelstein, How Music Expresses Ideas, New York: International Publishers, 1970.
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  3. Lorna Dee Cervantes, “Refugee Ship,” Emplumada, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.
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  4. Sylvia Gonzales, “Chicana Evolution,” in The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the U.S., Dexter Fisher, editor, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
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  5. Loma Dee Cervantes, “You Cramp My Style, Baby,” El Fuego de Aztlan, Summer 1977.
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  6. Cherrie Moraga, “Lo Que Nunca Paso Por Sus Labios,” Loving In The War Years, Boston: South End Press, 1983.
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  7. Gina Valdes, There Are No Madmen Here, Colorado Springs: Maize Press, 1982.
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  8. Gina Valdes, “Working Women,” Comiendo do Lumbre, Colorado Springs: Maize Press, 1986.
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  9. For further analyses of Chicano literature, see Modem Chicano Writers, edited by Joseph Sommers & Tomas Ybarra-Farusto, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1979.
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  10. Juan Felipe Herrera, “Califas Movimiento,” Poetry Flash, March 1984.
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  11. Moraga, Ibid.
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  12. Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum Press, 1984.
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  13. Sandra Cisneros, “Born Bad,” The House on Mango Street, Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1984.
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  14. Lydia Camarillo, “Mi Reflejo,” La Palabre, Post-Litho Press, 1980.
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March-April 1987, ATC 8

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