"'The world is full of sorrow,' Agapita whispered to Alfonso.
Did she stamp those words into his destiny?
The story of Alfonso, a Nuevo Mexicano, begins with his birth, when the curandera Agapita delivers these haunting words into his infant ear. What then unfolds is an elegiac song to the llanos of New Mexico where Alfonso comes of age. As this exquisite novel charts Alfonso’s life journey from childhood through his education and evolution as a writer, renowned Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya invites readers to reflect on the truths and mysteries of the human condition.
Because Alfonso 'didn’t write his own biography,' it falls to his childhood friend, the anonymous narrator here, to tell his story, through a series of letters addressed to a mysterious figure named K. The narrator depicts young Alfonso caught between dual influences: his beloved, devout Catholic mother, Rafaelita, and the folk healer Agapita. After suffering a terrible accident that leaves him physically handicapped, Alfonso faces intellectual crises during his university years, all of which move him down the path of his destiny.
In describing these events, the 'old man' writing the letters interweaves Alfonso’s experiences with fragments of his own life and of the New Mexican llano that both men have called home. The trajectory of Alfonso’s life in turn mirrors the history of New Mexico and the turbulent beginnings of the Chicano movement in which the young protagonist plays a trailblazing role.
As story builds upon story, the commonality of traits among the narrator, his subject, and perhaps Anaya himself appears more than coincidental. Permeated by Anaya’s trademark religious and mythological imagery, The Sorrows of Young Alfonso is a luminous meditation on memory, reality, and the human experience."
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A White Man’s Fantasies:
Orientalism in Rudolfo Anaya's A Chicano in China
By Jeffrey Cass, Ph.D.
Texas A&M International University
[This article first appeared in Crítica: A Journal of Critical Essays Spring 1998 Issue]
She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul. (76)
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
China is a jealous woman. She has not let me go since I arrived. She holds me and makes love to me over and over again until I am exhausted. She has become my mistress: I, her slave. I understand now why, throughout history, foreigners have been drawn to China. (79)
Rudolfo Anaya, A Chicano in China
Although the first passage reflects Conrad's ambiguous experiences in the Belgian Congo of the 1880s and the second passage recalls Anaya's naïvely enthusiastic romp through Deng Xiao Ping's China of the 1980s, both construct gendered narratives that essentialize and reify an alien “Other.” Conrad's harshest critic, Chinua Achebe argues that while Conrad may criticize the European colonization of Africa, his ersatz “liberalism” only mirrors the colonialism from which he seeks to detach himself. Conrad's description of Kurtz's African woman-warrior only confirms what Achebe has labeled as Conrad's “thoroughgoing racism” (11). She is “superb,” “barbaric,” “magnificent.” Embodying the tragedy and triumph, the beauty and the danger of African fecundity, Conrad's imagined figure of an African woman-warrior recapitulates the very imperialism that he allegedly detests. In his essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness,” Achebe writes, “Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its tooth” (19). Edward Said reiterates Achebe's argument in Culture and Imperialism: “Conrad's tragic limitation is that even though he could see clearly that on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that imperialism had to end so that 'natives' could lead lives free from European domination” (30).1
Achebe's critique manifests an acute awareness of his own subject positions relative to the Anglo literary culture that has attempted to circumscribe and colonize him. Achebe discerns how Conrad has subsumed his skin color into the tangle of African cannibals who menace from the shores, even as his British education and training bind him to a “white English subject position.” By contrast, Anaya is blithely unaware of how thoroughly he has embraced his colonialist and Orientalist fantasies: For Anaya, China is his athletic sex pot, exhausting his sexual energies and, by extension, his imaginative ones. Lacking Achebe's self-reflexivity, Anaya not only fails to discern the specificities that undergird Chinese culture, he never sees them in the first place, precisely the imaginative condition Said describes in Orientalism. Although at times gushing in his praise of and exuberance for Chinese culture, Anaya unwittingly becomes the white man. For it is the intensity of Orientalist fantasies that ironically reinforce the inequalities that have persistently governed the discourse between the colonizer and the colonized.
What is profoundly disturbing about Anaya's Orientalism are his claims to a colonized subject position and his insistence that Chicanos simply do not have the necessary imaginative space in Anglo-American culture to do their work. Of course, Chicano scholars and activists have long taken this critical line. Bruce-Novoa argues in the opening sentence of “Charting the Space of Chicano Literature” that “Chicano literature is an ordering response to the chaos which threatens to devastate the descendants of Mexicans who now reside in the U.S.A.” (114). Gloria Anzaldua's description of this chaos is even more riveting: “ ‘The U.S-Mexican border is una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (3). Implicit in both Bruce-Novoa's and Anzaldua's claims is the agonizing assertion of cultural difference, the “open wound” of a cultural war that can never heal because the dominant culture seeks to extirpate or colonize the subdominant strains within it. In Anzaldua's view, the colonizing grip of Anglo-American culture strangles competing subcultures even as they emerge because these cultural competitors are either eliminated or, even more likely, co-opted. To survive, as Bruce-Novoa suggests, Chicano literature must chart an imaginative course that permits its Mexican-American readers to negotiate between the cultural space they physically inhabit and the imaginative spaces that they need and desire.
The political and aesthetic ideologies that erupt from the search by Chicanos for their own imaginative spheres, however, do not necessarily immunize them from becoming the very colonizers they abhor. In an essay published three years after A Chicano in China, Anaya appears to continue his push for the space in which Chicanos may negotiate their identities, yet he ironically outlines a '”totalizing'” form of that identity, one undergirded by both the Spanish “aggressive, conquest-oriented part” of itself and the Native American side of its nature that remains “harmonious” and “earth-oriented” (21). Chicano identity as “New World Man” remains conventionally yet irrevocably “oriented” between Spanish aggression and Native American passivity, between the colonizer and the colonized. Anaya's “orientation” even genders the creation of a “New World Man.” The Spanish father, the paternal seed that provides language and writing, copulates with the Indian mothers of Mexico and the Southwest, the maternal “substratum” of Anaya's work (21). It is the mother who '”reveals the symbols and mythology of the New World” (21). By his own admission, Anaya has grounded his writing in a state of perpetual colonization; the Spanish father aggressively copulates with the Native-American mother. For Anaya, this is how his writing is rendered as intelligible and symbolically meaningful.
In Bless Me, Última, Anaya foreshadows the colonialist duality of A Chicano in China by reifying the familial differences between the Lunas and the Marez. In effect, they become the imaginative incarnations of Antonio's· consciousness, a boy's consciousness that seeks to explore and explain itself and its origins through myth (the Golden Carp) and white magic (Última's owl/familiar). Already tom by the colonizing restlessness of his father's blood, Antonio's soul can only be brought into balance by Última's healing ministrations. It is her curanderismo that appears as the deconstructive supplement of Christian spirituality, overturning the vacuity of Christian ritual with the rich weavings and castings of her brujería. She represents, as Anaya continually insists, the power of the forgotten mother. But even as the 'mother' (in the character of Última) resurfaces, haunting the New Mexican llano and reminding us of her restorative force, she still sacrifices herself in the face of the 'father's' violence. The long velorio for Última at the end of the novel attests to the inevitable spread of the father's colonizing religion and, with Última dead, the continued marginalization and displacement of the mother's indigenous religious beliefs.
In writings subsequent to Bless Me, Última, Anaya manifests his previously submerged colonialist ambitions. Far from committing himself to an ideology that struggles against the historical accidents of colonization, Anaya later demythologizes Chicano identity, a recuperative process that he initially describes in Bless Me. Última as being singularly mythological. Because the father's language ultimately cannot be understood without the mother's symbolic logics, Anaya has unwittingly become complicit in a colonialist paradigm, guaranteeing the perpetual rape of the Native-American mother. In this context, Antonio's realization that '”[T]here is also the dark, mystical past ... the past of the people who lived here and left their traces in the magic that crops out today" (220) becomes a poignant reminder that the historical “traces” of colonization do not lie safely in the dark, unrecoverable past; rather, they continue to emerge from the subterranean blackness of personal and national history, spreading out and infecting everyday life.
Unlike Bless Me, Última, A Chicano in China openly recapitulates Anaya's incipient colonialism. Anaya's appropriations of Chinese culture merely confirm his ambitions.
I had a friend in the Taos Pueblo, the commune of the Taos Indians. Cruz, an old man who taught me to hunt. Cruz, old man of the Pueblo, governor, cadre, hunter, farmer, communal man, man of power ... He was a dragon man ... Those thousands of years separated from the Orient, separated from Asia, thousands of years since the migration from Asia and he still carried the supreme sense of the dragon in his soul ... So now I have Cruz and my grandfather to guide me through China. I have the dragon coiled in my body. I feel I am a new man. A Chicano Chinaman. (emphasis mine, 47)
In this passage, Anaya unintentionally supplants Aztlán, the mythical birthplace of the Aztecs and emblem of both Chicano origins and identity, with the aboriginal Orient. Crossing the Bering Strait twenty thousand years ago, Anaya's aboriginal Chicanos actually provide the genetic material for the “New World Man,” permitting the “New World Man” to be decoded, reconfigured, and redeployed when he eventually returns to China, his ‘actual’ (and not mythical) birthplace. Anaya's outrageous conflation of the Chinese Too with Cruz (“dragon man”) and the Taos Indians reduces the complexity of Chicanismo's social, cultural, and political character to dormant Asian genes. Therefore, while the “Chicano Chinaman” may appear, from Anaya's perspective, to be merely another iteration of the Mexican-American's cultural hybridity, it actually transforms Chicano history into a rhetoric of eugenics. La raza has literally become a “race”—a race in diaspora. Anaya writes, “China sent part of her memory to the Americas and memory may sleep for thousands of years, but it will awaken” (152). Once Chicanos “awaken” from their diaspora, they will reclaim their ‘Oriental’ heritage and recolonize their lost homelands, armed with knowledge that has lain biologically submerged for generations.
But if Anaya looks to the aboriginal past for the seeds of “dragon power,” he looks to a utopian future for its fullest expression. For Anaya, "Chicanitos" of the future "will dream of Chinese umbrellas and Chinese chocolates. Dragons will flutter in the blue sky of New Mexico. Mao jackets will appear. [Anaya's] paisanos will dream in Chinese characters" (15). That future Chicanitos cannot read these Chinese characters does not unduly disturb Anaya because they will viscerally comprehend the meanings even if they cannot articulate the literal significations. Anaya concedes that “language is a code” and that he has '”not been able to enter the Chinese reality” since he does not speak Chinese (138). Still, he feels that because he has incessantly heard the Chinese language, “the sound of China is sucking [him] into its soul, into its language” (138). Armed with the symbolic logics of the Southwestern mother, Anaya believes he can interpret a language he does not consciously know. At one point in the narrative, Anaya, reading the China Daily, drinks a beer and discovers the linguistic coincidence between Tsingtao, the name of the beer, and Chingao, the Spanish oath. He muses that a Southwestern beer named Tsingtao “would become more popular than Coors. Instead of going up to the bar and saying, ‘Dame un Bud,’ one would say, ‘Dame un Chingaso !’” (141). Anaya concludes happily: “Tsingtao beer: Chingao ! I feel connected” (141).
Nevertheless Anaya's "connectedness" depends upon Orientalizing the Chinese dragon and appropriating its physical properties in order to assert an imagined scene for a revitalized and repoliticized Chicanismo. Having settled its body “along [his] spine and heart and liver and stomach” (45), Anaya parasitically feeds off his newly-acquired “dragon power.” He proclaims:
We will send our Chicano dharma bums to the mountains of Tibet to study with the Buddhist priests even as we send them to unravel the secrets of the Aztecs and the Mayans. We will grow with dragon power. We will grow in the spirit of the Buddha. In the holsters at our hips, we carry Mao and Pancho Villa, in our hearts we carry Buddha and Quetzalcóatl. (49)
As Achebe and Said might have predicted, Anaya's pseudo·Kerouackian call to “dharma bum” arms erases the very cultural differences that attract Anaya to Chinese culture in the first place. Anaya all too easily incorporates “dragon power” into his genetic version of Chicano identity, conveniently glossing over other, less palatable parts of Chinese history. Carrying “Buddha in [his] heart,” Anaya seems to have forgotten, for example, the brutal colonization of Tibet by China even though the Tibetan Buddhists have been historically committed to peaceful protest. And while Anaya does suggest that Mexico's ‘dragon’ Quetzalcoatl may be an “aspect of the Buddha” (48), it is hard to reconcile the Cultural Revolution of Moo, the border banditry of Pancho Villa, and the blood sacrifices of the Aztecs and the Mayans with Prince Siddhartha's vision of universal peace. It is even harder to accept Anaya's incorporation of Buddha into Southwestern mythology. By writing that “[T]he Buddha is another Kachina we welcome into the pueblo,” he Orientalizes a religious icon in order to reterritorialize the imaginative space of Chicano writing. Just as Buddha “told the story of enlightenment and it spread to millions throughout Asia” (162), Anaya intends his Buddha-Kachina to enlighten the benighted Southwest. Anaya has become more than just a benign if excitable “Chicano Chinaman”; indeed, he has immersed himself in the very colonizing practices that he wishes to foreclose.
Not unlike the gendered alterity of his visions in Bless Me, Última. Anaya's imperialist fantasies in A Chicano in China repeatedly return to the figure of the woman, sometimes ravishing dominatrix, sometimes sly and slippery lover. A Chicano Andrew Marvell, Anaya exclaims that his “cruel mistress is not coy. She is direct, strong, a woman of the past that has not changed in hundreds of years. I revel in her love, her mystery” (83). China manipulates, controls her lover's psychic and spiritual dimensions. And Anaya reifies this imaginative lovemaking with the image of the dragon, frequently a male-marked dragon that must frequently grapple with China, his mysterious mistress. Anaya transforms the dragon into a colonialist metaphor par excellence, one in which the colonizer copulates with the colonized in reckless abandon. This tumultuous yet imperialist union has the effect of freezing history, of arresting social and cultural development. China cannot change socially, politically, or culturally because “she” orgasmically incarnates Anaya's imperialist designs. Not surprisingly, he dreams of dragon virility entering his body:
The dragon settles itself in me, its eyes breathing fire through my eyes, its breath the life in my lungs, its serpentine body settled along my spine and heart and liver and stomach. Each dragon scale touching and resting at one of the body's acupuncture points ... The dragon sex now goes into my balls and penis" (46).
Interestingly, however, in some passages the image reverses trajectory: the Chinese dragon changes sex and becomes a powerful woman. In a proximate passage to the one cited above, Anaya writes: “I need this time of being alone and still to feel the thrashing dragon. China is entering me. I am absorbing China ... (45). Anaya intimates that China, consistently described, as a woman throughout his narrative, is now the “thrashing dragon” that ‘enters” him, ravishes him. In another passage, Anaya exclaims, “China is a jealous woman-in-the-blood: a dragon, which once experienced will never let go” (79). Anaya also asks whether or not the “she-dragon” embodies the Jungian archetype of the “feminine principle” (100). Finally, he even wonders about his wife Patricia—“Has this woman beside me become a dragon-woman!” (192).
In a later passage, an encomium on the Yangtze River, Anaya again makes China the figure of a woman: “The river and the life of the river embrace me. I have found the soul of China. I enter the blood of China and, like a woman who knows she has conquered a man, China spreads her arms and thighs ... she allows me to enter into her bloodstream, her water, her history” (123). Swimming in the amniotic waters of the Yangzte, Anaya inverts the colonialist paradigm by imagining himself to be conquered by the woman China. In actuality, however, this temporary inversion still drives Anaya's colonizing ambitions since Anaya's submission to “China” permits the cultural appropriations that doom her separateness, the very independence for which Chicanos clamor in their attempts to forge a separate imaginative space.
In the introduction to A Chicano in China, Anaya informs the reader that he is a pilgrim making his way to China, “a traveler in search of symbols that speak the language of [his] soul” (vi). But he undercuts his proclaimed humility (“Communication, that's part of the key to the journey of a humble pilgrim” and “I was a humble pilgrim who went to communicate, to commune...”) by Orientalizing Chinese language and culture. His search for symbolic resonances leads not to respect for Chinese cultural difference, but to its assimilation within a fundamentally masculinist Chicano political ideology and discourse. He concludes early on in the narrative, “East is West—the two are one” (5). By collapsing the disparities between East and West, Anaya can now enlist the aid of the Chinese in Chicano political causes. Arriving at the Beijing airport, Anaya exclaims “¡EI Tercer Mundo! He llegado, con una canci6n en mi corazón. Peking, land of my grandfather's dreams. I rush to embrace the Chinese Brown brothers, Raza! Can you imagine a billion new souls for La Raza? We could role the world” (17).
The intoxicating rush of enlisting a billion new citizens for a new Chicano utopia blinds Anaya to the colonialism within his idealistic fantasies. In his essay “AztIán: A Homeland Without Borders,” Anaya boldly advocates a new world order that obliterates the very existence of a Chicano identity: “The children of Aztlán are citizens of the world. We must move beyond the limitations of ethnicity to create a world without borders” (241). Eliminating borders, transcending ethnicities, and unifying disparate ideologies have always been the stock-in-trade of those who embrace colonizing principles, but colonizers have normally achieved their goals by extinguishing cultural difference, particularly when the colonized resist their efforts. Moreover, as one reviewer of Anaya's essay has cannily argued, events in the 1990s have demonstrated the necessity of reasserting, not eliminating, ethnicity:
The re-balkanization of Eastern Europe, the violent dismembering of what the press now calls the 'former Yugoslavia,' the civil wars of Africa, the Los Angeles riots, identity politics, and the backlash against women, gays, and people of color in this country, and the English-only legislation--all point to a future where ethnicity, boundaries, and distinctions may well matter more than ever before. (Nigro 4)
In the context of the 1990s, therefore, Anaya's “world without borders” becomes what Said calls a “dominating framework” (Orientalism 40). And this “framework” insidiously assumes, as Fawzia Afzal-Khan suggests, that the “Orient” (in this case Anaya's China) “[is], if not definitely inferior to, then certainly in need of improvement by the West" (3). Although Anaya assumes the subject position of a citizen of the Tercer Mundo who automatically feels the pain and neglect of fellow Third World occupants, his insistence on the concept of Action only reinscribes the very political and cultural boundary conditions from which he seeks to escape. In her review of Anaya and Lomeli's Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland, Nigro writes that for many Chicanos, " 'Aztlán' has now been replaced with ‘Nepantla,'’the land ‘in-between,’ where signs are not so stable, where meaning is deferred, but which is all the richer because it is more problematic, less easy to be sure of' (4). Nigro's remarks can be taken as postmodernist glosses of Anaya's search for a chain of stable significations. His fundamental desire to crack the mysteries of China and his orientalist assimilations of China within a Saidian “framework” demonstrate his desire to control and fix the reach of Chicanismo's efforts.
Not content with a fantasy China, Anaya extends his Orientalism to the Japanese, reasserting the father/mother dichotomy that has so often structured his work:
What a difference one sees immediately between these two neighbors, Japan and China. China is the sprawling rough-and-ready mother of a billion people-Japan, the strict orderly father of these wizards of high technology and business (186)
Anaya admits that this division may be an “oversimplification,” but he continues the thread in asserting that the real difference between the two countries is “wealth.” Japan is rich; China is poor. This is a very interesting distinction to make because the purveyors of Western capital (For Anaya, both Japan and America are “on the make,” 178) can diffuse their wealth throughout an indigent China. The “strict orderly father of high technology and business” domesticates the “rough-and-ready” mother of a billion people, people waiting to serve the territorial ambitions of the imperializing father. Disturbingly, Anaya neglects a countermovement in Japanese culture that resists the Westernization of Japan and its capitalist encroachments. The writer Yukio Mishima commits seppuku to publicize precisely this point, a samurai suicide that shockingly calls into question the glossy renderings of a “Chicano Chinaman.” 2
Unreflexive, Anaya does not see how his criticism of Western imperialism and domination cuts its teeth (to use Achebe's phrase) on the very racism he ostensibly rejects. Ironically, he adopts a subject position that allows him to establish his own imaginative space; however, it is a space that enfolds and incorporates the same Orientalist fantasies that one finds in the works of Conrad, fantasies roundly criticized by Achebe and Said. Anaya's Chicanismo enshrines, therefore, a colonialist paradigm. Even Jose David Saldívar, who wisely argues for a new cultural and critical “cosmopolitanism” that does not diminish the “Americas” into “some homogeneous Other of the West” (4), still envisions “exploiting the possibility of canon expansion” (xii), of remapping the Borderlands and reconfiguring what was once only Anglocentric territory. Unavoidably perhaps, the unacknowledged danger in Saldívar's dream of postcolonial repositioning lies in the insidious reassertion of colonialist ambition, ambition that literally and figuratively reterritorializes Anglocentric space for Chicanos (and other Latinos). Likewise, Anaya envisions a New World Man whose world view is both “syncretic” and “encompassing” (“New World” 26). Anaya's trip home from China to Albuquerque amply illustrates this neo-colonial ambition, the expansiveness of the New World Man. Arriving at the San Francisco airport, Anaya marvels at imagined immigrant Asians who, he believes, “will [now] call the United States their home” (191). He writes; “They are small, brown people from the jungles of Thailand or from the villages of Vietnam. How complete is everything if one only learns to expect the unexpected China in the blood-we return home” (191). Apparently because all Asians (except the Japanese who have betrayed the ‘Orient’ by “accept[ing] the West and its moneymaking ways” 186) have chosen to make America their “home,” they can uncover “the unexpected China in the blood.” Their “blood” assimilated into their new homeland, their genes reunited with, if controlled by, their “Chicano Chinese” relatives, these immigrant ‘Orientals’ can now be fully managed, contained, and employed. In short, they have been conscripted into the service of Anaya's new world order. In one passage, Anaya pointedly addresses Chicanos, succinctly formulating his Orientalist strategies. In a Machiavellian mode, Anaya advises: “Let us learn to adapt, Raza, take in, use, assimilate what we need...” (75).
At narrative's end, Anaya recounts a dream he has had in China of “building a wall to protect the front part of [his] house” (201). The contractor erects a wall that is “tiered, like a pyramid” (201). Pleased that visitors describe it as Aztec, Mayan, and Egyptian, Anaya writes that all these labels “fit” his intentions. The Great Wall of China, the “pathway to Aztlán,” becomes the aboriginal and prelinguistic monument to Chicano hegemony ('”The Great Wall calls. I am falling through my time in history to complete my destiny” 45). Anaya's private “Great Wall” safeguards his house by homogenizing all cultural difference—Aztecs, Mayans, Egyptians, Chinese are all housed and enclosed within Anaya's domain. Furthermore, Anaya's wall diminishes the cultural Other into a more manageable form. Writing that he “will Dot be afraid to walk in the land of the billion Chinese people, to share [his] love with them, and to take their love” (202), Anaya may sincerely wish to connect spiritually with the Chinese, but he does so only from a subject position that fantasizes control over the newly emergent Oriental Chicano.
1 I would like to thank Rosaura Sanchez and Norma Cantú for their insight and commentary on earlier versions of this essay. I would also like to thank Dion Dennis who assisted me (as he always does) with the organization and expression of my ideas.
2 Jack Seward writes in his book Hara-Kiri: Japanese Ritual Suicide (Charles E. Tuttle 1968) that modern seppuku dates from the Meiji Restoration and represents the "pure pursuit of honor" (95). The pursuit of honor becomes the source of vital emotion for the samurai class. Seppuku , therefore, becomes the "spur for religious sentiment and to moral aspirations" (95). These were precisely the reasons behind Mishima's ritual suicide in 1970. He believed Japan had abdicated its martial honor to Western interests. See Mishima by John Nathan (Little, Brown, and Co., 1974).
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