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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands

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Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa tells us that the border is “una herida abierta [an open wound] where the lifeblood of two worlds is merging to form a third country — a border culture.” This program explores the literature of the Chicano borderlands and its beginnings in the literature of Spanish colonization.

Instructor Overview

After the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked and stranded in the present-day southwestern United States, he spent years living among Native American groups while seeking out his own countrymen. When he finally encountered a group of Spaniards, he was surprised to realize that they did not seem to recognize him as European: “They were dumbfounded at the sight of me, strangely undressed and in company with Indians. They just stood staring for a long time, not thinking to hail me or come closer.” At the same time, he found that his Indian companions refused to believe that he was of the same race as the “Christian slavers,” or Spanish colonists, whom they associated with exploitation, cruelty, and enslavement. Somehow, in the process of living among the Indians and mixing their culture with his own European customs, Cabeza de Vaca had created a hybrid identity for himself that was neither wholly Indian nor wholly European. His unique experience was a product of the complex culture of the “contact zone,” which scholar Mary Louise Pratt has characterized as an “interactive” and “improvisational” space where groups geographically and historically separated from one another come into contact and establish relationships. As Cabeza de Vaca’s experience makes clear, contact and conquest were not one-way experiences in which Europeans simply imposed their will on passive Native Americans. Instead, contact is always characterized by intersecting practices and perspectives, even if power relations are often unequal. As diverse groups of Europeans explored, settled, and exploited the New World of North and South America in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, they came into contact with diverse groups of Native Americans, creating contact zones from present-day Canada to the Caribbean. The dynamic, fluid cultures that arose out of the contact zones were marked by antagonism and violence as competing groups struggled for power. These contact zones could, however, also give rise to vibrant new traditions forged out of cooperation and innovation.

Unit 2, “Exploring Borderlands: Contact and Conflict in North America,” examines the contact zones and colonial experiences of European explorers and the Native Americans they encountered. The unit also pays special attention to the way the contact zone between present-day Mexico and the southwestern United States evolved into a hybrid border region that continues to be influenced by the legacies of the different groups who first struggled there for dominance in the sixteenth century. After hundreds of years of war, intermarriage, trade, slavery, and religious struggles, a complex, syncretic culture has flourished in the space that marks the current U.S./Mexico border. As conquerors and conquered merged, a new mestizo identity (a blending of Indian, European, and African heritage) was created and continues to find expression in the work of contemporary Chicano and Chicana writers of the “borderland” region. Unit 2 explores a wide variety of contact and border experiences, including narratives by Christopher Columbus, Bartolomé de las Casas, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Garcilaso de la Vega, Samuel de Champlain, John Smith, Adriaen Van der Donck, Americo Paredes, and Gloria Anzaldúa. The unit provides contextual background and classroom materials designed to explore the multiple and diverse ways these writers represented encounters between cultures in contact zones and borderlands.

The video for Unit 2 focuses on four writers who challenge the geographical, cultural, political, and racial boundaries in the U.S./Mexico border region: Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca wrote as Spanish footsoldiers who witnessed the brutal tactics of conquest and subjugation visited upon Native Americans. Writing centuries later, Americo Paredes and Gloria Anzaldúa protest the continued oppression and marginalization of people of mestizo ancestry in the United States. Their work also explores the dynamic, inclusive potential of the hybrid culture of the border region. All of these writers articulate the tensions inherent in power relations in border regions, as well as the possibility for the formation of new identities in these interactive spaces.

In its coverage of these writers and their texts, the video introduces students to the complexity of the concept of the “border” and of cultural and racial boundaries more generally. How do the texts in Unit 2 represent the violence and exploitation that were part of the European exploration of the New World? What kinds of beliefs and expectations did European colonizers bring with them to the Americas? How did the sophisticated and varied cultures of native peoples impact the settlements Europeans created in America? How do European writers represent the experiences and cultures of indigenous peoples? How does gender complicate power relations in contact zones and borderlands? How has mestizo identity transformed over time? Unit 2 helps answer these questions by offering suggestions on how to connect these writers to their cultural contexts, to other units in the series, and to other key writers of the era. The curriculum materials help fill in the video’s introduction to contact zones and borderlands by exploring the works of writers who articulated other, diverse experiences, such as Samuel de Champlain (who wrote as a French colonist in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Canada), Adriaen Van der Donck (who described the Dutch colonial experience in New Netherland), and Garcilaso de la Vega (who drew on his mixed European and Incan heritage to write histories of Indian/Spanish interactions).

The video, the archive, and the curriculum materials situate Unit 2’s writers within several of the historical contexts that shaped (and continue to shape) their texts: (1) the formation of the U.S./Mexican border and the impact of “borderlands” and boundaries on American culture; (2) Native American modes of writing and representing history, including contact histories; (3) traditional archetypes of Mexican and Mexican American femininity; (4) the discourse of “wonder” in contact narratives; and (5) metaphors of romance and eroticism that are common to conquest narratives.

The archive and curriculum materials suggest how the writers and texts featured in Unit 2 relate to those covered in other American Passages units: How does mestizo/a culture challenge dominant contemporary ideas about the origin of America and American identity? How did the history writing and historias of contact experiences shape subsequent American texts? How have concepts of Native American and Chicana femininity evolved over time? How have “borderlands” shaped American culture and politics? How do concepts of writing and literacy differ among cultures? How has transculturation shaped the American experience?

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. explain the commercial, political, and religious structures and goals that underwrote European colonial ventures in the New World;
  2. discuss the effects European colonization had on Native American populations in North and South America;
  3. describe the differences among the Spanish, English, French, and Dutch models of colonization;
  4. discuss the formation of mestizo/a identity and its development in America since the sixteenth century;
  5. identify primary differences among Native American cultures in Mesoamerica, Florida, Virginia, and New France and describe the hallmarks of their pre-Conquest literary traditions.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Americo Paredes, Gloria Anzaldúa

Who’s Interviewed:
Gloria Anzaldúa, author; Juan Bruce-Novoa, professor of Spanish and Portuguese (University of California, Irvine); Maria Herrera-Sobek, professor of Chicana studies (University of California, Santa Barbara); Sonia Saldívar-Hull, professor of English (University of Texas, San Antonio); Elliot Young, assistant professor of English (Lewis and Clark College)

Points Covered:
• The U.S./Mexico border region is an area with a long and complex history of challenging racial, political, cultural, and geographical boundaries. Contemporary Chicano/a literature and culture arise out of a literary history that begins with the narratives of Spanish exploration. Spaniards Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca were eyewitnesses to the vibrant pre-Conquest indigenous cultures that existed in the area, as well as to the brutal realities of the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest that devastated it. These writers helped begin a uniquely Latino and American literary tradition. After centuries of cultural and racial integration, twentieth-century critics and creative writers Americo Paredes and Gloria Anzaldúa have re-examined the history of the borderlands from the perspective of the mestizo/a.

• Bernal Díaz del Castillo served as a footsoldier in Hernán Cortés’s campaign to conquer Mexico between 1519 and 1521. Many years later, he wrote about his unique perspective on the Conquest in his True History of the Conquest of New Spain. His narrative was one of the first accounts of Doña Marina, or La Malinche, the native woman who served as Cortés’s translator, negotiator, and mistress. Doña Marina is a conflicted and contradictory figure within the tradition of Chicano/a literature: some see her as a traitor who sold out her own people to the Spanish, while others argue that she is better understood as an effective mediator between cultures.

• Cabeza de Vaca sailed to the New World in 1527 as part of a Spanish expedition to Florida. After being shipwrecked, he wandered for nine years among the Indians of the present-day U.S. Southwest before finding his way back to a Spanish settlement. In the process he became acculturated to Native American practices and learned Native American languages, thus becoming the first cultural mestizo in the region.

• Three hundred years after Cabeza de Vaca, Americo Paredes committed himself to studying and celebrating the legacy of mestizo culture in the border region. He collected and recorded the Chicano musical tradition of the corridos, subversive songs that narrate the struggles of Mexican heroes against Anglo oppression. His novel, George Washington Gomez, tells the story of a Chicano coming of age in the borderlands.

• Gloria Anzaldúa built on Paredes’s legacy of Chicano activism to empower Chicana and mestiza women. Her 1987 book, Borderlands/La Frontera, gives voice to women of mixed identity and challenges traditional racial, cultural, linguistic, and gender boundaries. She has been part of the movement to recuperate and redefine Doña Marina as a heroine and inspiration to Chicanas.

• Preview the video: Home to pre-Conquest indigenous peoples, European conquistadors, and mestizosof mixed racial and cultural background, the U.S./Mexico border region has long been a site of contact, conflict, and new beginnings. It is a place where geographical, cultural, political, and racial boundaries are challenged and restructured. Contemporary Chicano literature and culture arises out of a literary history that begins with the narratives of Spanish exploration. In the sixteenth century, Bernal Díaz del Castillo served as a footsoldier in the army of conquistadors that devastated the Aztec Empire in central Mexico. Much later, as an old man, he wrote about his experiences and offered insights into the Conquest from the perspective of a humble soldier. His narrative provides one of the earliest accounts of the controversial figure of Doña Marina, or La Malinche, the native woman who served as Cortés’s mistress, interpreter, and negotiator. Doña Marina became a key symbol in the oral and literary traditions of later generations of Chicanos. Another Spanish soldier of the sixteenth century, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, had a very different experience in the New World. Sailing to the Americas in 1527 as part of a Spanish expedition to Florida, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Texas. During his nine years in the border region, Cabeza de Vaca evolved into what some critics have called “the first cultural mestizo” and hence the first writer of Chicano literature. By learning the languages and becoming familiar with the culture of the many Native American tribes among which he moved, he constructed a mixed identity for himself. Centuries later, that mixed identity has become common in the border region. By the late twentieth century, people of mixed Spanish/Anglo/Indian/African blood who lived in this region began protesting the extent to which their culture had been marginalized by dominant Anglo society. Americo Paredes contributed to this movement by collecting and recording the musical border ballad tradition of the corridos, subversive songs about Chicano heroes who resist Anglo oppression. Building on Paredes’s legacy, contemporary writer Gloria Anzaldúa explores the positive, inclusive possibilities that a mixed background offers to mestizos and mestizas. Protesting oppression based on race, class, and gender, she has given a voice to mestiza women inhabiting the borderlands and redefined the role of women as envisioned by Bernal Díaz del Castillo and other earlier writers.

• What to think about while watching: How has the southwestern border region changed over time? What political and social issues have shaped the literature of the borderlands? What is the relationship between the conquerors and conquered? How do these writers articulate an ideal of a mixed and inclusive identity? How does the Chicano notion of “historia” complicate traditional Anglo ideas about the distinction between history and fiction? What traditional stereotypes have been applied to mestiza women? How have women restructured and redefined the identities open to them in the borderlands?

• Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 2 expands on the issues discussed in the video to further explore the complex contact and conflict between different groups in different geographical border regions and contact zones. The curriculum materials offer background on Spanish, French, Dutch, and English writers and texts not featured in the video. The unit offers contextual background to expand on the video’s introduction to the political issues, historical events, and literary styles that shaped the literature created in the borderlands.

Suggested Author Pairings

Christopher Columbus and John Smith
Both Columbus and Smith wrote not only in order to promote colonization of the New World but also to celebrate their own accomplishments and solidify their position as leaders and even legends. While they had extremely different ideas about the kinds of labor and commodity extraction that should characterize their respective colonies, they had many personal qualities in common. Domineering and stubborn men, they were both controversial and sometimes decidedly unpopular figures within the colonies that they helped to found. At the close of their careers, both were frustrated by what they perceived as the lack of appreciation, respect, and financial compensation they had received from the monarchies and companies that had supported their expeditions. It might be useful to compare the defensive, frustrated tone of their later writings, and to explore the reasons why, despite their disappointments, neither ever completely gave up on the potential of the New World. Significantly, both have been presented in subsequent literature, art, and popular culture as archetypal American men who exemplify a particular kind of American heroism and masculinity.

Bartolomé de la Casas and Bernal Díaz
Casas and Díaz both wrote narratives designed to serve as revisionist histories to other conquistadors’ accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. Both narratives offer horrifying descriptions of the brutality and violence that characterized the Spanish Conquest, but to different ends. While Casas intended his descriptions to serve as protests and to incite reform, Bernal Díaz seems matter-of-fact about the necessity of violently quelling native opposition and condemns what he saw as the inherent savagery already within Aztec culture. Despite their different attitudes toward the Indians, both Casas and Díaz record important insights into pre-Conquest indigenous culture.

Álvar Cabeza de Vaca and Garcilaso de la Vega
Cabeza de Vaca and de la Vega have been described as among the earliest mestizo writers. While Cabeza de Vaca was more a “cultural” mestizo, because he was not actually of mixed racial background, de la Vega was the child of an interracial marriage and was raised biculturally. Both writers lay claim to the authority of native views and knowledge, and both were interested in the role of the “white captive” who is at least partially acculturated into native society. They both left the Americas and spent their later years in Europe and, in Cabeza de Vaca’s case, in North Africa. Despite their physical distance from the New World, they wrote extensively about the effects of colonization and tried to serve as advocates for the native populations which were being exploited and destroyed.

Samuel Champlain and Adriaen Van der Donck
Champlain and Van der Donck offer insight into the colonial practices of France and Holland during the age of exploration and colonization. Their accounts of the importance of fur and lumber provide an interesting counterpoint to the Spanish interest in gold, slaves, and spices. While Champlain was a well-respected governor and important leader in his colony, Van der Donck occupied a more tenuous position among his countrymen, a distinction that colors their narratives. You may want to guide students toward a discussion of why the Spanish American and British American colonies, rather than French or Dutch, have been seen as having a greater impact on the shape of American culture. Is such a view justified or does it merely reflect regional bias?

Americo Paredes and Gloria Anzaldúa
Paredes and Anzaldúa represent the twentieth-century Chicano/a and mestizo/a movements to celebrate the geographical and cultural heritage of the borderlands between the United States. and Mexico. Both express the plurality of their mixed identity by working in multiple genres-Paredes in musicology, fiction, and cultural criticism and Anzaldúa in poetry, memoir, political theory, and cultural criticism. Anzaldúa offers a feminist and queer reworking of the concerns that occupied Paredes and other early Chicano activists. Her work is dedicated to providing a voice to oppressed women of color in the border regions and to exploring the role of queers in Chicano/a culture and in the construction of America more broadly.


Black Legend – A widespread perception (especially popular in Protestant countries) that the Spanish colonizers were barbaric in their treatment of the natives. According to this myth, Spanish conquistadors were driven mainly by a lust for gold, and their claims that they were spreading Christianity in the New World were merely hypocritical justifications for their actions. Bartholomé de las Casas’s Brief Relation, intended to spur reform in Spain, contributed to the spread of the so-called Black Legend in Northern Europe. Colonizers from other European nations often used the Black Legend to self-righteously justify their own repression and exploitation of Native Americans by arguing that their methods were more humane than those of the Spanish.

borderlands – The regions on either side of a national border, characterized by their tendency to foster creation and innovation. Because the geographic placement of a national border is always arbitrary and artificial, the zones on either side of the border contradict the notion that people and cultures can be kept separate or distinct from one another. Instead, borderlands are permeable places where traditions interconnect and cultures overlap. They are spaces marked by conflict, violence, and hatred, but they can also produce cooperation, innovation, and hybridity.

Chicano/Chicana – Men and women of Mexican American descent living in the United States. After the United States took possession of California, Texas, and other portions of the Southwest through the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, Mexicans living in the region were deprived of their property and civil rights. In the late twentieth century, activists in the Chicano movement began to fight against this kind of discrimination. Part of their protest involved reclaiming and celebrating their unique history, language, and mixed Mexican and American heritage.

codex, codices – Historical records preserved by the Meso-american Aztec (or Nahua) peoples in accordion-style books fashioned from animal skin or fig bark (amatl) and kept in vast libraries. After the Spanish Conquest these records were often painted on cloth. Today, these books are often referred to as lienzos, the Spanish word for linen, or as codices (codex in the singular), a term that highlights the fact that they were written by hand, rather than printed. Originally the codices were written purely in indigenous scripts, but after the Conquest these were often combined with Nahuatl or Spanish written in the Roman alphabet. An elite class of scribes drawn primarily from the Mesoamerican nobility created the codices. When the Spaniards entered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán in 1519, they systematically burnt the libraries and destroyed the codices, at least in part out of fear of what they contained. The few surviving pre-Conquest records and the six hundred remaining codices written just after the Conquest continue to stun readers with their visual and verbal beauty and to provide an important counternarrative to the stories told by the Spanish conquistadors. Because we do not know who wrote, drew, and compiled the codices, they are usually named after the scholars and historians who have explicated them.

conquistadors – Spanish explorers and soldiers who were sent to conquer indigenous populations, claim territory, and establish settlements in Mexico and South America in the sixteenth century. Many conquistadors journeyed to the New World in the hopes of acquiring vast fortunes by exploiting the resources there.

contact zone – Term coined by scholar Mary Louise Pratt to describe the space of meeting between two cultures that had previously been separated geographically and historically. As Pratt puts it, a contact zone is an area in which previously separated peoples “come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict.” Although unequal power relations characterized contact zones in the New World, with Europeans usually asserting dominance over native peoples, contact is never a one-way phenomenon. The interactive, improvisational nature of contact necessarily creates subjects who are impacted by relations with one another within a mutually constituted experience.

encomienda – The system of forced tributary labor established by the Spanish in their colonies in Mexico and South America. Conquistadors like Bernal Díaz del Castillo were issued grants which gave them control over native populations who were expected to pay them in food, resources, and labor. While the grantee was supposedly obligated to protect, educate, and respect the freedom of the Indians in his encomienda, in reality the system quickly degenerated into the equivalent of slavery.

Great Chain of Being – According to a common European belief first coined by Aristotle and later adopted by Christian philosophers, the universe was structured according to immutable hierarchies. These hierarchies existed along the so-called “Great Chain of Being,” spanning from the dimensions of “non-being” (rocks and minerals) and extending through plants, animals, and man, all the way to God, as the representative of the highest form of “being.” Within the category of “man,” important hierarchies existed that separated more primitive peoples from more “cultured” or “advanced” societies. The following diagram shows the hierarchies of man as conceptualized in the Great Chain of Being:

Corporeal Man — Man of Instinct — Man of Feeling — Thinking Man

European explorers and conquerors often deployed the Great Chain of Being to explain and make sense of the New World, as well as to justify their pretensions to superiority within it. They tended to structure promotional tracts around the Great Chain of Being, emphasizing the extent to which natural resources were “naturally” at the service of superior men. They also tended to characterize America’s indigenous peoples as inhabiting a lower position on the scale of the “hierarchies of man” within the Great Chain of Being.

historia – In Spanish, the word historia means both “history” and “story,” highlighting the extent to which any so-called “objective history” is always a subjective story inflected by personal biases and agendas.

lienzo – The Spanish word for “linen,” often applied to Meso-american codices.

mestizo/mestiza – Men and women of mixed Indian, European, and African heritage. The mestizo identity has gained prominence in the American Southwest, where mestizos have proudly reclaimed their Native American heritage and identity that often went unac knowledged in the Chicano movement. Mestizo identity is characterized by plurality and inclusiveness.

promotional tract – A detailed account of the natural resources, plants, animals, and native inhabitants of a newly colonized area, intended to encourage immigration and solidify imperial claims. Such tracts were often structured by the notion of the Great Chain of Being.

transculturation – A term coined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz that refers to a process in which “members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant culture.” Transculturation emphasizes the agency involved in cultural change, as well as the loss that accompanies cultural acquisition. In these ways, “transculturation” differs from the older terms “assimilation” and “acculturation,” which emphasize a more one-way transmission of culture from the colonizer to the colonized, from the dominant to the marginalized. For Ortiz, transculturation was a necessary concept for understanding Cuban and Spanish American culture more generally.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Bruce-Novoa, Juan. RetroSpace: Collected Essays on Chicano Literature, Theory, and History. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1990.

Castillo, Ana, ed. Goddess of the Americas/La Diosa de las Americas: Writings on La Virgen de Guadalupe. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Herrera-Sobek, Maria. Reconstructing a Chicano/a Literary Heritage: Hispanic Colonial Literature of the Southwest. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1993.

Jara, Rene, and Nicholas Spadaccini, eds. 1492-1992: Re/Discovering Colonial Writing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

Lockhart, James. We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000.

Sayre, Gordon M. Les Sauvages Americains: Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997.

Seed, Patricia. Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World: 1492-1640.Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, eds. Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Tilton, Robert S. Pocahontas: Evolution of an American Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Further Resources
1492: An Ongoing Voyage [online exhibit]. Library of Congress

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez [videorecording]. Moctesuma Esparza Productions, Inc.; produced by Moctesuma Esparza and Michael Hausman; screenplay by Victor Villasenor; directed by Robert M. Young. Beverly Hills: Nelson Entertainment, 1988.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill, and Walter D. Mignolo, eds. Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.

Cabeza de Vaca [videorecording]. Producciones Iguana in co-production with Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia, Televisión Española, S.A., screenplay by Guillermo Sheridan, Nicolás Echevarria; produced by Rafael Cruz, Jorge Sánchez, Julio Solórzano Foppa, Bertha Navarro; directed by Nicolás Echevarria. United States: New Horizons Home Video, 1993.

Conquistadors [videorecording]. Written and presented by Michael Wood; directed by David Wallace; produced by Rebecca Dobbs; executive produced by Leo Eaton, Laurence Rees. Coral Springs: PBS Home Video, 2001.

Doggett, Rachel, et al. New World of Wonders: European Images of the Americas, 1492-1700. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1992.

Gonzales, Manuel G. Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999.

Harley, J. Brian, and David Woodward. Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Katzew, Ilona, et al. New World Orders: Casta Painting and Colonial Latin America. New York: Americas Society Art, 1996.

Pocahontas [videorecording]. Burbank: Walt Disney Home Video, 1995.

Robertson, Doñald. Mexican Manuscript Painting of the Early Colonial Period: The Metropolitan Schools. New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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