Translator's Note: Words in italics will be found in a glossary at the end of the article.
Miguel León Portilla suggests that one of the highest achievements of the Mesoamericans was the consciousness of history which can be seen reflected in the richness of their oral history and in various documents which through writing and images relate their worldview. Throughout the periods of the Conquest and the Republic, many indigenous groups have adapted their customs and their form of organization to the norms which they increasingly have had to accept, yet have managed to preserve and maintain a symbolic framework which still may be found alive in many parts of the nation.
In this article we wish to discuss some elements of "The Legend of the Tepozteco," a mythic narrative which is situated within the oldest cosmogonic accounts and which tells us of a hero who was not only fundamental in the founding of a regional culture, but also even today is present and continues to be a central figure for the community of Tepoztlán in the state of Morelos, Mexico. We have divided this discussion into two parts: the first deals with the hero and the annual ritual in which he figures, while the second enters into the connection between the former and the social and political activities of the present day Tepoztecos, specifically the resistance movement against the construction of a golf club which took place from 1995 to 1997.
Description of the hero and ritual
For the description of the central figure, we will follow the structure proposed by Gordon Brotherson (nd., np.) which seems to us the most complete and best documented, although the legend is supplemented by other different versions which exist in the community. Brotherson argues in light of Nahuatl literary tradition that throughout his history El Tepozteco has adopted at least four different roles, each echoing the others, and that all of them are rooted in the landscape of hills and ravines which are specific to Tepoztlán. One is the cosmogonic figure, another an epic one, the third refers to a figure who worked in México-Tenochtitlán, and the last one who propagated the Christian faith.
When Tepoztecans refer to El Tepozteco, they don't make these distinctions but rather refer generically to El Tepozteco or Tepoztécatl, thus speaking of the epic hero or of the one who placed the great bell in the tower of the cathedral, or of the one who plays the part of El Tepozteco in ritual drama of "El reto del Tepozteco". Of the four distinct roles, two are most celebrated in the community's ceremonies: that of the epic hero who has a central place in the version best known in the community, and that of El Tepozteco who converted to and propagated Christianity. Both appear in the ritual which is celebrated each year on the 8th of September.
The birth of El Tepozteco or Tepoztécatl, like that of many classic heros, is the product of a union between a virgin and a god. The different versions of the legend relate that a virgin maiden was bathing in the brook at a place called Axitla at the foot of the hill called Ehecatépetl or Hill of the Wind when a wind surrounded her and impregnated her. The hero, then, is the son of the god of wind and a Tepoztecan maiden.
The narratives about the birth of this person mark out a series of wonderful events which commenced with his conception and continued throughout his life. The legend relates that the maiden's father, ashamed of her pregnancy and determined to preserve the honor of his family, tried to get rid of the infant by throwing him into a river in a carrying basket. The next day, returning to determine whether the child had been carried away by the turbulent waters and was dead, he was surprised to find it alive and well. He then left it overnight on top of an ant hill, and the next morning found that the ants had protected and fed the baby. Furious, he then tried to get rid of the infant by flinging it into the spines of a maguey cactus, but the next day, sure that the baby was dead, he found that one of the maguey spines had nourished the infant with its sweet sap. Desperate, he threw the child into a river, but at that moment a warm wind blew and carried the infant off to deposit it gently in a gully. There the child was met by an elderly couple who adopted him and lovingly raised him.
When he was seven years old, he asked for a bow, arrows, and quiver and to repay his adoptive parents he shot the arrows into the air. In the next moment rabbits and turtledoves fell from the sky. He brought deer from the woods and fish from the river. Meanwhile his parents wondered to whom they should attribute his talents and gifts. At the age of twelve El Tepozteco returned from the countryside to find that some emissaries of Xochicácatl, a giant, had come to take away his father who would be eaten up by the giant along with the tribute which all the regions had to send to this tyrant who generally wanted old men who could no longer work. In a firm voice, El Tepozteco told the emissaries that he was going to take the place of his father. He picked up his carrying bag and confronted his parents, telling them that the following day they should look on the horizon for a smoke signal in order to know his fate. If they saw white smoke, it would mean that he was safe; if they saw black smoke, it would mean that he had been defeated.
According to Brotherson's version Xochicácatl, the ogre, was irked that his emissaries returned late and that they brought a boy instead of an old man. His fierce hunger caused him to immediately order them to cook the boy, but El Tepozteco once again showed his shamanic talents, converting himself into a deer, a rabbit, an ocelot, and other animals to avoid being cooked. Finally, at the boy's own request, the giant swallowed him whole. Then, from inside, the boy slashed through the giant's guts, for along the way he had picked up some obsidian knives. In this way, he vanquished the terrible ogre and left triumphant, liberating Tepoztlán and other communities from the terrible power of Xochicalco.
The final phase of the epic tells us of the return of the boy along the Cuauhnáhuac (the Cuernavaca of today) road where they celebrated the death of the giant with a great banquet organized by the lords of Chauhnáhuac, Yautepec, and Cuautla. El Tepozteco arrived at the celebration humbly dressed and asked them to play the teponaztle. They all ignored and even rejected him. So then he changed clothes, adorning himself with fine feathers , silver arm bands, and golden disks over his knees. Returning to the banquet he was then met with honor by the most important people. They brought him to a table and offered him a fine meal of mole, but, to the surprise of his hosts, he poured the food over the clothes that he was wearing. His scandalized hosts asked him the reason for this conduct and he answered, "Eat my clothes because it is my clothes that you honor. A few hours ago I came here in rags and dirty from my travel and you ignored me. Now that you see me in elegance, you are covering me with favors. So then eat my elegance." Then he stole the teponaztle and headed for Tepoztlán, pursued by the humiliated lords. Once more he showed his powers, urinating to create a deep gully which his enemies couldn't pass. He climbed his hill where they could see him and hours later came down to rejoin his parents, just as he had promised.
The people of Tepoztlán say that El Tepoztécatl still lives in the hills, presides over fiestas, creates hurricanes to show his displeasure, and comes down as a warm wind to demonstrate his presence. The teponaztle which el Tepozteco stole from the kings of Cuauhnáhuac is entrusted to the mayordomos of the various barrios and remains in the handsof the community as his material legacy.
The cosmogonic figure
The version above corresponds to the epic hero, Tepoztécatl, whose history, according to Brotherson, dates back to the end of the Classic period and the end of Xochicalco's power. The triumph of the hero represents, for that author, the independence of Xochicalco's tributary communities, whose toponomics are carved on the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent at that site.
Nevertheless, this legend has a much older resonance which goes back to the formative period of Mesoamerican culture and which refers to the inventors of pulque. According to Dubernard, El Tepoztécatl formed part of the Centzontotochtin (four hundred rabbits) identified as gods of pulque. These had their greatest importance in the region of Morelos. On his part, Brotherson, basing himself on the Códice Florentino, locates El Tepoztécatl as a cosmogonic figure who was part of the group of eleven inventors of pulque who came from the mountains that extend from Chichinautzin to Popocatépetl and who after their invention rose, as drunk as rabbits, to mark out a path that oscillates from one side of the sky to the other. According to this author, the priority of Tepoztécatl Ome Tochtli as god of pulque is confirmed by the erection of the pyramid and temple dedicated to his cult which is worshipped by pilgrims coming from as far as Chiapas and Guatemala. His character as a fundamental mythic figure is based on comparison with the legend of the Popol Vuh in which the drinkers who invented the first fermented drink rose into the sky to become the Pleiades. The ascension into the sky of the group of which El Tepoztécatl was a part "also explains his astronomical function, identifying his oscillating path exactly with that of the zodiac." (Brotherson nd.: 191)
Thus El Tepoztécatl, inventor of pulque represents the most ancient figure, partly cosmogonic and partly historic, which can be associated with the oldest populations of Tepoztlán.
El tepoztón, worker from México-Tenochtitlán
Another facet of this figure is referred to by González Casanova (1977) who describes a man who was born in a washing place, ended up working in México-Tenochtitlán, and was converted to Catholicism. Although he is not as glorious a figure as his predecessors, he can count among his deeds that of having been the one who with the help of the wind hung the great bell in the cathedral. As payment for his work, he was given three boxes with the instruction that they shouldn't be opened. Nevertheless, his curiosity got the better of him, and upon opening the boxes the birds that were inside (a symbol of the wealth and wellbeing of the people) escaped. Some local people interpret this as the destiny of all the local resources, including some of the people who develop themselves, become educated, and migrate from the community to other places. This figure built his house in the hills of Tepoztlán aided again by the power of the wind and he remains in the mountains as lord of the hurricane which can still be felt in the town when he "is angry."
El Tepozteco, the convert
The last mention of El Tepozteco refers to a figure who was baptized and initiated into the Catholic religion on the 8th of September, 1532 in the waters of Axitla at the foot of the hill on top of which stood the statue of Ome Tochtli. According to Villamil (1951) "this was of a king and lord similar to Netzahualcóyotl who admired the divine omnipotent greatness because he saw in mother nature the hand of the supreme being." Dubernard's version refers to a 22 year old missionary named Fray Domingo de la Anunciación who baptized El Tepozteco after tearing down the idol which was famous and was worshipped by pilgrims who come from as far away as Chiapas and Guatemala.
"The blessed P.F. Domingo de la Anunciación toppled the miserable two thousand spans high figure, and it still didn't break up, having been made of a very dense stone, or because the force of the devil intervened to use this idol to delude those who held it in idolatry. This servant of God ordered that they deface the figure by picking holes in it and ordered the stone dragged off to the town of Oaxtepec, three leagues from Tepoztlán, where it was buried within the foundations of the church which is there to this day." (Dubernard 1983:48)
Four principal lords from neighboring Yautepec, Huaxtepec, Tlayacapan and Cuauhnáhuac accused El Tepozteco of having betrayed their gods and came to run him out of town. He conquered these anew, recalling what took place at the celebration of the defeat of the giant, and with the force of his speaking convinced them of the virtues of the new religion. Brotherson analyzes the conversion of El Tepozteco, pointing out that it took place in the same period in which archbishop Zumárraga commenced his campaign of terror by burning in the main square of Mexico the heir to the throne of Texcoco who coincidentally was also named Ome Tochtli. He presumes that el Tepozteco's conversion was a strategy to avoid the ecclesiastical threat and thus be able to preserve within the colonial administration political privileges and the right to rule over his lands.
We have briefly described the four roles which appear in the figure of El Tepozteco articulated to one another by allusions to the local mountains and by sharing some common elements. Although anthropologists can identify their location in history, it is better to say that they inhabit the mythic time and space which according to Lévi-Strauss commingles the past, present, and future in one symbolic totality. As we have mentioned, the people do not make a distinction between the different identities of El Tepozteco. Rather, he is evoked yearly and generically in the ritual which we shall describe and which emphasizes the acts of the epic hero mixed with the one who converted to Christianity. According to Enrique Villamil Tapia (1951:8), an inhabitant of Tepoztlán, the ritual called "Altepeihuitl," the main fiesta of the town, has been celebrated there without interruption for over 400 years.
Although the 8th of September is considered the date of the ritual, it actually commences the night before with a fiesta which is not at all Christian.* They illuminte the road to the hill with torches, climb to the pyramid where Ome Tochtli Tepoztécaptl was worshipped, pray and drink all night to the sound of shell rattles and the teponaztle, and descend with the person costumed as El Tepozteco who will act out the battle against the four neighboring lords who had accused him of betraying their gods.
In the town plaza, where all the market stalls have been removed, a theatrical piece takes place dramatizing the sacramental acts used by the monks to evangelize the Indians during the Colonial period. In it, El Tepozteco receives the curses of the lords who accuse him of betraying their gods, but he doesn't give in to their fury. He has the teponaztle sound again and reminds them of his force: "Haven't you seen that here I am surrounded by four great mountains, by seven wells, seven gullys, and seven dark caves because of which I feel my heart strengthened more and more? Why do you come here when I am celebrating the birth of the holy sacred virgin, the mother of Jesus Christ, because of whom my heart is strong, by whom I am consoled and stengthened? Don't you remember when in Cuernavaca you were full of joy and I, valiant and wise, took away your precious teponaztle and took it for myself? Aren't you ashamed of this defeat which I was able to inflict by myself?" After sounding the teponaztle and dancing with all his followers, he talks to them about the new religion until they are convinced. Finally, they all dance together "like brothers and like believers."
It is difficult to understand that within the same ritual exists a conjunction of the two facets of the Tepozteco, his acts as a warrior, symbol of resistance to foreign powers, and his conversion to Christianity, emblem of the acceptance of Catholic ecclesiastical power. If we follow Brotherson's interpretation, (nd:201) the dialog which is presented in this celebration certainly denotes an internal tension between both elements. In his analysis, this anthropologist asserts the identity of the figure "is affirmed less in the truths of the new faith than in the mountains which have made him and other Tepoztecatls in the past strong, because the Christian message gives ground to the celebration of more ancient and more local powers." The various significances which the inhabitants attribute to the conversion of this figure remain to be investigated.
The mythico-religious force of present day Tepoztecos
Although for more than six years we have witnessed the town's various religious ceremonies and rituals and know the long history of movements through which Tepoztecans opposed various modernization projects, we hadn't predicted the extent to which the force of tradition and the protection of the historic bonds which link them to their ancestors is anchored in the heart of the inhabitants. What allowed us to understand the unarguable presence of these mythico-religious components was the resistance of the people of Tepoztlán to the construction of the Golf Club.
Four years of struggle permitted us to observe with astonishment the existence of a historical memory unfolding in a cultural fabric which brought into the present prehispanic elements reworked and intertwined with political and social activities taking place daily the whole time that the resistance movement lasted.
For us it is still an enigma to understand the source of the power of a little town which could halt a project desired by the political ruling class and backed by national and foreign investors who flaunted public opinion with the millions of dollars they wanted to invest in this project.
Briefly stated, we can say that a group of entrepreneurs affiliated with the Kladt Sobrino family and backed by the governor of the state of Morelos intended to build on the communal lands of Tepoztlán a tourist complex which would include 700 residences, a golf club, a high tech business park, and a service zone with hotels, restaurants, and shops.** The investors cautiously proceeded to develop their project with the governing class and with the bureaucrats involved with the relevant permits and licenses. They never bothered to investigate the local population's opinion about the project, taking it as given that the increased availability for employment would benefit them.
Local response to this blow was to immediately throw out the municipal president and the local authorities who had supported the project without the consent of the public. They then returned to their communal forms of organization and to their "usos y costumbres" (traditional customs and practices) to select local authorities, electing one representative from each barrio. According to María Rosas (1997:39) "the indigenous tradition of selecting a calpuleque in order that their new representatives would return to the practice of being named among equals by equals." In this way they formed the Tepoztecan Unity Committee and carried out an inauguration ceremony in which prehispanic symbols and values strongly connected to their identity were clearly displayed.
The ceremony: The inauguration ceremonies in 1995 and 1997
At the sound of the teponaztle in one of the streets bordering the city hall, a young man approaches, dressed in prehispanic fashion which a golden and feathered head dress, his elegant costume full of golden ornaments, carrying a shield in his left hand and a wooden ax in his right hand, escorted by some maidens dressed in white with golden tiaras and each of them carrying an incenser. El Tepozteco arrives at the central plaza in front of the city hall and takes his place on a platform which resembles a pyramid. He remains silent, gazing through the smoke of the incensers at all those present.
The inauguration returns to practices and customs which haven't been used for more than thirty years. A teacher reads the oath and asks everyone to join in reciting these words:
Do you swear to protect the Political Constitution of the United States of Mexico, that of the state, the laws which in one way or another are passed, and legally and patriotically comply with the duties of the office which the municipality of Tepoztlán has conferred on you?
Everyone recites this in unison. YES, I SWEAR answers Lázaro Rodríguez, president of the recently formed Tepoztecan Unity Committee.
El Tepozteco now reads to the new municipal president a text in náhuatl which is then translated for everyone.
Man of this place, once I was engendered to correct evils. My father, Ehécatl, god of the wind, sent me to help people and I did so. You are a child of this same people. Don't be doubtful in imposing justice, for it won't be you who gives it out. Justice and law are for all humanity; it belongs to them. Don't lend an ear to gossipy voices which are only looking for your protection, for they are hiding their evil in their talk. I gave an example of wisdom, humility, and justice, and for that my people worship me. Don't try to diminish our realm by allowing yourself to be fooled by lights which are not from the stars though they might be from the moon. Don't allow the introduction of something that doesn't come from the people because if you permit that, it will be your heart which the people demand as a sacrifice to calm the wrath of our gods, the always powerful Ome Tochtli, Ehécatl, Huitzilopchtli nd Tonatiuh.1My people are strong, they have the temple in their heart, so don't believe in the taste of honey that you are offered because it will damage you. Men always look for power [...] When you encounter that, walk between the pools of blood of the sacrificed. Be just and the people will be just along with you. If you are unjust, they shall punish you.
As soon as Lázaro received the wooden ax, the sign of his authority, some of those present attest that "a breeze was felt on the grounds," a sign that the real Tepozteco, son of the wind god, was with them.
Two years later, in June of 1997 during the inauguration of Fermín Bello by the Tepoztecan Unity Committee's provisional government, the same words in náhuatl were repeated.
To reenact the epic of El Tepozteco which emphasizes his skill and ability to govern as well as the punishment for those who do not properly manage power is a kind of mythological grammar which validates and provides a basis for a series of behaviors. Here we can observe the pragmatic aspect of the myth in its social function of interpreting the problems and conflicts which face a given community.In this context, the myth links social norms, social institutions, and everyday life.
One can easily see the form in which the force of history makes itself present in that an apparently political ceremony is redefined as an act which legitimates very old values, traditions, and beliefs. We agree with Frank (1994) that legitimation is "to be able to refer to a value which, from an intersubjective point of view, is indisputable...and in a strict sense only that which is taken as sacred, that is, as all powerful and untouchable, can be intersubjectively indisputable ." That, we can say, is the mythico-religious sense and the value of the sacred, that which grants an unsuspected potency to a political resistance movement, since it is evident that the Tepoztecan community is willing to die to defend it.
We want to finish by giving two more examples of the mythico-religious applicability of the legend: the "aparition of El Tepozteco" to a local woman and a speech given by a local person to an assembly of communities in solidarity with Tepoztlán.
The aparition of El Tepozteco
It is interesting to mention that in one of the moments most curcial to the movement, a woman told how El Tepozteco made an appearance when she was walking near his hill to tell her that the Tepoztecans shouldn't worry for he was on the side of the people and that the Golf Club wouldn't be constructed, but that it would be necessary for them to return to making him a ritual offering as they had done in the past. It is not the first time that El Tepozteco "has appeared," since there are several tales which tell of this kind of event. The woman doubted whether it was appropriate to communicate this to the representatives of the Committee, but other people finally convinced her that it was important to do. When she told the Tepoztecan Unity Committee what had happened, her words were taken with complete seriousness and a performance of the ritual was planned according to the ancient practices and using the original teponaztle which was the heritage from El Tepozteco.
Assembly of communities in solidarity with Tepoztlán, September 1995
Various representatives of towns and movements, from the Zapatista National Liberation Army to public school teachers, to farmworker organizations, etc., gathered in the municipal plaza. After several speeches from those who were in solidarity with the people's fight to oppose the Golf Club, a local resident took the microphone and said:
We have delivered a mortal blow by stopping the construction of the Club and we have also gotten rid of our corrupt municipal authorities, so we offer a most cordial welcome to the peoples of the state of Morelos and of Mexico City and of the state of Mexico who join us in a fight without quarter against the KS group which is the monster of a thousand heads. From long ago our Tepozteco has told us clearly "Men of this land, don't let yourself be fooled by lights which are not from the stars, but of the moon. Our people are valient and have the temple in their heart. Don't believe in the honey that KS offers you because it will weaken you. Don't permit the construction of something that is not of this people because if you do so it will be your own heart that the people will demand to satisfy the wrath of our gods Ome Tochtli, Tonatiuh, Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcóatl.2 Just as El Tepozteco destroyed the thousand headed monster which was Xochicácatl, the devourer of men, we have struck the final death blow to this monster which the KS group sponsored by Francisco Kladt Sobrino represents. We have demonstrated to the entire community, to the nation, and to our brother nations in the world, that Tepoztlán above all has dignity, has men and women, young people and teachers, and farmers who have united in the fight to regain what Zapata left us...we fight for land, justice, and liberty. (Menéndez 1995)
As can be seen, the local residents continually make parallels between the situation in which they are living and elements of the legend. This lets us see that the existence of the Tepoztecos today is powerfully and subtly overlain by a primordial history which commemorates and continually revives the mythic past. We can consider their struggle as a clear example of a movement in which collective action is guided by a symbolic system, by a worldview bursting with mythic elements which value and legitimize conduct. The survival of this mythic framework is a relevant spiritual phenemon which has an important impact in the cultural and political sphere since in Tepoztlán the spheres of religion and politics are not separate.
We are in the presence of a community which amply values its historical past and constantly enacts it not only in fiestas, rituals, and ceremonies, but also powerfully relives it when forced to confront projects which threaten its identity, culture and traditions. As Flores Cano says (1998) this is not a rejection of modernization so much as the necessity of preserving a relative autonomy in the face of cultural elements or technical innovations which are contrary to its needs.
The enactment of a ritual which has taken place withou interruption for 400 years restores and anchors in the memory of residents the behavior of figures from the sacred universe which intertwines the present with a past which, in its mythic quality, transcends individual and social contexts to elevate them to the plane of the unquestionable. Many are the authors who consider myth to be not only something that refers to the past but as an essential and perfectly integrated part of the practices and beliefs of certain communities.
Mircea Eliade (1985) has established that that which is essential precedes existence and that it commences in the moment in which a divine history whose figures are supernatural beings and mythic ancestors is received. For him, "the essential" can be shared in common with an ontology which tells of the creation of the world and of reality, or as a history when it is represented by the ancestors of men linked in some manner with the supernatural world.
In the case of Tepoztlán, the mythic component which represents "the essential" resonates with different strengths with which the people identify.The different lives of El Tepozteco "Ome Tochtli Tepoztécatl" are located in cosmogonic time through origin myths and creation myths. The night before the main Tepoztecan fiesta, the temple of this god welcomes those who will celebrate it the next day and it is inseperable from the inaugural ceremonies through which power is transmitted.
The reference to other figures whose location in history has been established by anthropologists evokes, for example, the warrior abilities of the Tepozteco hero who, engendered by the god of wind, clearly symbolizes victory over mythical giants and powerful lords. The mention in the inaguration ceremonies of 1995 and 1997 of Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica god of war and of the Mexica state also reinforces this warrior characteristic.
As an example of the syncretism between prehispanic culture and Christianity, we find that the most important fiesta of the community is that which represents the dispute between the baptized Tepozteco and the other lords who claimed he betrayed their gods. We note that accepting Christianity permitted El Tepozteco to preserve the prehispanic heritage, clothing it in the new religion but preserving the most important elements of its worldview. Brotherson himself suggests that the identity of this figure is more connected to cosmogony and the pagan epoch than to the truths of the new faith. The mention of hills, the utilization of the teponaztle, and the orations in the náhuatl language in the pagent can be considered a proof of this.
In these ceremonies we can contrast the unique merging of conventional political forms of representation with traditional forms and the vestiges of a prehispanic past which, according to Léon Portilla (1998) are so characteristic of modern Mesoamericans.
1. Ome Tochtli, two rabbit or the god of pulque; Ehécatl, god of the wind and father of Tepozcaptl; Huitzilopochtli, god of war; Tonatiuh, god of the sun.
2. This speech mentioned Quetzalcóatl, "beautifully feathered serpent, god of fertility" whose actions often are associated with those of Ehécatl. There is even a figure which combines both names: Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl.
*This is the celebration of the Virgin de Trinidad who is now considered to be the mother of el Tepozteco.
** The Golf Club project threatened ecological destruction of what Tepoztecans consider to be their "virgin" communal lands. Of even more importance, water is a scarce resource in Tepoztlán. The Golf Club, with its greens needing watering, its hundreds of residences with swimming pools as well as domestic water use, and the demands of commercial establishments threatened to seriously deplete the Tepoztecans' water supply. For further discussion of the perceived dangers presented by the Golf Club, see Rosas: 1997.
barrio - a neighborhood with a ceremonial center in the form of a church or chaple honoring its patron saint.
Calpuleque - traditional name for a barrio representative.
mole - the traditional festive dish in Tepoztlán composed of chicken or turkey in a complex sauce.
náhuatl - the language spoken by the Aztecs (Mexica); Tepoztlán was until recently a náhuatl speaking town. Many older people still know the language and, as in the examples in this article, it is sometimes used on ceremonial occasions.
pulque - an alcoholic beverage fermented from the leaves of the maguey cactus.
teponaztle - a drum of prehispanic origin used on ceremonial occasions.
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