This past weekend we joined the Jesse Garcia Show to discuss Call me Latine. The Jesse Garcia Show focuses on politics, culture, art, storytelling and history, from an LGBT Latino point of view. The interview and a copy of the transcript is found below.
Jesse: Welcome to the Jesse Garcia show your half hour home for politics, culture and art. We come to you every week with a new story about your world. Today’s guest is James Lee, a progressive activist based in Houston, Texas, who wants our community to be more inclusive, and to consider the use of a new term to describe our Gente, Latine. James will talk about how oppression and discrimination in the past has led to a new movement to regain culture and rebuild, starting with our own language. Thank you for following the Jesse Garcia Show on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. For more information about the podcast visit jessegarciashow.com.
Jesse: More than 60 million Latinos reside in United States making up 18.4% of the population, and just like our food, music and politics, but we call ourselves varies from community to community. Families of immigrants from more than 20 Latin American countries helped make up the fabric of this nation, and whether we refer to ourselves as Latin Americans, Afro Latinos, Tejanos, Louisiana Creole people, Chicanos, Newyoricans or several other terms, there is one common thread, the Spanish language. Lately, there’s been a move to make our mother tongue more inclusive, by removing gender from terms. And there’s a new push to call ourselves Latine. It has been widely adopted in Latin America, because it’s easier to pronounce. Today, we invite progressive activists, James Lee, to explain the new term, where it came from, and how using it will help others feel welcomed.
Jesse: I want to welcome to the show a very good friend of mine, James Lee, a progressive activist from Texas who lives in Houston. And he’s been working at several levels of the progressive movement from politics, and now he’s moving on to culture mostly recently advocated the use of the term Latine. Am I saying that right?
Jesse: Latine, thank you for correcting me. James, welcome to the show.
James: Thanks so much for having me, Jesse. It’s really great to talk.
Jesse: Yes, this is a subject that’s very near and dear to my heart, because I remember writing all the way back in 1992, 93. When I was a college newspaper editor for Lady of the Lake University, the lakefront, and I remember talking to the great Carlos Guerra, he was a Latino, one of the very few high profile Hispanic newspaper journalist in San Antonio. And I remember we were having a fight between Hispanic and Latino back in that in that timeframe. And I remember reaching out to him. And he goes, Well, ‘we used to call ourselves Chicano and all that.’ So he would even you know he gave me old school terms that we’ve been using for such a long time. I’m so excited that we’re gonna have this conversation around Latine. Before we start that conversation, tell us a little bit about yourself.
James: Sure. So my name is James Lee. I was born and raised in Brownsville, Texas. So I’m originally from the Rio Grande Valley, if you’re not familiar, that’s the most southern region of Texas…
Jesse: “On the Border by the Sea.’ That’s where I’m from!
James: ‘On the border by the sea’ [laughing]. And so, yeah, I was born and raised in Brownsville, and after high school, I moved to Houston to attend the University of Houston.
Jesse: Which high school did you go to?
James: I went to Homer Hanna High [laughs].
Jesse: Oh my god! Another Golden Eagle!
James: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Golden Eagles.
Jesse: I was the mascot so, class of 89, I know doesn’t show but it’s really nice. What class are you?
James: I was class of 09.
Jesse: Oh my god [laughs].
Jesse: Okay, I’ll let you, please continue.
James: Yeah, so I attend the University of Houston, Go Coogs. And, you know, I graduated with a degree in political science. And, you know, during my time at University of Houston is really when I got a little bit more ingrained in politics, policy change, and, you know, progressive issues in general.
James: You know, now today, I work for the state of Texas is largest community health center. system. And so I work as a government relations manager, and specifically within the field of health care. So it’s been a really interesting year, for me personally on a professional level, with the pandemic and everything else going on. But, you know, outside of my work, which is obviously non partisan, I’ve been very active and involved in democratic politics, since around the time I was a senior in high school. When, at that time, it was Senator Obama and Senator Clinton running against each other for the Democratic nomination.
James: And, you know, from there, I just continued, and I really, you know, got involved at the University of Houston, around the issues of LGBTQ equality, where there and then, I worked to… first, I founded an organization, there is an organization that was meant to really focus on LGBTQ policy at the university level for students, for staff, everyone. And so we actually accomplished a pretty big thing at the time, which was changing the university’s non discrimination policy, which was something that was in the works for a long time, a lot of people were trying to get that done, but it just, you know, it hadn’t been done.
James: So it was an issue that I started working on from an early time and was very excited to be a part of. And, you know, from there, as I graduated from the University of Houston, you know, I think one of the things that sort of inspired me to move into the space of Latino and Hispanic sort of policy and politics was, you know, I took a course on Latino politics. And if you have any fellow Coogs, listing by my professor was Jeronimo Cortina. And anyway, he, you know, really sort of opened my eyes to sort of, you know, the experiences that our people our community have faced for, you know, decades, centuries, way passed the time in which, you know, imperialism sort of gained Texas and other states. And, it just opened my eyes to a lot of the issues that our community has faced and, and really, sort of helped me understand, you know, why my life and lived experience was the way it was growing up in Brownsville. And why so many of us experience life, as we did, right, because of the echoes of changes within that region.
Jesse: What a beautiful journey, I mean, I’m just hearing your words from coming, I mean.. and it just brings so much chills to me. Because you could have easily been a party student at UH, but you decided to get involved in so many deep issues and policies. I mean, back in my day, I tried to start LGBT group in my university. And, of course, it was a Catholic university so it went nowhere. But luckily, you went and did the things that I wish I could have done at my campus. You know, protect the students and protect the staff members, and you got to do that. That’s amazing. And you have your studies, you have to work and to add that extra layer of responsibility to your community, to keep on doing. And providing that, you know, as a volunteer, amazing. I want to applaud you for having enough bandwidth back then to take on those responsibilities.
James: Thank you.
Jesse: So it is wonderful, I applaud you for that, because not that many students want to take on such big projects, you know, they want to be free, be young have fun. But thank God for those activists that keep at it, and keep at it. That see injustice and want to fix it. So after college, where did you end up?
James: Yeah. So, you know, just briefly, you know, as far as the political sphere is concerned, you know, I ran two political action committees here in Houston. First was the Houston Stonewall young Democrats. And the second was the Harris County Tejano Democrats, where I was president of both of those different political action committees.
Jesse: So you, you were the leader of not only the LGBT side but the Latino side as well…
James: Right, yeah, for a brief time yeah.
Jesse: Wow. Congratulations on that.
James: Thank you. And, you know, from there, I also sort of worked my way up to the Texas Democratic Party. And in 2016 was, I ran for Hispanic Caucus State Commitment, and won, and was committeeman for two terms. So my term actually expired, my second term, expired in 2019. So, you know, it’s been, it’s been an interesting journey with, you know, navigating both Latino and Hispanic and LGBTQ sort of issue areas for me, which I feel like you know, have been huge influences on my life, right? These are two communities that I identify with and belong to. And it’s been important to me to address issues related to us.
Jesse: So you’ve been an active member in the Texas Latino community, working with various progressive communities, you’re now championing the case for the word Latine. Can you explain the origin of Latine for our listeners?
James: Sure. So let’s, let’s start with just the spelling, because I know that we’re in an audio format here. So just as you’re listening, and you’re wondering, how’s this spelled, so Latine is spelled L-A-T-I-N-E. So it’s just like Latino, Latina, right? But the difference is the letter E at the end. So Latine was a term that was created by LGBTQ, non binary, and feminist communities and Spanish speaking countries. The term, you know, has developed on its own without regard to the term Latinx, right. A lot of people like to ask me to compare the two terms together. These terms, I, you know, they were something that were, that was, you know, defined or created by communities in different places, right? It’s not a response to one or the other.
Jesse: They grew out of their own.
James: So, Latine, you know, the goal behind Latina is to remove gender from the Spanish word, Latino. And the reason why Latine has become this alternative, is because, you know, there’s a lot of words in Spanish, that end with the letter E, that can either be masculine or feminine. And so you have examples of that through words like “Estudiante,” right…
James: …which, it ends with the letter E, right, and it’s not paying emphasis or attention to either gender, right? It’s just ‘student,’ right. And so you have other words, too, that are in Spanish that are gendered, that end with the letter E, but they’re gendered because of the article that precedes it, right. So “el” or “la,” right? Like, “la sangre,” right? ‘Blood,’ right. And that ends with the letter E. But you know, the article before it is a feminine article, right? So “la” so you have other examples, too, in the masculine form. But the idea here, right, is that because there is this use of the letter E in Spanish already, where it’s both used for gender neutral terms, and then you see it being used with both masculine or feminine without regard to the masculine or feminine being of importance, that these young people in Spanish speaking countries say, “well, this is, you know, kind of an obvious alternative that works with the language, and you know, it makes sense,” right? And so that’s sort of how the term has come about. You see it used in many different Spanish speaking countries.
James: Now, again, it’s kind of like when you when you talk about the term Latinx here in the United States, right, where you see it being used by different communities. Often they’re younger, maybe sometimes they’re more professional communities, or industries. Same kind of situation you’re seeing in Spanish speaking countries, where Latine is being used by, you know, gender queer, queer communities, non binary, intersectional feminists, some corporate communities, right, some industries, and then of course, you know, activist movements within different countries. So, you know, I’ve seen the word use in Spanish speaking communities in Mexico and Peru, in Argentina. Now it’s even, you know, you even see it being used in Spain. And so you’re seeing it come about in all these different spaces. That doesn’t mean that it’s the only word used, right. But it’s, it’s coming into popularity and people are understanding it.
James: And the thing I enjoy most about it is that when we talk about issues of gender, when we talk about issues of heteronormativity, for, you know, older generations, especially here in the United States, there’s a hesitancy right there. There’s a history of oppression and discrimination against our community, and many people either lived through it, or still remember its effects. And me personally, I, you know, those effects of oppression and discrimination, have been passed down in my family, and I still see those effects today, right? For us, it’s as simple as, you know, my parents deciding not to teach us Spanish because they were punished in schools for speaking Spanish. And they didn’t want us to have the same difficulties, as we grew up. They wanted us to speak English and not have any trouble, and not get into trouble the way that they did in schools…
Jesse: and they were physically hit with rulers. I’ve heard stories, I mean, it was just really sad, that we had to lose that right to speak our mother language, our families mother language, because of the policy of the day, and it’s really sad. It’s just, I understand us try have to use one central language to get by, but it’s just, it’s, it’s part of your culture, your family traditions, the name of your foods that you eat, the way we worship, you know, to the churches in a certain language, you steal that from that person, that young person…
James: Right. Absolutely. And so, you know, because of the experiences that, you know, my parents faced, right, they decided not to pass down the language, right? And there are countless other ways in which other families have experienced discrimination, that they decided to change things, right? And I think the lesson here, right for, for older generations is that, you know, now after having experienced this oppression, discrimination, there’s been, you know, within the past maybe 50-60 years, you know, a movement to regain culture to preserve culture, and to sort of rebuild almost. And so, I think when these generations see people my age people younger than me, you know, move to terms like Latine or Latinx, and start talking about issues of gender equality, or heteronormativity, or just gender itself. You know, that kind of gives them pause. Because they think, you know, this is, from my perspective, right? What would I see them saying or telling me or their reactions, they see the move to Latine or Latinx as another one of those things that’s coming to sort of infringe upon the community, the culture, the people, and they don’t understand. Right? And so, the beautiful…
Jesse: and then, there’s people that take it like, way…it’s almost an affront to the language or something. I remember being that a capital Pride two years ago, in Virginia, promoting our Latino civil rights group LULAC. And I remember, we had our banner that said, LGBT Latinx individuals, you know, big letters, you know, we really wanted to be as inclusive as possible Latinx is becoming popular, so we use the word and this drunk lesbian comes up to me, whose family’s from Spain and she started castigating me for trying to ruin her father’s language, ‘and how dare you, who gives you the right?’ I really wanted to just like, rebuttal this person, but I never argue with drunk people, because you never win. Because you’re just going to give them… it’s just like adding fuel to a fire right? So I just allowed her to speak her piece. And plus I didn’t want to mansplain anything to her. I don’t want to be that guy. I’m gonna let her say whatever she felt like saying that day and let her move on. Because I have bigger fish to fry and I needed to sign up members. I did not want to spend a whole afternoon dealing with this person. But, it was just like, almost a classes thing. She came off as really elitist. And I wanted to call her out on that. But I was just on like, ‘okay, colonizer just keep on moving.’ You know? It’s just like, I’m sorry that if I think you’re pure, Castilian blood, you know, how dare I, a new worlder decide to just adopt a new term to call ourselves, you know, our community right? But it’s just it’s like, it’s almost like, it’s just something like you’re trying to change something that’s, that’s always been accepted and they don’t allow it to grow, you know. And we got to understand that just 60 million Latinos in the United States 60 million were 18.4% of the population. We have 20 nationality groups, 22 in the column, if you count Spain and Brazil, in the mix. We’re not all gonna agree on the same things to call each other. It’s not like we’re following one same book of terms.
Jesse: So that’s why I love how we’re talking about this today. And even yourself, when I say the word Latino or Hispanic, you didn’t try to correct me. In fact, you even use some of, I was surprised that you said, sometimes you said, ‘Oh, I worked in the Latino community here.’ You’re not being oppressive about ‘No, we need to use Latine,’ right. And I like that about you. Because you understand different people have ways of calling our community. There’s going to be different ways. You know, and I appreciate that. You’re taking that, that step.
James: Yeah. Yeah. But really quickly, just I want I want to let you know, just for your audience, too, is, I think that the beautiful thing about Latine right, is that for these people, right, that we’ve just discussed, right? In your example, right, someone who wants to preserve the language, in my example, people who want to preserve the culture, right? The beautiful thing here is that when you present the term Latine and its origins to them, suddenly there’s a connection, right? Because prior to that, right, they see it sometimes, right? The reality is that sometimes there’s resistance to the term Latinx because they say, Oh, well, XYZ issues, right? And but as you talk to people who are somewhat more hesitant to change, and you introduce Latine and talk about its origins, talk about, you know, its roots in the Spanish language, there’s suddenly a barrier that’s broken down and suddenly a curiosity. And I think that’s where we have to get to have these, these conversations, is to get to a place of commonality. And I think that Latine opens the door for that conversation to happen somewhat more easily. And so that’s been my experience. And one of the reasons why I think, you know, Latine is such a great alternative of ours.
Jesse: I want to say that, like I had mentioned, you’re busy on so many levels, as I follow you on social media. So I know how busy you are, what made you devote time from your busy schedule to push for this term?
James: Yeah. You know, I think that it’s just been important for me. Hearing, you know, in recent years, you know, growing up in the valley, you know, you have different experiences. My experience was our family, in some ways, was assimilated, right? In some ways, for example, because of the language situation that I just mentioned a little while ago. And, in some ways, you know, because of that my experience growing up in the valley was people kind of looked at me as somewhat of an other, an outsider almost, even though my family has roots in the valley from generations past, right. And so, growing up, I always felt some sort of like, disconnection, because I felt like other people were telling me I couldn’t be a part of the community. Not only because of my experiences of not speaking Spanish, right, but you know, my name is James Lee. And that confuses a lot of Hispanic and Latino people, right, like…
Jesse: …Yeah, you’re like ‘Okay?’
James: And, you know, just briefly, so that you’re aware, and your audience, you know, there was a Chinese migration into Mexico in the 1800s, I believe. And so generations passed, right? I’m a descendant of both Mexicans, right, and people who were Chinese. And so I’m Mexican American. And that’s my, you know, first and foremost identity. But, you know, I am a descendant of people in the past, right? My ancestors, some of them Asian.
Jesse: And then you were blessed with being queer, right. And that’s another mix to this, and a lot of people around you growing up.
James: Right. So identity, for me, has always been very strange and confusing. And I think that as we talk more and more about issues of race and culture, and as you know, you hear more, more and more on the use of Latinx, by people in academia, people in the media, people in politics, and other communities. You know, I keep thinking to myself, there’s sort of a push, by people outside of our community to name us, right, and a rush to name us for some reason, and discomfort with the diversity that’s found within the Latino and Hispanic community. And so, you know, my, my hope here, right with what I’m doing, I created an entity called, Call me Latine. My hope here with Call me Latine is to reintroduce the conversation to people from the perspective of, you know, we have rich diversity within our community. And there are many terms. And so, what I hope people take away from Call me Latine is, that there, there is a lot of diversity and that outsiders, right, so people who don’t identify as Hispanic Latino, Afro Latino, you know, whatever other various identity within our community, if you’re outside of that community, my hope is that they see us and they understand that they have played a role in naming us in the past and they continue to play a role in naming us today, when they use one term over the other. And so that’s, that’s one piece there.
James: But the other piece is that, as someone who struggled with identity for the entirety of my life, especially as a queer person, right, I hope that Call me Latine is a resource, and a place and space to build community and uplift other people who identify as queer non binary or intersectional feminist, because that that is at the core of what we’re doing here, whether you identify as Latinx or Latine, or something else, that’s an alternative to these two terms. The intention, right, is to bring our issues, and bring us, to the forefront and say, ‘we’re here, we matter, and you need to pay attention to our issues also,’ because if you’re not paying attention to us, you’re not paying attention to community. So I’m really hoping that that Call me Latine brings back that focus on the original intention, because now we have so many people who are arguing about a letter without talking about the people it’s supposed to represent.
Jesse: I, when I’m hearing you, it just reminds me of the stuff that, why I got it all my progressive causes, because I wanted to be a bridge builder, between the Latino community, the Latine community and the LGBT community to find some sort of common cause, be that bridge between these two and now you’re taking it, I feel like you’re doing the same type of work really taking it to the next level, which is really needed about including the non binary, the trans person…
Jesse: …Boy, do we ever need it. You know, our culture needs to embrace these various communities within the LGBTQ community, because there’s so much disrespect and hate crimes. And it’s just almost like we need to stick up for each other and accept each other as family. You know, familia is familia, regardless, regardless of who they are, how they are, who they are, we must love them. ‘You must love them. We cannot throw them out of our family’ and It’s beautiful that you’re giving us space, and additional name to, to give some sort of humanity to the, to the community. That’s what it’s all about humanity and respect. And I appreciate that you’re working towards that. Let’s talk about the reaction to your campaign.
Jesse: What, I mean you’ve taken it online, what has been the pros and cons about it?
James: Sure. So let’s talk about the origin story here. So, in September, I believe September 2020. Last fall, the conversation in 2020 was largely focused on the census, right? And so, oh my gosh, there was so many articles and so much attention placed on the word Latinx. And, you know, one day I just I’d had enough of like, people arguing about it online. And I decided to create a Facebook post for my friends, just my friends, right? Saying, ‘hey, look, you know, I understand the grievances that you have with the term Latinx. And for those of you who don’t understand, know, I want you to know what you’re doing right by naming us.’ But the intention behind my post was to introduce my friends to the term Latine, and help them understand its origins and why it was important to me. And me asking my friends, my community, if they’re going to call me anything to call me Latine, because that’s what felt right for me. And that’s how I signed it off, right, it was a Facebook post relatively short, with the sign off saying call me Latine. And it took off like, crazy. I’m not a person who has, you know, viral social media. But, you know, by the end of the day, after everything was said and done, you know, that post explaining what the term Latine was, and why I believed it was best for me, had received over 4,000 shares, and a whole lot of comments, and connected me to so many people I never would have met or spoken to otherwise. And there were both good and bad responses. And that’s a good thing I wanted people to, I wanted to introduce this to people. But it was good to me also that it got people talking, right.
James: I want people to talk about the diversity in our community, right? Because they want to put us into a box. And we’re more than that. But the beautiful thing about it was that I had so many different young people from different parts of the country, and even outside of the country, who were sending me messages saying, “Oh my god, I just read your post. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ve never understood how to word, you know what I was thinking, but I just talked to my parents, I told them about Latine and, you know, we finally connected, they understood me.” And that was very special to me. On the opposite side of things, you know, you have people who think that this is just a conversation about language and sort of, you know, being sort of like a grammar person who’s very strict or something…
James: You know, it’s not about that and…
Jesse: It’s not putting words in competition with other words, right?
Jesse: Just like we want to be called a certain way, you know, we should be able to be called upon another way, if we feel that this is the most appropriate term for us, right? Using the same train of thought.
James: Right. So because of the response, you know, I said to myself, I don’t see anyone else doing this, no one else is talking about this. And someone’s got to do this, right. I, for many years now. At least five years, you know, I’ve been sharing the word Latine with people. But as far as I’ve looked online, I found no resources for people in English, from a United States perspective, right. And so I decided to create CallmeLatine.com, which now serves as a resource dedicated specifically to introducing people to the term Latine going over the frequently asked questions about the term the identity and then also introducing people to the additional step which is for some people, right? We just talked about transgender, we talked about non binary for trans and non binary Latines or Hispanic and Latino people, sometimes, it’s also important to go the extra step and try to remove gender from Spanish conversation. Now, that’s not for everybody. And that’s not the intention behind Call me Latine. It’s not to get people to speak Spanish without gender. But it is, I do provide, you know, the steps to be able to go on that journey, if that’s something that’s important to you, and your self expression, right. So it’s, Call me Latine is both a resource, a language resource and, you know, frequently asked questions, but it’s also a place in which I discuss a lot of issues of relevance to these three communities, right, non binary, queer and intersectional feminist communities. So what I’ve done with that is I’ve created spaces online, most often through Instagram, but we’re also on Facebook. We’re also on Twitter, and soon to be on tik tok, that we’re creating community online, especially at this time during the pandemic, but even…
Jesse: When all of us are at home on our computers.
James: Right, yeah…
Jesse: Probably the best time to do it.
James: Yeah, but even outside of that, right. When you think about our community, specifically, these three communities that I just mentioned, it’s kind of somewhat hard for us all to connect, for whatever reason, right? And maybe you’re living in a small town, maybe you’re someone who wants to connect with other people like yourself, who live in Spanish speaking countries, you don’t know how well I’m trying to create a space for us to have those conversations to lift up other people who, whose voices should be shared.
James: So has anything surprised you with term Latine being used on a certain platforms? You’re like, ‘wow, we made it there. They caught on.’
James: Yeah. No, I want to say that, within the past year, I’ve seen more articles about alternatives to the term Latinx. And while sometimes those articles might be problematic, in some ways, exposure, right to what we’ve been talking about, right, the diversity of identity within our community, I think is a good thing. You know, I’ve seen Remezcla, I’ve seen Mitu. I’ve seen Washington Post, I’ve seen New York Times, I’ve seen a bunch of different news sources start to introduce the term Latine, or to flat out just use the terms interchangeably, which I think is one of the best solutions here for those who feel some sort of tension. You know, it is using identities interchangeably as you speak, as we discussed things. Because in that way, you’re being inclusive, we all know that there’s, that we’re an umbrella community. And I think using our different identities, is a good thing. And, you know, from a personal point of view, I did, you know, have a problem with the word Latinx for a while but as I’ve been moving into this space of Call me Latine, and what we’re trying to achieve, I’ve realized, ‘why?’ right…
James: I think I think the important thing is to it for me, right? Is self identity. And that is very important for all of us, whether you identify as Latinx, or Latine, Latinu is even one of the other alternative terms, or anything in between, right? Our individual identities, the decision to have a personal or individual identity is a very personal decision. Right. And, we should respect that.
Jesse: What do you hope to accomplish five years from now? 10 years from now?
James: You know, we’ll see if Call me Latine, lasts that long. I hope so. I hope that Call me Latine really does create a space for our community to come together. And specifically bring the attention back to intersectional feminists, non binary people to queer people, because so much of the conversation has moved away from our three communities when the intention really is to highlight you know, all of the things that we are struggling with. Whether it’s, you know, wage discrimination or its sexual violence, or its gender violence, or, you know, it’s heteronormativity in the workplace. Who knows what, right? There’s so many different things affecting these three communities. And my intention behind Call me Latine is to highlight these issues to provide a space for us to come together as a community, share experiences, and lift each other up.
Jesse: So for more information about Call me Latine, the community you created, where can listeners go to read more about it. You mentioned a website.
James: Yeah, you can visit callmelatine.com, follow us on Instagram @ callmelatine. Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, all the same handles. And please get in touch if you want to share your story, that’s what we are all about.
Jesse: James, I want to thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing this beautiful journey that you are on with Latine. And I hope you don’t just stop at this. I hope there are more things you’re going to be doing in life, because you’re the type of person we need. The ambassador that we need. That’s going to bring the LGBTQ folks and the Latine community together, to do some great stuff and build on this progressive movement. Thank you so much James, I really appreciate you coming on the show.
James: Thank you Jesse, I really appreciate it.
Call me Latine is a resource dedicated to addressing gender and heteronormative bias in Hispanic and Latino culture. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @callmelatine.
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