Gender and Sexuality

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Gender and Sexuality

In Latin America gender-laden terms designated the social worth and status of women and men. Hembrismo, machismo, marianismo, feminismo, and patria potestad describe and prescribe gender relations. As hembra, for example, women are identified by their biological nature and reproductive capacity. Hembrismo implies that women are physically vulnerable, pregnancy proves the virility of men, and sex is the medium of communication and the functional link between women and men.

Machismo is a convention that affords men respect and power. Manliness is measured by men's ability to head traditional families, produce children, protect the virginity of female relatives, and defend against other men. The machista is brave, forceful, insubordinate, and sexually aggressive but never sensitive. To display soft or effeminate traits invites ridicule or harassment for homosexual behavior.

Women are, then, both objects and proof of men's power and authority. Yet female purity, marianismo, arrogates to women moral superiority that men cannot attain. Wives and mothers are expected to suffer the sexual infidelities of their husbands, and for their pain they earn respect from their communities. Their families, and especially their sons, esteem their chastity and emotional restraint. Maternidad, or motherhood, is essential to women's public and private images. With the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, as their symbol of perfect womanhood, faithful, all-suffering women may gain a modicum of power as men's moral superiors. These traditional patterns are changing in urban Latin America.

Under the patria potestad, men/fathers have power over females in their family. Brought to Spain by the Romans, the patria potestad laws of the thirteenth-century were codified in the Siete Partidas, introduced to the American colonies and adapted to local circumstances in the Recopilació n De Leyes De Las Indias of 1681, and conservatively reformed in the Spanish Napoleonic Code. These laws deemed men responsible for the economic survival of the family unit and the civil authority over all family members. Within the church family, men were religious leaders whose authority over moral covenants and institutionalized belief systems enshrined a patriarchal faith. Empowered by both civil and canon law, men arrogated to themselves all formal positions of authority, and they created laws and sanctions to protect and preserve a patriarchal social order.

Traditionally women's places were within the home, where their primary functions were to have children and to ensure the survival of the young. Prescriptive separate spheres, male domination, and homophobic attitudes notwithstanding, gender roles have always been complex and transitional. Attitudes set by an aggressive, masculine Iberian conquest of the region, by tenets of Roman Catholicism, and by Amerindian and African cultures have been challenged by survival needs. From the colonial period onward, widows and spinsters have acquired and maintained wealth and sought their own liberation. Only marriage, not gender per se, limited women's legal authority. In the modern period, technology has allowed women and men to control the sizes of families, to share in the financial support of the family unit, and to compete in politics and work. While it is unclear whether the power of patriarchy has been affected significantly over time, it is certain that new theories of government, industrial work structures, individual rights, sexuality consciousness, and modern gender standards have offered alternatives to old social and gender orderings.


Outnumbered by millions, Iberians of necessity carried out conquest and domination by brute force and absolute authority. Upon contact, Iberian men formed legitimate and illegitimate unions with native women. Both the church and crown encouraged sanctioned marriage, but Iberian obsession with pureza de sangre (racial purity) caused the crown to accept unsanctioned unions between Iberians and Indians. The church, however, faithfully defended marriage, even between people of different racial backgrounds. At the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the church passed legislation regularizing marital union and imposed European standards of Catholic morality on citizens of the New World.

Initially Spaniards married Amerindian women, but by 1550 they preferred marriage with immigrant Spanish women and concubinage with women of color. To arrest legal interbreeding among people of different races and social status, the crown in 1728 decreed that men in the military, members of nobility, and bureaucrats needed official permission to marry people outside their class and caste. In 1778, the church, too, limited mixed marriages in the Real Pragmática, giving parents the right to guide their children in the selection of mates. Beginning in 1805, interracial marriages could take place only with the dispensation of civil authorities. Despite concern with pureza de sangre, mestizos—often the issuance of unsanctioned unions—outnumbered Iberians and creoles. Their social positions, however, were ambiguous, since they were neither indigenous nor Iberian.

Slavery, too, had sexual and gendered dimensions that reflected the dominance of the Iberian. Almost immediately, Spaniards and Portuguese traders brought Africans to the Americas to work on sugar plantations. In Brazil and the Caribbean, where male slaves outnumbered females, black men toiled and died, many without marrying. African women worked in homes as well as in fields, and they were prey to sexual advances of Iberian males. Like Amerindian women, they could not expect to marry their Iberian masters, but they might attain improved living standards for themselves and their offspring, though even that was not guaranteed. The African male was often powerless to protect the women of his race, and thus slavery also meant sexual domination of African women and the emasculation of African men.

From sexual associations formed during the Conquest came the predominant social customs. Iberians dominated people of color, powerful men could be sexually aggressive and promiscuous, Iberian blood was preferred, mestizos and mulattoes composed a new race that was despised, and women of all races assumed a subordinate status to Iberian men and to men within their own classes and castes.

Religious rituals reinforced, instructed, and prescribed behavior and beliefs associated with gender roles. Catholic conversion of non-Europeans, an essential aspect of conquest and colonization, suppressed and subsumed Amerindian and African polytheisms, rendering them undercurrents and folkways in a prevailing Catholic society. Church ritual and advice from the confessional box taught parishioners chastity and monogamy. At the Council of Trent, the church took moral issue with free and unsanctioned unions common to some native communities and practiced by Iberian colonists, despite church disapproval. At stake was preserving women's virginity until marriage. Those who deviated from church dictates were branded sinners. Furthermore, instruction in proper sexual conduct became a means of acculturating the masses to Iberian culture, since sex, marriage, and cultural mingling fell under the jurisdiction of the church.

Unlike Catholicism, practical Amerindian and African beliefs resolved everyday gender problems such as impotence, unfaithfulness, attracting a love partner, and unwanted pregnancies. Catholic discouragement of folk religions came in the form of persecuting offenders before inquisitional tribunals. The persistence of these belief systems suggests that Santería, Voodoo, Candomblé, and indigenous curanderas (healers) allowed people to assert control over their sexuality. Since women more than men practiced witchcraft, it might also be assumed that women sought surreptitious ways of protecting their sex from domination by men, the church, and the state.

Class and caste created deep divisions between people of the same gender, divisions that may have been more important than the rift between women and men. Spanish and creole women, for example, tended to marry later, have fewer children, and work within the home more often than indigenous or mestizo women. They also remained single and did not remarry when widowed with the same frequency as lower-class women of color did. Upper-class white women, when they worked, managed properties or loaned money. But for the most part, women clustered more at the unskilled-service levels, although some Spanish and creole women were moneylenders and estate managers. The remaining professions were left for women of color in the lower classes, who worked in the cottage textile industry and as domestics, street vendors, pieceworkers, midwives, healers, prostitutes, and slaves.

Men, too, had careers, professions, or jobs according to their social status, but they reached professional levels women could never attain. Mestizo and mulatto men were artisans and skilled laborers, even teachers. Amerindian and black men were unskilled and skilled laborers, farmers, and slaves.

The power of the patriarch extended to nearly all aspects of life, but it was curtailed somewhat in convents. Though priests confessed the nuns and saw to their religious purity, in some convents nuns such as Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz studied and wrote. Convents not only shielded women from worldly realities, they also served as lending institutions. In Brazil, for example, entering novices paid a dowry, which the convent invested. Families contributing dowries could borrow money as long as their relative remained in the nunnery. Asunció n Lavrin reminds us, however, that most nuns were pious women who devoted their lives to poverty, charity, chastity, and prayer. Though their associations with men differed from those of women outside the convent, their vows were not an attempt at liberation from patriarchal rule, for they were ultimately subordinates in a patriarchal faith.

The Bourbon Reforms (1764–1804) placed particular emphasis upon efficient, systematic production and introduced new governmental agencies and scientific procedures to extract New World wealth. Imposed Bourbon trade regulations threatened some of the cottage industries, such as textile production, which had been run by women. The reforms also created new opportunities in teaching for women.

The Bourbon Reforms notwithstanding, the century of enlightenment in Latin America left most women with limited work opportunities and divided along class and caste lines. Only women of the well-to-do classes were no longer cloistered and condemned to lives of idleness in the same numbers as before. But all women benefited from an enhanced notion of motherhood: they were viewed as fundamental conduits of modern values to their children and as leaders in philanthropy, which gave their historic private occupations a public importance.


Napoleon Bonaparte's removal of the Spanish kings (1808) provoked wars of independence beginning in 1810. Women of all classes were affected by war, with many fleeing—some in carriages and others on foot—before advancing armies. Before it was all over, gender lines had blurred, as the focus on victory overcame the restrictions of sex. Left to survive outside the walls of their homes and spurred on by their devotion to the men in their families and to ideals of national independence, women served as soldiers, conspirators, nurses, arms smugglers, writers, and money solicitors. In most countries, especially after independence had been won early in the nineteenth century, women's efforts were all but forgotten in societies insensitive to gender inequities. An exception to this rule was Cuba (independent in 1898), where women's contributions were legendary and served to drive men to equal their sacrifices. José Martí remarked about mambisa bravery, "With women such as these, it is easy to be heroes."

Independence pitted ideals of greater individual freedom, federalist government, the separation of church and state, and laissez-faire capitalism against the more familiar corporate state with community allegiance, central government, the union of church and government, and a controlled economy. Nineteenth-century leaders fought civil wars over rules of government and over national boundaries. Women moved with the troops as soldiers, cooks, and nurses, and they entered professions vacated by men. Destruction caused economic decline in agriculture but opened up work in light industry for both women and men. Economic and political instability forced women into new roles, and as that happened, nationalism and motherhood became inextricably intertwined. Mothers sacrificing themselves and their children for independence became a symbol of militant patriotism.

The end of the nineteenth century brought relative peace, but as the troops returned, men replaced women at work. Decades of struggle toward modern statehood made some women want to redefine gender roles. In some countries, male politicians modernized legal codes, which subsequently opened the way for demands that democratic rights be extended to all citizens, including women and men from the dominated classes. Educated women from the elite and professional classes came forward with petitions for suffrage, equal education, and new civil legislation. In a few instances, such as in the Tobacco Stemmers' Guild in Cuba, working women organized in unions and guilds for protective legislation and equal rights. These early reform efforts, which were rooted in nineteenth-century liberal notions of democracy, universal suffrage, and scientific government fueled the nascent labor movement.


The twentieth century brought ideals of class struggle that involved women and men in revolutionary, sometimes Marxist, movements against old forms of rule. In the nineteenth century, new values and nascent capitalism emphasized individualism. The closed family unit opened to the public as women and children became wage earners and members of the informal labor force. Women organized reform movements that focused on political authority, legal reforms, and access to education and jobs.

The promise of prosperity and order did not materialize for most Latin Americans. Women and men were pushed off the land. Men migrated from farm to city in search of work, often leaving women unwed mothers and heads of impoverished households. Women migrated, too, leaving their families behind and finding work primarily as domestic servants or prostitutes in urban centers.

Between 1880 and 1940 social activists, both feminist and Marxist, rallied to defend the poor. In Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Cuba, women's movements formed and demanded new rights and protection for women and children. These early women's groups grew out of nineteenth-century philanthropic associations, but they broadened their goals by viewing patriarchy as an impediment to female self-determination. Yet these early activists were slow to attack machismo directly as the root of repression. Instead, Latin Americans attempted to empower women as mothers and as the creators of a new social order based on moral responsibility. When forced to confront misogyny, they chided men and even objected to men's right to kill adulterous wives, to commit adultery with impunity, and to ignore their illegitimate children.

That Latin American feminists were loath to confront total and arbitrary male authority could imply female weakness and the absence of committed feminism. It is also explained by the multiple fronts where issues of social justice were addressed. They joined revolutionary movements that opposed illegitimate governments, repressive police action, foreign intervention, poverty, and social injustice. Thus, women sided with men when men fought for changing the social order, and they were against men when men repressed women. They were never purely feminists in the U.S. sense.

Early women's organizations were diverse, some seeking only suffrage, others general social reform, and still others socialist feminism. Conservative women activists, such as members of the Liga Patrió-tica in Argentina, supported liberal reforms for women in their quest to shore up power for the Conservative Party. Moderates formed the majority in the feminist movement. They approved of extensive social and labor reforms under a capitalist regime. Cuba, Brazil, and Argentina were the three countries with strong socialist feminist groups whose members, unlike other feminists, looked to political centralization and community guarantees, not autonomy and individual rights, to aid poor women. As a result of women's activism, nations passed progressive legislation that improved gender equity. Ecuador granted women suffrage in 1929, and by 1933 Uruguay, Brazil, and Cuba had followed. Surprisingly, Argentina and Mexico, two nations where women had organized early, did not grant voting rights to women until 1947 and 1953, respectively.

To men, women's liberation was only a minor side effect of a larger effort to establish a new ruling order. The outcome of this effort was progressive labor, penal, and civil laws in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and Cuba that granted women divorce rights, labor protection and equality, maternity codes, and civil equality. Some of these reforms granted individual women authority and independence vis á vis individual men, but ultimately authority lay with the state.

Latin American women joined international feminist movements as early as 1889. At the 1928 Pan-American Union (PAU) meeting in Havana, Cuban feminists from a variety of organizations marched with Doris Stevens and the U.S. National Women's Party, spoke at special meetings, and succeeded in forming the Inter-American Commission on Women within the PAU to oversee women's rights throughout the hemisphere. This was the first international feminist organization, out of a spirit of Pan-Americanism. This effort did not, however, draw support from socialist feminists who viewed North American involvement as another form of imperialism.

From 1940 to 1960, rebelliousness in Latin America either languished or was suppressed by dictatorships. With the Cuban Revolution of 1959, however, social nationalism sent rebels to arms to challenge internal colonialism and U.S. hegemony. Women, confident of their place in a new socialist world, fought alongside men. Many, however, were disenchanted by the unliberated attitudes of their compañeros, who, on the personal level, relegated them to secondary positions within the movement and dominated them sexually. Neofeminists, convinced by national revolution as well as by notions of gender equality coming from the radical feminist movement in the United States, inspired Latin American women to restate their own principles of liberation. The tone of Latin American feminism became more militant than forty years earlier. Activists attacked the patriarchy directly but resisted lesbian feminism, which they associated with the North American movement. Latin American feminists sought ways to organize the poor, and to explain violence and sexual harassment. Theorists began deconstructing the language as a root cause of exaggerated gender separation and evaluation.

The split between North American and Latin American feminists was clearly articulated at the United Nations International Women's Year meeting in Mexico City in 1975. Mexican feminists, in particular, decried the irrelevance of the U.S. movement for Latin American women. They accused North Americans of concentrating on legal equality, redefinitions of gender, sexuality, political power, and birth control when Latin American women were intent on rescuing their families from poverty, military repression, and lack of economic development. Subsequently, many economic development projects in Latin America contained components for women, and in time notions of appropriate technology and appreciation for the social contributions of all members of communities informed development plans.


Prostitution, long considered a "necessary evil," was and is the logical consequence of female economic and educational destitution, the commercial value attached to sex, the social dominance of men, and strictly taught morals regarding the bonds of marriage. Men's presumed appetite for sex and women's presumed weaker physical drive have excused men's search for sexual satisfaction outside the home. Taboos placed on respectable women seeking sexual gratification have, on the surface, discouraged expectations of sexual fulfillment between wives and husbands.

Prostitutes have been despised by society for selling themselves. Most prostitutes have been among the poorest and the most defiled members of society. More often than not, general condemnations of commercial sex have overwhelmed objective knowledge about the social and economic arrangements that have made prostitution a reasonable choice for some women. Male prostitution, often ignored by public authorities unless it included homosexual relations, has rarely incited the condemnations that female prostitution has.

During the colonial period, matters of prostitution were handled by ecclesiastical courts. In the eighteenth century, the church established casas de correción or casas de sanidad (correctional houses) to rehabilitate women, usually nonwhites. Priests, bishops, and inquisitional tribunals heard accusations of prostitution, and all discouraged the practice. Most reprehensible was the offer by parents to sell their daughters to brothels and by husbands to prostitute their wives. Consenting adult women were reprimanded with increasing severity as connections between venereal disease and promiscuous sex became clear.

In the nineteenth century, prostitution came under the aegis of the state, and justifications for controlling it included deterring the spread of venereal disease and collecting taxes. During the second half of the nineteenth century, as governments began to stabilize and modernization challenged old moral codes, prostitution came to be understood as an economic, social, and political problem. Modern concepts of the state held that the family formed the basis of society. The values, belief systems, behavior, and relationships that were formed within the family projected patriotic images.

Argentina serves as an example of how and why the rules regarding prostitution changed. The government's legalization of prostitution by an 1875 ordinance was a means of controlling an already viable business. Under the ordinance, officials collected revenues, set up health clinics, and formally designated parts of the city for prostitution, thus isolating prostitutes from the rest of society. Moreover, in response to international and national accusations of white slavery (the importing of white prostitutes), the government increasingly limited the operations of brothels and passed antisolicitation laws.

In 1934, after 58 years of legalized prostitution, Argentine officials began outlawing bordellos, claiming that prostitutes did not register with health clinics, that venereal disease was spreading, and that prostitutes engaged in scandalous behavior. They were also responding to Buenos Aires's reputation as a center of white slave trade. Moreover, industrialization offered employment alternatives. Municipality after municipality abolished their licensed houses and incorporated new legislation, most notably the Law of Social Profilaxis (1936), that provided medical care, repatriation, and employment for reformed prostitutes.

With the advent of Juan Perón in 1944, governing values changed once again. Women had been working at respectable jobs in increased numbers since the turn of the century, and by 1947 they could vote. Women, thus, were supportive of the pro-labor administration. At the same time, homosexuals were beginning to demand a place in Argentina's moral ordering. Old sex-burdened folkways were disappearing. The tango, originally danced in bordellos between sexually commanding men and alluring women, was replaced by soccer (an all-male player and spectator sport) as the activity of national passion. Homosexuality was beginning to find some expression in literature and art, despite the fact that many Argentines were scandalized by gay relationships. In response Perón promised conservative morality and a return to family values. Part of his plan involved legalizing prostitution, and in 1954 the law was changed so that prostitutes again could practice their trade legally as part of a patriotic defense against illness and unspeakable perversion.

After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro's government tried to end prostitution through rehabilitation programs, respectable jobs, and distribution of wealth. The Federation of Cuban Women, founded in 1960, educated women. Literacy programs were set up to rehabilitate former prostitutes, and vocational schools trained women to work in textile factories. The Cubans concentrated on the economic and political causes of prostitution, believing that by eliminating poverty and a sense of marginalization, prostitution would disappear.

Public soliciting was prohibited, but clandestine commerce continued. The source of inequality came from tourists, who were allowed to shop in "dollar stores" (where only foreign currency was accepted). Avoiding the surveillance of tourist police, young women approached tourists, exchanging sex for clothing and food bought in tourist and diplomatic stores. Until 1989 this sort of commerce was light, but the período especial (economic crisis caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union) created such hardship in Cuba that prostitutes began plying their trade as openly as in the pre-1959 period.

Homosexual acts have been considered social aberrations and deviant behavior in every Latin American country. Yet the history of homosexuality in Latin America is complicated by the unification of Amerindian, Iberian, and African cultures, each of which has had a different perception of homosexuality.

According to some scholars, homosexuality was acceptable behavior among a few pre-contact groups. Archaeological evidence shows that Zunis in New Mexico, the Araucanians of Chile and southern Peru, and the Incas practiced male homosexuality. The most graphic evidence is in Peruvian Moche pottery, with its explicit depictions of men engaged in homosexual lovemaking. Furthermore, no source suggests that homosexual intercourse was punished or discouraged.

The Iberian conquerors, repulsed by native homosexual acts, called the mystified Indians sodomites, and the clergy condemned the accused to be eaten alive by dogs. Yet there is some evidence that the conquerors also practiced homosexual intercourse. During the colonial period, Iberian homosexuals were brought before inquisitional tribunals, where their sin was known as the "ultimate crime against morality" and the "abominable or unspeakable crime," and they were punished by the auto-da-fé. During periods of leniency or neglect, homosexuals in cities were forced to reside in the same poor areas where prostitutes lived. Individual freedoms did not extend to this marginalized group, as gay men could not belong to the military, seek public office, or hold government jobs. Their sexual behavior was also a crime for which individuals could be imprisoned.

Controlling vice proved increasingly difficult in the nineteenth century as Latin American ports opened to international trade and foreign immigration. Port cities were overpopulated with prostitutes. Police records note the arrests of purse snatchers who dressed as women, perhaps to disguise their criminal intent or, alternatively, to express their sexual preference.

Gays and lesbians have felt the greatest repression from authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, which direct police raids even against members of the ruling class. In post-1959 revolutionary Cuba, measures against homosexuals were especially repressive. Under liberal governments, homosexuals have been ignored and neglected but never accepted. Only in the middle- to late-twentieth century have homosexuals organized to protect themselves from arbitrary repression. As early as 1969 in Argentina, but generally in the early 1980s, gays and lesbians formed their own organizations. In 1983 the Fifth March for Gay Pride, which included thirteen homosexual groups, took place in Mexico City.

Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Brazil all have active gay movements. Formed in 1969, the Argentine El Grupo Nuestro Mundo attracted homosexuals with divergent political affiliations. In 1971, the organization renamed itself the Frente de Liberación Homosexual de la Argentina. What united members was a commitment to fighting machismo, the convention of male domination that affected all women and gay men. Members believed that by ending male domination, they would cause a profound revolution, a psychological transformation that would alter the fundamental tenets of Argentine culture.

Although the gay movement gathered force during a period of radical mobilization and revolt against military rule, gays found leftist groups as repressive as the right-wing military government. Only feminists appreciated the benefits to be gained by stopping male domination, but even they were often unwilling to support gay rights. Still, the Frente persisted and in 1973 published a manifesto that demanded the immediate cessation of police repression of homosexuals, the abrogation of an antihomosexual edict, and the freeing of homosexual prisoners. Homosexual activists, more than political dissidents, had to work clandestinely, which impeded the other great objective of creating a gay consciousness and identity. These early dissenters actively engaged in theoretical and cultural analyses that explained their social marginalization and planned confrontations with their oppressors.

Juan Perón's third presidency (1973–1974) proved as repressive of gays as the military government it replaced. Despite the fact that gay organizations had gone to the streets in support of Perón, the right wing of the Peronist Party assailed homosexuals while the party as a whole ignored their manifestos. Disillusioned gays found no comfort among the leftist Montoneros, who denied them membership in their organization. Still with no political home, homosexuals were despised and alone in their struggle. When gay activists declared their opposition to Perón in 1973, they became the victims of police repression. To survive, they had to go underground, where they remained until the fall of the military regime in 1982.

Since then, Argentine gay organizations have grown, especially as a result of their joining the chorus of protesters demanding information on the victims of the dirty war (1976–1981). Activists counted at least seventy of the missing from among their ranks. Under the new democratic governments of presidents Raúl Alfonsín, Carlos Menem, and Nestor Kirchner, gay organizations established official headquarters in downtown Buenos Aires, where they began publishing news journals and political pamphlets.

Although studies of gender and sexuality have often been assumed to concern only women, the field also offers a deepening scholarly understanding of masculinity and the experience of men. In addition, research considering the interactions between ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality has made important strides.

See alsoFeminism and Feminist Organizations; Inter-American Congress of Women; Women; Women in Paraguay.


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Additional Bibliography

Beattie, Peter M. The Tribute of Blood: Army, Honor, Race, and Nation in Brazil, 1864–1945. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

Campuzano, Luisa. Mujeres latinoamericanas del siglo XX: Historia y cultura. Mexico: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Iztapalapa, 1998.

Caulfield, Sueann. In Defense of Honor: Sexual Morality, Modernity, and Nation in Early Twentieth-Century Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Chambers, Sarah. From Subjects to Citizens: Honor, Gender, and Politics in Arequipa, Peru, 1780–1854. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Dias, Maria Odila Leite da Silva. Power and Everyday Life: The Lives of Working Women in Nineteenth-Century Brazil. Translated by Ann Frost. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

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                                            K. Lynn Stoner

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