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The Spain Among Us

June 2024
19min read

After half a millennium we scarcely feel the presence of Spain in what is now the United States. But it is all around us.

In 1883 Walt Whitman received an it Santa Fe and deliver a poem at a celebration of the city’s founding. The ailing sixty-four-year-old poet wrote back from his home in Camden, New Jersey, that he couldn’t make the trip or write a poem for the occasion, but he sent along some remarks “off hand”: “We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake.”

Whitman was concerned less with rearranging a view of the past than with creating a vision of the future. Although the United States was enjoying immense prosperity, the poet said that the country did not possess “a society worthy the name.” The national character was yet to he established, lie thought, hut he knew that it would he a “composite” and that “Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts”: “No stock shows a grander historic retrospect—grander in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity and honor. … As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate [its] splendor and sterling value. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action?”

For many the word ‘Spanish’ evokes missions, but the legacy runs far deeper. We remain on a path that the Spaniards began to blaze five hundred years ago.

But in fact, the Spanish achievement was far from subterranean. It merely seemed so from the Northeast. A great part of the West, from Texas to California, was profuse with the landmarks of Spanish achievement—towns and villages, ranches and churches, places where the Spanish language and culture were defining. The town where he was asked to speak, Santa Fe, was then and is now the oldest political capital in the United States, having been founded in 1609. And the city where Whitman had lived for many years, New York, had been home to a community of Sephardic Jews as early as 1654. Yet Whitman was correct in saying that the Spanish role in America’s past was not fully appreciated and that the Spanish role in America’s future would be critical. These points are being raised more forcefully as the Americas mark the five hundredth anniversary of their discovery by Columbus, on behalf of Spain.


What exactly is the Spanish legacy? What is the Spanish imprint on the United States? For most Americans the word Spanish immediately summons up the word mission and an image of whitewashed walls and ornate towers gleaming in the California sun. The missions are indeed the best-known Spanish legacy. In their time they influenced the spiritual and cultural life of millions, and they exert a broad influence on American architecture to this day. The oldest surviving documents written in the United States by Europeans are Spanish—parish registers from St. Augustine, Florida, which is the oldest surviving European settlement in the country. Millions of Americans live in places founded by the Spaniards, places such as San Antonio, El Paso, Santa Fe, San Diego, Los Angeles (actually founded by a party of blacks and Indians under Spanish auspices), and San Francisco. Many of these cities and towns continue to be largely Hispanic in population, culture, and language. The West was explored and settled by Spaniards. Ranching, which is regarded as a peculiarly American way of life, was invented by the Spaniards, and without the efforts of a man named Bernardo de Gâlvez we might have lost the Revolutionary War.

But the Spanish legacy runs far deeper and influences us more today than a list of buildings and place names and heroes would suggest. We are still on a path that the Spaniards began to blaze five hundred years ago. They were the first pupils of the New World, the first to learn the lesson that these continents are the land of dreams. In their books we read the first descriptions of the sequoia, of hailstones that dent helmets, and the inextinguishable hope that the place of utter happiness is just over the horizon. The words más aliá (farther on) appear like an incantation in their chronicles. Not here? Very well. Más aliá!

From the twentieth-century perspective the wanderings of the first Spanish explorers have a comical element—who would look for gold in Kansas? In some books you will find Francisco Vâsquez de Coronado written down as a fool for doing exactly that (one prominent writer speaks of the “Coronado fiasco”). Then why, we might ask, have scores, even hundreds, of modern Americans, professionals and amateurs, expended fortunes in time, money, laborious study, and physical effort in trying to trace the exact path of this fool and find the merest scrap of material evidence of him? The answer is that we have learned, in large part from the efforts of the Spaniards, that the very act of seeking lies at the heart of the American character. We look for Coronado’s path because he was a great, original American seeker. He went in search of wealth and found something better instead; he found the American West. Wallace Stegner writes, “America was discovered by accident and explored to a considerable extent by people trying to find a way to somewhere else”: to India; to a Northwest Passage; to the land of El Dorado; to the fabled land of Queen Califía, for whom the Spaniards named California; or to the Seven Cities of Cíbola—Coronado’s personal dream. With some three hundred men he searched through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and into Kansas.


Do we still laugh that Coronado found Kansas instead of gold? In one of our own modern myths, Dorothy returns, transformed, to that very place, unburdened by the emeralds of Oz, but having learned about courage, love, and wisdom. The Spaniards were the first to learn about the transforming power of the New World, that this is a place of mirage and miracle and that the two are forever getting mixed up; that the land that refuses to yield up silver or gold dispenses, más allá , a Grand Canyon, maize, buffalo, and an Eden in the Rio Grande Valley—and, in time, the richest nation in history.


The Grand Canyon was discovered when Coronado sent a detachment under García López de Cárdenas to find the passes to the South Sea (the Pacific) that the Indians had told of. López went off, did not find the South Sea, but did find himself at the edge of a precipice the likes of which he had never seen before. He sent men down to the river at the bottom. It did not seem that far, judging by some rocks below that appeared to be a man’s height. The scouts came back in a few hours; too far to the river—those rocks are higher than the tallest tower in Seville!

In Texas the chronicler Pedro de Castaneda found himself in the field of dreams; the earth there was so flat it seemed round “in the shape of a ball”; it was like standing at the top of the world: “wherever a man stands … he is surrounded by the sky at the distance of a crossbow shot.” Farther on they found America’s inland sea, the ocean of grass. Walking across it was like sailing in a boat with no rudder. It could swallow an army. In amazement Castañeda watched the grass spring up again after the column had passed. “Who could believe,” he marveled, ”… they left no more traces when they got through than if no one had passed over?” One man strolled into the grass and was never seen again; the search party itself was lost for days.

The wanderings of the explorers can seem comical, but we learned from them how seeking lies at the heart of the American character.

At home in Mexico Castaneda pondered the worth of the enterprise: “For although they did not obtain the riches of which they had been told, they found the means to discover them and the beginning of a good land to settle in and from which to proceed onward.” ¡Más allá!

Charles F. Lummis, the great collector and savior of Southwestern art and architecture, called the Spanish the “world-finders.” A tremendous outpouring of Spanish exploration culminated in 1542, the year Coronado’s expedition ended. Hernando de Soto’s party was on its way to Mexico, having landed in Florida in 1539 and explored Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Alabama, crossed the Mississippi (the first Europeans to do so), and pressed up the Arkansas River into Oklahoma. At sea Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed from Mexico along the Baja CaIifornian coast and discovered San Diego Bay and the Channel Islands. After Cabrillo’s death his second-in-command continued up the Pacific coast to make the first European sighting of Oregon. Ruy López de Villalobos sailed across the Pacific to a group of islands he named the Philippines. Francisco de Orellana, having ascended and descended the Andes to reach the headwaters of the Amazon, emerged at the mouth of that river after two years.

It is interesting to compare this record with that of English wanderlust. Nearly two centuries later William Byrd, upon his return from a surveying trip along the Virginia-Carolina border, wrote that “our country has now been inhabited more than 130 years by the English, and still we hardly knew anything of the Appalachian Mountains, that are no where above 250 miles from the sea.”

The period from Columbus’s first landfall in 1492 to 1607, when the English made their settlement at Jamestown, has traditionally been a blank spot in American history books. Some texts state quite plainly that the history of the United States begins in 1607, making only the most cursory mention of the sixteenth century—the century when, in the words of the historian Bernard Bailyn, Spain created “the largest and most populous empire the western world had seen since the fall of Rome.” The historian Howard Mumford Jones also compared Spain’s sixteenth-century achievements to those of antiquity: “The Spaniards invented a system of colonial administration unparalleled since the days of ancient Rome; in religion they launched the most sweeping missionary movement since the Germanic tribes accepted Christianity. … As for culture, the Spaniards transplanted dynamic forms of Renaissance art, thought, and institutions to the Americas with amazing quickness.” The Spanish established a college for the sons of Indian chiefs, in Mexico in 1536, a university in Santo Domingo in 1538, the University of Mexico in 1553. Spaniards set up the first printing press in the New World in 1539, and, as Jones observed, “When in 1585 a forlorn little band of Englishmen were trying to stick it out on Roanoke Island, three hundred poets were competing for a prize in Mexico City.”

The earliest naturalist of the New World was probably Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, who first visited the Americas in 1514 and published a multivolume general and natural history between 1535 and 1557. Two centuries later Capt. Alejandro Malaspina led one of the most important West Coast explorations. In the early 1790s Malaspina’s ships made their first landfall in Mulgrave Sound in Alaska, where Malaspina and his staff studied a glacier that was later named for the captain, traded with the Tlingits for artifacts (the Spaniards carefully noted the Tlingit names for the objects they collected), and carried out experiments with a pendulum, seeking to measure the intensity of gravity at that latitude as a way of computing the exact size of the earth. Heading south, a member of the expedition became the first botanist to discover and describe the sequoia. The paintings of birds and landscapes made on this visit are today the oldest surviving works of art made in California.

In California Malaspina received valuable assistance from Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, the founder of nine missions, who provided native guides to take the scientists into the field. The first European settlement in California had been established in 1769 at San Diego by Caspar de Portolá, who blazed El Camino Real, today’s Highway 101; discovered the La Brea tar pits (the Indians had long used their pitch to caulk their boats); and experienced an earthquake that knocked his men from their feet. With Portolâ came Father Junípero Serra, who founded nine missions. Fathers Serra, Lasuén, and their successors established a total of twenty-one missions and baptized about 88,000 Indians in the course of nearly seven decades of evangelical work. The two great mission founders are buried at the jewel of the California missions, San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, in Carmel. The high architectural aspirations of the Franciscans there were carried out by Indian workers inexperienced at making such things as a Moorish dome. The result, with its irregular walls and heartfelt but misshapen dome, is a handmade frontier masterpiece of poignant beauty. When it was crumbling in the 187Os, Robert Louis Stevenson helped raise funds for a restoration with an angry article, saying, “The United States Mint can coin many millions more dollar pieces, but … when the Carmel church is in the dust, not all the wealth of the states and territories can replace what has been lost.”

While in 1585 a forlorn Little band of Englishmen was trying to stick it out on Roanoke Island, three hundred poets were competing for a prize in Mexico City.

The greatest Spanish landmark on the East Coast is at St. Augustine, Florida: the Castillo de San Marcos. This fortress is the oldest in the United States, begun in 1672. But even before that, nine previous Spanish fortresses, made of wood, had stood on the site; the first one was put up more than half a century before the Pilgrims landed. But the fortress is only the most visible evidence of Florida’s Spanish heritage. It is not widely known that Florida was once the site of a flourishing system of missions comparable to those in the Southwest and California. In the mid-1600s 70 Franciscans were ministering to 25,000 Indians at 38 missions in the Southeast.


Florida has been a part of the United States only since 1821; it was Spanish for three centuries. It is one of those parts of the country that were fought and argued over, quite bloodily, by Americans, Spanish, French, and English. The standard Schoolbook texts dutifully explain the swaps, treaties, and overseas diplomatic maneuverings that ushered into our borders such places as Florida, the Northwest Territory, the Oregon Territory, and that peculiar strip known as the Gadsden Purchase. In the American mind it all tends to have been inevitable, and the rest is just details. But after the Revolution, when this country was at its most vulnerable, the United States might not have had the breathing space—not elbowroom, but vital territory—that it needed to survive had it not been for the masterful military and naval campaign led by Bernardo de Gâlvez. As governor of Louisiana, which France had transferred to Spain in 1762, Galvez opened the port of New Orleans to American privateers and clandestinely funneled thousands of dollars in cash—”very secret service money,” it was called—to the American agent in New Orleans. This money went directly to George Rogers Clark to pay for his campaign against the British in the Northwest Territory. When Spain declared war on England in 1779, Gálvez personally led a column north, captured British forts at Manchac and Baton Rouge, and successfully demanded the surrender of all the British forts on the Mississippi. In March 1780 he bombarded the British fort at Mobile into surrender. His greatest feat took place the following year, when he besieged and captured the formidable British stronghold at Pensacola. At the start of the assault, Gálvez led a small fleet past the guns of the fort, while a larger Spanish fleet tarried fearfully out of range. Gâlvez sent the reluctant admiral in charge a note: “Whoever has valor and honor will follow me.” The admiral followed.

The naval world is a small one, and it is not unlikely that Gálvez’s stinging note was much talked about. His words had an echo more than eighty years later in the famous utterance of a Union commander exhorting his officers to enter a minefield in Mobile Bay: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” Adm. David Glasgow Farragut might have heard of the Spanish commander’s exploits from his father, a Minorcan of Spanish blood who served for a time in the Continental Navy and whose name was Jorge Ferragut. After the Revolution Gálvez was made viceroy of Mexico. In 1785 he ordered a survey of the Texas coast, and the leader of the expedition honored his superior by putting the name Galvestown on his map. Anglo settlers changed the spelling to Galveston.

It is commonly known that much of the peculiar lingo of the American cowboy was derived from Spanish. Bronco, rodeo, lariat, cinch, mustang, and chaps all are based on Spanish words. From vaquero came “buckaroo,” and from juzgado came “hoosegow.” What is less well known is that the very concept of the ranch—lock, stock, and barrel—was Spanish. From the Old World to the New the Spaniards brought horses, cattle, sheep, goats, burros, and swine. The semiarid plains of the West were similar to the lands in central Spain, where Spaniards had centuries of experience raising cattle. Branding had been practiced in Iberia since the tenth century. The stock that the Spaniards brought with them became the trademark of the Western cattle baron. Known popularly as the Texas longhorn, they had been bred on the semiarid Spanish plain and were perfectly suited for a rugged life in the New World. For one thing they were virtually wild; they fended for themselves, needing no man’s help to find food.

It is commonly known that much of the Lingo of the cowboy was derived from Spanish; what is less known is that the whole concept of the ranch was Spanish.

Cattle raising had been carried on all over Europe, but Iberians were the only Europeans to practice largescale cattle ranching. From the Iberian Peninsula Spaniards transferred their knowledge to the Caribbean, Mexico, Panama, South America, and the North American West. The cattle drive was not invented in Texas; it was an established custom in Iberia, where herds were moved to different pastures with changing seasons. Other Europeans managed their small herds on foot, using dogs. Only the Spaniards herded on horseback. They developed the distinctive saddle that we now identify with the West, with its stirrups that let the cowboy’s legs stay fully extended during a long day on the range, large flat footrests for stability during gallops, and, perhaps most important, the big pommel to which the vaquero, with his lightning-fast hands, would tie his lariat ( la reata ) after he had roped a cow. Vaqueros were the acknowledged masters of this tricky maneuver, one that cost many an Anglo cowpoke a finger or two in trying to learn it. The timid preferred to tie the rope to the pommel first and then lasso the animal. From observing the success of the Spanish, Anglos learned that the West was suitable for ranching and that ranching was a way up the economic ladder for a man or woman with small capital.

Spaniards began to settle in the West about sixty years after Coronado’s expedition had passed through, when Juan de Onate led a group of three hundred people, nearly half of them soldiers, to the Rio Grande Valley in 1598. Santa Fe was founded in 1609 by Pedro de Peralta. Despite the best efforts of the government to persuade settlers to live together in walled towns for their own protection, the Spaniards set themselves up in scattered isolation, each family close to its fields. Nonetheless, by 1800 Santa Fe had a population of about 2,500. In 1807 the United States government sent Lt. Zebulon Pike to look around and size up the region. When Pike built a small fort and ran up the Stars and Stripes, the alarmed Spanish arrested him and escorted him out through the Rio Grande Valley, which impressed the spy with its beauty and fertility. Pike’s published description of the region excited great interest in the East. When Mexico attained its independence in 1821, its government opened the borders to trade with the United States, with the result that a brisk and profitable commerce sprang up along the Santa Fe Trail.

One of the premier artists and mythmakers of the West, Frederic Remington, spent a great deal of time in the old Spanish section and was impressed by what he saw, or more accurately, by what he didn’t see: “The Americans have gashed [the rest of the] country up so horribly with their axes, hammers, scrapers and plows that I always like to see a place which they have overlooked; some place before they arrive with their heavy-handed God of Progress.”

In New Mexico some Indians managed to retain their old ways of life partly because their Hispanic neighbors had left them alone, to a degree. Charles Lummis gave credit to the Spanish for what they had done and not done, in comparison with the acts of the United States: “It is due to the generous and manly laws made by Spain three hundred years ago, that … the Pueblos enjoy today full security in their lands, while nearly all others (who never came under Spanish dominion) have been time after time ousted from lands our government had solemnly given to them.”

Attracted by the unspoiled landscape and by the chance to see the Indian cultures of the time, many artists began to head to the Southwest in the early 1900s. Expecting to concentrate solely on the Indians, the newcomers were fascinated by New Mexico’s Spanish legacy, preserved in Taos, in Santa Fe, and in remote valleys. They painted portraits, adobe churches and houses, and religious and folk festivals. They found themselves openly accepted by the Indians and Spanish and were enchanted by the old carved woodwork they discovered in Spanish houses and churches, by the metalwork wrought in local smithies, and, most of all, by the religious images called santos , which they avidly collected, causing an unfortunate boom in scavenging by curio dealers.

A 1907 literary history states: “It is curious what an attraction Spain and Spanish history have always .had for the best Americans. It is, as Hawthorne once said, as if America wished to pay the debt she owed to her discovery.” America’s literary fascination with Spain and Spanish America began with Washington Irving, who wrote a biography of Columbus and a highly popular collection of sketches, The Alhambra , recounting old Spanish and Moorish tales. James Fenimore Cooper wrote a novel about Columbus; William Dean Howells introduced American readers to the works of Spanish realists; Herman Melville brooded upon the character of a Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, and scribbled notes in the margins of his copy of Don Quixote . Probably the deepest and most significant Spanish literary imprint of this era was on the quintessentially America writer Mark Twain. The characters in Huckleberry Finn are New World versions of Quixote and Sancho Panza, and one critic went so far as to say, “Mark Twain is not fully understood without Cervantes.”

There was another, darker element in American writing and thinking about Spain—the so-called Black Legend, a durable mélange of anti-Hispanic and anti-Catholic propaganda that presented the Spanish as uniquely cruel and barbarous, interested only in gold and not in planting permanent colonies. The legend had its origins in the brutal and widespread mistreatment of the Indians in the first decades of the Spanish exploration, when the Spaniards killed tens of thousands of Native Americans and enslaved hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands more died of European diseases—smallpox, measles, diphtheria, cholera—to which the inhabitants of the New World had no immunity.

Many Spanish priests were appalled at the treatment of the Indians and protested to the crown. The most prominent was Father Bartolomé de las Casas, who was himself a plantation owner and slaveholder on Hispaniola until 1514. While preparing a sermon, he came across a verse in Ecclesiastes that sparked a conversion: “He that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, his offering is ridiculous, and the gifts of unjust men are not accepted.” It became clear to him “that everything done to the Indians thus far was unjust and tyrannical.” He immediately freed his own slaves and preached that the Spaniards were sinners for exploiting the Indians. Thus began the remarkable career of the man who would be the chief voice crying in the wilderness against the conquest. One would assume that the royal apparatus, delighted at the gold that poured into its coffers from the efforts of the conquistadors, would brush aside criticism from whistle-blowing clerics, but that was not the case.


In a debate in 1519 conducted at Barcelona before nineteen-year-old King Charles I, Las Casas declared, in words that would have a secular echo in Thomas Jefferson’s declaration of liberty and equality for all, that “our Christian religion is suitable for and may be adapted to all the nations of the world, and all alike may receive it; and no one may be deprived of his liberty, nor may he be enslaved on the excuse that he is a natural slave.”

Although the king made it plain that mistreatment of the Indians would not be tolerated and promulgated laws to protect them, the abuses continued. In 1550 the royal Council of the Indies suggested to the king that “it would be fitting for Your Majesty to order a meeting of learned men, theologians, and jurists … to … consider the manner in which these conquests should be carried on … justly and with security of conscience.” And amazingly, Charles ordered that the conquest of the New World be held in suspension until such a convention could discuss the morality of the enterprise. As the historian Lewis Hanke has observed, “Probably never before had such a mighty sovereign ordered his conquests to cease until it should be decided if they were just.” Las Casas spoke before the convention for five days, describing atrocities that Spaniards had committed and begging for an end to them.

The conquest stopped dead for sixteen years while a new legal policy was worked out. The “New Laws” of 1573, published during the reign of Philip II, placed strict limits on the use of force. Slavery was forbidden, although it continued to exist in secret. The taking of land or homes was forbidden. However, Indians were still expected to render tribute to the government and provide labor.

In reviewing the record of Spain’s colonization of the Southwest, the historian Elizabeth John wrote, “Contrary to the Black Legend, and notwithstanding the flagrant violations of Indian rights, it is on the Spanish frontier that one finds the earliest commitment to due process for Indians and the only consistent efforts to foster self-governance of Indian communities.” Hanke regarded Spanish reforms as the first social experiments in the New World and remarked, “No European nation … took her Christian duty toward native peoples so seriously as did Spain.”

The reforms failed to kill the Black Legend. Las Casas’s accusations against the conquistadors were published in Spain. During the Protestant Reformation these books became a weapon against Spain, the primary defender of Catholicism. The Black Legend infected the political debates of three centuries in Europe and America and seeped into the writings of historians, including some of the premier American historians of the nineteenth century—George Bancroft, John Lothrop Motley, and Francis Parkman. Parkman described Spain as “a tyranny of monks and inquisitors, with their swarms of spies and informers, their racks, their dungeons and their fagots [crushing] all freedom of thought and speech”—a view that fails to account for the fact that Las Casas and other reformers published their unpopular views, gained the ear of the king, and influenced imperial policy.

The Black Legend reared up mightily in the United States during the Spanish-American War and was enshrined in textbooks, one of which condemned the Spanish for a custom that was actually enlightened: “Their morals were lax, and their treatment of the savages was cruel, despite the tendency of the colonists to amalgamate with the latter, and thus to descend in the scale of civilization.” Indeed, many historians have taken note of the rapidity with which Spaniards intermarried with Native Americans. The historian Michael Kammen describes “a socio-racial pluralism institutionalized and stabilized by law and custom” in the Spanish colonies, which contrasted markedly with the “tribalism” of the “exclusive and withdrawn” Puritan, Quaker, and German colonies. Of all the Europeans who settled in America, it might be said that the Spaniards were the least racist in this regard, although intermarriages followed class lines; members of the Spanish colonial nobility married into what they perceived to be the Native American upper class. The children of these New World unions were welcomed into upper-class society in Spain itself.


The Spanish were the first to confront the questions posed by colonization: What is the proper, just, and moral relationship between Europeans and Native Americans? To what extent should Europeans, in an effort to “civilize” and “improve” Native Americans, impose European culture, technology, and religious beliefs upon Native Americans? Is it acceptable for European, African, and Native American peoples to become intermingled to create a new race of mixed blood? If Europeans can use American land more productively than Native Americans, can the land simply be taken? The only ideal response would have been the impossible one: to “repeal” the discovery and leave the Americas to their original inhabitants.

Más allá. When the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes received the Cervantes Prize for Literature in 1987, he save an address saying, “The quixotic adventure has not yet ended in the New World.” He spoke about the “debate with others, debate with ourselves” over the meaning of the five-hundredth anniversary “of a disquieting date—1492” and asked: “Who is the author of the New World? Columbus, who first set foot on it, or Vespucio, who first named it? The gods who fled or the gods who arrived? … What does America mean? To whom does this name belong? What does New World mean? … How does one baptize the river, mountain, jungle, seen for the first time? And, most importantly, what name do you give to the anonymous vast humanity—Indian and Creole, mestizo and Black—of the multiracial culture of the Americas? … Who is the author of the New World? All of us are. all of us who incessantly imagine it because we know that without our imagination, America, the generic name of new worlds, would cease to exist.”

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