Coffee & Milk: Race in Brazil

“Why is that slave White, if slaves were Black and Brown?” I asked my mother when watching A Escrava Isaura (2004), one of the many dubbed Brazilian novelas she watched. Set in the 1850s, the story-line, to my astonishment, centered on a White slave. My mom explained how the media whitens our narratives to make them more palatable and how people of color are often refused leading roles. This was my first time realizing it is not only some White Americans that “other” people, but these very “others” perpetuate strata of power and privilege within their communities. I understood that even to other Latinos I am “other” because of my skin. Consequently, the history, culture, and geography of Brazil have always interested me. When applying to study abroad programs, Brazil was easily my first choice. I wanted to study race, society, and inequality. I wanted to see how I would fit in.

Almost a bit illusory, I expected to fit in just fine. I thought that in a country where more than half the population identifies as Mixed and Black that I would finally find my place. My expectations were not necessarily met. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I still enjoy Brazil and in many ways do find myself more comfortable here than in the United States. I enjoy being able to deconstruct my experiences. But, I must admit that I have found the pervasiveness of White supremacy here a bit disappointing.

Afro-Brazilian grafitti in Rio

The privileges of White Brazilians first became evident when I boarded the plane that would take me from New York to São Paulo. I was one of the few Brown people on the flight and a majority of the passengers were White. My first impression was that perhaps these individuals were Americans going there for tourism or more likely, business since São Paulo is an international economic center. But I found that a majority of them spoke Portuguese. It was evident that this was a native Portuguese too. There was little accent and additionally, their mannerisms were much more Latin than American.

Upon landing in Brazil and traveling to Perdizes, the neighborhood where I am staying, I again found few Brown and Black people. The only ones I did interact with then and who I continue to see around in the neighborhood are laborers. They sweep the streets or work as cashiers. The school, PUC, is no different. I have predominantly seen White students and my Current Social Issues professor informed me that it was not until Brazil adopted affirmative action policies in the early 2000s that the few Black and Brown students at PUC started to be admitted. The lack of diversity is visible not only amongst students but professors too. This same professor noted the irony that she is White, yet is the person teaching us about the lack of opportunities for non-Whites in Brazil. That is true throughout. There are few Black and Brown higher education professors because of the access to higher education and the teaching market.

Banner reading diversity outisde of school on first day

What has aided me in feeling at home is the presence of other Black and Brown American students. Of the 16 students on this trip, 12 of us identify as Black and Brown. We are in similar shoes and the mutual struggle we all know is comforting, it is familiar. Together, we pick up on different social cues and together break down our experiences. All of us came to Brazil already interested in race, so these conversations come to us naturally. They are as daily as Brazil’s bread. Similarly, many of the Brazilian students we live with are Brown and Black. Also, all of them come from city peripheries and this provides them with a more socially conscious perspective which has provided me with a lot of context to what I experience.

My rock - the other Black and Brown students

But even though, we are all read as Brown and Black in the United States, how Brazil looks at race has complicated our experiences and they are in no way similar to how they are the United States. We are read differently here. While the United States uses the “one drop rule”, by which if you have any African descendants you are Black, Brazilians use more of a spectrum. In the most recent Brazilian Census, more than 100 racial categories emerged. People categorized themselves as white, pink, yellow, brown, coffee, caramel, black, double black, and a variety of other different colors and descriptions. Because of the existence of this spectrum and the fact that on average Brazilians are darker than Americans, racially we have all shifted. Many of us are considered White in Brazil and processing this has been quite the experience.

In the United States, I nor anyone would really consider me White. But here many people do. One Uber driver in Rio de Janeiro talked to me about how he has found Black Americans to be ruder than White Americans….as if I were not Black? But on the other hand, what I have perceived in going out to bars and clubs, particularly gay ones, is that people like me or like my friends who look like me get overlooked in preference for White people, especially those who seem foreign.  In the US it is a lot different because it is people like me who get fetishized and sexualized. What I think this reveals is that here, someone with my skin color can be anything – while in the United States I do not think there would any question. It demonstrates just how arbitrary race is.

In Rio

So, I appreciate the spectrum in which race is viewed in Brazil. I think it provides individuals with more agency. Yes, it is possible that some Black and Brown people might use this spectrum to disassociate from their origins, but also where do we draw that line? How can I truly say a Black person is trying to de-Black themselves if there is no definitive definition of what Black is? I am no one to claim that someone is Black or not, especially coming in with my outsider perspective. I find solace in the spectrum because my race has never been so clear to me. Some see me as Black, some as Brown, some as Latino, some as mixed. But I should be the one with the power of dictating how I identify and in Brazil, I have found that power. So, despite some of the other missteps I have found Brazilian society to have regarding race, I have found solace here.

Next week, we will be traveling to Salvador de Bahia, a city where 80% of the population is Black. This is the city where it all started: the slave trade, Brazilian culture, and the nation of Brazil itself. I look forward to seeing how pervasive Afro-Brazilian culture is here. Capoeira (a martial arts dance), Candomble (a religion), Samba (a musical genre), and much of Brazilian cuisine originated here and is still celebrated here. As of now, I am expecting this to be the dominant culture, but I will be on the lookout for the Whitewashing of said culture.

practicing capoiera

The reduction of Afro-Brazilian culture to its simplest, darkest parts became evident to me when going to an Afro-Brazilian museum in São Paulo. I expected to see contemporary Afro-Brazilian culture celebrated, but the exhibits mainly touched on colonialism and slavery. Yes, these are undoubtedly important, but I think it is necessary to highlight positive contributions too. Especially, considering how much Brazilian culture is Afro-Brazilian culture at its root. But in Brazil, the narrative is solely about the victimization of the Black community which is one I think we see in the United States too with how a lot of Black narratives are prison or slave narratives.

Outside an Afro-Brazilian exhibit

I look forward to discovering more about the culture as told by those at the center of it, not as dictated by White people. Look forward to my next blog regarding Bahia!  


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Being ‘byelingual’ in Italy

There’s a meme in the language learning community that goes:

“When you speak two languages, but start losing vocabulary in both of them.


Let’s face it, language learning is a roller coaster. No matter how skilled you think you may be, there is always going to be something that is missing. As a Puerto Rican, I was raised in a bilingual environment and while my first language is Spanish there are times that my thoughts and feelings are in English. Through the years, this has developed in a conflicting situation where I mostly function in Spanglish. And for many Puerto Rican millennials, this is the norm. We speak Spanish but sprinkle English words here and there or even start/end phrases in both languages. It’s an unconscious act that is only noticed when you have to forcefully use only one language.

When I first started learning Italian in 2013, I noticed that using two languages to communicate at the same time could have detrimental effects in the long run. One: you can only effectively communicate with people who use the same language patterns. Two: while it may start as a helpful way to learn a new language, it can turn into a lazy habit. From 2013 to 2015, I tried to separate my Italian language learning to just that. If I didn’t know a word, I wasn’t going to replace it with one in English or Spanish, I actively found the word I needed to use and memorized it. At the same time, I also listened to Italian music, watched movies, and even gave it a go at reading contemporary Italian novels. All of these actions, prepared me extremely well to function in a classroom environment, but not so in the real world.

The first time that I set foot in Italy was the summer of 2015. Even though I felt proud because I knew the song of the summer beforehand (#fuori c’è il sole by Lorenzo Fragola), I struggled in everyday interactions. In my mind, I would prepare everything I would say and do, but when it got to talking I would get frustrated because they weren’t following my script. However, this didn’t stop me. Since I was living in Siena, a small town in the Tuscan region, it was relatively easy to mingle with local students and to develop a routine. By the end of the summer, the barista at the local caffé would give my order on credit, because of the rapport we had developed. That’s when I knew that my classroom skills had finally flourished in the real world.

As a result of that Tuscan summer, I thought that studying abroad in Milan for six months would be an easy ride. Even if I hadn’t studied Italian since 2015. Three months in and I can attest that it has been a struggle, but not impossible. The hardest and funniest language problem that I had would have to be the first day that I was in Milan. Filled with an energy that only comes with jet lag and no data on my phone, I set out to explore the city. I remember entering a pizza shop and wanting a pizza margherita and not being able to remember the words in Italian, only in German. Mind you, I’ve only taken a few German courses, but the only thing that ran through my mind was “Käse pizza, käse pizza”. I was literally translating what I wanted, forgetting the cultural connotations, but in the wrong language. Thankfully the lady at the counter understood what I wanted when all that was left for me to do was resort to point and hope it would translate.

Since then, I’ve gotten a lot more practice by following the academic curriculum (Italian courses) at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and going out to international aperitivos (social event where people gather to eat, drink, and talk). While there may be times that I feel like “I’m smarter in Spanish/English” or “I know I studied this back home, but can’t translate the answer now”, I just have to remember to take a deep breath, relax, and not be afraid to ask for help. I’ve also learned that connecting with other internationals whose first language is not English is a great way to practice. Because it forces you to communicate in a common ground where both can equally learn.




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Paradiznik: tomato [Slovene]

It has taken me quite a while, but I am slowly adapting to the language here. Take the word above for example. Thanks to my new job I have mastered the word, paradiznik. I love to say it primarily because it sounds cool, but most of the locals just laugh when I say that the only word I can remember in Slovene is tomato. I’m not sure why it has stuck with me, but I don’t think I will ever forget it.

I am picking up little words and phrases as well:

Zivjo: Hello/goodbye

Dober dan: Good day

Dober tek: Enjoy your meal

Hvala: Thank you

Prosim: Please

This week I asked a local what they would miss most about Slovenia if they were to move, and his answer came as a surprise to me. He said that out of everything in Slovenia, the beautiful landscapes, great food, amazing architecture, he would miss the language the most. I loved that answer!

I know that Slovene isn’t a very useful language back home, but there is something about it that really just makes me want to learn it. So while I’m here I am going to try! This week I’m learning how to count, ena, dva, tri, stiri, pet…

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Stressed Overseas and How to Handle it

Studying abroad is not what you think. They actually want us to study rather than spend every minute of every day exploring new countries and eating – who’s idea what this? Studying abroad encompasses taking classes in another country while learning about a new culture, yourself, and how to manage unique situations that will be very applicable to life after college. Students throughout their study abroad experience hit a Wall: The Wall of Stress. Money, time, classes, and fitting in are some of the reasons students hit this Wall. This should not be anything new or surprising because these are problems students have in school in the United States. It is just a little more dramatic because mom is farther than usual. Nonetheless, these concerns can be handled and teach us meaningful lessons along the way.


So how much exactly are we supposed to save to comfortably shop, dine, and travel for a semester? To ensure I had enough money to meet my needs and wants for a semester without a job, I saved up two years in advance. I worked three jobs between being at home and at school. I set this money aside in a mason jar until my departure date neared and I placed it in my account.

For the first month abroad, everything is new and glamorous. Pace yourself. You do not have to purchase something from every store, nor eat at a new restaurant every night. There is plenty of time to visit the SALE RACK and try plates galore.

Swiping a card is as dangerous abroad as it is in the states because it is so easy to run a bill without noticing it. Each swipe abroad is accompanied by a currency conversion fee which adds up quickly. Withdraw a certain amount per week or two and stick to it. Document each purchase to observe where you can slow down on visits – do you really need a cookie between your 11AM class every Monday and Wednesday?

Local people can spot a tourist a mile away. Don’t make yourself a victim of pickpocketing by carrying large amounts of cash. Rationing money throughout the week also decreases impulse shopping.


Time is one of the few things that once it is gone it will not come back. Make sure every moment spent abroad is meaningful. Knock class work out first so the stress of upcoming due dates is behind you. Carve out study time to ensure that when tests and quizzes arise you are not stressing and cramming.

Studying abroad is the most opportune time to visit other countries. Do not overbook your semester with travel plans every weekend. Book a few trips in every month, leaving a few weekends to embrace your host country and relax. Plans may come up mid-semester with your new friends, leave some cushion space for the unexpected.

Find a way to document your experience! Blogs, vlogs, and journals are great ways to keep things flowing. Some people use apps the record them for a minute a day to reflect on things. In a year or two, it will be incredible to review your feelings and thoughts from a year ago while you away. You may come across great advice you have given yourself.


Yes, this is the part of the study abroad deal cramping the travel plans, but hey the teachers are cool so it evens out. Remember your true reason for studying abroad – to STUDY while in another country.

If classes become tricky for one reason or another do not be afraid to address concerns with teachers. They know that studying abroad is about more than students coming overseas. If things are not adding up, making sense, or there are external problems affecting your work, let them know. Every teacher I have in Seville has an open-door policy. Granted, they do not have an office for hours, they respond to emails and are open to meeting over coffee – it’s the culture, and it’s cool! Do not abuse your professors’ kind attitudes.

Do not try to tackle a usual semester’s worth of credits overseas. Last semester I took 18 credit hours at North Carolina A&T. I wanted to tackle 17 here but it was not advised. Besides my classes being taught in Spanish, the director did not want students stressing over grades instead of enjoying the world around them.

Fitting In

Studying abroad like being the kindergartner amongst the fifth graders all over again. Unless you come with a few students from your school, you may be starting over with making friends. No worries, you’re not alone!

I did not know a soul from my flight in Virginia until I met my roommate Brooke. Everyone is excited and open to meeting new people – that’s one of the purposes of the program.

Be yourself! Acting like something you are not will only make meeting people confusing and people can see through facades.

Don’t judge a book by its cover. My friends and I have agreed that our group is unique. We would not have talked to each other had we went to the same school because we don’t look like those whom we normally spend time with. Nonetheless, through spending authentic time with one another, we see that some of the coolest people should be appreciated for more than what meets the eye.

What is fitting in when none of us are from the country we are visiting? How can we “fit in” if we must figure directions and locations out in the first place? I say this to say, do not stress when it comes to making friends.

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My Introduction to Archaeology in New Zealand

I’d been in New Zealand for a week—no more, no less—when I embarked on an archaeological field school with 20 strangers. At that point, I knew nothing about archaeology other than a few terms I’d gleaned from an introductory course two years prior and I knew even less about archaeology in New Zealand.

In the pre-departure orientation, the professor told the group: “After this, a lot of you may not want to be archaeologists.” But I wasn’t deterred. If anything, that only boosted my confidence that I was on the right path and made me excited about all the things I had to learn about the field.

With that in mind (and little else), I departed from Auckland to Whitianga where our class took a ferry to Great Mercury Island/Ahuahu. The island is generally regarded as one of the first stopping points made by ancestral Maori before they continued on to the New Zealand mainland. Today, the island is privately owned and its primary inhabitants are sheep, a handful of farmers, and a few individuals who live there seasonally. Half of the island is densely forested while the other half has pastures and hills that offer breath taking views of the Coromandel peninsula (to the West) and the Pacific ocean (to the East).

Coralie Bay

In addition to the stunning views and the serenity one only finds on a largely uninhabited island, there was a wealth of information in the earth around us. Our crew worked on the Northwestern side of the island where there were over a dozen terraces that lined a steep hill. Our work entailed surveying that portion of the island, as well as the Northeastern side, for signs of additional terraces, excavating portions of some of the topmost terraces, assisting the crew leaders with GIS (Geographic Information Systems) scans of the area, and creating detailed section maps of all areas excavated.

Through these methods, we were able to determine where residential structures once stood via the identification of postholes (small, circular shaped patches of discolored dirt). We also were able to identify features within the structures–hearths, hangi pits (an in ground type of oven used to prepare chicken, seafood, and kumara–New Zealand sweet potatoes), and shell middens (areas where large amounts of shells were discarded after use). After the field school and a few weeks break before the semester started, the course continued in the form of lab research. My project was on obsidian stone tools, flakes, and cores. This involved recording features on over 1,000 obsidian artifacts and analyzing the data to identify trends in artifact distribution and usage.

GMI Survey pic

Additionally, I learned about the concept of tapu. This is a Maori word that refers to something that is sacred and should be treated in certain ways. For example, all artifacts we recovered and removed from site would be repatriated to the spot we recovered them from, and only artifacts approved by the Maori community were allowed to be removed. Tapu also manifests in different ways in everyday life–taking your shoes off before entering a building, not sitting on tables (this was one that sounds like a no-brainer, but I also grew up where it wasn’t necessarily best practice to sit on a picnic bench table, but was a common enough occurrence during summer outings), and many others.

Both the field experience and the lab experience were incredibly valuable to me academically and professionally. I likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to partake in a field school through my college due to cost and timing, but by being able to study abroad through the Gilman, I was able to not only learn more about archaeology, but also about what I enjoy about the field and how I wanted to proceed personally and professionally from there.

Upon returning to the states, I found myself thinking of my professors statement before the field school. Did I still like archaeology? Yes, absolutely. Was I certain that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life? No, definitely not. The field school and subsequent research showed me that I love being on the field–I love being outdoors, working hard to unearth elements of humanity’s past, and handling artifacts with care and respect. But I found the subsequent research to be a bit too rigid and removed from the dynamic cultural aspects like tapu that I enjoy. The experience showed me that I prefer to work in situations that involve learning about a culture’s history and then applying that in the present. Be it through language learning (a passion of mine) or artifact preservation, I like to know where communities are at in the present and how history continues to shape their identities.

Overall, my archaeological experience in New Zealand continues to positively affect me to this day. For example, I recently participated in a burial recovery effort of Dakota ancestral remains. Without the first hand knowledge and self-reflection the Great Mercury Island project provided me, I may not have found this project or known how fitting it was to my interests. The project was under the direct supervision of Dakota elders and all remains and artifacts were handled in a culturally respectful manner. I enjoyed being able to sit down and talk to Dakota elders and learn about the history and take part in something so meaningful.

My advice for Gilman Scholars is to be open-minded, follow your interests, and reflect on your experiences. You don’t have to go on some grand adventure or take part in some prestigious internship, so long as you are always striving pursuing your interests. If you’re interested in music and want to know more about the music in your host country, seek out whatever opportunity you’re comfortable with–be it attending a live show, speaking with a professor of music, or joining a student club. If you keep hearing about some small town in a remote area of your host country and want to go explore, please do! And with each experience that you partake in, ask yourself what it means to you, remind yourself of why you love the thing you do, and when your study abroad experience is over, keep moving forward and pursuing your interests. Doing so will help you in your academic and professional career paths by allowing you to know yourself and take pride in your experiences.

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¿Discúlpeme? Being Black Abroad

First impressions can be deceiving. And, as a young [Black] adult first impressions can be very wrong. Although, I had yet to discover this until I decided to study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Study abroad can be scary for most students. An unknown environment and an unfamiliar culture are enough to keep individuals within the confines of their comfort zone. But, Black individuals, specifically, are forced to think critically about how the mere site of their skin color can set them on a path of potential ridicule, danger, and racism abroad.

Fortunately, my institution, Spelman College, prepared me to expect the unexpected and never take my identity, as a Black woman, for granted. Before I left abroad, I attempted to learn about the discourse surrounding Afro-Argentines. However, to my dismay there was little to no information. I was then forced to face the realities of my disappointment, I knew absolutely nothing of race relations in Argentina.

Upon arriving, I was comforted in the fact that my program (School for International Training) and host family did not seem to mind that I was a person of color. In reality, I was ecstatic. Everything seemed to be going smoothly the first week of my matriculation until the piropos (cat-calls) started taking immense precedence in my everyday life. I couldn’t walk down the street without a comment about my skin color or gender. I addressed my concerns with my program but they only stated that piropos were “common” for all women in Argentina.

I remember a specific instance that was most notable. My program took a trip to Rosario. Often times, my peers and I would travel in pairs while exploring the new environments. While my peer and I were walking, a group of Argentines approached us and asked to take a picture with me. I was flattered but, of course, curious. I proceeded to ask, why? One of the individuals stated, it because he had never really met someone so “morena.” This situation and many to follow caused me to strive to change the discourse and perspectives towards Black individuals, more specifically Black women, abroad.

Don’t get me wrong, my experience abroad was a positive one. I did not let my new found knowledge change my attitude or my goal to learn the language and culture. In fact, I went from speaking little to no Spanish to becoming almost fluent.  I was able to use my experience to begin my research on the idea of the Exotic Other: Hypersexualization of Black Women’s Bodies in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Not only was I able to present the research to my program, School for International Training: Social Movements and Human Rights, but will continue to conduct this research while earning my Master’s Degree in Global Studies at UNC Chapel Hill.

It is important to remember that not every experience will be what you expect. Sometimes, the experience is the complete opposite. But, it is always important to remember each experience is a part of your growth as a global citizen. I hope to use my experience abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina to encourage American students of color to travel and learn abroad through applying for Gilman. Gilman has been set in place to help those who embrace their unique qualities and strive to make a global impact. My experience, quite literally, changed my life. I recognize that my status as a global citizen would not have been possible without the Benjamin A. Gilman Study Abroad Scholarship.

My advice to you is to take the leap and apply! You are special and deserve an experience of a lifetime. So, what is stopping you?

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Milan: the city that keeps moving forward

Milan is not your usual Italian city with the terracotta roofs, the lazy strolls and the seemingly empty streets. It is not the kind of city that you would see in old Italian films like La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful) or even in recent films like Call Me By Your Name. If that is what you are looking for, you need to head further south or into the northern regions where time seems to have stopped. This is because, Milan is a city that is filled with a long and complex history that is evidently present in its ever-changing architecture. Milan is a contrasting place that has a unique mixture of the old and the new, it is a city that has adapted itself to every age.

To appreciate the architecture of Milan, one must first understand its history. Through the ages, the city of Milan had the bittersweet characteristic of being under the dominance of an external force. From German emperors, to Italian noble dynasties (Visconti and Sforza families), to Spanish domination, the enlightenment era of the Hapsburgs, the Napoleonic era, to the Astro-Hungarian period, the unification of Italy, fascism, and finally the post-war period; Milan has seen it all. It is not surprising, that a city that has been governed by different entities would in the end be characterized by its ability to move forward. Today, this is highly presented in the fact that the major historical architectural points are not just in the city center, like Florence or Rome, but dispersed throughout the surrounding areas. This has given Milan the unique quality of having conflicting but compatible architectural styles everywhere you go.

But, how do you see a city that is so architecturally dispersed and complex? You get lost. You start walking and let yourself be guided by whatever you encounter along the way. Here are a few of my favorite places I have seen through my unplanned journeys in Milan.

Visit a ‘hipster’ market at Frida Isola (nearest metro stop M5 Isola)

Frida Isola Market

One lazy Sunday afternoon, after the snow and the rain had dissipated, I decided to visit the other side of the city. I found out about the Frida Market through a search in Facebook. And while the prices were a bit high for my student budget (20 euros for a pair of earrings? I had to pass) the ambiance was great. If you are looking for a place to wind down from the hectic Milanese life, Frida Isola is the place to be. With its postindustrial internal garden, you can chill, sit down and relax.

Be in the center of the Milano skyline (nearest metro stop M2/M5 Garibaldi FS)

One stop away from Isola, Piazza Gae Aulenti is one of the many symbols of contemporary architecture that Milan has to offer. Here you can see the tallest in Italy, the UniCredit Tower, and il Bosco Verticale (the Vertical Forest) two residential buildings covered with trees.

Fiera Milano, MiCo Milan Convention Centre and CityLife (nearest stop M5 Portello)

Generali Tower

The area pictured is part of the redevelopment of the Fiera Milano neighborhood. On the far left is part of the MiCo Milan Convention Center, in the back is the Allianz Tower, also known as Il Dritto (The Straight One), and on the right the Generali Tower also known as Lo Storto (the Twisted One).

Returning to the center of Milan (nearest stop M1/M3 Duomo)

Piazza mercanti

One may think that the center of a city lies in the most popular, distinguished and historic structure, for Milan that is Il Duomo (the Milan Cathedral) with its adjoining Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square). But, during a recent city tour with my Reading Milan and Italian Cities class, I learned that the ‘true center’ of Milan is actually a few steps away. Piazza Mercanti (Merchant’s Square) used to be the heart of Milan during the Middle ages, where it functioned as a closed marketplace. Later on, the surrounding archways were removed for an open plan to give way to the modern city center that we know today as, Piazza del Duomo.

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