“Victor and David”: A Truncated Bildungsroman or Assimilation Aborted in Martínez-Serros

Melissa Huerta and Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2017-07-17 12:55:07

What is presented herein draws on a paper drafted Melissa Huerta, as a student in MZ’s seminar on Chicago Latino writing at UIC, in which she was assigned to extend, complement and question the modes of analysis developed by MZ and presented in previous issues of El BeiSMan. In this shortened version, we have eliminated most bibliographical references and notes. The older archival photos in this text are reproduced here courtesy of the Chicago Historical Museum.

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“Victor and David,” the final text left for us to analyze in The Last Laugh and Other Stories, is clearly the longest and most complicated in the entire volume, and the one which rearticulates most of the themes central to the book and its particular components. We are dealing with sons of a Mexican worker father (though here his job is with the railroad) involved in their relations with their family and peers, but as mediated by their relations with school and church, and with the structural split between Mexican rural nurturing and Chicago’s capitalist structuring.

The story even reaches beyond these matters in the centrality it gives to the question of baseball teams in Mexican Chicago, which in Michael Innis-Jiménez’s view (2013), served as a means of building and sustaining community as well as finding a “third space” in which Mexican creativity could find its place for achievement and growth.

Nevertheless, baseball in this story is not one of Mexican teams, but mixed community and high school teams, which relate more as part of a pattern of David’s individual assimilation rather than any compensatory community achievement in the face of attempted negation; baseball also provides the scenario and context for the death of one of the brothers (is it an accident, a fratricide, a kind of psychological suicide—or some combination of these?) and the defeat of his efforts to leave behind his ethnicity and “ethnic condition.”

On the other hand, Victor’s wish to have a store of his own represents another Mexican working class “third space” not explored much in Innis-Jiménez’s book—the effort to rise out of the situation of worker exploitation by establishing a small business of one’s own, typically one marked by ethnicity and often named for a given preferred place or space of Mexican origin.

From this point of view, we may say that this longer narrative is the key story of the collection including references to gardening, to elementary school and even the infamous “eight pagers,” to the end of the war with Japan, so important to “Ricardo’s War”— and of course the ubiquitous Father Tortas and the role of the Church. And yet for all this, the story may seem strikingly truncated—it’s “an almost short novel” that perhaps could or should have been a largescale novel in its own right. And if we conclude that this story seems somehow truncated or limited, we have to ask for the reasons why this is so.

Obviously, through its diachronic emphasis, this story covers a broader arc in time than any of the others, and is therefore able to focus on an extended process of maturation from childhood to adolescence of its two brother protagonists, Victor Cándido and David Abelardo. Does this mean that we can categorize this story as a bildungsroman of two brothers?[1] Overall, through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, the story concentrates on the boys’ spiritual, moral, physiological, or social development; it presents clear motifs of initiation and growth that shape identity, and thus insinuates itself as a bildungsroman of self-cultivation in relation to the institutions which dominate the boys’ lives. However the cultivation process, which should be longer, because it deals with the development of not one but two protagonists, is cut short and never completed. And the problem is that the bildungsroman direction of the text is undercut by the fact that the narrative clearly represents a modern, Chicago Mexican version of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel—mixed, we might add, with the story of a second Biblical sibling rivalry, that of Esau and Jacob; and as such, the bildungsroman narrative is cut off by the inevitable but still somehow shocking turn it takes in which David is killed by a pitch he demands of his brother, a pitch which will inevitably causes a dramatic though unspecified change in Victor’s own trajectory.

An analysis of the story as an unfinished and strangely truncated bildungsroman reveals how Chicago social institutions fail in their roles as agents of maturity and growth. Indeed, there is a sense that this truncated bildungsroman, then, becomes a maximal fictional confirmation of the term pioneer historian Louise Año Kerr used to characterize her view of what happened to Chicago Mexicans in what was the first large-scale history of this population: “Assimilation Aborted” (1979). The story deals with the social and psychic forces which make it extremely difficult if not impossible for southside Chicago Mexicans to develop their fullest capacities. And yet, finally, the story (and the whole book, of course) represents in itself the ultimate victory over destruction and disillusion—though not perhaps without a high price.

 

Initial Orientations to the Bible, Family, Church, Milpa and “Surrogates”

Victor and David’s parents are Evelina and Damián (or is it Eve and Adam?) Moreno, who only represent a slight variation on the mother and father in earlier stories. She is the pious and dutiful, churchgoing homemaker and Damién is virtually the same stern, machistic bread winner father, though now a railroad rather than steel worker, more religious than José María, but still hostile toward the Catholic Church and its sissy, punk (or puto) maricón priests—above all the prime Southside representative presiding over the local parish.

As in the Jacob-Esau story, the parents show favoritism to one son over the other. The very name, David, like the name Amado in an earlier story, signifies “beloved” or more specifically, “beloved (or chosen) by God”—and indeed, early on, he seems to be a special child singled out for great things: a reverent believer who becomes a choir boy while acting like an angel as he, like Michael Corleone, reverses normal role expectations by serving as protector (or “keeper”) of his older brother.

Victor seems hardly what his name signifies. Our first image of him is as a kid wielding a toy pistol. Then we see him losing out in a fight with Beto, another “barrio boy” who wrestles the pistol away from him; and next we see David come to the rescue, bloodying Beto and leaving the boy wounded and perhaps scarred. This, on the story’s opening page, is, however displaced, our first and indeed doubled Biblical throwback—it is an anticipation or pre-figuration of Cain, and it is Jacob the trickster, virtually winning his father’s blessing and thus stealing his brother’s birthright—with the difference being that the struggle between the two brothers is displaced to another boy, and the scar which will mark our Cain character, Victor, is here, at least for now, transferred to Beto. The play on things symbolic and Biblical may go too far when Martínez Serros has Beto’s mother call Victor “Diablo!” only to discover that the one who has inflicted the wound is David. We later see Damién embraces David for “defending” Victor and telling his younger son to “take care of his brother.”

In sum this incident is a doubly displaced Biblical figuration of the final confrontation of the brothers, presenting a dichotomy between the two as angel and devil. And while it seems that Victor is the diabolical Cain and the victimized Essay, still the true devil may be the seemingly angelic David. The question of role reversal plays itself out in successive early phases of the brothers’ story. Soon after the first incident, Victor falls from the top of a railway car and breaks his legs. David again rescues him, and finds the help he needs. “What if David hadn’t been with you?”, asks his mother. Clearly these incidents affect the boys’ psychological and moral growth, with the older son building a screen of resentment for the accolades his younger brother accumulates for helping him. While showing favoritism toward David, the parents constantly remind the boys that they are brothers even as they pinpoint their differences. But it is clear who is the favorite son.

David does his best to help his brother, but while the boys share many experiences and friends, still the basis of separation has been established. And this intensifies when after a long recuperation Victor returns to school, having missed a grade and unlike his brother, now feeling the school environment to be hostile, especially because of difficulties stemming from his being left-handed. Subsequently, when a tumor almost takes Victor’s life and leads to a second long confinement and loss of a second year of school, David tries to maintain his brotherly role, but begins to form a relationship outside his home and ethnicity.

Increasingly the brothers don’t share friends, activities and interests, with David finding his road in his school and extracurricular life, and Victor hating school and his situation therein. Since the brothers are so different, the parents feel it necessary to compare them. Their inability to appreciate Victor’s own path and inclinations, their discouragement of his actions and attitudes, are crucial to the formation of a personality of one whose view of life is colored by his having to live in the shadow of his younger brother.

As in other Martínez-Serros stories, the mother plays a passive role in the stories, and lives out the imperatives of patriarchy. Evelina stays in the home and tends to the boys when they are ill, tends to the kitchen and the flower part of the garden, attending mass on Sundays. Her favoritism toward David becomes more complete when she sees him becoming involved in the Church and considering a future as priest. For his part, Damién, like the father in “Jitomates” and “Killdeer,” tries to establish a milpa and grow things in his home,” working with both boys but eventually teaching Victor how to tend the yard, and expressing concern about his favorite’s early moves beyond the home. Again, the father is the patriarch who, as in “Learn! Learn!” does not attend mass and who does not sympathize with David’s early wish to become a priest, suggesting more than once that the priest is not manly, and his son should be careful in this regard. The family in this case is a social institution that affects maturation, is important in its negative force, as the brothers become as different from their parents as they are from each other. Neither David nor Victor sees their parents as role models to be sought for knowledge and worldly advice; therefore, both brothers find their role models or surrogate parents in school, in church and in the working world.


Father James (Jaime) Tort (Tortas) in his later years as Guadalupe Church Priest.

David’s first surrogate father turns out to be our old church nemesis, Father Tortas, whom the young boy admires; only later will he find a surrogate brother, as he becomes almost inseparable and twin-like with Joe Maris, a non-Mexican or Latino kid who the darker Victor remembers calling him a spic (even if he calls the lighter David “Dave”), but who becomes the one who teaches David “to play cards, blackjack an’ poker” (137), to sneak into movie theaters, and choose a developmental path that will distance him from the Church—the path of playing baseball which the historical Father Tort had hated because it meant mixing with non-Catholic players and participating in Protestant-supported activities (Innis-Jiménez 165).

A typical bildungsroman calls for the young man or woman to stray away from the family or home; and David moves from one setting into the surrogate settings of school and baseball. Clearly he is attempting to assimilate to the “white” or non-Mexican community with the help of his surrogate brother, Joe and school officials who begin to recognize him and wean him away from Father Tortas and the Church. [2]

On the other hand, Victor’s trajectory is quite different, beginning when he is recuperating from his tumor and tries to help his father with his garden, when Damién neglects his plot as it fills with weeds as he follows David ‘s ball playing with neighborhood teams. “I told you not to do this,” Damién scolds, pointing to his illness. “I was jus’ tryin’ to help, don’t get angry with me,” Victor answers. “I know, Victor, I know. I’m sorry, forget what I said. (138).

But Victor cannot forget, and soon this Moreno finds a surrogate father to his milpa-neglecting father, in the person of a grocer named Prieto whose store is called La Milpa. Clearly both names signify a virtual darkening or racialization of ethnic identities, in comparison with David’s white-tending assimilationist moves. Prieto’s naming his store La Milpa, thereby affirms the Mexican identification of his workspace in relation to the sacred cornfields of his indigenous ancestors. Prieto is a self-made man, living a Chicago Mexican version of the American dream—establishing a home or business of his own and giving it a name and other characteristics which affirm its Mexican roots. In this sense, while Señor Prieto is portrayed as the complete opposite of Damién Moreno, still, as their names suggest, they have more in common than first meets the eye.

For Victor, La Milpa functions as an escape from his family and school settings and a path toward a richer future for himself. Unhappy with his roles as son, brother and student, he finds a sense of order and freedom in cultivating Prieto’s milpa, as he seeks to learn how to make a milpa of his own. (141).

The family has worked alongside other institutions in the cultivation of both boys. But their fuller selves only emerge as they loosen their original bonds and form new relationships. For both boys, their surrogate families become crucial to their everyday lives and future hopes.

 

Schooling and Socialization


Martínez-Serros-Photo Thorp Elementary Graduation 1944-middle front row

Clearly this story most directly continues the treatment of schooling in Martínez-Serros’ book. However, this is the only story which extends from his public school experience at Thorpe School this high school years at Bowen (or in the story, Owens) High School.

As noted, school is another social institution that plays an important role in shaping the brothers’ identity and shaping the process of their development. There are pressures to assimilate to the American culture in school; racism and prejudice are ever present in the text, as well as is the ongoing fight between self and society. Early in the story we learn that Victor had spent a few months in the hospital due to a benign tumor. It is because of Victor’s second absence from school that David begins to make friends with peers, such as Joe Maris; and begins to see the school as his surrogate home, as he gradually rises to be the best student in his white-dominated class. For his part, it is extremely difficult for Victor to take up schoolwork again after his sickness; and it is then that he begins to focus all his educational aspirations on Mr. Prieto’s Milpa.

Both brothers feel the pressures of their teachers for acculturation or assimilation. But in David’s case, the pressure is extreme, because he values the “Americanization” process which the school provides: “You’ve got a year to work on your English,” one of his teacher urges. “Try speaking the way you write…” (140). Even though both brothers are exposed to this kind of pressure, only David takes it seriously, while his brother does the minimum possible to survive in an environment he is growing to hate. Victor is not concerned with school-centered activities. In the process of maturing, he experiences the replication of the rejection he has felt at home, leading him to become more concerned with working and earning money: “He went to school mechanically, did what was needed to squeak by, no more” (143).

It is not surprising to note that we start to see changes in David’s personality through the schooling process. He becomes increasingly preoccupied with getting good grades, becoming the best baseball player, making white friends and even seeking non-Mexican girlfriends while conforming to his school environment. Once in high school, the pressures of school intensify. In one instance, he suffers humiliation in his English class for not conjugating a verb correctly. From this point on, it seems, David assumes the role of the conformist who will no longer accept humiliation. In fact, Martínez-Serros provides additional examples that show how David succumbs to peer pressures and creates a false self attempting to evade, obfuscate or transcend his ethnicity even if it means rejecting his original cultural or class identity. On this basis, he begins preparing for a future in college so that, instead of taking classes with his friend Joe, he decides to take college prep classes, such as Latin. For Joe, those classes are for “sissies,” but for David, Latin reminds him of Father Tortas (143)—even though, to the dismay of his mother and the happiness of his father, his new path leads him to reject his earlier interest in a priestly career. But rejecting the church does not lead him to deepen his relation with Joe Maris, from whom distances himself as he concentrates more and more on excelling in school.

Of course, high school provides many instances of racism which affect the boys’ attitudes and actions in their overall maturation process. The key issue is inevitably the rejection felt by the brothers for being Mexicans or “Mexican-Americans”—a term rarely used in Chicago prior to the 1960s. “You’re so dark!” a girl classmate he’s attracted to say “with aversion” (146). And she goes on to observe that David belongs with a group of dark-skinned students who are waiting for a Spanish class to begin. Outraged by the implied slur, David manages to criticize her as well, saying, “you don’t belong there; this [class) is too tough for you” (147). Facing rejection, David becomes determined to succeed in school by conforming or adapting to his environment and showing his superiority to his classmates in academics, sports and other extracurricular activities. Soon he is involved in a whole series of activities and, like the author himself, he achieves recognition for a high level of excellence in all he does. Still of course, the white students’ recognition is tainted by their assertion that he achieves everything by trying very hard, something they don’t have to do, since their superiority comes with their superior color and ethnicity.


Martínez-Serros-listed as class Salutatorian and president, Bowen High School


Martínez-Serros-Salutatorian


Martínez Serros-1 of 3 Latino surnamed student awardees-Bowen school grad program1948.

On the other hand, Victor, has the more typical mexicano reaction to race-baiting by seeking out friends in his own likeness; he sees his life change as he pursues his sense of individuality by emulating Mr. Prieto’s way of integrating his cultural base in function of an ethnic business. The process of his maturation is perhaps more direct and settled; his achievements are outside the framework of school, where he and his buddies are cutups; and his success is largely material, through providing for his family and finally getting himself a car as he seeks to save and start a store, or milpa, of his own. His internal conflict comes to head in one scene where his mother, recovered from her dreams of David as priest, expresses pride for the important things he has done, and asks Victor, “Why haven’t you followed your brother’s example, ¿por qué?” At this point, Victor tries to answer, in a way that expresses his deep sense of earned frustration and resentment: “But, mamá, I’m doing important things too! I buy my clothes an’ David’s! … I bring food! That’s why you were able to buy the new furniture. I’m the only student in the whole school with a new car an’ I bought it with my own money! That’s important. Why can’t you see that, mamá, why?” (159).

Indeed, Victor is not only buying things for his family, he has become David’s older brother after all, by teaching him to drive, bribing an official to get him a drivers’ license, letting him use the car whenever he needs it, and doing everything to make his expanding life trajectory possible—all the time mocking David, it should be noted, for his pretension and airs.

In all this Victor provides the basis for the life his brother tries to lead, as David seeks to defy the odds by using his academic and sports successes, as well as his somewhat lighter skin, as tickets of entry into the homes and hearts of the families who are more fully integrated into Chicago’s version of U.S. society. David even goes so far as to wear long sleeve turtlenecks in the hottest weather, to hide his dark skin and prevent it from getting darker. In so many ways, we witness David’s effort to abandon who he is and where he has come from, for the sake of being accepted.

In this process, he gradually finds himself approaching and dating non-Mexican girls whom he doesn’t wish to alert to his racialized ethnic identity. His effort to assimilate and be fully accepted by the white students leads to various frustrations and setbacks, including a conflictive situation in which the white students who relate to him ask him to play middleman in an effort to discourage a Mexican from getting too close to the white girls. To the white students, this is a totally logical role for him to play, but David sees this rightly as a clear indication that he has not been accepted. This self-negating assimilation effort also impels him to ignore and reject his own brother, first as his fellow students laugh and jeer seeing two dark Mexicans—Victor and Sr. Prieto—drive by in the Milpa’s embarrassingly dilapidated truck. “It’s the goddamned grapes of wrath!” says one or the more literate students (he probably knew the movie if not the book). And this incident is followed up by a more devastating one when David and his new white high school sweetheart, Edyn (a garden of a girl!) drive by in the car Victor now owns and has lent him for his date, and David completely ignores him. This final rejection leads to a telling confrontation and the striking ending of the narrative as a whole.

 

The Story’s Climax

And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brothers blood [1] crieth unto me from the ground.And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brothers blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. (Genesis 4: 9).

The next morning after David fails to acknowledge his brother, Victor awakens him to see if David still wishes to do what they had proposed for that morning, a session of batting practice in Belleden Park (probably South Chicago’s Bessemer Park). On their way, Victor waits to speak.

Saturday had emptied him and he did not yet know what to do to David. He could wait, he was in no hurry. He had nothing to say now” (169).

However, uncomfortable with the ensuing silence, David turns to him and asks if he is angry about yesterday and owns up to his action, making matters worse in the telling. He admits to not having told Edyn that he has a brother, telling her he is Portuguese, that he is living with his uncle, leading her to believe that his parents are dead. Shocked, Victor responds by expressing his deepest feelings: “It’s like we’re dead! Me, Ma, Pa, dead!” And David answers in a classic statement of racism-induced Mexican self-hatred:

You understand, don’t you Victor? I’m entitled to do what I have! I’m entitled to everything they have and I’ll get it!” ... I’m tired of being Mexican! It’s a dirty word, everybody knows it! I’m tired of having to apologize for how I look. I’m tired of being confused with those lazy bastards around me who don’t give a shit! I’m tired of always having to prove myself.” (170)

 
Martínez-Serros-Photo as young Mexican with the Kennedy look-Early 1960s.

At this point, Victor makes his crucial response:

“Don’t explain nothin’ to me, I ain’t your keeper! You ain’t changed from when you were a kid. You still get lost. Got no sense of direction. I give you my money … I give you my car. If you asked me, I woulda gave you my fuckin’ life. An’ you treat me like shit! Worse’n shit. You’re as bad as they are” (ibid.) 

In this interaction we note Martínez-Serros’ perhaps overly realistic sense of language stemming, as noted elsewhere in this study, from the apparent “Irish” urban way his Mexican characters speak, as if they’ve stepped out of a James T. Farrell novel. We may also wonder about the verisimilitude of a plot which, after these words have been pronounced, leads David to insist on the baseball workout the brothers had agreed to earlier.

The question of accident seems to be all but negated by the text itself: 

Victor reached for the mitt, balls and the bat. He knew now what he must do. … He went toward the pitcher’s mound, slipped the mitt onto his right hand and took up a ball on his left (171). 

Of course lefthandness has been associated with the devil, and Victor is called a devil in the story’s opening paragraph. His lefthandness has been a source of derision and rejection in school, and here it becomes the instrument of David’s end as he urges Victor to throw the ball ever close to his head, so he can practice his hitting skills. Frustrated by a succession of poor pitches, he insists that Victor pitch closer and faster. Finally Victor lets loose a pitch that hits David in the temple and leads to his death. And here the final question of the story: Has David punished himself for his betrayal of his roots? Has he killed himself, or has Victor finally unleashed his deep resentment of his brother and, taking advantage of his David’s wish to punish himself, consciously or not, dealt him the blow, which abruptly cuts short the bildungsroman for both brothers? To go a step further, are we confronting a situation in which our author, Martínez-Serros, has felt the need to project and reject his own assimilationist path (he was after all president and salutatorian of his multi-ethnic but mainly white class at Bowen High School) and assert his own “third space” in which he could contend with the destructive impulses of ethnic suicide and assimilation by creating a book whose most complex story would center on the need to transcend the abortion of assimilation and find a more fully liberating path. 

As a whole, then “Victor and David” can be categorized as an unfinished bildungsroman because, in spite of certain events that mark the brothers’ lives, the reconciliation of the brothers and David’s successful passage into adulthood don’t take place; and David’s death will inevitably impede Victor’s passage as well. In fact, there is a suggestion of a suicide following from David’s death:

How and what could he tell his parents? After a time he looked at his watch. Prieto would wonder where he was. From the phone booth he called him. … Just before twelve the doctor informed him that David was dead. Victor shook his head. In his throat he could feel something cutting furrows. Silently he made his way to his car, got in and drove east to the lake (173)

What is this cutting of furrows—in what garden or milpa or field, which is his very throat and life? And why else go to the lake, away from the barrio itself? In this light, the narrative may also be seen as a kind of psycho-drama in which the two brothers represent two sides of the same person and the community as a whole in an internal life-and-death struggle—one for Mexican affirmation and the other for Anglo assimilation, in which the Mexican side kills off the assimilationist negation of roots. But in this reading the victor who emerges is not Victor himself, but a figure not unlike Martínez-Serros, who learns that his only true path forward is to maintain his Mexican identity even as he negotiates with the wider world around him.

“Victor and David” and The Last Laugh and Other Stories as a whole may well stand as Martínez-Serros’ victory over the negative and discouraging experiences of his youth, to create his own “third space” on the written page. As editor Nicolás Kanellos of Arte Público Press, wrote, in his back cover blurb for the book’s original edition, the text presents “a lively intelligence, restless in his refusal to accept authority, but confidently leading the reader into a celebration of triumph over the social forces threatening to determine his life.” In the course of accomplishing this Martínez Serros provides the only literary interpretation of early Southside Chicago Mexican life we have, in a way that enriches our understanding of what happened there, and of what may be found to have happened or be happening in and to other Chicago and U.S. Mexican and Latino communities in other times and places. 

 

Bibliography

Año Nuevo Kerr, Louise. The Chicano Experience in Chicago: 1920-1970.” Ph.D. Dssertation. University of Illinos at Chicgo Circle. 1976.

Innes-Jiménez. Steel Mill Barrio. New York. New York University Press. 2013.

Martínez-Serros, Hugo. The Last Laugh and Other Stories. Houston: Arte Público, 1988. 129-173.

Rojo, Grinor, and Cynthia Steele. Ritos de Iniciación. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

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[1] Here, for convenience, we draw primarily on the delineation of bildungsroman as found in Rojo and Steele 1986.

[2] According to Wikipedia, Maris is the last name of a Mexican American actress and an Argentine performer; but it is above all the name of a non-Latino baseball player who hit 61 homers in the 1960s—something David could not know, but Martinez-Serros certainly did. Implicitly, one could argue, that David veers toward the baseball playing Maris, trying to leave his Hispanic or specifically Mexican roots behind.

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Melisa Huerta was a graduate student in UIC’s Hispanic Studies Graduate Program. We are currently looking for her, and ask any one who has information to write mzimmerman@uh.edu.

Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus of the University of Houston and the University of Illinois at Chicago, has written and edited over thirty books on Latin American, Latino and other themes. Director of LACASA Chicago and the Chicago Latino Artists Project (CLAS), he is currently publishing research on Chicago Latino art and literature in El BeiSMan, and has recently published his third and fourth books of fiction, La penisola non trovata (a version to appear in English as The Italian Daze and Lines on the Border). Moorpark, CA. Floricanto Press 2017.

 

 

 

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