Alex Padilla: From Engineer’s Road to Politician’s Path | KCET
Alex Padilla: From Engineer’s Road to Politician’s Path
Alex Padilla: My name is Alex Padilla. I have the honor and privilege of serving as California's Secretary of State. Proud son of immigrants. Born and raised right here in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, California. I graduated high school in 1990. I graduated San Fernando High School home of Richie Valens. If you saw the movie La Bamba then you know exactly where I grew up. From 1990 through 1994, I was away at college. I was studying mechanical engineering at MIT, spent four winters in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before graduating in June of 1994 and coming home.
I was born in the San Fernando Valley. I'm actually a middle child. I have an older sister and a younger brother, so three children to immigrant parents. My parents are from Mexico. My father from Jalisco, from Puerto Vallarta specifically. My mother was from Chihuahua. They came separately in the '60s and met here in Los Angeles. They came with that, "We're going to give ourselves one year to try to find a job and find a life in Los Estados Unidos."
I tell the story that they found each other, they found their jobs and they fell in love and wanted to get married. They fell in love, applied for Green Cards, in that order. I thank the US government every day for saying yes, otherwise, my life story would probably be a lot different. My parents [unintelligible 00:01:49] They got their green cards, got married, and settled into the San Fernando Valley, that's where they raised three children.
My father, before retiring, worked as a short-order cook for 40 years. A lot of scrambled eggs, a lot of pancakes, a lot of sandwiches and hamburgers. For the same 40 years, my mom used to clean houses, so needless to say it was hard work. Honest work, but hard work, modest wages. On those incomes though they raised three children and bought a home in Pacoima, California, which is where I grew up, so like a lot of people.
A son of hardworking parents, a product of public schools here in Los Angeles. For me growing up, there was a couple of constants. Number one was my parents, especially my dad, saying, "Do well in school." Getting a good education was the ticket to a better future. I can't tell you how many times my dad would interrupt me when I was doing my homework, and he would tell me-- This is his way of expressing his fatigue. He would say "Hijo, cuando crezcas quiero que trabajes con tu mente y no con tu espalda." He would say, "I want you to work with your mind not with your back." I think there's a lot of dignity and honor in manual labor, but that was his way of saying he wanted better for us.
Education was important in our household and that's why my brother, my sister, and I, we all ended up going to college and graduated from college. For me, there was an opportunity to study at MIT. Growing up, I used to play a lot of baseball, Little League Baseball, High School Baseball, and while my dream could have been playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, I knew I needed a backup plan.
I used to love math. Somehow, I did well in science, so all my teachers and counselors said, "You got to be an engineer. In addition to a lot of the great universities here in California, there's this really, really good one in Massachusetts called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, you should apply." I did. Learned a little bit about the school, sent an application.
Even by the time the acceptance letter came, I knew number one, I had never been east of El Paso, so it was a completely foreign world to me. Number two, it was both a chance of a lifetime for me to study at a university like MIT, but it would have been the fulfillment of my parents' dreams, so as much as I might have been nervous or scared, New England was far outside the comfort zone for a young Latino growing up in Pacoima, I knew that I had to go and try my best in honor of my parents, their dreams, and their sacrifice.
Growing up in Pacoima, the time that I did, the '70s and '80s, one can say it was very diverse because there was a lot of Latinos in the community. A lot of people would say it's not very diverse, because there was the vast majority Latinos in that area. There was Little League Baseball, or even as I got into High School, we were playing in communities that were very close by. Baseball was just baseball. Both in Little League and in High School there would be times that we would travel a little bit further away to compete either during the regular season or for tournaments into areas that weren't as diverse.
I've seen movies over the years as a kid, as a young man, and even in more recent years. The more recent one was the movie McFarland, where Kevin Costner is a track coach leading a bunch of Latino kids in the Central Valley to compete against teams that were not Latinos. You see the inequities, the discrepancy between the uniforms or the equipment they could train with and that sort of thing.
That's what I experienced in baseball, whether it was traveling to West LA or to Valencia back then or places like Thousand Oaks to see other teams look down on us because we were Latino, and to hear the chatter in the stands, what the other team's parents were saying about our parents. We weren't immune or naive to know that there wasn't that level of judgment or discrimination that existed in society. We just thought, "That's the world that we're growing up in, and let's use that as a motivation to try to prove them wrong, try to win the game, but also try to overcome."
Coming home from college in 1994, not just after four years of studying at MIT, but four very cold winters, I came home with my mechanical engineering degree in hand, but also coming home to a tough economic environment. Southern California was struggling economically. The places where I worked as an engineer hoping to come back to was laying off more people than they were hiring, so trying to be a new person there was going to be difficult.
I started thinking, "Well, what else is out there for me? If it's not engineering, what else could I work in? Because I've graduated college, it's time to go to work." I came home, not just to a difficult economic environment, I came home to a very difficult political environment, because Proposition 187 was on the ballot that November. I came home in June, July, before I know it, working in internships here and there, trying to land a job, but the month of September and October were just filled, palpable in the news with this anti-Latino vibe.
You saw it on some of the TV ads of Pete Wilson running for governor. Of course, the proponents of Proposition 187, not only did it not make any sense to me, it frankly insulted me. It hurt me. Because I was coming home proud of my degree, not just what it meant for me as a young man starting a career, but as I mentioned earlier, as a symbol of accomplishment of my parents' sacrifices and struggles.
To come home and hear from politicians that, "California's going downhill, and it's the fault of people like your parents," that shook me to my core. Even though up until that time, I thought I'd never wanted anything to do with politics or politicians, I knew that I had no choice but to engage, to get involved in the community, to not just register to vote, but try to get other people registered to vote, that we had a voice if we exercised it.
If you looked at the demographics of Southern California at the time, it already had a significant Latino population, but I don't think our political voices were being heard in the political process, because a lot of people like my parents weren't citizens, so they couldn't even register to vote. A lot of people maybe, like some of my friends and neighbors might have been eligible, but hadn't registered to vote, because too many of us thought, "Why bother? What difference is it going to make?"
Certainly, our voice was not being heard at the ballot box, so I learned quickly both, before the vote on 187 and especially after when it passed, that we had to engage and change that trajectory, change the power of our voice in the political process. In 1994, when 187 was on the ballot, my parents had been here for not quite 30 years. They achieved legal residency, so they were here as legal permanent residents, but never had the intention or let alone the urgency of becoming citizens.
I think they were content having made it to the United States, had good jobs, they were raising a family, just going about having a good life with this little dream of, "Algun dia vamos a regresar. Someday we'll go back to Mexico." 187 was a slap in the face, not just a wakeup call. It was coming to the realization for me that if I wanted to change our political reality in our future that so many of us more needed to engage. I think for people like my parents and it was millions across California who had been here for years and years and years, without that sense of urgency to become citizens, they realized they have no choice.
They needed to engage, begin the citizenship process, not just to be able to protect themselves and defend themselves in terms of their status here in the United States, but to be able to register to vote and to push back by participating in our democracy. 1994 was the year 187 passed. Thankfully, it was ruled unconstitutional by the courts. In 1995, my father secretly began the naturalization process.
I remember he came home pretty proud. When he shared the news with the fam that he had begun the process, I would joke with him. I said, "Oh, [unintelligible 00:10:58],"He would always ask us to do our homework and not forget to focus on our homework and that was our turn to remind him, don't forget to study, don't forget to study and I get to share this story now with a lot of new citizens when I speak at naturalization ceremonies. I remember sitting on the couch with my dad going through the flashcards, who was the first president of the United States? Why are there 13 stripes on the American flag? As he was getting ready for his interview and his test.
A couple of years later, my mom started the process. I remember how nervous she was when she was called in for her interview because she didn't want to mess up. She knew there was a lot at stake. I know the effort and frankly the courage that it takes for someone from a foreign country now living in the United States to decide to become a citizen because it's not an easy choice.
It's not where you're from. It's not where you were born maybe. It's a conscious choice you have to make and a process you have to go through but it's one that I think is a reflection of that effort, of that dream, of that ambition and of that vision of the future. My parents finally did that and they've never missed an election ever since. Growing up my parents always had us pretty involved in the community.
We did a lot of community service in our neighborhood, whether it was painting over graffiti or planting trees, different projects, different organizations volunteering at church or whatever it was, but I never equated community service with political involvement or activism. After 187, I realized that no, if the goal is to try to improve my community politics had to be a part of that.
Some of the same people, who would call my parents, call our house saying we got to come to this meeting or we've got to go to this event. Pretty soon we started knocking on doors, encouraging people to register to vote or to don't forget to vote. It was pretty quickly for me from 1994 to get engaged in the 1996 election cycle with a candidate for office. Again, something I never thought I'd do, but I realized unless we start identifying people that we can believe in that we can trust to be our representatives in different levels of government, then the politics was going to continue to be the same and that is something that we weren't willing to accept.
Looking back, I think I was organizing before I knew what organizing was. That math degree came in helpful because I knew if I registered and voted, I have one voice, but if I can register 10 or 100 or 1000 people to vote and everybody voted, that's a much more powerful voice. There's strength in numbers. That's what I was trying to achieve in my early involvement politically. Before I know it, I was learning how to manage campaigns, manage the state assembly race in 1996 for Tony Cárdenas, an underdog, but he was elected to the state assembly. Today I called my friend Congressman Cárdenas.
In 1997, I was the campaign manager for Gil Cedillo, when he first ran for state assembly. In 1998, I was part of the team that helped elect Gray Davis as governor of California to take Pete Wilson's place as the governor of our state. I think I quickly made the transition of not wanting anything to do with government or politics to realizing I had to engage and trying to be influential by determining who our representatives were and by extension, what the policy priorities would be for the state.
Again, I remember the months and the weeks leading up to the November election and the intensity ramping-up of what was on the ballot in 1994. We got a call. I'm sure my mom took a call from one of the same community leaders that would invite us to all these meetings, all these events what they needed us to attend and said there was going to be this big march from the Eastside to Downtown and we needed to be there. We had no doubt. We drove to the church and got on a bus.
I do remember vividly getting off the bus at Salazar Park on the Eastside and being part of this epic march. Now it's historic. We looked back at the images, but getting off that day and seeing the mass of people, vast majority Latinos, there to march, there to speak up, there to stand up against the hate that we were feeling with this rhetoric around 187 and immigrants on the ballot in November of that year.
It was real tiring carrying my nephew on my shoulders the whole parade route, but I was there with my mom, I was there with my sister and we walked from beginning all the way to the end of that match somewhere between the LA Times building and city hall to be part of this demonstration that look we are here, we're demanding of respect, we're against this measure, Prop. 187. For me, I knew intuitively that Southern California and California as a whole was relatively more diverse than probably the rest of the country.
I knew that Latinos, we were a big population and growing but it was this feeling of seeing that number of us out together united that gave me the palpable feeling in my stomach of our power, just what kind of strength of message can be conveyed when we're physically together, whether we're standing, whether we're marching, but we're physically together behind one message.
Again, I knew that regardless of what happened on election day that I needed to get involved to change the politics. I needed to stay involved if we were going to stop being scapegoated as a community. I remember vividly, we got off the bus at Salazar Park and saw a large number of people but even that was some distance away from what was the starting point of the march. We had a good, I don't know if it's a half a mile or a more in before we formally started participating in this parade.
I think that was a reflection of how many people turned out. I don't know if that's what they were expecting or not, but it was a huge turnout of not just Latinos, but mostly Latinos, turning out to stand up for ourselves against this rhetoric, against this negativity and hate of 187 and that election cycle to demand our respect and to say, "No, look, we are here. This is home for us too, regardless of what others are trying to portray about us on television, through these political ads. This is who we are. People like my parents. We're here, we're working hard, we're trying to contribute to the society, working towards a better future, not just for my parents, but for the next generation and that's what we want people to know and we're not going to just sit idly by let people attack us without standing up for ourselves."
During the course of that match, going from the Eastside, all the way to Downtown and just being in all of the sheer numbers of people that came up from throughout the region, it made a huge impact on me. Prior to that day, I knew intuitively or conceptually that we had a large Latino population in Southern California and throughout the state for that matter, growing in numbers. How are we still in this position of being scapegoated and targeted? It was because maybe we weren't as active politically in larger numbers, like our population will lead you to believe.
I looked around and saw people like my parents, maybe who were immigrants, not yet citizens. Of course, they couldn't register to vote. I saw people, maybe like a lot of my friends and neighbors who were eligible but maybe not registered or maybe people who voted, but maybe not as often. I realized, when I saw these numbers, that we have a tremendous political potential strength, but we needed to do even more organizing and engaging to exercise it.
Yes, I never looked back after that march. We got through that election cycle. Proposition 187 passed. It was ultimately ruled unconstitutional, so it never went into effect but I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of changing California politics, changing the California political climate, changing California's trajectory by engaging in politics.
One of the things that's important to remember from the proposition of 187 experience was that it wasn't just Latinos that were standing up and speaking out. You saw the same happening with so many other immigrant communities throughout California, including and especially the Asian community. We've seen the same relationships and political infrastructure that was built around the 187 Campaign continue. When I was on the City Council of Los Angeles, not just representing my district, but to be considered a city leader, I needed to make sure I had those relationships with communities throughout the city, from South LA to Koreatown to the Croatian community in San Pedro and everywhere in between.
It's been that diversity, the embracing of that diversity in communities, but amongst elected officials and other community and political leaders, that has made California, and Los Angeles especially, as resilient and as thriving, as we see today. The policies that I pursued as Secretary of State trying to register more eligible, but unregistered Californians, it happens to disproportionately be young Latinos, but it's inclusive of the Asian community, the Black community, other communities of color and lower income communities. That's who we're in franchising through these reforms that we're implementing in elections in California.
California is the most populous state in the nation. We're the most diverse state in the nation. It's when we engage, and we embrace everybody, that California is as strong as it can be. We see it, because we test it every election cycle. We're going to see it and we're going to test it every census, and so many other opportunities for our diverse voice to be heard.
In my current role as Secretary of State, I feel in many ways, like my life in public service has come full circle. I started off as a young man, trying to organize, trying to register more people to vote, whether it was in the community going door to door or at events, or even standing outside the Convention Center in Los Angeles, where we were trying to encourage newly naturalized citizens to register and vote, to today, I serve as the Chief Elections Officer for the State of California.
If Proposition 187, was an attempt by some to exclude Latinos and others from the California dream, I'm dedicating myself in this job to have as an inclusive democracy as possible. We do it in many forms. You can't vote unless you're registered first. There is online registration now for eligible citizens. There's automatic voter registration that's registering huge numbers of people each and every week, each and every month, each and every year. We change our registration deadline laws.
You can now register to vote and vote the same day to take any excuse off the table, for not being able to be heard in the political process if you're a citizen. We're also bringing around changes to make it easier to vote, if you're registered, more vote by mail, the flexibility to vote anywhere in the county, where you're registered, not just the polling place close to where you live, but over the course 11 days, not just one day.
We can maintain a secure election system, but we want to make sure it's as accessible and as inclusive as possible. If you go back to what we all were taught in high school government class, "Our democracy works best when as many eligible people participate" That's what we're working towards, and that's what's created the California that we see today, very different than what we lived through in 1994.
The story of California over the last 25 years since 187 is one of mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, 187 is long behind us, it never went into effect, those days are behind us. But that's not true. In recent years, we've seen what's happening at the national political level. The rhetoric, one side of the aisle, about immigrants and immigration, Latinos specifically, it's all too reminiscent of the negativity that we felt, the hate that we felt back in 1994. It's good news, because California has come a long way.
We're shielded from some of that, that the rest of the country is going through. If anything, the California story is a story of hope for the rest of the nation. Look at California today. We've gone from not as a sufficient representation and the policies that result from that to an environment where not just one, not just two, not just three, four of our statewide officials are Latinos, legislative leaders, committee chairs, mayors up and down the state to the numbers in our congressional delegation. The policy and political environment in California is very different today, because we didn't run and hide, because we didn't just, put our head down and try to mind our own business.
We responded to 187 through engagement. That's the recipe, that's the formula that we want to share with the rest of the country for our brothers and sisters in all the other states that are now fighting the fights that we fought 25 years ago. This is how we turn it around. This is how we can change the trajectory of communities throughout the country and our nation as a whole. It's through engagement.
Again, the 187 story is one of mixed emotions. Another example is that even though California has come a long way, 187 continues to live in different forms. You saw SB1070, in Arizona. You saw SB4 in Texas. Even now at debate at the national level about public charge and other anti-immigrant actions by the Trump administration, family separations at the border, children being incarcerated, the DACA debate, the pardoning of Joe Arpaio, it's one thing after another at the federal level.
What the Republican Party and Trump especially has done is try to hold on to the strategy of a 187 for short term relevancy. It's not going to prevent the inevitable change that's going to happen as our population continues to grow across the country, we continue to diversify and we continue to engage in the political process. Democracy will ultimately win. The will of the people, the voice of the people will be heard. We can either wait for it to happen, or we can accelerate it through engagement.
Life is just interesting and cruel at times. Just when we think that we've advanced. If not, as a nation, just at least as a society, beyond certain things, that images, like the crossing of the Pettus Bridge during the Civil Rights Movement, and the water hoses and the attack dogs that we remember seeing from the Civil Rights Movement days. Just when we thought that was behind us, years later, measures like Proposition 187 reappeared. Same hate, same scapegoating, same political, not just suppression, but oppression.
In California, we think that we've come a long way since then, only to be dealt with this reality of under the current national political climate. During, under this administration, that a lot of sentiments and measures and tactics are back, whether it's in the form of political strategies and policies, or whether it's in the form of violence. Our heart goes out to our brothers and sisters in El Paso and elsewhere, where there has been clearly hate driven violence specifically targeted at our community.
As I travel across the country, I remind people that one week before the shooting in El Paso, there was a shooting in Gilroy, California, and a garlic festival all places. Yes, unfortunately, that discrimination, that bigotry, that hate, that [unintelligible 00:28:20] violence still exists in our society as much progress as we've made. The work is not done to try to make more progress, overcome that, try to teach not just tolerance, but acceptance, and the value of diversities, that everybody can celebrate and truly embrace that. We're going to have to keep at it.
Despite these harsh incidents and rhetoric, maybe especially because of the intensity of the harsh rhetoric and violent incidents. I'm so proud of dreamers and other young activists today for them to put themselves out there the way they do, risking as much as they do. I thought we were bold and brave and courageous responding to 187 before and after its passage. The next generation, the challenges are even harsher, but young people are stepping up with even more courage, more bravery.
If what we've done over the last 20, 25 years has motivated them, giving them the confidence to do so just a little bit, then I think maybe we have done our part in encouraging the next generation of activists and leaders. I know that it's only a matter of time before we overcome the attacks and threats that we're facing today. Where California is today and how people view California today is a direct result of how our community has responded to Proposition 187.
One example. In 1984, there were about 1.4 million Latinos registered to vote in the state of California. Today, well over 5 million. That's huge increase, a huge difference and you see it, not just in terms of our representation in the congressional delegation and the legislature and county and city governments up and down the state, but more importantly, by the policies that are prioritized and passed.
Because we are now more involved at all levels of politics and government in the state, we have policies like sanctuary state. Just consider that for a minute less than 25 years after the passage of Proposition 187, California became a sanctuary state. That is not a coincidence; it's a direct result of our decision to engage as a community. We have in California, a healthcare system that's inclusive of children, regardless of immigration status.
California is where the original DREAM Act started. Former assembly member Marco Firebaugh had this audacious idea that if young people who were brought here from another country without documents through no fault of their own, but they grew up here, graduated from high school here, and wanted to go to college that they should be able to. Eventually, if they couldn't afford college, that they should be eligible for financial aid regardless of documentary status.
California has been a pioneer on a lot of policies that embrace and include citizen and non-citizen alike. It's a debate that's now being waged at the national level, but the reason there's such a strong foundation and strong precedent for it in California is because of how our community responded to Proposition 187. I think if Proposition 187 would have remained in effect, we'd have a very different California today.
People say, "Look, California is just the way it is because of how diverse of a state it is." That's not necessarily true. You can look at maybe the State of Texas, another state that's pretty diverse, also big, very different political environment, and very different-- It's not quite as welcoming to communities of color in the political process as a state like California.
I think Proposition 187 was a wake-up call. It called a lot of people to engage, but when it was deemed unconstitutional, it allowed us to not only continue to engage but the forces and the people and the organizations that came together to campaign against 187.
The great news is that it stayed in place and people continue to use that motivation against 187 to push back against other measures in 1996 and 1998 and beyond, but also to help elect a different type of representative. We see the changes in not just a congressional delegation to this day, in the state legislature to this day, but on school boards and county supervisors and mayor's offices throughout the state because of how our community responded to Proposition 187. That's why California is the resistance.
I think for me one of the big lessons of 187 was not just our community coming together to demand respect but to be viewed as equals, as equal Californians, as equal Americans, and an equal opportunity to pursue the American dream. Obviously part of that respect and equality isn't just being able to go about our daily lives, trying to raise families, and participate in the economy but also to serve as leaders across the board, in the private sector, in academia, and in public service.
I've had the opportunity to translate my early organizing activism days into elected office. I have served on the Los Angeles City Council, in the California legislature as a state senator and now I was California's Secretary of State. I think it's an equal test back to us once we're able to achieve these leadership opportunities, these positions of responsibility when we serve, demonstrate that we can serve and represent everybody.
We're asking that same respect of representatives, who we have to be able to receive that same question as representatives and whether my day is on city council as a member, as the president of the council, entertaining public safety ideas and recreation and park opportunities and library funding, how do we do that equitably throughout the city? When I was in the legislature, working on education issues, technology issues, serving as chair of the senate energy committee at a critical time battling climate change as a proud Latino, but serve in a way that is of the benefit of all Californians.
Certainly, in my role as secretary of state, a lot of responsibilities from business filings and archives, the most important though, is elections. Proud to be a Latino, but as secretary of state, I want to make sure that our elections are secure and accessible to all eligible citizens as possible. If I can do the job, and do it well, then we're once again demonstrating to everybody that Latinos have a rightful place in leadership and in the United States of America.
- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino
Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.
In California, there is a generation of public officials, activists, scholars, professors and others who were shaped as a result of Proposition 187. Many were coming of age at that time, and their whole perspective on what they were going to do with their lives changed completely because of it.
Alex Padilla has been one of the most successful ones. Today, he is the Secretary of State for California. His tenure as the chief elections officer for the state has been marked by efforts to facilitate voter registration and, in his words: "to have as an inclusive democracy as possible.”
But in 1994, when Proposition 187 was on the ballot, Padilla was a recent graduate of engineering at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He had been born and raised from immigrant parents in Pacoima, a graduate of San Fernando High School and a baseball player.
In June of that year, he returned to Los Angeles to find that his state seemed to believe that hard-working immigrants like his parents were a burden and not a benefit to California.
“I was working internships and trying to land a job. But September and October were just filled with these anti-Latino vibes. You could feel it in the news and on some of the TV ads that Governor Pete Wilson was running,” he remembers.
He was offended.
“It did not make any sense to me, it frankly insulted me, it hurt me because I was coming home, proud of my degree, partly as a symbol of accomplishment of my parents’ sacrifices and struggles,” he adds. "And here's this politician saying: California is going downhill, and it's the fault of people like your parents? That shook me to my core.”
Before this, Padilla never thought about having anything to do with politics, although his family often volunteer for community events, which he never related to public policy.
“I learned quickly, both before the vote on 187 and especially after when it passed, that we had to engage and change that trajectory, change the power of our voice in the political process,” remembers Padilla. “A lot of people, maybe some of my friends and neighbors, might have been eligible but had not registered because too many of us thought: ‘Why bother?’”
On October 17, 1994, Padilla marched through the streets of Los Angeles with his family and tens of thousands of other Angelenos, many Latinos, many immigrants and others. “This march gave me a palpable feeling in my stomach of our power; I knew that regardless of what happened on election day, I needed to get involved to change the politics.”
Within two years, Padilla went on to work in political campaigns as a staffer, political director or campaign manager for a variety of Latino politicians. By 1999, he had been elected to the Los Angeles City Council, and in 2001, he became the first Latino and the youngest ever President of the City Council. He was barely 28 years old.
In 2006, he was elected to the State Senate and re-elected in 2010. In 2015, he ran and won the statewide race to become Secretary of State for California.
Padilla sees his life as a “full circle.”
“I started off as a young man trying to organize, to register people to vote to today, where I serve as the chief elections officer for the state of California. If Proposition 187 was an attempt by some to exclude Latinos and others from the California dream, I am dedicating myself to have as an inclusive democracy as possible.”
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