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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Summary


Here you will find a How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents summary (Julia Alvarez's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Summary Overview

Living in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia – led a life of privilege, amid personal and familial dramas. Carla gave a cherished toy to a maid who was later accused of theft, causing her guilt. Yolanda's childhood curiosity led to a traumatic incident with a kitten and a troubled relationship with her mother cat. Sandra, with dreams of becoming an artist, had her aspirations shattered after a traumatic encounter with a mentally unstable sculptor, eventually resigning to be his muse. The family's comfortable existence was interrupted when their father, Carlos, agitated against the ruling military dictatorship and fell out of favor with the secret police. With the assistance of a CIA agent, they managed to escape to New York City. The transition was challenging, both culturally and economically, especially for their mother, Laura, who hailed from an influential Dominican family. She found solace in supporting her daughters’ pursuits such as Yolanda's poetry and Sofia's rebellion against their father's conservatism. Upon settling in the States, their father's colleague, Dr. Fanning, offered to take the family out for dinner. Hoping to make a good impression, Laura impressed upon her daughters the need for decorum. However, they each grappled with their individual challenges. Carla struggled with fitting into American schools and encountered prejudice and abuse. Yolanda discovered her voice through writing in English, frequently clashing with her father's traditional views. Sofia was sent back to the Dominican Republic as punishment for using drugs, only to find trouble there again. The sisters' journey continues with personal struggles and revelations, including Yolanda's troubled romantic relationships and Sandra's mental health issues. Despite the challenges, the sisters find their paths, with Sofia asserting her independence by marrying and hosting a family event, and Yolanda returning to her Dominican roots.

part 1 chapter 1

After a five-year absence, Yolanda has come back to the Dominican Republic, possibly for good. Her family has made her a cake shaped like the Island, with candles signifying the main cities. A delay occurs as matches to light the candles can't be found. Yolanda's relatives freely critique her look, and she in turn judges theirs. They discuss the struggles of finding reliable help, such as a driver who can maintain a full gas tank. Yolanda is reminded of illustrated Renaissance books by the maids' begging gestures. Her Spanish is rusty and she stumbles over words. Her aunts enlighten her about the term antojo, denoting a specific craving or desire, often related to spiritual possession. She decides that her antojo is a trip to the coast to find guavas, despite her aunts' safety concerns about a lone woman traversing the mountains in a pricey car. Disregarding their warnings, Yolanda borrows a Datsun from a cousin and drives north. As she admires the landscape, the thought of making the Island her permanent residence crosses her mind. She gets startled by an army bus full of soldiers and an armed guard outside a mansion, suspected to be owned by her relatives. In a village, she enlists a group of boys to help her pick guavas, but they end up with a flat tire. She sends one boy to seek help from the mansion and while he's gone, two machete-wielding men approach. Frozen with fear, she manages to communicate her situation in English. They assist her and she pays them in gratitude. She then searches for the boy she sent to the mansion. He has been beaten, as the guards couldn't fathom a Dominican woman being out alone at dusk.

part 1 chapter 2

The Garcia girls, comprised of four sisters, had a longstanding custom of celebrating their father Carlos's birthday without their significant others or work commitments. Despite their confusion about his preference for gifting cash instead of checks, they complied with the tradition. For Carlos's 70th birthday, Sofia, the youngest sister, decided to host the celebration at her home, including the extended family. This marked a turning point in her strained relationship with Carlos, which suffered when Sofia eloped after a heated argument about her promiscuous love life. Sofia's history of dating was always a point of contention with her father. When Carlos discovered explicit love letters from a German man named Otto, he accused Sofia of tarnishing the family's dignity. The resulting disagreement led Sofia to impulsively marry Otto and leave her family behind. She attempted to extend an olive branch by inviting her family to Michigan, where she now lived with Otto. Although Carlos initially refused to visit, Sofia's newborn baby eventually softened him, setting the stage for a gradual mending of their relationship. The birthday party started well with Carlos enjoying his presents and the music. However, as the night wore on, he grew increasingly despondent about his advancing age. In an attempt to cheer him up, the guests initiated a game that required him to identify, while blindfolded, the woman who kissed him on the cheek. Sofia, feeling ignored and unappreciated for her efforts in arranging the party, decided to give her father a memorable kiss that would force him to acknowledge her. Her provocative approach embarrassed Carlos, leading him to abruptly end the game.

part 1 chapter 3

Sofia, at twenty six, and Carla, soon to be thirty-one, were still referred to as "the four girls" by their mother, Laura, a habit she apologized for, particularly to their father who believed, "Bulls sire good cows." Each girl had a designated color. Carla wore yellow, Sandra blue, Yolanda pink, and Sofia white. Sofia coveted Yolanda’s pink outfits, but Yolanda wouldn't share. Their mother would often confuse details about the girls but each of them had a special story that Laura would share on special days. Carla became a psychologist and her story was known as the tale of the red sneakers. As a child, Carla craved red sneakers even though the family was not rich. A neighbor wanted to gift her white ones, but Carla stood firm for red. Thus, they painted the white sneakers red using her mother's nail polish. This story was told at Carla’s wedding. Yolanda's ambition was to be a poet but became a schoolteacher instead. Her mother shared about her anxiety issues, evident when she was a child when her hair fell out, with Yolanda's boyfriend, Clive, during a poetry reading. Yolanda’s special story involved reciting poems on buses. Sandra’s stories were seldom shared by the mother because she wanted to erase the past. Sandra had anorexia-induced mental breakdown and was admitted to a mental hospital. She felt she was devolving into a monkey and was running out of time to read all the great literary works. Sofia was deemed lucky by her mother because on the night she was born, the family was robbed but the thieves were caught and their belongings returned. This story was shared with a handsome stranger while Laura was watching her granddaughter in the hospital. When Sofia's daughter was a week old, the sisters gathered for Christmas at her house. Sandra, recently discharged from the hospital, was still vulnerable and prone to crying. She had a new boyfriend while Yolanda's boyfriend had left her for his wife again. Sofia admitted that she had been intimate with Otto four days after meeting him. However, in her mother's version, they met in Peru, not Colombia, and there was no disagreement with her father over letters. Yolanda was upset with Clive’s disloyalty.

part 1 chapter 4

From the window of a psychiatric facility, Yolanda observed a man gripping a tennis racket. She engaged her doctor in a discussion about her personal belongings, her marriage to John, and their playful, romantic interludes under the stars. During an amicable word game by a pond, Yolanda amusingly identified John as the pond to her sky, despite the non-rhyming nature of their nicknames in English. Yet, she cleverly highlighted that in Spanish, her nickname Yo, pronounced Joe, indeed rhymes with cielo, the word for sky. Doubts about John surfaced when he suggested she was unstable and required professional help, and when he admitted to weighing the pros and cons of marrying her. His accusations of her being overly smart and potentially insane wounded her. His attempts at physical affection were met with rejection and incomprehension as their communication deteriorated to mere "Babble babble." Eventually, Yolanda left for her parental home after struggling to pen a farewell note. At her parents' home, her conversation was filled with literary quotes or misquotes from books she'd read or songs she'd heard. Her therapist, Dr. Payne, advised a stay at a mental hospital, to which her parents consented. Despite her tears during the journey to the hospital, Yolanda believed Dr. Payne could aid her recovery and even fell for him. Struggling with expressing her feelings, she confessed her love to her visiting parents and admitted her language barrier with John. She felt her numerous nicknames disrupted her identity and reacted physically to specific words like love or alive. Peering at Dr. Payne with his tennis racket, she experienced a sensation of a large black bird emerging from her throat. The bird landed on her bureau, evoking thoughts of Edgar Allen Poe's raven. She watched it fly and attack Dr. Payne, only to discover that the supposed blood was merely a red towel. Finally, Yolanda started repeating the word love and her name, with the hope of overcoming her aversion and reclaiming her old way of using words. As she searched for ways to describe the sky and find rhyming words, her trust in the expressive power of words was partially restored.

part 1 chapter 5

Yolanda recounts her past as the most unrestrained of her siblings, lively in high school with several suitors but no serious ties. Upon entering college during the sexual revolution of the late sixties, she struggled to maintain interest from suitors due to her refusal to sleep with them. Despite her Americanization, her strict Dominican Catholic upbringing left her uncomfortable with sexual intimacy. Yolanda's first college English class was where she met Rudy Brodermann Elmenhurst, the third. She admired his odd name, punctuality, and acne marks, and felt a spark of attraction when he asked for a pen. Yolanda offered him a small red pencil bearing the anglicized form of her name, Jolinda, an item she had held onto for too long. One evening, Rudy visited Yolanda under the pretense of returning the pencil but asked her out. Their initial lunch morphed into dinner as they lost themselves in conversation. During their interaction, Yolanda struggled to comprehend Rudy's flirtatious tactics due to her innocent nature. Rudy would spend long nights in her room, leaving only after a goodnight kiss. Yolanda believed her inexperience with sex and drugs was tied to her immigrant status. Fearful of losing control during alcohol and drug-infused dorm parties, Yolanda was cautious around Rudy. She expressed her fear of being taken advantage of, but his crude denial shocked her. She refused his physical advances which led to frustration on his part and repulsion on hers towards his explicit language. Yolanda viewed her parents' traditional approach to sex as a burden and envied Rudy's liberated upbringing. Their differing views on sex eventually led to their breakup. Yolanda regretted the end of their relationship and often found herself fantasizing about him returning. However, her dreams were shattered when she saw him at a dance with another girl who he was clearly intimate with. Fast forward five years, a sexually experienced Yolanda in grad school received an unanticipated visit from Rudy. When he crudely asked her for sex, she was outraged, kicked him out, and indulged in his expensive wine, feeling like a liberated woman who had just dismissed an unsatisfactory lover.

part 2 chapter 1

The parents of the Garcia girls, Mami and Papi, decided to become American citizens following political unrest in the Dominican Republic. Living in the U.S. was different for the girls, with encounters like a pervert, ethnic slurs, Sandra's tampon incident leading to their parents sending them to boarding schools. In their new schools, the girls were seen as rich due to their foreign status. They reveled in the freedom that came with being away from home, indulging in new experiences like kissing boys and smoking. However, realizing their daughters might be getting into trouble, their parents decided to send them back to the Dominican Republic during summers to reconnect with their roots. During one of these visits, Sofia got into trouble for possession of marijuana and was made to spend a year in the Dominican Republic as punishment. Sofia adapted to the new environment, changing her look and dating Manuel, their uncle's illegitimate son. The sisters disapproved of Manuel's old-fashioned attitudes towards women and used their American upbringing to mock his ignorance and insecurities. Although pressured by Manuel for sex, Sofia resisted due to the lack of contraception and fear of causing a scandal. One night, they discovered that Sofia was sleeping with Manuel, who didn't believe in using condoms, at a motel. This outraged the sisters who decided to intervene, resulting in Sofia being sent back to the U.S. to protect her reputation. Sofia was angry and called her sisters traitors, but they believed she would eventually get over her resentment.

part 2 chapter 2

Upon moving to the U.S., Laura Garcia engaged herself in creating peculiar inventions while attempting to adapt to the new culture. This was her way of coping with changes and keeping her interests alive. Her inventions included items like a car bumper with a can opener, though her daughters saw these activities as a distraction from their efforts to assimilate. Laura's social stature was greatly reduced in America, forcing her to carve a new identity, which included a failed attempt at entrepreneurship. She consequently redirected her efforts to organizing her husband's office. Facing her own struggles, Yolanda was tasked with writing a speech for school. Fearing humiliation due to her accent, she preferred to work alone. Inspired by Walt Whitman, she penned her speech, much to her father Carlos' displeasure. Carlos, still tuned into the political happenings of their home country, was worried about Yolanda's rebellious attitude, reflected in her speech. He disapproved of his daughters' increasing independence and Americanization, leading to a heated argument which ended with him destroying Yolanda's speech. Yolanda retaliated by calling him a nickname for their homeland's dictator, further escalating tensions. She locked herself in her room until her mother helped her write a new, more acceptable speech. The incident ended with Carlos gifting Yolanda a typewriter and apologizing for his actions. Following this incident, Laura ceased inventing altogether.

part 2 chapter 3

Celebrating their first year in the U.S., the Garcia family enjoyed a flan, with Sofia blowing out a candle and everyone making a wish. Carla, longing for her Dominican Republic home, wished for a return. She had a hard time adjusting to life on Long Island and missed her family in the Dominican Republic. The empty lot near their house with a 'No Trespassing' sign, which she didn't understand, added to her confusion. On her daily walk to school, Carla was bullied by a group of boys who threw stones and racial insults at her. She was also struggling to accept her changing body. The boys would discuss cars, but she could only recognize Volkswagens, associated with the secret police back home. One day, a "long-nosed, lime green car" followed her from the bus stop. The man in the car, who she could only identify by hair and clothing, honked and beckoned her. Misunderstanding, she thought he needed directions but was embarrassed by her poor English. But then, she was shocked to see he was half-naked and was performing an unsolicited sexual act. Terrified, she ran home. Her mother reported the incident to the police, but they struggled to understand what had happened due to Laura's limited language skills. Frustration arose as Carla, too terrified to speak to the police, could only provide vague details about the man and his car. The incident left her mortified, having to describe in detail what she saw. The police eventually left after failing to get more information. Changes followed this incident. Her mother began accompanying her to and from school, and she eventually switched schools. Even so, the memory of the boys' taunts and the man in the green car remained with her. At night, she would pray to return to the familiar love and warmth of the Dominican Republic.

part 2 chapter 4

During their initial year in New York, the family lived in a tiny flat close to a Catholic institution. Yolanda was fond of her instructors, particularly her warm-hearted fourth grade teacher, Sister Zoe, who took a special interest in her as the only immigrant in the class. Sister Zoe taught the class to pronounce Yolanda's name and tutored her separately, helping her master English and words like "laundromat," "subway," and "snow." As Yolanda's English improved, she became aware of the panic caused by the Cuban missile crisis. Air-raid drills became common in her school, and she was taught terms like "radioactive fallout" and "bomb shelter." Sister Zoe used chalk drawings of mushroom clouds to explain the potential effects of a bomb explosion, and Yolanda's family fervently prayed for global peace. The season of winter brought shorter days and freezing weather. One day, Yolanda noticed spots floating in the air from her desk near the window, which she mistook for fallout and cried out "Bomb!", causing panic among her classmates. Sister Zoe clarified that it was merely snow, a phenomenon Yolanda had only heard of but never experienced. Yolanda observed the snowfall as Sister Zoe described each snowflake's individuality and beauty, comparing them to people.

part 2 chapter 5

Before a dinner with the influential Fanning couple, Laura instructed her daughters on etiquette and advised them on the restaurant's flamenco show to pique their interest. The family was adjusting to life in the U.S., three months after fleeing from their home country's secret police. One of the daughters, Sandra, was troubled by a biased neighbor who disapproved of the girls' noise. Getting ready for the special dinner, the family was appreciative of Dr. Fanning, who had facilitated their entry to the U.S. and was assisting their father, Carlos, in securing employment and passing the medical licensing exam. The Fannings were aware of their financial struggles and wanted to pamper them. Sandra fantasized about being adopted by the wealthy Fannings. The girls' maternal grandfather managed their rent, clothing, and recreational expenses. They traveled to the restaurant by taxi in a rare splurge. Sandra felt nostalgia for the servants back in the Dominican Republic. Their mother justified the Fannings' footing the dinner bill, citing their hospitality when the Fannings visited the Dominican Republic. Carlos, however, was discomfited by his temporary reliance on others. Sandra didn't find Mrs. Fanning attractive and was bewildered by her marriage to Dr. Fanning. Sandra's drinking spree and subsequent restroom visit led her to witness a shocking scene: Mrs. Fanning kissing her father. She saw her own beauty reflected in the mirror and realized she could pass as an American due to her fair complexion. Her father pleaded with her not to reveal the kiss to her mother, sparking her worry about a similar encounter with the busboy. The dinner took a turn as Mrs. Fanning was cut off from wine and disrupted the dance show, causing Sandra's annoyance. Dr. Fanning then proposed a toast to their life in the U.S. Ignoring Laura's guidance, Sandra requested a flamenco dress-clad Barbie doll from the Fannings. Her father declined, but Mrs. Fanning insisted on buying four dolls for the girls. Pressed by her mother to show gratitude, Sandra used her doll to peck Mrs. Fanning’s cheek, uttering "gracias."

part 3 chapter 1

Carlos discerned armed figures approaching his residence and quickly signaled his maid, Chucha, and daughter Yoyo to stay silent. He retreated into a hidden bedroom compartment, outfitted with essentials and a firearm, courtesy of Vic. Yoyo, mistaking the situation for one of her father's games, observed the armed individuals enter. She recognized them as probable outlaws or undercover police, as per her mother's previous descriptions. Yoyo feared their presence was connected to a fabricated tale she once told about her father owning a gun, a lie which had resulted in a beating and a stern reprimand from her mother. The intruders recommended better security for their daughters, as Chucha announced the mother's arrival, simultaneously spreading powder in a voodoo ritual. Laura felt panic at the sight of the notable black Volkswagen and secret police near her home. She sent a servant to alert Vic, using a code phrase related to his tennis shoes. As she awaited Vic's arrival, she tried to hold off the men with her high-class demeanor, beer and snacks. Vic, a CIA agent, was interrupted from his dealings with a prostitute to deal with the situation. Upon reaching Laura's sister's residence, he found family members hiding and was informed of the turn of events. Arriving at the Garcia household, he declared that Carlos had been granted a fellowship in the U.S., leading Laura to realize their imminent departure from the Island. The undercover policemen, Pupo and Checo, were tasked with tracking Dr. Garcia's movements. Vic's arrival stirred unease, especially when he affirmed his embassy links, making them fear repercussions from their superiors. Laura instructed her children to select their best outfits and a single toy for their U.S. journey. Sandra understood that no toy could alleviate the growing void within her. Carlos, who had overheard his wife's interrogation, was comforted by Vic's arrival. Sofia, the youngest, had no recollection of their last day on the island, but her sisters would remind her of how her behavior nearly resulted in their father’s death. Sandra only remembered their voodoo-practicing Haitian maid, Chucha, who slept in a coffin. Chucha prayed over the girls, inducing tears. She recounted her solitude in the house post-family departure and the subsequent deterioration of the property. She spoke of the ghostly aura the girls would encounter in the future before retiring to her coffin.

part 3 chapter 2

Yolanda recalls the strong bonds between her and her cousins in their family homes in the Dominican Republic. She was especially close to her male cousin Mundin, a friendship her relatives disapproved of, fearing she'd become too boyish. Her grandfather's United Nations role subjected the family to regular surveillance and intrusive searches by the government and secret police. Violence was something Yolanda only encountered in American films. Her grandparents often visited New York for her grandmother's medical treatments, returning with toys for the kids. Despite discouragement, Yolanda still enjoyed cowboy games with Mundin, thanks to a matching cowgirl outfit she received. They also received a toy, The Human Body, a dissectable plastic doll with pink clay, and a book about Scheherezade. Mundin used the clay to lure Yolanda into forbidden territory - a coal shed at the back of their homes, located next to the dictator's daughter's residence. He proposed to trade the clay if Yolanda could prove she was a girl in the shed. Sofia, another sister, followed them into the shed, threatening to expose them. Yolanda managed to buy her silence on the condition she stripped along with Yolanda. Mundin was let down to find that girls resembled dolls, but he split the clay between the sisters anyway. Yolanda, wanting more, blackmailed Mundin into giving her the Human Body doll. However, they were discovered in the dusty shed by Mundin's mother and the gardener. Yolanda covered by saying they were hiding from the secret police. Though uncertain, Mundin's mother ordered them back to the house. The pieces of the Human Body doll were eventually retrieved in a sorry state - chewed by the dog and not fitting back into the doll properly.

part 3 chapter 3

Dona Charito, a German artist married to a Dominican, Don Jose, taught art to the young Garcia sisters at their home. The sisters dubbed it the 'Hansel and Gretel house'. Sandra, talented in art, used to sketch various subjects around her, including a servant's baby. However, when the baby fell ill, her mother pleaded with Sandra to burn the sketch, fearing it was cursed. Post burning, the baby's health improved, but Sandra got into trouble for sketching on the house walls. The family arranged art lessons, not just for Sandra, but all female cousins to be equitable. Don Jose's absence, due to a sculpture commission, made Dona Charito their teacher. They took off their footwear upon reaching Dona Charito's house and were shown different paintings before starting the lesson. Sandra, getting restless, painted a series of cats unnoticed until Dona Charito threw her out for not complying. She roamed the property and chanced upon a shed with peculiar shapes, one being a featureless female statue and a nude man chained by the neck, carving feet for the statue. Noticing him placing his chisel on the statue's forehead, she screamed out a warning. Startled, the man lunged at her, but the chain jerked him back, and Sandra fell, resulting in a broken arm. The man stared at her curiously as she screamed for help, and her classmates rushed out. Despite her injury, she saw her cousins playing gleefully in the mud. Her recovery took a while, as the bone had to be reset due to initial improper healing. Sandra received treats and toys during her hospital stay but had to forego art classes. Meanwhile, her cousins continued their lessons. During Christmas, at the National Cathedral's nativity pageant, Sandra was struck by the resemblance she shared with the facial features of the Virgin sculpture, reminiscent of the ones in the shed.

part 3 chapter 4

Carlos came back from New York City with unexpected gifts for his daughters, but they had to finish their meals before seeing them. Their maid, Gladys, started singing a song about New York, much to Carla's enjoyment despite her mother's disdain. Gladys and Chucha, another maid, exchanged a few words before Gladys got lost in daydreams of New York. She saw the Statue of Liberty as the American Virgin Mary, praying to it daily. The maids grumbled about their duties and envied the girls' frequent gifts. Carla was excited about their mystery gifts and didn't mind cleaning her plate to see them. Their mother received her favorite perfume and the girls were given small, unusual iron statues. Yolanda had a man in a boat, Sandra a rope-jumping girl, and Carla a girl gazing at clouds. Their father explained these were mechanical banks popular at FAO Schwarz. They realized that the statues moved once you inserted a coin. Gladys was allowed to insert a coin into Carla's bank and it animated, Mary seeming to ascend towards the clouds. Carla showed off the bank at school and collected nearly a dollar in pennies. Her mother's friends and Gladys themselves often contributed pennies too, but eventually, the novelty wore off and the bank was put away. The Christmas season arrived and everyone's focus shifted to decorations and preparations. Carla got her wished-for baby doll, among other gifts. The maids received wallets with some cash. Gladys wished to buy the bank with her Christmas money, but Carla feared getting in trouble for selling her father's gift. Instead, Carla allowed Gladys to have it for free. However, when her mother noticed the bank's absence from Carla's room, she decided to investigate. Gladys was questioned and Carla confessed to giving the bank away. Despite her admission, her parents lost trust in Gladys, pressuring her to leave the family. As Gladys departed tearfully, Carla attempted to insert a penny into the bank but it jammed, leaving the iron figure of Mary suspended halfway towards the clouds.

part 3 chapter 5

Yolanda's grandma gifted her with a drum from a New York City trip, and Yolanda's overenthusiastic playing led to reprimands from her mother. Her grandmother promised a future U.S. trip, involving snow and a visit to FAO Schwarz, if she behaved well. Yolanda agreed to play outside instead, but eventually lost both drumsticks, with her aunt accidentally sitting on the second. She tried alternative items but none matched the original sound. Yolanda had a habit of exploring the coal shed, despite the maid, Pila's warnings of it being haunted. Pila, who had been fired for theft, had also lost an eye, which further terrified Yolanda. She once ventured inside to search for spirits, but found kittens instead. She sought advice from a man in the yard, who told her not to separate kittens from their mother until they were old enough. He demonstrated hypocrisy by shooting at birds, so Yolanda ignored his advice and named her favorite kitten Schwarz. Upon taking Schwarz from the shed, Yolanda noticed the mother cat and was reminded of Pila's eye incident. To distract the kitten, she placed him in the drum and played. After becoming annoyed with the kitten's persistent meowing, Yolanda impulsively threw him out, unintentionally injuring his leg. The mother cat and the kitten subsequently disappeared, leaving Yolanda feeling guilty and haunted by nightmares of the mother cat. She briefly reflects on the rest of her life, acknowledging her ongoing hauntings by her actions, which now form the "violation that lies at the center of my art."

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