Who Was the First Native Mexican Missionary?

Andrés was the first native Mexican to serve as a full-time missionary.

Andrés Carlos González was the first native Mexican to be called as missionary, as a mission presidency councilor, and as a patriarch. The grandfather of M. Russell Ballard also inquired about his ability serve as a mission president. Gonzalez wrote the lyrics to the popular hymn Placentero nos es trabajar and was a notable resident of the Latter-day Saint colonies in Mexico. This interview with John A. Gonzalez discusses Andrés Carlos González’s life and legacy.

Read more about Andrés Carlos González in No More Strangers and Foreigners: The Melding of Cultures Against the Backdrop of Deep Religious Faith.

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Why did you write No More Strangers and Foreigners?

One of my sons kept asking me to share my experiences. He would say, “I want to know who you are!” It’s a bit odd for a young man raised in my home to want to “know” who his father is. But those words had me asking myself, “Who am I?”

The more I thought about this, the more I recognized that I am, in large part, the sum of those who preceded me. That’s true genetically, but I felt I was part of their stories and experiences. I wanted to preserve my family stories for my children, grandchildren, and descendants.

I’ll write about my own experiences someday, but I wanted to start with my ancestors. I want my descendants—many who will never know me personally—to come to know my ancestors, and theirs, first. That’s why I wrote No More Strangers and Foreigners.

I grew up in a home with parents who were active in the Church and fully engaged in Church service. As a family, we benefited from being involved in all Church programs and activities. Family history was part of that growing-up experience, with both parents and extended family members, involved in genealogical research and attending the temple.

I often heard family stories of ancestors and their experiences—some directly from relatives who had those experiences like my grandparents. I enjoyed hearing those stories and experiences, many of which were faith-promoting. I think they helped build my faith and certainly helped solidify my connection not only with my relatives who were then living but also with those who had long passed before I was ever born.

Who was Andrés Carlos González?

Andrés Carlos González was my grandfather. He was born and raised in the small town of Nadadores, Coahuila, México. He was one of more than fifteen children of Juan and Juliana González. His father was a teacher by profession (and unique in that he was the only Protestant in town,) unlike his staunch Catholic mother.

It was Andrés’s older brother, Manrique, who eventually determined Andrés’s destiny. Manrique left home as a young adult searching for more significant opportunities and finally found work in the Latter-day Saint colonies in the nearby state of Chihuahua. Writing home, Manrique shared his experiences and his happiness in the colonies. Intrigued, Andrés left home at seventeen and, following the path his brother forged, eventually joined the Church, falling in love and marrying. His bride, Minnie Spencer, was born and raised in the colonies to parents who had moved from Utah to help colonize the area with other Church members from Utah.

After the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, Andrés and Minnie moved to El Paso, Texas, where they raised their family. Andrés enjoyed a successful career in the import-export business, leveraging his ties with the colonies.

In terms of Church service, Andrés was the first native Mexican to serve as a full-time missionary called from Church headquarters, wrote the words to a beloved hymn in the Spanish hymnal, and was the “first” Mexican to serve in several other significant callings. His progeny includes children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who are committed members of the Church, served full-time missions, served in many leadership roles, and one who is an emeritus General Authority Seventy.

Why did the Latter-day Saints establish colonies in Mexico?

The Church was already establishing colonies throughout Utah Territory when Brigham Young sent members to establish settlements in California, Texas, and Nevada. Mexico was a logical extension of Young’s overall plan, but the decision was postponed due to the initial hostile reception by locals.

However, as the Church’s practice of plural marriage in the late 1800s drew increasing negative attention from the U.S. government, the plan to establish settlements in Mexico took on renewed interest. And because Latter-day Saints had already shown an ability to establish footholds in forbidding terrain when they arrived in the Utah territory, the Mexican government welcomed these colonizers.

Andrés was smitten by what he saw before him.

Although not all members of the Church were polygamists, those who did choose to live in plural marriages, like my great-grandfather, Franklin Spencer, believed their eternal salvation depended on it. They lived in fear of having to denounce their wives and children.

Franklin Spencer was part of a group of men who willingly accepted the assignment to move to Mexico, identify land, and establish settlements in two northern Mexican states: Sonora (on the border with Arizona) and Chihuahua (which borders Texas and New Mexico).

This group of men crossed into Chihuahua in 1885 and quickly picked out sites for the first Church colonies: Colonia Diaz, Colonia Juárez, and Colonia Dublán. Within six weeks after the arrival of this first colonizing party, there were 350 Church immigrants in northern Chihuahua.

Eventually, there would be 4,000 of them in eight colonies settled between 1886 and 1900 in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora.

Establishing the colonies in Mexico was, therefore, a natural extension of the colonization efforts started by Brigham Young but, more importantly an effort to allow Church members to practice their beliefs without the threat of persecution by the U.S. federal government.

How did Andrés Carlos González join the Church?

As mentioned earlier, Andrés was motivated to leave his small village in México by letters written home by his older brother, Manrique, who had joined the Church and was living in the colonies. Andrés came to Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, where he met Isaac Pierce, a former colonist who spoke glowingly about life in the colonies.

Andrés caught a train south to Casas Grandes and boarded a stagecoach for the last 15 miles of his journey to Colonia Juárez. The stage driver was Harlan “Sixtus” Johnson. “Sixtus” used the travel time to fill Andrés’s head with details about the colonies. Andrés lit a cigarette, and Johnson was prompted to explain the “Word of Wisdom.” Determined to respect the customs of his new home, Andrés threw his cigarette to the ground. “If they don’t smoke, I won’t smoke either,” he told Johnson.

When they arrived, Andrés was smitten by what he saw before him—a decidedly un-Mexican scene. Colonists had built traditional cottages and shops of home, surrounding them with trees and gardens. He fell in love with the place.

He moved into the home of Bishop Joseph C. Bentley and his wife Maggie, earned his room and board by milking the Bentley cows, and took a job as an assistant to master stone cutter Marius Mickelson. Seeing that Mickelson paid the church a ten percent tithe on his earnings, Andrés decided he would do the same, even though he was not a member. He was eager to emulate the practices of the people around him whom he admired, and it was only natural that he would learn of the doctrines of the Church and decide to be baptized. It didn’t hurt that he came to know Franklin Spencer’s daughter, Minnie, with whom he ended up courting and marrying.

What firsts did Andrés represent in the Church?

In 1910, Andrés was a young married man with a wife, a three-month-old son, and a job as a bookkeeper for the Pajarito Mining Company when he received a letter from “Box B” in Salt Lake City. “Box B” was the post office address of the Church’s Missionary Department—the return address that signaled to every young Latter-day Saint man that he was being called on a mission.

It was not unusual for single or married men to receive a mission call from “Box B” at that time, but in the 80-year history of the Church to that date, none of those missionaries had been native Mexicans. Andrés was called to serve in the Mexico Mission. When it came time for him to report, he kissed his wife and young son goodbye and began walking south. It took 24 days of hitchhiking on wagons and donkeys and walking to reach Mexico City. For two years, he would preach the gospel, mostly in cities within a day’s travel of the capital—Cuernavaca, Ozumba, Atlautla, San Pablo, and Amecameca.

That night, sitting in a jail cell. . .

In early 1947, Andrés was called as one of two counselors to Spanish American Mission President Lorin Jones. I believe that at that time in the Church, mission presidents did not generally have counselors as they do today. But, Andrés was the first Mexican to be called to serve in a three-man mission presidency—and quite possibly one of the first men to so serve. To add to the honor, Spencer W. Kimball, then a member of the Twelve Apostles, came from Salt Lake City himself to set Andrés apart.

At 70, Andrés was called by Church president David O. McKay as a patriarch of the El Paso Texas Stake, making him the first native Mexican to hold such a calling in the Church.

As many know, whenever a stake is organized, a patriarch is called to serve the members of that stake to give patriarchal blessings. There was already another patriarch called in the El Paso Texas Stake. Still, as a Spanish-speaking patriarch, his primary responsibilities were to make himself available to any Spanish-speaking member. Since there were no established stakes of the Church at that time south of the border, Andrés regularly traveled to the temple in Mesa, Arizona, where Spanish-speaking members came on excursions to receive their endowments.

While Spanish-speaking members were at the temple, Andrés would offer and give thousands of blessings. Interestingly, in my own Church assignments and travels, I have met many Spanish-speaking members of the Church who told me that my grandfather gave them their patriarchal blessing.

How did the Mexican Revolution impact Andrés’s mission?

The Mexican Revolution was a long and bloody battle between several factions and eventually engulfed the entire country between 1910 and 1920. Andrés arrived in the mission field right at the start of the turmoil.

Mission President Rey L. Pratt was monitoring the events and trying to keep his missionaries safe amidst the revolutionary violence—especially the Americans who could be targeted by those who suspected the United States of intervening in the Mexican Civil War. He was also monitoring events in the colonies.

Andrés and his fellow missionaries limited their nighttime meetings, working during daylight hours when safer. Finally, receiving word that the colonies in the north were under siege, Pratt released the missionaries from the colonies—including Andrés—so that they could go home and help their families.

Andrés served a total of two years and made the long journey home to the colonies only to find them nearly abandoned and his wife gone. He finally reunited with his wife, who had left the colonies with others and was living with family members in Tucson, Arizona.

The Mexico Latter-day Saint missionaries, circa 1912.

What is the story of the hymn Andrés wrote?

Andrés spent most of his mission in smaller towns near Mexico City. Catholicism still dominated those towns, and missionaries were not always a welcome sight. One day, Andrés and his companion decided to reach out specifically to Protestants, hoping that those who had left Catholicism might be more open to hearing the message of the restored gospel.

Andrés and his companion stood on a street corner. They began singing a familiar Protestant hymn, “Sweet By and By,” from a tune by American Civil War composer Joseph P. Webster. Since he grew up in the home of his Protestant father, Andrés was familiar with the hymn. The idea of the two missionaries singing backfired when a group of Protestants surrounded them and said they had no right to sing that hymn. The crowd warned the missionaries that if they ever tried to sing that hymn in public again, they would be arrested.

The next day, the two missionaries were back on the same corner singing a different hymn. Police were summoned, the war of words escalated, and Andrés and his companion were thrown in jail.

That night, sitting in a jail cell and wondering if he would become one of the many people who simply “disappeared” when arrested during the revolution, Andrés found hope in the music and sentiment of Sweet By and By. He spent the night writing new lyrics to the tune, praising the work of those who spread the gospel and promising a sweet reward for the faithful in the next life. Andrés’ words and Webster’s music were published in the first Latter-day Saint Spanish hymnal in 1912 under the title Despedida (“Farewell”). Later the name was changed to Placentero nos es trabajar (“It is pleasant for us to work”). It would become a standard for Spanish-speaking Mormon congregations into the 21st Century. It is Hymn 88 in the current Spanish Church hymnal.

What influence did the Spencer family have on Andrés and his religious beliefs?

Andrés was raised in a home where his father was the only Protestant in town and his mother a staunch Catholic, so he was exposed to differing religious beliefs at home.

When he went to the colonies for better opportunities, he was impressed with what he saw and the people he met. He developed a close friendship with a co-worker, Josiah Spencer. Eventually, Andrés boarded at the Spencer home, fell in love, and married Josiah’s sister, Minnie. Franklin and Hannah Spencer were open to their children marrying Mexicans. In Hannah’s way of thinking, intermarriage was one of the ways people of Mexico—descendants of the Book of Mormon people—would be awakened to their spiritual heritage.

Should all of that be thrown away?

Andrés was, therefore, greatly influenced by Franklin and Hannah’s understanding of Church doctrine, along with its history, mission, and destiny.

Hannah’s mother walked the plains with the Saints to Salt Lake. Franklin knew and had strong relationships with Church presidents Brigham Young and John Taylor. Living in their home and eventually joining the family, I can only imagine the discussions of which Andrés was part.

Listen to John Gonzalez talk about his Latter-day Saint ancestors.

I was around Andrés, my grandfather, all the time growing up as a young man. We lived in the same city and were members of the same ward Almost every Sunday, my grandparents were in our home for dinner. He gave me my patriarchal blessing when I was sixteen. He passed away when I was serving as a young missionary in Mexico.

During the entire time I was blessed to know and be around him, I never had reason to think or suspect he was a convert. The way he talked about the Church, how he spoke from the pulpit, and how he offered prayers—it was as if he was raised in an active Latter-day Saint home, or that he walked the plains to Salt Lake Valley himself.

I was only a young man when I knew him, but I feel that who he was and what he believed was greatly influenced by his close association with and his admiration of Franklin and Hannah Spencer.

How did the Spencer family save the colonies during the Mexican Revolution?

The colonists had been able to maintain their neutrality in the Mexican Revolution due in part to the protection of Mexican President Diaz. But, when he was overthrown, the situation rapidly deteriorated into chaos throughout the country with guerrilla warfare and counterrevolutionary movements springing up all around Mexico. For the safety of their families, Church leaders made the decision to abandon the colonies.

The decision to leave was not that simple for Franklin and Hannah Spencer. They had made a promise to God to live among the Mexicans and bring them into the fold of His church and they decided to stay. While local leaders felt the need to save the colonists’ lives, the Spencers felt their mission would be to make sure they had something to return to.

Latter-day Saint colonists in Mexico boarding trains to flee to Texas.
Latter-day Saint colonists in Mexico boarding trains to flee to Texas.

A local rebel leader was furious at what he felt was an affront from the fleeing colonists and ordered his men to go to Dublán, loot what was left in the homes and stores, and then burn the town to the ground. One of the leaders of that group of men was known to the Spencer and was a friend. That individual and seven other looting rebel leaders came to the Spencer home. Hannah greeted them cordially and threw together a hasty meal. She listened as the rebels complained about the colonists.

What Hannah heard was wounded pride, and she formed a plan. “Gentlemen,” she said as they finished their lunch, “perhaps some of the colonists have been indifferent, even unkind, but I know that a friendly feeling has existed in the hearts of many of my friends for the Mexican people. Although they are gone, they will soon realize their mistake and come home.”

She had the attention of the leader, so she went on. The colonists had come through hard times to build up their corner of Mexico for the good of all. There were better times ahead for Mexico and for the colonies. The revolutionary soldiers had, with only a few exceptions, treated the colonists with respect, and had received respect and neutrality in return. Should all of that be thrown away?

The general pushed away from the table and shook her hand. “Now, don’t you worry, Senora Spencer,” he said. “We will tell [our leader] that we found you and your family here in charge of things. We will not burn the town. We will not burn anything, and I assure you we will give you all the protection within our power.”

The job of “saving” the colonies had only just begun. Many of the residents had left the keys to their houses with the Spencers. Franklin stayed home to guard their barn. Their young son, Frank, took a rifle and watchdogs and moved into the home of a prosperous neighbor with much to lose.

Hannah and Josiah ran around the town day and night, chasing away looters, boarding broken windows and doors, and feeding livestock. More than once, Hannah convinced a looter to put their booty back, sometimes pulling her trump card: “The general is a personal friend of the family and I will report you.”

Once, she came upon a group of young Mexican boys vandalizing the abandoned Mormon chapel. She told them to stop because the colonists were coming back. “Coming back?” the sheepish boys said, with the look of naughty children caught by the neighborhood grandmother.

“Yes, of course, they’re coming back,” Hannah replied, letting kindness slip into her tone. She told the boys to help her clean up the mess they had made and then deputized the small gang as her police force. Soon, they were following her around the town, chasing off looters and informing on troublemakers.

Most of the families in Dublán fled.

Bands of farmers would come into town from the countryside to collect what the colonists had left behind. Hannah would deflect them with assurances that Dublán had not been abandoned. But as each group left, they would encounter another group of opportunists on the road into town.

Hannah had been right to think that the colonies were at risk of annihilation. The exodus of 1912 effectively ended the large-scale Latter-day Saint settlement of northern Mexico and surrendered the region to a few hangers on and to the Mexicans who moved in to take over what the colonists had left behind

Only one-fourth of the colonists eventually returned. Some of those who did said it was “remarkable” that the Spencers had been able to safeguard the store and so many homes from large-scale looting by the rebels and the Mexican neighbors. A few who didn’t return resented the fact that in preserving property, the Spencers may have made it harder for the colonists to receive reparations from the Mexican government.

My grandmother recalled some who chided her parents: “Why didn’t you leave the colonies when told to? Why didn’t you let [the rebels] burn the town? Then, we could collect pay from the Mexican government for all our property. We do not want to live in this Godforsaken land.”

The Spencers had done their best to preserve a few homes in Dublán. Other colonies did not fare so well.

The Stewart family similarly stayed on in Colonia Pacheco to guard their property, and their father was stabbed to death by a Mexican whom he tried to chase away from their home. Colonia Diaz had been burned to the ground. In most of the other colonies, looting and vandalism had been widespread. Furniture had been stolen or smashed. Windows were shattered. Fences were torn down, and loose cattle and pigs had trampled gardens.

As some colonists ventured back in small groups to see what was left of their homes, they were understandably discouraged about resuming their lives in Mexico.

What was life in the colonies like while Pancho Villa’s army occupied the area?

The most frequent revolutionary presence in the northern colonies was Pancho Villa, sometimes known as the Robin Hood of Mexico. In September of 1915, he encamped his army of 17,000 soldiers and their families in and around Colonia Dublán. This was after the exodus of most those families living in the colonies in 1912. However, some families had returned, so there was still a presence of colonists at that time, including my ancestors.

Villa’s commanders took over abandoned houses for their various headquarters. It was a delicate dance between the rebels and the Americans who had no part in the civil war. At first, the rebels confined their occupation to the empty buildings. But occasionally, they demanded goods from the colonists who had moved back into their homes. Sometimes, the rebels paid, and sometimes, they stole what they wanted.

As Villa’s soldiers roamed Colonia Dublán looking for supplies, they spread the word that Villa was treacherous and would kill any man who did not turn over goods on demand.

An interesting experience my grandfather had was when, one day, he was summoned to Villa’s headquarters in Nuevo Casas Grandes along with other men. Villa himself lined them up and asked each for money. Andrés calmly responded that he would donate to the revolution. “I don’t have any money, but I have some nails for your horses, and a man who will shoe your horses.”

True to his word, Andrés later delivered a barrel of horseshoe nails to Villa. At a later encounter with Villa, Andrés was surprised that the revolutionary remembered him. “Hey, chaparrito!” Villa greeted him, meaning “little shorty.” “You saved the revolution! We couldn’t keep the shoes on the horses!”

The colonists tried to maintain neutrality and distanced themselves from the fight between the rebels and the Mexican government. However, that was upset on October 13, 1915, when the United States government officially recognized the leader of the Mexican government, Venustiano Carranza. Villa was still encamped in the colonies just 200 miles from the U.S. border.

Overnight, he sent out the word that he was taking his army to the neighboring state of Sonora. The men were preparing for battle, and the families that had camped with them would be sent home.

My grandmother recalled the scenes and sounds of Dublán that night. Her account reflects the compassion colonists had for those who occupied their town:

Women’s cries could be heard all over town; shrieks pierced one’s heart as they resounded in the quietness of that dark, dreary, stormy night. Despite the drizzling rain, wives and mothers who had finished their packing sat on the doorsteps and ditch banks weeping hysterically. Their husbands hovered over them in an attempt to allay their fears that they might never see each other again. Their wailing was an emblem of hopelessness and despair.

Pancho Villa took on the forces of Carranza in the town of Agua Prieta in the neighboring state of Sonora in November of 1915 and lost in what became a defining battle in the revolution. Agua Prieta was across the border from Douglas, Arizona, and Villa was convinced that American troops had helped the Carranza forces. In retaliation, he crossed into the United States in March of 1916. He made a bloody raid on the town of Columbus, New Mexico, taking away any excuse the Americans had for remaining neutral in the Mexican Civil War.

Word reached the colonies that Villa was on the run, headed back to Dublán and looking to take revenge on any Americans he could find. It was said that he blamed the colonists for an earlier explosion in Dublán that had cost him his horses and dynamite. Most of the families in Dublán fled into the countryside to hide. At night, Villa’s forces passed by Dublán without stopping and speculated that perhaps Villa still had some respect for the town that had sheltered his men for so many months. But years later, some Latter-day Saint missionaries working in southern Mexico happened to meet some former Villa soldiers and heard a different story. When the talk turned to the colonies, the men told of how they had been with Villa that night when the company passed Dublán. The entire town seemed lit up with huge campfires, causing Villa to fear that federal troops were there. He made a wide circle around Dublán and moved on.

Within a few weeks of the incident in Columbus, New Mexico, there were real soldiers, not protective phantoms, camped around Colonia Dublán—this time, the 5,000 U.S. Army troops led by General John J. Pershing who had moved in to protect the U.S. border and pursue Villa.

How did Pershing’s Expedition impact the colonies?

Pershing set up his headquarters in Colonia Dublán for most of 1916 and directed efforts at pursuing Villa. With their presence, suddenly Dublán was a boom town with stores that had been closed since the exodus reopening, and American dollars flowed.

The new commerce in town also made for serious and occasionally acrimonious competition between the merchants. But Pershing and his soldiers were welcomed and a comfort to the colonists. The U.S. troops remained in Chihuahua for almost a year before withdrawing without finding Villa. (Villa’s army, money, and arms dwindled, and Villa lost his standing in the revolution. Eventually, he negotiated a peaceful retirement for himself but was assassinated in 1923, possibly with the sanction of the Mexican government.)

What happened to the colonies after the Mexican Revolution?

Just before the Mexican Revolution started in earnest, there were more than 4,000 living in the Latter-day Saint colonies. When it became apparent to local Church leaders that families were at risk of being engulfed in the turmoil, they approved a mass exodus in 1912. Many families moved back to the United States as refugees.

By 1914, with the threat somewhat diminished, some 400 former colonists felt it safe to return and re-create the lifestyle they knew in Mexico. Still, the 1912 exodus effectively ended the large-scale Latter-day settlement in Northern Mexico. Eventually, about 1,000 expelled refugees would return to the land and homes they owned.

Today, many of their descendants still live in the two colonies that still exist, Colonia Dublán and Colonia Juárez. Most are engaged in farming the same land their ancestors had identified and who initially dug the canals, planted trees, laid out street grids, and built houses. There are several stakes, and the Colonia Juárez Chihuahua Mexico Temple sits on the hill just west of the town.

What might have been different if Andrés González had accepted the call of mission president?

Sometime between 1934 and 1936, Elder Melvin J Ballard visited El Paso, Texas, where my grandparents lived, for a regional church conference. Andrés was asked to drive Elder Ballard around, and when the two were alone, Ballard began asking about his financial situation and asked whether Andrés would be in a position to serve as a mission president in Mexico. Andrés was still struggling to overcome the impact of the Great Depression on his business and had vowed to pay all his debts without declaring bankruptcy.

He didn’t see how he could walk away from those obligations. So, he regretfully said he could not. It was a decision that haunted him for the rest of his life. He had never turned down an assignment from the church, and to that point, he had never been offered a position of such weighty responsibility.

For years afterward, he drummed into his children and grandchildren the lesson he had learned: Get an education, stay out of debt, and put yourself in a position to be ready to do whatever God calls you to do.

Had Andrés been able to accept the call, it’s difficult to say what might have been different. The experience itself would have had an impact, and I would imagine there would be many faith-promoting stories that would have been passed to his descendants.

At the time of Elder Ballard’s visit with my grandfather, the Church was still relatively young in Mexico, and the mission president was the top Church leader in Mexico. A significant schism occurred when members asked for a native Mexican mission president. When one was called who was not considered native Mexican, about 800 members broke with the Church and formed their own denomination, claiming ownership of some church buildings and property. They built new chapels and began sending their own missionaries out, targeting existing members and even following Church missionaries to take advantage of any potential converts they were teaching. This schism festered for 10 years before a reconciliation was brokered.

I have to think that had my grandfather been in a position to accept a call to serve as mission president, the schism in Mexico would never have occurred. The Church is strong in Mexico today, with over thirty missions. Perhaps the Church would be even stronger with many more missions had my grandfather served. Who knows? He certainly would have been better known in Church history.

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About the interview participant

John A Gonzalez spent his professional career undercover with the Central Intelligence Agency, retiring after twenty-five years of service. He started a security consulting company and was working in that capacity when he and his wife were called to preside over the California Fresno Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Upon their return, John accepted full-time employment with the Church, first as a Seminaries and Institutes coordinator in the Washington, DC, area, and later in the Church’s Missionary Department.

Further Reading

Church in Mexico Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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