T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain"

Urban Conditions, Racism, and Ecological Disaster in Fortress Los Angeles

Master's Thesis, 2013

55 Pages, Grade: 1,1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Los Angeles: Basic Facts and Figures

3. Los Angeles in Urban Studies
3.1. The L.A. School
3.2. Gates and Walls: The Fortress City
3.3. (The Crossing of) Borders and Boundaries
3.4. L.A.’s Urban Ecology: From Natural Disaster to Environmental Racism

4. T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain
4.1. Arroyo Blanco: The Fortress Community
4.2. (The Crossing of) the Tortilla Curtain
4.3. The Juxtaposition of Man and Animal
4.4. The Apocalyptic Denouement through Ecological Disaster

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Los Angeles, the Californian megalopolis, is famous for its sunny weather, for the Hollywood film studios and for being the residence of the rich and beautiful. And although – or, precisely because – all this is more illusion than reality, the city frequently serves as setting for various pieces of fiction. However, Los Angeles does not only play a huge role in the media, but since lately also in the realm of urban studies. Having long been a kind of ‘outsider’ in the field, it is now regarded as a prototypical example for urban development by the L.A. School. In this context, its image is less sunny and positive, but reveals a deep-rooted racism against Latin-American immigrants in combination with a fortress mentality on the part of its white population as well as a unique urban ecology, in which natural catastrophes seem to be regular occurrences. This paper now intends to outline the significance of Los Angeles in urban studies and trace the thereby acquired findings in a fictional representation of the city: T.C. Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain. In the process, it is shown how urban conditions, racism and nature, especially in the form of ecological disasters, intersect and influence each other.

While the following chapter provides basic information about Los Angeles, the third section deals with the metropolis in the context of urban studies. First of all, the theories and conclusions of the L.A. School are introduced. After that, Mike Davis’s concept of the ‘fortress city’ is further examined, leading to the topic of material and immaterial boundaries within the city as well as the complex of problems concerning the U.S.-Mexican border, the ‘Tortilla Curtain’. It becomes clear that the crossing of these borders and boundaries becomes increasingly difficult and leads to aggression and fear, thereby still intensifying racial segregation in Los Angeles. Subsequently, L.A.’s urban ecology is explored. Here, different forms of environmental racism are identified and analyzed with regard to Malthusianism, ecocatastrophes and animals.

The fourth part then is concerned with T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. It is shown that Davis’s fortress mentality finds expression in the novel with respect to the Arroyo Blanco residents, who intend to build a wall around their exclusive residential community. The next chapter deals with the fictional representation of border crossing (and hence immigration) in pursuit of the American Dream as well as the tangible and intangible walls in Los Angeles, with which the newly arrived immigrants are confronted. In the following, a particular form of racism, running like a common thread through the novel, namely the comparison of the Latin-American protagonists with animals, is described. And last but not least, socio-ecological themes such as the greening of hate, environmental degradation through suburbanization as well as the causes and consequences of natural disaster are traced throughout the narrative. Here, it is pointed out that only an apocalyptic force can lead to the denouement of the conflict between the two male protagonists.

All in all, this work brings together urban studies and fiction. Thereby, it examines how The Tortilla Curtain, as a fictitious representation of Los Angeles, partly reflects the reality of the metropolis as well as urban theory. In this sense, it is concluded that fiction can be an important account of urban problems and their possible solutions and that The Tortilla Curtain has therefore a social and a political message.

2. Los Angeles: Basic Facts and Figures

With a total population of 16.3 million (in 2000), the Los Angeles region –which contains the counties of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside – is the second-largest megalopolis in the United States (cf. Fröhlich 154). In addition, its population is one of the most diverse in the country (cf. Cruz 72), providing Los Angeles with the label “heteropolis” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 60).

This is not least due to the city’s complex cultural history. After all, it has been

shaped successively by eighteenth-century European colonization, nineteenth-century U.S. territorial expansion, and twentieth-century migration from across the nation and the world (Villa, Sánchez 2):

From time immemorial having been inhabited by Native Americans, California was conquered and occupied by the Spaniards in 1542 (cf. Cruz 74). In 1769, Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolá arrived in the Los Angeles region (cf. ibid.) and soon after, in 1781, the Spanish “Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula” (Fröhlich 157) was founded by Governor Felipe de Neve (cf. ibid.). With Mexican independence in 1822 (cf. ibid.), it was first transformed into a Mexican village (cf. Georgi-Findlay 390) and, with the annexation of California to the United States as a result of the Mexican-American War in 1848 (cf. Cruz 72), finally into an American city (cf. Georgi-Findlay 390). Consequently, Los Angeles had already been “culturally diverse before the arrival of ‘Anglos’ and [had been] shaped by complex combinations of conquest, migration, and immigration” (ibid. 387). Now, it became still more multicultural through its Americanization, or “WASPing”[1] (Fröhlich 158), respectively. So in summary, it can be stated that the “cultural diversity of past and present migrations has created distinct cultural realms within the Angeleno landscape” (Cruz 78).

In this regard, several distinct languages are spoken througout the metropolis today and are “evidence of its status as a world city” (ibid. 74). Thereby, English as primary language is followed by Spanish as the “predominant non-English language” (ibid.). This already points to a relatively new process identified by many urban scholars as “the re-Latinization of Los Angeles, more specifically, its re-Mexicanization” (Scott and Soja 16). According to the 2000 Census, the

City of LA and LA County are at the forefront of latinization [sic!], with a relative Latino majority of 46.5 % and 44.6 %, respectively, and Whites at under one-third of the total population (Fröhlich 160).

Since then, “due to immigration and natural increase” (ibid. 162), the Latinization of the metropolis has continued and will do so in the future, while the white population will further decline: It is estimated that by 2040, less than 25 percent of the population will be white, whereas there will be a Latino majority of almost 60 percent (cf. ibid. 162). Hence, a process of minoritization (Dear, “Los Angeles” 61), which means the numerical prevalence of minorities (cf. ibid.), is at work in the area. However, the above mentioned percentual ethnic ‘composition’ is not to be found throughout the whole Los Angeles region. Rather, there exist particular “settlement patterns of ethnic groups” (Fröhlich 161) with a predominance of whites in the outer suburbs and mountain areas on the one hand (cf. ibid.) and a predominance of Latinos in the central city on the other hand (cf. ibid. 162).[2]

Equally outstanding as the city’s cultural landscape is its natural one. The Los Angeles basin, where the central city is to be found, is encircled by a high mountain range (cf. Cruz 72), the “Sierra Madre” (ibid. 73), providing “a visible wall, a comfortable enclosure, separat[ing] the Los Angeles metropolis from its hinterland, often inhospitable stretches of desert climate” (ibid). However, the inhospitableness of the city’s environs does not hinder its physical expansion and growing accumulation of suburbs, which, together with its resulting lack of a center, constitutes one of Los Angeles’s characteristic features (cf. ibid. 77). Not for nothing is Los Angeles often mockingly referred to as “any number of ‘suburbs in search of a city’” (Willard 315). Adding to the region’s extraordinary geography are the “two great plates […] sliding past each other along the San Andreas Fault” (Cruz 73), making earthquakes in Los Angeles virtually inevitable (cf. ibid.). But these are not the only ecological disasters the metropolis has to face again and again:

Southern California’s unpredictable, often extreme weather combines with poorly regulated development to ensure damage from earthquakes, fires, and floods of apocalyptic proportions (Willard 314).[3]

There is a particular reason for the drastic urban expansion taking place in the region: “LA’s role as major agglomeration is largely a result of its strong economic position developed throughout the 20th century” (Fröhlich 154). Today, the L.A. region is one of the largest industrial megalopolises worldwide (cf. Cruz 73) and may even be “the world’s biggest ‘technopolis’” (ibid.). But not only

has the high-technocracy settled in extraordinary numbers in Los Angeles, but so too has what is probably the largest pool of low-wage, weakly organized, easily exploited immigrant labor in the country (ibid. 76).

This development is primarily reflected in the growth of the garment industry (cf. ibid.) and has to be associated, among other things, with the city’s location near the U.S.-Mexican border. Also very important in the region were (or still are) the tourism, oil, entertainment, aircraft-aerospace and real estate industries (cf. ibid. 75 f.) as well as “international trade, health services, education and retail trade” (Fröhlich 155). Of course, Los Angeles is especially famous for its booming movie industry, with Hollywood, together with the area’s several theme parks, being “the icon that strongly connects Los Angeles with fantasy and the future” (Cruz 74).

This feature, along with Los Angeles’s many other outstanding characteristics, does not only mark it as any postmodern city, but rather as “the prototype of the postmodern city” (ibid. 79) of the twenty-first century. This has primarily been stated by the L.A. School, a recent emergence in urban studies that by now has superseded the established Chicago School (cf. ibid.).

3. Los Angeles in Urban Studies

3.1. The L.A. School

Whereas in the past, the Los Angeles region, and also Southern California as a whole, have often been regarded as „an exception to the rules governing American urban development“ (Dear, “Los Angeles” 55), the area is now rather viewed as a prototypical example in the field:

For many current observers, LA is simply confirming what contemporaries knew throughout its history: that the city posited a set of different rules for understanding urban growth (ibid.).

Thus, Michael Dear suggests rewriting urban theory with respect to Los Angeles/Southern California as the groundbreaking precursor (cf. “L.A. School” 423), thereby bringing the L.A. School into play. The latter advocates a “theory of ‘postmodern urbanism’” (ibid.) that challenges and revises the “modernist thought” (ibid.) of the well-established Chicago School.

Consequently, the L.A. School first of all counters the Chicago School’s “concentric ring theory” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 56), which understands the city as a “unified whole” (ibid.) arranged around a center, with its concept of “the multicentric city of nodes and parcels” (Willard 315). Of course, this image derives from Los Angeles with its several nuclei and lack of a core (cf. Cruz 78). So “[in] essence, Los Angeles is many cities, each with its own tangible character” (ibid.), rather than a ‘unified whole’. Therefore,

[w]e need to view each ‘Los Angeles’ as constituting a particular, specific, and concrete way of living in and through the city that is both bounded by and linked to other sectors by its particular configuration of factors such as race, class, gender, immigrant status, political access, and economic resources (Rocco 366).

In this view of the “polynucleated, multicentric city” (Willard 316), a “non-linear, chaotic process” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 65) has superseded the “linear evolutionist urban paradigm” (ibid.) stated by the Chicago School. In addition, “it is no longer the center that organizes the urban hinterlands, but the hinterlands that determine what remains of the center” (ibid. 59). Hence, according to the L.A. School, the driving force in urban growth is now decentralization, which particularly involves suburbanization (cf. ibid.). However, the suburbanization of the metropolis already started in the 1920s (cf. Soja 455). The emerging

suburbia was viewed primarily as a product of voluntary residential decentralization, initially of a wealthy elite, but soon followed, closer to the city center, by working-class inner suburbs and further out by primarily white middle-class ‘pioneers’ pushing ever outward the suburban ‘frontier,’ following the grand American tradition of civilizing frontier settlement (ibid.).

Apparently, the “search for better housing” (ibid.) as well as “for sameness, status, and security” (Low, “Edge and Center” 47) was hoped to be fulfilled in the “exclusionary enclave[s]” (ibid.) of the suburbs. Hence, the “expanding suburbs of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s generated ‘white flight’ from densely populated, heterogeneous cities” (ibid.). The result was a sprawling, privatized, “culturally homogeneous and ‘consumerist’ suburbia” (Soja 455). Thus, the contrasting urban and suburban landscapes were “inherently shaped by class, race, and gender relations” (ibid. 456). When it comes to gender, suburbia was primarily regarded as the female space of the housewife, whereas the urban center, where all the jobs were to be found, represented the masculine space (cf. ibid.).

But, in 2000, Edward Soja notices “changes in the spatial organization of the modern metropolis over the past thirty years” (ibid. 454). Consequently, the “urbanization of the suburbs” (ibid.) has brought about a relatively new phenomenon that Soja denotes “postsuburbia” (ibid.) or “the Outer City” (ibid.). This is specified by Joel Garreau, who Soja calls “the Pied Piper of Postsuburbia” (ibid. 457). With the restructuring of urban space, which creates the polynucleated and “inverted” (ibid. 454) form of the “postmetropolis” (ibid.), he associates the emerging “shopping mall and office-centered developments he calls […] Edge Cities” (ibid. 457). Edge cities, in contrast to suburbia, accordingly provide possibilities for work as well as consumption, but most of the time they do so for their inhabitants and are therefore still in large part residential. However, with the suburbs becoming postsuburbs, the suburban dream becomes endangered:

In the Era of the Postmetropolis, it becomes increasingly difficult to ‘escape from the city’, for the urban condition and urbanism as a way of life are becoming virtually ubiquitous (ibid.).

Therefore, postsuburbia becomes also more and more racially mixed (cf. ibid. 456), especially through re-Latinization, as we have already seen. As a result,

middle-class residents appear to be repeating the white flight of the 1950s and 1960s with the added architectural dimensions of walls, gates, and guards, and with the added legal constraints of specialized covenants that institutionalize and concretize these emergent discriminatory practices (Low, “Urban Fear” 54).

Consequently, the expansion of the metropolis continues in search of a homogeneous suburbia, only that people are not only fleeing from the center anymore, but also from the inner suburbs to the further and further outlying ones (cf. Blakely and Synder, “Fortress America” 146), and that they are privatizing and walling new as well as already existing suburban communities to exclude others. According to Dear, “perhaps the quintessential edge city residential form” (“Los Angeles” 60) is privatopia, “a private housing development based in common-interest developments (CIDs) and administered by homeowner associations” (ibid.).[4]

With the exclusion of others or ‘the other’ through privatization, edge cities – which are symptomatic for Los Angeles and Southern California as prototypical examples of urban development and are therefore essential “for understanding contemporary metropolitan growth in the United States” (ibid. 59) – hence play a significant role in the ongoing process of spatial segregation. As has already been outlined, Los Angeles is “socially and culturally heterogeneous” (ibid. 64) due to its complex history of diverse migrations. Nevertheless, it is at the same time socially, “politically and economically polarized” (ibid.): “Los Angeles today is a city […] polarized between the predominantly white affluent and the predominantly nonwhite disadvantaged” (Willard 313). Therefore, Mike Davis drafts a dystopian vision of Los Angeles as fortress city in contrast to the popular utopian concept, which perceives “California in general, and Los Angeles in particular, […] as places where the American (suburban) Dream is most easily realized” (Dear “Los Angeles” 61). In Davis’s gated and walled city space, urban fear has led to an overemphasis with security and thus to social and racial segregation (cf. ibid. 62).[5] With L.A.’s “rising levels of surveillance, manipulation, and segregation” (ibid. 61), it is moreover identified as “theme park” (ibid.), a place of massive simulation (cf. ibid.). Soja labels this type of city, which is consequently “characterized by aspatiality” (ibid.), with the term “exopolis” (ibid.). To sum up, it is to say that there are two contrasting perceptions of Los Angeles as an “urban utopia” (Scott and Soja 1) with suburbia and privatopia as “dreamscapes” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 64) on the one hand and as a “dystopian […] ‘Hell Town’[6] ” (Scott and Soja 2) with “fortified cells […] and places of terror” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 62) on the other hand. This pervading polarization, which makes Los Angeles a “Dual City” (ibid.), manifests itself in

the increasing gap between rich and poor; between nations; between the powerful and the powerless; between different ethnic, racial, and religious groupings; and between genders (ibid. 65).

In consequence, the metropolis has to deal with immense problems of “racism, inequality, homelessness, and social unrest” (ibid. 61).

Eventually, Dear recognizes a polarization in Southern Californians’ dealing with nature. In the area, a deep respect for nature is opposed with a damaging carelessness in favour of urbanization that creates grave environmental problems (cf. ibid. 63 f.). After all, urban expansion in the Los Angeles region has only been possible to this extent through a “widespread manipulation of nature” (ibid. 63). Apart from the already described natural catastrophes, this manipulation causes “air pollution, […] habitat loss and [often dangerous] encounters between humans and other animals” (ibid. 64).[7] Hence, Dear suggests “to incorporate environmental issues into the urban problematic” (ibid.).

The above mentioned spatial changes furthermore trigger economic transformation (cf. Willard 313). The clarification of this urban-economic shift, which is naturally best to be observed in Southern California (cf. ibid.), “is one of the hallmarks of L.A. School urban theory” (ibid.). In this regard, Los Angeles has evolved from the city of “Fordist mass production” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 62) for a national market, to the de- and reindustrialized city (cf. Willard 313) of “post-Fordist ‘flexible production’” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 62) based on small-size manufacturing and intended for quickly changing, global markets (cf. Willard 313). Similarly, the modernist emphasis on the individual, whose “personal choices ultimately explai[n] the overall urban condition, including spatial structure, crime, poverty, and racism” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 56), has been replaced by the postmodern idea of a “global, corporate-dominated connectivity” (ibid. 65) that outweighs the individual in urban development (cf. ibid.). Therefore, the “global/local dialectic” (ibid. 63) is an important topic of urban studies today, “most especially via notions of ‘world cities’ and global ‘city-regions’” (ibid.). With its global connectivity and hence “the challenges of the information age” (ibid. 66), the postmodern metropolis is furthermore viewed as a “Cybercity” (ibid.).

All in all, the quintessence of the L.A. School is the notion that there has been “a radical break in the material conditions that lead to the production of cities” (Dear, “L.A. School” 423) as well as in “the ways of knowing the city” (ibid.). This all-encompassing “fragmentation both in material and cognitive life” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 65) identifies Los Angeles also as a “Hybrid City” (ibid.). Congruently, Dear recognizes an “overlap between modern and postmodern in current urban sociology” (ibid. 68) and therefore stresses the “continuing validity” (Dear, “L.A. School” 426) of the Chicago School. Besides an interdisciplinary approach (cf. ibid.), he thus also supports a “comparative analysis [that] is at the heart of a revitalized urban theory” (ibid.). Because of this revitalization – “the exploration of new realities and […] resistance to old hegemonies” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 68) – the L.A. School does not only exist as a “body of literature” (ibid.), but moreover as a “discursive strategy” (ibid.).

3.2. Gates and Walls: The Fortress City

As has already been outlined, Los Angeles is “increasingly separated by income, race, and economic opportunity” (Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”). According to Davis, this ubiquitous immaterial polarization manifests itself in the “physical separation of the different humanities” (“Fortress LA” 275). Hence, “the social and the spatial are intertwined” (Hise 51). The prime cause of this “spatial apartheid” (Davis, “Fortress LA” 272) is the growing “fear of violence and crime that is said to pervade the city” (Low, “Edge and Center” 45). Although there has been a decline in crime, urban fear has increased since the mid-1960s. Thereby, it is most probably linked to one’s physical and social surroundings (cf. ibid. 47). Consequently, in cities with an “increasing cultural diversity” (ibid. 45), such as Los Angeles, fear of crime is especially high and (white) residents often flee their neighborhoods (cf. ibid.). Hence, “the cultural diversity and racial tensions of the center are reflected in the segregation and social homogeneity of the suburbs” (ibid.). This explains the predominance of whites in the “more expensive low-density outer suburbs and mountain areas” (Fröhlich 161) as well as that of Latin Americans in the urban center and increasingly also in the inner suburbs (cf. ibid. 162). Nevertheless, when it comes to low-wage labor, many wealthy households keep relying on poor immigrants, although they are often associated with crime (cf. Caldeira 89 f.): The “upper classes fear contact and contamination, but they continue to depend on their servants” (ibid. 90). But while social separation is obviously produced by fear and racism, it is moreover supported and cemented by the economy, politics and planners:

[R]esidential segregation created by prejudice and socioeconomic disparities is reinforced by planning practices and policing, implemented by zoning laws and regulations, and subsidized by businesses and banks (Low, “Edge and Center” 47).

Apart from this spatial distance, material barriers begin to appear in growing numbers throughout the city, “producing a literal landscape of fear” (Low, “Urban Fear” 53) that reminds residents constantly of the dangerous world outside (cf. Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 150). Often, these two aspects come together in gated communities that are located in the (outer) suburbs already:

Even richer neighborhoods in the canyons and hillsides isolate themselves behind walls guarded by gun-toting private police and state-of-the-art electronic surveillance (Davis, “Fortress LA”, 267).

Hence, “[g]ates are firmly within the suburban tradition: they enhance and harden the suburbanness of the suburbs, and they attempt to suburbanize the city” (Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 10 f.). So while it is primarily still a suburban phenomenon, gating more and more also appears in the center (cf. ibid. 2): “[S]uch closures occur in the inner city and in the suburbs, in neighborhoods of great wealth and in areas of great poverty” (Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”). Although walled and gated communities are definitely not new, their current forms are exclusively residential as well as private rather than public (cf. Low, “Urban Fear” 53). Moreover, they often go even further in their means of exclusion (cf. Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 8), for example by privatizing “civic responsibilities like police protection and communal services such as street maintenance, recreation, and entertainment” (ibid.). Thus, most gated enclaves are run by their own “private government[s] called ‘homeowner associations’” (Low, “Edge and Center” 47). These powerful coalitions primarily preserve the isolated spaces of their neighborhoods by lobbying for zoning regulations (cf. Caldeira 99). In this way, “local democracy may be used as an instrument of segregation” (ibid. 104). But homeowner associations not only protect rights and provide services, but moreover “come with covenants, conditions and restrictions that impose rules on an astonishing array of things both inside and outside the home” (Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 21). Such requirements as, for example, uniform building and design, which in extreme cases even prescribe a limited range of colors for the front doors (cf. ibid.), are a subtle means of control (cf. ibid. 22) that goes against any notion of democratic freedom. Furthermore, homeowner associations are highly anti-communal (cf. ibid.) because they only care and provide for themselves:

There have always been those who complain about the use of ‘their’ tax money to solve other people’s problems, even within the same city or town. […] With the spread of homeowner associations, more and more Americans can set their own taxes in the form of assessments, use them for services they choose, and restrict those benefits to themselves and their immediate neighbors (ibid. 24 f.).


[1] The term ‘WASPing’ refers to the mass immigration of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants to the region during this period (cf. Fröhlich 158).

[2] The causes, consequences and means of this trend of spatial, social and racial segregation will be further explored later on in this work.

[3] It will be dealt in detail with the problematic of ecological disasters in Los Angeles in another chapter.

[4] The phenomenon of gated communities will be described in detail in the next chapter.

[5] Also Davis’s concept of the fortress city will be further examined in the following chapter.

[6] “Hell Town was the name given to Los Angeles in the period after the end of the Mexican-American War and the beginning of the great California gold rush. Reminiscent of the bloodiest Hollywood westerns, in the early 1850s there was an average of one murder every day in the newly established Los Angeles County (which had a total population of about 3,600) and even more frequent displays of racial hatred, violence, and Yankee vigilantism, a tradition that continues even to the present day“ (Scott and Soja 20).

[7] How serious and farreaching California’s environmental problems really are, how environmental racism and ecological disaster are triggered and how they intersect – all this will be outlined in an extra chapter further on in this work.

Excerpt out of 55 pages


T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain"
Urban Conditions, Racism, and Ecological Disaster in Fortress Los Angeles
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Department of Anglophone Studies)
American Studies
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T.C. Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain, Los Angeles, Urban Studies, Ecological Disaster, Fortress Los Angeles, Fiction, Racism, Urban Conditions, Fortress Mentality, Urban Development, L.A. School, Urban Ecology, Natural Catastrophes, Nature, Fortress City, Environmental Racism, Borders and Boundaries, Gates and Walls, Natural Disaster
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Laura Schomaker (Author), 2013, T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/231712


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