Romani People in Brazil. From Exile to the Search for Social Rights

Bachelor Thesis, 2013

59 Pages, Grade: 10,0




1. Exile and immigration: how the Romani people came to Brazil
1.1. Antigypsyism Policies in Portugal and the exile of the Calon
1.2. A new immigration wave and more clashes with the State interest

2. Public Policies and how the current legislation mentions to the Romani People
2.1. Social Rights and public policies
2.2. Public Policies for the Romani People

3. Do rights apply in real life?
3.1. Testimonies of persecution and a call for rights.


Bibliographic Resources



When I was six years old I passed through a Romani camp along the highway. Watching that scene as a child all I saw was the beauty of colorful clothes and the children running free. It was a magical moment because until then the Romani were – for me at least – mythical creatures my mother used to evoke when she did not want me wandering around . Two years later (1995) a TV channel aired a soap opera called Explode Coração, which was about a love triangle involving a young Romani girl called Dara, a young Romani boy called Ygor (to whom Dara was promised since childhood) and a gadje businessman called Júlio (who Dara met on the internet). This soap opera was supposed to address the Romani culture, but the country saw, mainly, a lot of dancing, colorful clothes, palm reading and a lot of jewelry. Dara’s family was rich and did not live a nomadic life, so the way of life in a camp was not shown and discussed. So for a couple of months the gadjes listened to the Gypsy Kings, wore golden coin belts, cheered and cried with the love story, but never got to rethink their approach towards the Romani communities.

Almost twenty years (2013) later I came across a bill putting forward the creation of the Romani Protection Bill. It made me wonder why was it necessary, after all we have a constitution who protects the peoples who made Brazil the country it is today. So I searched for the Romani in our Constitution and found out they are not mentioned there. That made me wonder again: if they were not there, where were they? I was almost finishing law school so I decided to research the Romani case for my Bachelor thesis. That was when I came across another issue: few people knew who the Romani were and there were a lot of misconceptions surrounding the subject.

This work is located in the intersection between three areas of knowledge: Law, History and Anthropology. It is a study on the urgency of a specific legislation towards the demands of the Romani People in Brazil. Therefore to comprehend their specificities it was mandatory to search for materials regarding the presence of the Romani in Brazil. And although their presence can be dated back to the XVI century, the studies on their matter are not plenty and are recent. It was also imperative to address the association between social rights and ethinical minorities. Not ignoring the bibliographic productions on those subjects, I aimed to established connections amid the areas of knowledge addressed in this research.

The first Romani these shores did not do so in free will. The history of the Romani people in Brazil starts with exile imposed by law. The first chapter of this study was reserved to a brief historical description of the lives of these people in Brazilian soil. The research was based on the existent legislation from each historical inquiry studied for this analysis. I aim to comprehend how, despite being considered an outcast group living aside from the gadjes law, the Romani were affected and persecuted by this laws, that is to say, the intent of this part of the study is to recount the history of what is known as antigypsyism in Brazil.

The second chapter covers a theoretical discussion regarding social rights and their applicability through public policies. Therefore the basic material used in this debate is the Guide of Public Policies for Romani People (BRASIL. 2013), which presents the existent public policies towards the Romani People in Brazil. I also bring legislative acts and executive orders which mention the Romani somehow. I intent to see what has being done in order to protect and improve the quality of life for those people and also to promote their social inclusion.

For the last chapter I decided to interview members of the Romani community, in search for their opinion on essential matters the Romani Protection Bill is supposed to address, such as: education, prejudice and social inclusion I interviewed a leader of a nomadic clan (which at the time were living in the west part of the state of Santa Catarina), a semi-nomadic man (who spent part of the year at a camp and part at his house in Rio de Janeiro) and a settled woman who worked as a teacher in São Paulo. What I aimed with this talks was to know what they would propose to the Bill (if they could), if they agreed a Bill had to exist and which basic rights they were lacking because of the absence of a specific law to ensure it. I also made use of TV and Radio interviews in which Romani people made statements about their conditions. I also worked with official materials from the govern denouncing the Romani situation.

To endorse this research I realized that only a theoretical approach would not help me to form the necessary foundation to understand the Romani matter. This is why I chose to merge a bibliographic research with a field search. It is important to highlight that formal interviews have been proposed to the participants at some stages of the field search, but they preferred informal talk, mainly because they didn’t want “speak in the name of the Romani ethnic group”. One of the talks happened over the phone and I did not get authorization to record it. The participant said I could quote him, mention his name (Rogério) but not record him. It is important to bear in mind that the Romani are very suspicious of non-Romani people, especially the ones who come asking questions. The reasons are understandable and are explained throughout this study. The other two interviewed people accepted to answer questions on Facebook, and authorized me to display the conversation on the appendix. I’m not revealing their last names to protect their privacies although they all have authorized me to it.

1. Exile and immigration: how the Romani people came to Brazil

Colorful clothes, joyful tents and vigilant eyes to the destiny of others. The way the Romani people relate to the Brazilian history put them in the condition of agent and victim of the impressions which rulers, policemen and whole society created about men who had their lives altered by the amazement they caused. […] From academic debates to informal chats, the Romani are portrait from feelings that swing between the dazzle their traditions exert and the fears bolstered by stigmas and superstition linked to their free lifestyle. [...] Persecuted or absorbed into our social hierarchy, the Romani are more than readers of the future, they can also be considered writers of our past. […] (National Library, 2006)

Ian Hancock, Romani scholar and Professor at the University of Texas, brings in his work On Romani Origins and Identity the theory that the Romani come from India. Hancock uses compared linguistics studies to substantiate his theory. Through the study of the Romani (base language), Hancock also identified the social origins of these people. According to him (2005, p.5), regardless of more traditional researches assume, the Romani people were not musicians or craftsmen from Northern India. On the contrary, they originated from a military class, since words such as soldier, attack, sword and spear, are the same in Indian languages, unlike works like farm, planting, plowing and so on.

Conforming Franz Moonen (2012, p.7), when the Romani immigrated to the West Europe in the 15th century, many where the speculations regarding their origins. The first denomination they received where gypsy in English, egyptier in dutch, gitano in Spanish, amongst others, referring to a supposed Egyptian origin. There were, yet, those who mistook them with the Tartars and the Mongolians from Central Asia and Siberia, says Moonen (2012, p.7). There are no report on how the Romani identified themselves.

Other reasons that may have made the Romani leave towards Europe are not completely clear. Hancock (2005, p.25) assign their exit from India to the Islamic Invasions of the 11th century. From India they would have left to Anatoly and Greece. The first records of Romani people in western countries of Europe are from 1417 in Germany. Moonen (2012, p.17) states the groups were led by men who called themselves counts, dukes or vovoids, that is to say, the Romani assimilated the nobility titles of the regions they passed by.

When the immigration began, the Romani got to towns holding laissez passer of kings or even the pope, and this fact allowed them to remain in region for some time and rejoice with the solidarity of the local residents and rulers. According to Gilsenbach (Giselsenbach apud Moonen, 2012, p.17) there are records of an anonymous German chronicler in which is told the passage of Romani people through Bavaria in November of 1417. The document testifies that “they had a laissez passer in which said they could steal from who did not give them pittance, and that is why they stole a lot, and nobody could stop them” (Gilsenbach apud Moonen, 2012, p.17).

Records mentioning the arrival of the Romani in European towns in the 15th century are plenty. There are many mentions to the help offered to the groups of immigrants due to the laissez passer their leaders carried. The authenticity of these laissez passer is not known. To Fraser:

[…] the Romani learnt the value of those documents by observing the Europeans pilgrims and travelers in the ports of Constantinople or Greece, and they decided to copy this example to obtain an easy income when they decided to immigrate to Western Europe. And in fact, at the beginning of the 15th century the first groups Romani were welcomed, with or against local authorities. (Fraser, apud Moonen. 2002, p.19)

In the 16th century the laissez passer did not ensure the possibility of staying in towns neither the solidarity of its residents. In 1530 Henry VIII put forward to the English Parliament the Egyptians Act, bill that aimed to expelled from England “the many owtlandisshe people calling themselfes Egiptsions”. As a result to this law, all Romani were banished from the country and had sixteen days to leave it with no possibility of return. The one who disobeyed would have their property confiscated and would be forced to leave the country again within fifteen days, otherwise would be arrested and deported.

In the Netherlands each of its seven provinces had an antigypsyism policy. Moonen (2012, .29) claim that in the 18th the antigypsyism legislation escalated to the point which to public notices, one from 1725 and another from 1726, declared the Romani enemies of the nation, allowing to “kill with total impunity the Romani who carried guns or walked around in groups of more than eight people. Their belongings would go to the one who killed them; the Romani arrested would be immediately hanged.” In Denmark, in accordance with Fraser (Fraser apud Moonen, 2012, p.18), from 1554 on it was “forbidden to host Romani and the one who killed them was allowed to keep their belongings; the local authorities who allow the presence of Romani are responsible for the damage caused by them” (idem).

There are also evidence of Romani persecution imposed by the Inquisition. Cristina da Costa Pereira says that:

The Catholic Church did not prevent delinquents from staying at the church naves, but it prevented the entrance of gypsies. The Catholic Church feared the competition – in a mystical plan, in a supernatural plan – because the gypsies came with the palm reading, with mystical conversation and that cheered the people up, in a certain way that seduced the people. Somehow the church saw its supernatural monopoly shaken. That was the first reaction the Catholic Church had towards them, labelling them in their edits sons of the devil, sons of demons, taking away their children and giving them to the State, being a gypsy was a crime. There were a series of antigypsyism legislation when they got here and the Church confirmed it. (Senate Agency, 2011)

Portugal was not indifferent to the presence of Romani in its territory and followed the steps of other European countries on regards of creating antigypsyism legislation. The influence of Catholic Church on Romani persecution in Portugal amongst the Counter Reformation Movement is clear. It is important to remember that during that period many Romani were not still catholics, they were in a way, like Cristina da Costa Pereira pointed out, “pervaded in their orientalism” (Senate Agency, 2011).

1.1. Antigypsyism Policies in Portugal and the exile of the Calon

As soon as the first references to the presence of Romani people in Portuguese soil emerged, so did the creation of first laws to cast them out of the country. On March 13th of 1526 was published an order so that “not even one Romani enter the realm and leave it the ones who are already in” (Coelho, 1892, p.230, document 1). King John the third, known as John “the pious”, declared in 1538 that “Watching I the damage followed by the presence in my realms of the Romani, and in my realms they wander around stealing and other evilness and damage to the residents…” (Moonen, 2012, p.34), and with those words the king forbade the entrance of Romani in Portugal, imposing prison to transgressors, who should be public flogged and then exiled. The repeat offender would be once more flogged and would also “lose everything he has and what more is found; half of it goes to who accuse him and half of it to the Misericordia (a charity institution of the Catholic Church) of the location where he is arrested” (Moonen. 2012, p.34).

Several were the official Portuguese documents which imposed the Romani to leave the country. Franz Moonen, however, inquires:

But leave the country how? Portugal only has terrestrial frontiers with one country, Spain, where the Romani were also persecuted. The Portuguese Romani simply did not have where to run and the Portuguese Government did not have anywhere in Europe to send them. (Moonen, 2012, p.35)

The sentence to the galleys for men is mentioned for the first time in a document in 1557 and joins the other sentences alongside the outright ban to enter the country. Just like other countries in Europe, there was death penalty for Romani in Portugal, it was deliberated in law for the first time on August 28th of 1592:

In which have angered more the punishment against the Romani, who within four months did not leave Portugal walked around as vagabonds, not being allowed to walk, neither be or live in ranches and bands; all under penalty of death, proceeding against with no appellation or instrument of appeal until the execution (Coelho. 1892, p.234)

Although the death penalty seemed as a solution to the “gypsy plague” in some official documents, Franz Moonen argue that “unlike Spain and other countries in Europe, Portugal seems to have avoided at most the death penalty, choosing to banish the Romani to its overseas colonies in Africa or in Brazil” (Moonen, 2012, p.37). Exile was, then, the best way to get rid of this unwanted presence and it appears cited in the Title LXIX of the Philippine Ordinances:

May it not enter in the realm: Gypsies, Armenians, Arabs, Persians, not even Mores of Granada. We demand that Gypsies, men and women, or any other people of any nation that walk with them that do not enter out realms and dominions. In case of doing so, they will be arrested and flogged, after that they shall sign a term and leave. If they do not, or in case of returning, they will be flogged again and lose property (if they have it) and belongings found: half of it will go to who accused them and the other half will go to the Misericordia of the place where they were arrested; and being some of the people who walk with gypsies from this realm, in addition to this penalties they shall be exiled two years in Africa. (Philippine Ordinances, Título LXIX)

The charges which fell upon the Romani where usually small thefts, very rarely a homicide happened, but accordingly to Elisa Maria Lopes da Costa (1998, p.36) “most of these “crimes” referred only to ways of culture expression and Romani traditions”, that is to say, it was considered crime the nomadism, begging without special authorization, walking in groups, reading the fortune, dressing like a Romani, speaking like a Romani, cursing, being involved in games and pretending to know sorcery.

In the year of 1574, during the reign of King Sebastian, before the exile imposed by the Philippine Ordinances, the first Romani man was exiled to Brasil. João de Torres was being kept at the Limoeiro Jail in Lisboa simply because he was Romani when he was sentenced to five years of forced work in the galleys and public flogging. According to his sentence his wife got ten days to leave Portugal. Pleading he was “weak, very weak and could not serve in “this thing of the sea” and also that was very poor and owned nothing” (Coelho, 1892, p.232, document 5), Torres asked to be sent to Brazil. He managed to get his five years in the galleys converted to five years in Brazil.

And very well I agree to commute the five years he was condemned to the galleys to five years in Brazil, to where he is going to take wife and children. It is kept the penalty of flogging. (COELHO, 1892, p.232, document 5)

There are no records of the arrival of João de Torres and his family to Brazil. It is uncertain if they survived the sea crossing, if they remained the five years and then went back to Portugal or if they decided to stay here. What is certain is that the exile of Romani people to Brazil became official only in 1686, with the royal decree which set the state of Maranhão as the destiny of all exiled. There is also the already mentioned exile of Romani to Africa, like it was regulated in the Philippine Ordinances: “I am resolved that with Romani men and women the law should be assured, not only on this court but on the other land of this realm: with declaration that the same law that impose Africa on them, impose Maranhão”. (Coelho, 1892, p.255, document 23).

Rodrigo Teixeira believes the Portuguese Crown chose Maranhão because it “hoped the Romani would help to occupy the dense areas of the hinterlands of the northeast, then still occupied by native Brazilians. Even though considered dangerous, they preferred Romani over native Brazilians” (Teixeira, 2007, p.29). Elisa Maria Lopes da Costa also addresses the issue of the settlement of the country as an essential factor of inclusion of Brazil as a destiny for the exiled.

[…] since the Portuguese kings worried, since the start, in creating settlements on the newly discovered land or which, conquered by other people, were submitted, by rule of ammunition to Portugal. Therefore, it was necessary to find adventurous and bold people, willing to risk everything, starting with their lives, in order to make sure the land subjugated by the crown would make the most profit. (Costa, 1998, p.38)

It’s important to highlight that there were Romani who came on their own account. Most of the Romani, however, were exiled, joining a big group of an unwanted demographic. Taking into account that few of the so called “good citizens” were willing to move to Brazil, there were not enough people to create new settlements. This motivated what Costa called a “System of sending exiles” (1998, p.38). Exactly how many Romani were exiled to the country is uncertain, mainly because:

Brazil, like all European colonies, were used back then as a waste deposit to the unwanted and as a place of exile to those who broke the laws of the realm. These factors, made worse by the cyclical shipment of Romani from Portugal to Brazil, proved to be a problem to the authorities of Bahia and other regions, being the cause of concern. (Boxer, 2002, p.164)

Exile was, most of the time, for a stipulated time. After which the local authorities were supposed to issue a document proving the good behavior of the exiled and the fulfillment of the penalty, according to the royal decree of January 18th of 1677

The provinces of Bahia, Pernambuco, Maranhão and Rio de Janeiro must accept the ones condemned to exile in Brazil. The exiled shall deliver to the local authorities a document declaring the years of his punishment, at the end of which he shall receive a document proving the fulfillment of his sentence. (Thomaz apud Costa.1998,p.41)

The Portuguese authorities sent to Brazil not only Portuguese Romani, but also Spanish Romani, who trying to escape persecution in their country crossed the border between the two countries. After serving his time, the exiled was free to leave. But where could a Romani go? Portugal had strict laws against the presence of Romani and such as the persecution in Spain that they were escaping to Portugal.

Once in Brazil the situation of the Romani was not different from the once experienced in Portugal. The policy towards those people was, according to Teixeira (Teixeira, 2007, p.34) the “old policy of keep them moving, used since the first Romani got Europe”. Each province created laws to cast them out to another province or town. Once in a new town the authorities rushed to come up with an expulsion bill that once voted would put the Romani on the road again, institutionalizing a compulsory nomadism.

In addition to keep them moving, the laws concerning the life of the Romani in the colony had a very clear purpose: to put an end to the Romani customs. After all being a Romani was the main reason for exile, therefore, in the colonial logic it was necessary to end that kind of behavior. Elisa Maria Lopes da Costa (Costa, 1998, p.42) points out that despite the efforts made by the Portuguese authorities to crush the Romani identity of those exiled citizens, “the punitive measures could little to change them, and albeit being new to the land, the attitude and behavior of the exiled remained the same, the family and social cohesion even strengthened” (idem). When the Romani refused to give their identity they fueled the stigmas which were imposed on them by the prevailing legislation. A letter sent by King John to the viceroy supports this theory:

I, King John, by the grace of god, etc, make known to you that I wanted to banish from this city several Romani – men, women and children – because of their outrageous behavior in this realm. They were ordered to leave in several ships destined to this port, and having I forbade, by recent law, the usage of their usual language, I order you to ensure this law on the risk of sanction, not allowing them to teach their language to their children, so that from now on its use disappear. (Teixeira. 2007, p.30)

In a royal decree of 1760 there is a clear attempt to implement a social cleansing in regard of the Romani people in Brazil. King Joseph I, reacting to an accusation that the exiled Romani were still behaving pursuant to their customs and therefore bothering the local residents, postulated that:

As a form of correction of so useless and rude people it is necessary to force them – with the most strong and efficient ways – to take the civil life: I therefore order that the young boys, sons of those so called Romani, to be entrusted judicially to Masters, so they can be taught the crafts and mechanical arts. The adults must serve as soldiers, or put some in prison for some time, but they must be split into different prisons, since there must never be many of them in the same prison or make them work in public constructions paying them a rightful wage. It is forbidden to let them sell horses and slaves and it is forbidden to let them walk in bands. They must not live in separate neighborhood nor all together. They must not carry guns, not only the ones forbidden by my laws, but no guns at all, only those that serve as ornament. And the women shall live secluded and do the same chores the other women of the country do. Any transgression to this decree, even the smallest, will incur in exile for life at the Island of São Tomé and Príncipe, without appeal. (Coelho. 1892, p.262)

The obvious intention of this decree was to keep them away from what was considered to be Romani customs. Therefore, the children had to be separated from their parents so they could have a non-Romani upbringing. The adults were better kept apart, to avoid them from walking in bands. The women should behave like the Christian women did and not wander around unaccompanied, reading fortune on the streets. The Romani occupation should not be trade because they should be under the strict control of the authorities as soldiers or learning crafts with masters, since there was a wide spread idea that any good traded by a Romani was stolen.

There are also records about some Romani living in accordance with the law impositions, giving up their way of life, the commerce and traveling in group. In a letter dated from 1761 the acting governor of the province of Bahia, José Carvalho de Andrade informs:

Many Romani has shown disposition to live an orderly life, because everywhere they went, they were arrested. The married ones give their single sons to the masters when they are old enough and the adults joined the army, but very few because this people marry at a very young age. The rest lease rural land and occupied themselves with their wives in the farms, giving up the illicit trade and the libertine ways they lived their lives before. (Teixeira. 2007, p.37)

The mention to illicit trade is speculative and is linked to prejudice. It was assumed, back then, that if a Romani man sells horses, the animals are stolen and not only that, the animal is not worth the price he is asking for it. There are documents attesting to Romani men selling supposedly stolen slaves, horses and so on. One example is this statement made by Oliveira China who was a historian:

The curious part of this document is the one that shows us that in our region the “action” of this nomads were not limited to the animal theft, in the theft practice they are persist offenders, they also stole slaves. No doubt an original fact, which reinforces this “ability”, we can call innate, they have for prey, seen in all its aspects and particular features. (China apud Moonen. 2012, p.116)

There are, nevertheless, documents that recognize the prejudice against the Romani. The governor of the province of Minas Gerais published a warning in the 18th century saying:

Concerning the Romani, the existent complaints are just for them being Romani, there is no proof of individual guilty. I have being warning that they arrest and send to me only the ones who really steal. (Teixeira. 2007, p.33).

It is clear that being Romani was, above all, the main crime. It is believed the deportations of Portuguese Romani and also of Spanish Romani who were found in Portugal continued until the end of the 18th century. Teixeira (2007, p.37) affirms that Martinho de Melo Castro, State Secretary for the Navy and overseas dominions, was responsible of sending, on average, groups of four hundred Romani annually to Brazil, between 1780 and 1786.

When the Portuguese Royal Family moved to Rio de Janeiro more Romani came to the country. Moraes Filho says

In the endless entourage of the Royal Family very few was worth something. They were noblemen and tramps. The noblemen received pensions from the Treasury of the country. The tramps were employed in the public service, in divisions created for this end. (Moraes Filho apud Moonen. 2012, p.84).

During the years the Portuguese court was in the country, the Romani community of Rio de Janeiro lived what Teixeira called an “artistic and economical bloom” (2007, p.39).

Many Romani got rich through trade. I was in Rio that they managed to overcome the ban that kept them from public office, and many became bailiffs. Coroacy confirms it: “The fact is there was a time when almost every bailiff at the jurisdiction of Rio was Romani” (Coroacy apud Teixeira. 2007, p.39). These were settled Romani and they knowingly occupied an entire block of the city. Oliveira China describes this settled community:

We had here an entire blocked occupied by Romani when I was a student at the Pedro II School. The main street was the Constitution Street (which people called Romani Street). Later on, when I was a law student, I met on the same street, many working Romani. It was remarkable the number of them working as bailiffs and in that same street were located most of the courts and notaries. […] Years later, some typical elements, still bailiffs (the work went from father to son) still resisted amongst sparse courts and notaries, it was remarkable the racial features of their dark tanned skin and their bluish-green eyes. (Oliveira China apud Teixeira. 2007, p.39)

There were also Romani who stood out because of their work as artists. There are records of them entertaining parties of the Royal Family, like “the wedding of a daughter of King John VI with the Spanish infant Dom Pedro Carlos” (Moonen, 2012, p.84) in 1810. They were also involved with the entertainment of the wedding party of Dom Pedro I and the archduchess Leopoldina. Moonen points out that it is not possible to know if “the Romani mentioned above were professional artistes our occasional artistes, just to cheer up birthdays, weddings and other parties of the Brazilian elite of that time” (Moonen, 2012, p.85).

Teixeira notes (2007, p.42), however, that although there were wealthy Romani and that some of them had a good relationship with the Royal Family and the society in Rio, it does not mean the persecutions to regular Romani had reduced. “Even during the residence of the Portuguese Court in Rio, period in which the Romani status was higher, the Romani were still associated to criminality” (Teixeira, 2007, p.42). With Brazil’s independency and the need to create a national identity, the Romani were once more put aside, since the current speech at the time was that Brazil was borne from the crossbreed of white, black and native Brazilian blood. Nothing was said about Romani blood.

1.2. A new immigration wave and more clashes with the State interest

The Romani exiled to Brazil were originally from the Iberian Peninsula and their descendants are currently called Calon. However, there are records from the first half of the 19th century locating the presence of non-Iberian Romani in our country. The so called Rom got to Brazil coming from East Europe. According to Teixeira (2007, p.49), between 1830 and 1835 got to the province of Minas Gerais an immigrant called Jan Nepomuscky Kubitschek, nicknamed German John because he came from Boêmia. Kubitschek married a Brazilian woman called Teresa Maria de Jesus with whom he had two sons and a daughter. His daughter, Julia Kubitschek was the mother of Juscelino Kubischek, former president of Brazil, responsible amongst many things for building our capital Brasília. That is to say, Brazil had a president of Romani origins and this fact was never publicly mentioned.


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Romani People in Brazil. From Exile to the Search for Social Rights
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Doctor Lívia Sudare (Author), 2013, Romani People in Brazil. From Exile to the Search for Social Rights, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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