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Essay: Why it is Necessary that all Afro-Descendants of Latin America, the Caribbean and North American Know Each Other More

Written by Tomás Fernández Robaina
Translated by Miguel Contreras

My main focus is the following: to exchange experiences regarding the struggle and visibility of the contributions of Africans and their descendants in the formation of Latin American nationalities and cultures, to highlight that historical legacy and its actual presence, to obtain a foundation that will allow us to reclaim our rights at all levels of society, and to attempt to eliminate the history and social omission perpetrated by the eurocentric political and cultural influences inherited from colonization.

It is very important that we recognize how this struggle began long ago, when we did not call ourselves “Negroes,” “African-Americans,” or “Afro-descendants,” as has been used more recently, but as “Cubans,” “Mexicans,” “Colombians,” “Brazilians,” identified, rather, as citizens of our respective countries, and as such, rightfully evidenced in our constitutions. Beautiful words, which, in practice, have been mostly lies not exempt from some exceptions.

We should keep in mind that what is now considered an indisputable achievement of this campaign is the result of the great struggle of black Colombians, of the Afro-Colombians for their rights to fight against obscurity and against the silenced relevance of the Afro-Colombian presence in history and society.

Similarly, we cannot overlook that Colombia’s work, rather, its struggle, has been come to fruition jointly with similar social movements of our Afro-descendant brothers present in all our American countries, with a large visibility in some more than others.

In the case of Colombia, that effort contains a profound and paradigmatic lesson because the country has the largest population of Afro-descendant men and women who speak Castilian, in addition to a beautiful, brave and lengthy social and political struggle for their rights.

The progress of Colombia’s Afro-descendants struggle, their successes, must exert a greater influence in similar endeavors taking place in other countries, and as such, their triumphs are also ours. And those that take place partially or wholly in other territories within our continent are also Colombia’s.

The particular and emergent struggle in Latin American societies must be recognized by all of us who make up the social movement of Afro-descendants in America, so that our demands and claims will gain more social and political strength of solidarity, which will particularly influence each and every one of its national movements, bringing it to the attention of and gaining more support from others, as this struggle becomes more internationally visible.

In that same vein, it is necessary that we know what is happening in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Uruguay, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and in each of the republics of Central America where are present the demands of the garífunas, black people of Caribbean origin.

However, our goals should not only be intellectual, but also practical and ideological. We must note that wherever there is an Afro-descendant population, there exists a movement demanding our rights. We must transform our modern struggle in our national trenches, through support and solidarity in actions that benefit us mutually, and making our presence more visible in order to do away with the obscurities and omissions accumulated in the official histories of our countries.

We should know where our ancestors came from, what their cultures were, their traditions, why some remained more visible in certain places more than others, their dances, their traditions, customs, songs, where the African influence is undeniable, as well as the reasons that new customs, traditions, beliefs and dances that were African coexisted with the European in a very interesting process of mutual influence, some more visible than others, just as those new things that emerged as a result of reciprocal religious, musical and cultural influences.

More often than not in our countries, “the African” was diluted and disappeared totally or partially as a consequence of the repressive politics of British, Dutch, and French colonialism exerted through successive generations of slaves who altogether lost their newfound traditions held by the first generations; but being prohibited from practicing them, they failed to maintain their pure African roots.

In general terms, there are many questions regarding the peculiarities of the different colonial powers in our lands, but there is still a need for broad and deep answers that must become socialized, such as the causes of why the cultures and religions of Africa are more prominent in some of our countries than they are in others, in some cases disappearing altogether as a result of deculturalization by the European metropolis. What is African or seemingly African in Afro-Colombian culture? What is really newly Afro-Colombian in Colombian society? We should ask these questions in all Latin American countries. Who here is able to answer so that I may know more about Columbia? Are there popular beliefs stemming from contact with Catholic practices and African and aboriginal religious beliefs? Who here can tell me which ethnic groups you are descendants of, the real Afro-Colombians?

I ask these questions not for immediate answers, but to motivate reflection and appreciation of belonging to a population historically marginalized from culture and from a eurocentric history promoted by economic and political powers of Colombia’s dominant classes. In Colombia, as in most countries with black or aboriginal populations, only a portion of its members has been accepted and has had more opportunities for social advancement, insofar as they have been bearers of the same cultural, economic, social and religious codes of those classes that exert political power in each of our republics.

Therefore, let us debate some of the ideas presented, let us convert this embattled encounter not only to reclaim the forgotten and ignored places of the Afro-descendants in the history of Colombia, but rather, similarly for all our places in our national histories. The struggle is not unique to the Afro-Colombians, but it belongs to us all, Afro-Brazilians, Afro-Cubans, Afro-Ecuadorians, Afro-Latin Americans as a whole.

About Tomás Fernández Robaina
Tomás Fernández Robaina is a researcher and professor of the National Library of Cuba, and holds a degree in Technical Information and Library Science. He has worked at the institution since 1962. His bibliographic inquiries regarding Afro-Cubans and Afro-Latin Americans include a bibliography of Afro-American studies (1969).

His bibliography of Afro-Cuban subjects led him to write The Negro in Cuba: 1902-1958 (1990); Speak Paleros and Santeros (1994); Cuba: Personalities in the Racial Debate (2007); Afro-Cuban Identity: Culture and Nationality (2009). He has also published Secret Memories of Two Public Women (1982); Histories of Public Women (1998); Notes for a History of the National Library (2001); Mass for an Angel (2010).

He has lectured at conferences, given seminars, and taught courses on the history of Africans and their descendants in his country, as well as in Germany, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Spain, the United States, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mexico, Nigeria, Senegal, and Venezuela. He has been professor of Cuban Bibliography and in other disciplines in the department of Communications, as well as in the school of Arts and Letters of the University of Havana.

His current projects include An Anthology of Anti-racist Cuban Thought; A Historical, Cultural and Bibliographical Chronology of Afro-descendant in Cuba; and The Cuban Afro-descendants: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

  • Seham Lewis

    I’m so glad this will be on TV!! About time the topic comes to “prime time”. My mother is Puerto Rican and my father is Palestinian. However, I was raised very Puerto Rican and it is my identity. Part of that identity is the African influence that I soooo love. Our food is very similar to that in Ghana and other countries in West Africa. My DNA revealed I have 12% Yoruba or Mendenka. I could not have looked close enough, but It doesn’t look like the program gives much attention to PR. Why? This lack of focus to a US territory seems common in Academia. Colleges have Latin American & Caribbean Studies, but with little to no focus on PR. Did it have to be communist to be interesting/important?

  • Bienvenido

    I was wondering the same thing, about the program not giving Puerto Rico attention.

  • Sosa

    If you refer to the Q&A section under the question entitled, “For Black in Latin America you visited Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. How did you choose to focus on these particular six countries?” you can find the answer as to why PR is not included there. I too was disappointed, but given the reasoning I also understand. Either way it does not take away from the validity and importance of this series.

  • THE Caribbean Folklore Project (TM)

    You honor our story!

    Love this!

    Prof. Monique S. Simon
    Project Director/Chief Folklorist

  • EDAR MOODIE-1st generation Panamanian decent

    As usual nothing mention of Panama. Not for certain if the series gives a brief “shout out” to the Panamanian culture but don’t be surprised if there isn’t. Well I cant say that, you should be surprised after all the dark skin people that are in Panama compared to other Latino countries. At least interview Panamanian Juan Williams of CNN, musician/actor Ruben Blades or even Edgar Diaz- whom started the Latin boy-band phenomenon ‘Menudo’. It almost feels like Panama is the unsung hero of Latin America.
    Perhaps a few comments addressing this concern may redirect Prof. Gates to do a special on Panama itself. Visit the link to view articles, gallery, and comment section.

    Dios bendiga a mi tierra de la familia y la bandera que las ondas por encima de ella!

  • Angelita

    This series is an eye opener for those who wonder why you speak Spanish but you look Black with nappy hair and a broad nose. A series like this has been long over due. Hopefully viewers can learn the cultures from a variety of Latinos.

    Definitely, So much better than “Latino in American” by Soledad O’Brian.

  • meetica

    I just viewed this program and I think it is great. As an afro-latina woman I find it hard for people to comprehend the fact that black people can have a latin culture and not look “hispanic”. People ask me how long did it take for me to learn spanish and when I inform them that my family is from Costa Rica then I get the” head tilt brow frown” look, And then I have to remind them that there are black people everywhere. It was time for this issue to be addressed.

  • Eliane Zavala

    I can’t wait to watch this program! I heard a bit about at NPR! I’m a Brazilian living ina California for over 20 years! Our latin American prespective is so unique…my mother’s family is northen European, my father’s south European…some much to share! Yet, I’m sure we have african roots among us, which always were played down…regardless, the drumms always spoke to me. Now, my daughter, just like me seems to attracted to a culture been “considered taboo for me”…. my skin may be white, my soul says otherwise…thank you for you effort to bring this topic to light. We have much to learn about history, and about our own individual history in this world. I want my girls to be be proud of whoever they are, where ever they came from, because after all we are all humans beings…nothing more, nothing less!

  • diane

    @ Angelita- I agree that Soledad O’Brien’s Latino in America was a somewhat disappointing. She focused on a lot of negative issues in the latino community. Additionally, she only featured one Black latino family that I recall.
    She also didn’t seem to be very in touch with her own latino roots although her mother is Afro-Cubana.

    When many people think of hispanics in this country, they automatically think about the Mexican/Chicano population which of course is quite large but doesn’t make up the entire latino community. They never think that a Black person can be a latino also. I think this series is important to show that latino culture is very diverse. It should be required to be shown in schools to educuate our youth.

  • Denee’ Dent

    As a multi-racial person(Black, Puerto-Rican and White) I must say that many people don’t know the complete world history. In public schools in H.S. I took African American History and it was labeled an elective course in the Chicago Public Schools. When African history and facts about slave trade are not a requirement of the public school system how do we expect our children to know that the slave ship stopped in more than one country. As someone of Puerto Rican descent I was surprised that Puerto Rico was not included…hopefully there will be a part two. I love history and I really enjoyed the show otherwise. I love to see facts and knowledge spread. I especially think it is important to see how skin color is an issue EVERYWHERE And how it correlates to poverty and injustice everywhere…why does it seem that black skin isn’t considered beautiful? Why is it that every culture wants to ascribe that the european looks are the standard for beauty?

  • R. Lewis

    Great series. The story of Afro-Latinos is about to come light. Twenty years ago, one would only think of the North American diaspora and Caribbean diaspora, now the largest one will be made manifest.

    Ray Lewis

  • Nelson — Omaha,Ne

    Please continue this Important issues and explore the people and history of Blacks in Latin America in Puerto Rico. We to have the same History. Many of us Puerto Ricans LOVE our African Heritage its what makes our Music, foods and life so rich.

  • Dr. Hanna Walinska

    I very much appreciate the series and have learned a lot visually from the Part 1 about Haiti and Dominican Republic. Haiti indeed has an extraordinary history. Yet I miss one issue here – the extermination of the Indigenous people of Hispaniola was one of the most horrific genocides in the Western history and more than deserved a mention. It would explain why Hispaniola was one of the first locales were Black slaves had to be imported from Africa.

    The hues of the Latin America and the Caribbean have three ingredients, white, African, and Amerindian. THERE ARE BLACK INDIANS – in both Americas! (cf. the black slaves of Cherokees – recently rejected by the tribe as members)

    I also wish for more of the series in the future to explore the incredible heritage of the Garifuna people (”Black Caribs”) who were forcefully removed by the British in 1797 from the island of St. Vincent. Garinagu now live on the Caribbean coasts of the Central America (and in many US cities), and are a mix of Carib, Arawak and African blood and culture. Their language is fully Amerindian, however, and related to Taino of the Caribbean islands and hundreds of other Arawakan languages in South America.

    We begin to accept that that whites and blacks can mix – even in Latin America. But Indians and Blacks – is still a racial frontier and a bit of a taboo in the entire Hemisphere.. To much of The Other?

  • Murphy Browne

    It is way past time that the presence of Africans in “Latin America” is widely acknowledged. As an African woman who was born in the only English speaking country in South America (Guyana – formerly British Guiana) I remember the first time I met a Portuguese speaking African (Brazilian.) My family had moved to the Rupununi where we share a border with Brazil and as a child I could not understand why someone who looked like me and my relatives spoke Portuguese. I had met many Dutch speaking Africans from Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) but had until that point never met a Brazilian. That experience was more of an education for me than any of the information I had received from my grandparents and other elders; that we (Africans in the Diaspora) speak various European languages depending on which European tribe enslaved and/or colonized our ancestors.

  • Javier Fermin

    It is crucially important that we notice not only our Spanish or
    Indigenous roots but also our African roots, which is the very essence
    Of our culture. Unfortunately, we just recognize our “whiteness”.

  • Jessica Bembry

    I hope this becomes the first of many such programs. As a Black Latina it is very interesting to watch the reaction of individuals when I identify myself as an Hispanic woman.

  • Felicia

    Wow, this was very enlightening! I had no idea slaves were brought to latin american. Aint that sad! I didn’t really want to watch, because I didnt want to have to watch anything having to do with slavery, but I did because I was curious. Now I know that Hispanics are multiracial people of white, native american and black. Im so glad the show focused on the contributions of African culture in Latin America.

  • Rosanna


    Truly it is about time for this program! My mother’s family came to the US from Matanzas, Cuba during the “Spanish-American” war. Growing up in the Midwest, there has been the conflict in my family about acknowledging our Cuban roots – Black people who spoke Spanish but were not “recognized” as being anything other than African-American. In my family the spiritual tradition of Lucumi/Santeria survived underground, hidden by the outer mask of worshipping in the Roman Catholic church. My mother not allowing us to speak Spanish, she would say, “we’re already Black, we don’t need another problem”. I’ve long since embraced my Afro-Cuban heritage by reclaiming the Yoruba spiritual traditions and recognizing the roots of my family. I travelled to Cuba in 1994, visiting Havana, Matanzas and Cienfuego. I refuse to let racism deny me the strength of my heritage. Modupe (thank you) for this program! I’m looking forward to seeing more. Ase O!

  • Adrian Duran

    The first time I saw the documentary was with Haiti and The Dominican Republic. The main problem is education and the fact that most Dominicans don’t fully understand Haitian culture. For half of my life I was educated in the Dominican school system and they enforced all stereotype because they tell you all about the bloody history. That create confusion in young people. Went I left the country I move to Brooklyn and there is a dense Haitian population
    and that’s how I learn about their culture. I learn how to speak some creole. The fact that my family is racially diverse help me in some ways. At the beginning I was reluctant to learn because all the bad blood between our nations but I did and it feels good to not be racist toward Haitians or other people. After the earthquake I was happy to collaborate with the building process and that the first country there was Dominican Republic.

  • Michael Corbett

    I was so excited when I saw an article about this series. I watched both the Cuban and Dominican/Haitian episodes. As a man with an African American/Panamanian heritage, I was often put down by others because my Spanish wasn’t perfect or even if I spoke Spanish. My mother didn’t want to teach us Spanish because some of our older relatives were teased. California wasn’t as exposed to Black Latinos as New York. Also, working with a group called Peru Negro I was exposed to a lot of prejudices. It was interesting to watch the group while we traveled throughout North America as they dealt with some of these issues. We often had discussions between ourselves or at some of the places we performed about racism. I think one reason some Black Latinos argue about the existence of racism is because of how it is “different” from here in the United States. I believe there are differences, but in the end, its still racism and it although it affects us differently in each country, the end result is the same; the denigration of the people.

  • ByeTrini

    I am throughly enjoying the series! It is enlightening and throught provoking. Hopefully it will encourage financial, political, and cultural linkages between all New World Africans.

    This is my suggestion for Henry Louis Gates….spend some time exploring the very unique cultural mixing between Africans and Asian Indians in the Caribbean, most specifically in Trinidad & Guyana.

  • Marcus

    The series is long over due! Too many white and/or fair skined spanish cultures and mind sets refuses to recognize the black-African foundation of their ever present style, religion, food, music-dance and body structures. They will hands down claim their European Spaniard foundation, however if one ever conducted a comprehensive background of Spain, you will find that during the crusades and other crossings into country from the south, the majority were African. And unlike the present day northern African regions, back in those days these areas had a significant darker skined population that intergrated with those in Spain. Either way the series is very important to the latin american community whereas through colonization of the americas by Spain or colonization of Spain itself, no one can doubt the Black-African contribution of the make up of these generations.

  • Cydena

    I am so happy that someone finally created a documentary on blacks in Latin America. I read a book a year ago on Afro-Latinos, though very informal, but your documentary gave us more of a personal perspective on how Afro-Latinos living in these countries identify themselves. Now living in NYC, I had long debated the, in my opinion, the denial of African ancestry of Dominicans, Many get offended if you call them black, and me being African American, I’m lighter than a lot of them. So I never understood there denial when its obvious in their skin color, shapes, foods, music, and even in the way they rear their children. But Puerto Ricans can be almost white with straight-wavy black hair and be very prideful of their African ancestry. So with your documentary, I now underst

  • Cydena

    I am so happy that someone finally created a documentary on blacks in Latin America. I read a book a year ago on Afro-Latinos, though very informal, but your documentary gave us more of a personal perspective on how Afro-Latinos living in these countries identify themselves. Living in NYC, I had long debated the, in my opinion, denial of African ancestry of Dominicans, Many get offended if you call them black, and me being African American, I’m lighter than a lot of them or most the time the same complexion as them, so I never understood there denial when its obvious in their skin color, food, music, and even in the way they rear their children. But Puerto Ricans can be almost white with straight-wavy black hair and be very prideful of their African ancestry. So with your documentary, I now understand why they deny it and I think it is very sad and I hope they will learn to embrace it like their neighboring Spanish speaking countries: Cuba and Puerto Rico. I will just ask of you to go to the Garifuna coast of the Caribbean in Central America; who has a strong African culture with a mix of Carib. And Panama whose African ancestry influenced the popular music genre of Reggaeton, which is infusing West Indian and Latino music. And I will very much like to see you do a piece on the West Indian countries of the Caribbean who, like us African Americans, has taken great pride in embracing being black and showing our pride with Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism.

  • Da’ Shen

    I love this series and have learned to much from it. I too feel it’s long over due. However we can’t expect Dr. Henry Louis Gates to fit all Latin American and Caribbean countries in the first wave of this series. I’m sure he went through some obstacles in attempt to bring this series to life (and that’s putting it nicely). Mostly likely if this series does well he will get funding for more shows. We all know there are many more Latin American and Caribbean countries for him to shed light on. I was curious about Costa Rica. I had been there a few times and it wasn’t until my second visit that I had learned about the black population that reside in Port Limon.

    Who knows, maybe he’ll get spin offs that can follow in a similar vein to the Ivan Van Sertima books: African Presence in Early Europe and African Presence in Early Asia.

  • LaToya WIlliams

    I too was shocked that Puerto Rico was left off. As a American Black I have been looking at this from the outside for a long time. So, I am very glad this special is being done. And too have often wondered why so many Latinos denied their African culture. Over the years I have come to understand alot of the countries had been White-washed. I am happy to see so many of you here that are ackknowledging your African heritage.

  • Cecile Andrade

    Mr. Gates, I really enjoy thes series that are very well put together. However, I do agree with one thing the University Professor in Peru told you. People concentrate too much energy in color and race differences in the US and I don’t agree with your reply that not putting people in racial categories is a form of discrimination. I believe just the contrary, that having to define one’s racial group is synonym to profiling. Who in the US established the race code that led to segregation, white people – so that they would not face their atrocious crimes against enslaved women. The off springs would become part of their estate, making them more powerful but never facing the reality of their victims, on social or religious levels. And the people of color, did obey to their master’s code, as they continue to do. We are first and foremost human beings, no one should have to put himself into a category. This mind set keeps people in these boxes, they define themselves by these rules, related to one another by these rules, project themselves by these rules. If that is not remaining enslaved I don’t know what it is. I would strongly suggest in your quest of Black in the Americas, to go to the source where all of this started, the Cape Verde Islands, the only place on earth where racism does not exist. See it for yourself!!! To top it all, in only thirty years, they are coming out from being one of the poorest places on earth (drought in some islands average around 10 to 15 years- even famine at times) to an emerging nation. They don’t keep on dueling on slavery, or colonialism, or I don’t know what else. Only the love for their country, of who they are. Although, there’s still tremendous work to do, they are an example to Africa and to the world. Race is not an issue, education, poverty, access to natural ressources are the real issues of the XXI century. We need to empower the people to look beyond, the dying generalized white narrow–mind. Let’s look around ourselves, let’s go back to our roots, (Africa is the most physically beautiful continent, the richest in terms of mineral ressources, and the most diverse in culture)….. A proud African.

  • I-C-U

    I am considered an African American. From my vision…..Latin..Latino absorbs my attention because of the richly rooted African culture .. Mambo, Samba, music, dance, etc. ..that is what makes it sooo beautifully colorful …the AFRICAN culture with a touch of Spanish. I embrace it with love… My view.

  • LolaNY

    What a wonderful and enlightening journey Gates took us on, I hope to see more. Being half Puerto Rican/Jewish I love history and look to learn all I can about my heritage, including my African and Indian roots. I would love to see an episode on Puerto Rico, but even though Puerto Rico is Caribbean, it is not considered a Latin country being United States territory

  • Bill Smith

    Everything, and more, that was addressed in the PBS film Blacks in Latin America, I have been blogging about for almost two years on African American-Latino World

    Being that Spanish is my second language, I’ve traveled to several Latin-American countries with the sole purpose of learning more about the Spanish-speaking portion of the African diaspora and have visited black enclaves that most Americans, black, brown, or white, know nothing about. We African-Americans are in reality a small minority of blacks in the Western world.

  • marko

    Very happy to see such things being done today. I am a proud Black American of Latino(Dominican/Puerto Rican Heritage. I live in San Antonio, Tx. I,m married to a Spanish and Apachi Indian wife whom I was happy to teach her about black latinos and even her own heritage she’d not been privilaged to learn more about because of a strong Mexican American influence here. Most here are white and or indian Hispanics. Many are shocked when I speak Spanish and they assume I’m Cuban for some reason. But those who are from Mexico hear me speak Spanish and it’s nothing new to them with a significant black population in Mexico. I embrace all my cultures with Puerto Rican Salsa Dominican Bachata and All types of American music. But even here with a name like Mark Anthony Reyes San Cristobol Villareal Santiago I’m still put in the same position as black americans and black latinos. San Antonio is all about brown and white unfortunantly. Even our mayor seems to only focus on that Julian Castro. Que Triste

  • Nya Idaly

    My issue with this whole term of saying “afro-Cuban” or “afro-Mexican” etc takes away from what makes them hispanic. The very essence of being hispanic is the MIXTURE. That is what makes being latin/hispanic amazing. He didn’t seem to touch up on that. No, I am not denying the fact that there are racial issues so many years of slavery has afftected ALL the Americas (U.S.A, Carribean, South America, Canada etc) However being a mulata from Puerto Rico I do think latins feel differently about Blacks than those from the U.S. I think this was very biased.

  • marco

    what is special about being a mixture? what african american is not part indian, white and black? the difference is blacks in the states proudly recognize their african heritage. the notion that because hiapanics are triracial they are a unique race is laughable at best and dishonest at worst.

  • Marcus Edwin

    I am so glad that we are finally being seen as a people outside of our respected countries. My mother is Cuban and my father is of Panamanian decent, both black and both beautiful wonderful people of African Decent. They raised us to know that we were black and to be proud of the skin God gave us. I have fought so many years as a youngster living in the U.S. and not being accepted by blacks because they said I was different, and not being accepted by latinos because I didn’t look like Ricky Martin. Hispanicity is not a race, it is an ETHNIC identity and if we were to say we are Latino, that does not mean you are PR or DR or Columbian. It means that you speak one the ramance languages derived from the no longer used Latin Language and the world has mutilated the word to depict a so called racial identity. I am happy to have stumbled across this article and even more glad that in this society where the black hispanic had to assimilate into the African American culture because we were and are not accepted by main stream america or main stream latin america, we are not starting to RAISE our VOICES in the crowd and people are taking notice of us as a people, not a race but as a people.

  • Van Lewis

    It Is Such A Joy To See The Eyes And Minds Of Africans Around The World Become Open.

    It Is Imperative That We Speak With One Voice To The Struggles That We Encounter And Have

    The Evidence Is Clear. Why? Why? We Ask? Re We Africans Not The Original Peoples Of The Earth? Are We Not The Originators Of Nations?Encountered Historically.

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