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By John P. Schmal

    The Free and Sovereign State of Michoacán de Ocampo, located in the west
    central part of the Mexican Republic, occupies 59,864 square kilometers
    (23,113 square miles) and is the sixteenth largest state in Mexico, taking up
    3% of the national territory. With a population that was tallied at
    3,985,667 in the 2000 census, Michoacán is divided into 113 municipios
    and has a common border with Jalisco and Guanajuato (to the north),
    Querétaro (on the northeast), the state of Mexico (on the east), Guerrero
    (to the southeast), and Colima (to the west). In addition, Michoacán's
    southeast border includes a 213-kilometer (132-mile) shoreline along the
    Pacific Ocean.

    Dominated by the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, Michoacán
    extends from the Pacific Ocean northeastward into the central plateau. The
    climate and soil variations caused by this topography make Michoacán a
    diverse agricultural state that produces both temperate and tropical cereals,
    fruits, and vegetables. Mining is a leading industry in the state, with
    significant production of gold, silver, zinc, and iron.

    For more than a thousand years, Michoacán has been the home of the
    Purhépecha Indians (more popularly known as the Tarascans). The
    modern state of Michoacán preserves, to some extent, the territorial
    integrity of the pre-Columbian Kingdom of the Purhépecha. This kingdom
    was one of the most prosperous and extensive empires in the pre-Hispanic
    Mesoamerican world. The name Michoacán derives from the Náhuatl
    terms, michin (fish) and hua (those who have) and can (place) which
    roughly translates into "place of the fisherman."

    Because the Purhépecha culture lacks a written language, its origin and early
    history are shrouded in mystery. Its stories, legends and customs pass from
    one generation to the next through oral traditions. A Tarascan origin myth
    relates the story of how Curicaueri, the fire god, and his brother gods
    founded the settlements along Lake Pátzcuaro. The primary source of
    information about the cultural and social history of the Purhépecha Indians
    is Relación de Michoacán (published in English as The Chronicles of
    Michoacán), which was dedicated as a gift to Don Antonio de Mendoza,
    the first Viceroy of Nueva España (1535-1550). Professor Bernardino
    Verástique's Michoacán and Eden: Vasco de Quiroga and the
    Evangeliztion of Western Mexico, frequently cites "The Chronicles" in
    his recent publication and and is an excellent source of information about
    the history of Michoacán in general.

    The Tarascans of Michoacán have always called themselves Purhépecha.
    However, early in the Sixteenth Century, the Spaniards gave the
    Purhépecha a name from their own language. The name of these Indians,
    Tarascos, was derived from the native word tarascué, meaning relatives
    or brother-in-law. According to Fray (Friar) Martín Coruña, it was a term
    the natives used mockingly for the Spaniards, who regularly violated their
    women. But the Spaniards mistakenly took it up, and the Spanish word
    Tarasco (and its English equivalent, Tarascan), is commonly used today to
    describe the Indians who call themselves Purhépecha. Today both the
    people and their language are known as Tarasca. But Professor Verástique
    comments that the word Tarasco "carries pejorative connotations of
    loathsomeness and disgust."

    "The Purhépecha language,' writes Professor Verástique, "is a hybrid
    Mesoamerican language, the product of a wide-ranging process of linguistic
    borrowing and fusion." Some prestigious researchers have suggested that it
    is distantly related to Quecha, one of the man languages in the Andean zone
    of South America. For this reason, it has been suggested that the
    Purhépecha may have arrived in Mexico from Peru and may be distantly
    related to the Incas. The Tarascan language also has some similarities to that
    spoken by the Zuni Indians of New Mexico.

    The ancient Tarascan inhabitants were farmers and fishermen who
    established themselves in present-day Michoacán by the Eleventh Century
    A.D. But, in the late Twelfth Century, Chichimec tribes from the north
    crossed the Lerma River into Michoacán and settled in the fertile valley
    near the present-day town of Zacapu. "The entry of these nomadic hunters,
    writes Professor Verástique, "was facilitated by the fall of the Toltec
    garrisons at Tula and the political vacuum created in the region by the city's
    fall." Once in Michoacán, the nomadic Chichimecs began to intermingle
    with the Purhépecha, to create what Verástique calls "the
    Purhépecha-Chichimec Synthesis."

    By 1324 A.D., they had become the dominant force in western Mexico,
    with the founding of their first capital city Pátzcuaro, located 7,200 feet
    (2,200 meters) above sea level along the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro (Mexico's
    highest lake). The name, Pátzcuaro, meaning "Place of Stones," was named
    for the foundations called "Petatzecua" by Indians who found them at the
    sites of ruined temples of an earlier civilization. Eventually, however, the
    Purhépecha transferred their capital to Tzintzuntzan ("Place of the
    Hummingbirds"), which is about 15 kilometers north of Pátzcuaro, on the
    northeastern shore of the lake. Tzintzuntzan would remain the Purhépecha
    capital until the Spaniards arrived in 1522.

    Tzintzuntzan, the home of about 25,000 to 30,000 Purhépecha, was the
    site of the Tarascans' peculiar T-shaped pyramids that rose in terraces. The
    Tarascans became skilled weavers and became known for their feathered
    mosaics made from hummingbird plumage. With time, these gifted people
    also became skilled craftsmen in metalworking, pottery, and lapidary work.
    In the Michoacán of this pre-Hispanic period, gold, copper, salt, obsidian,
    cotton, cinnabar, seashells, fine feathers, cacao, wax and honey became
    highly prized products to the Tarascans. Neighboring regions that
    possessed these commodities quickly became primary targets of Tarascan
    military expansion. When a tribe was conquered by the Tarascans, the
    subjects were expected to pay tributes of material goods to the Tarascan

    During the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, the Purhépechas grew
    militarily strong and economically prosperous. An early Tarascan king
    named Tariácuri initiated numerous wars of expansion. In addition to
    occupying and establishing garrisons in the western frontier (now Jalisco),
    he cut a wedge through the Sierra Madre into the tierra caliente (hot
    country) of the present-day state of Guerrero. With this acquisition, he
    incorporated Náhuatl people into his empire. However, the region was also
    a primary source of certain precious objects that were used in the religious
    cults of the time: copper, gold, silver, cotton, copal incense, cacao, beeswax,
    and vegetable fats.

    Eventually, the Purépecha Kingdom would control an area of at least
    45,000 square miles (72,500 square kilometers), including parts of the
    present-day states of Guanajuato, Guerrero, Querétaro, Colima, and Jalisco.

    However, 240 miles to east, the Aztec Empire, centered in Tenochtitlán,
    had begun its ascendancy in the Valley of Mexico. As the Aztecs expanded
    their empire beyond the Valley, they came into conflict with the Tarascans.
    More than once, the Aztecs tried to conquer the Tarascan lands. But, in all
    of their major confrontations, the Tarascans were always victorious over
    the Aztecs. The Aztecs called the Tarascans Cuaochpanme, which means
    "the ones with a narrow strip on the head" (the shaven heads), and also
    Michhuaque, meaning "the lords of the fishes".

    During the reign of the Tarascan king Tzitzic Pandacuare, the Aztecs
    launched a very determined offensive against their powerful neighbors in
    the west. This offensive turned into a bloody and protracted conflict lasting
    from 1469 to 1478. Finally, in 1478, the ruling Aztec lord, Tlatoani
    Axayácatl, led a force of 32,000 Aztec warriors against an army of almost
    50,000 Tarascans in the Battle of Taximaroa (today the city of Hidalgo).
    After a daylong battle, Axayácatl decided to withdraw his surviving
    warriors. It is believed that the Tarascans annihilated at least 20,000
    warriors. In the art of war, the Purhépecha had one major advantage over
    the Aztecs, in their use of copper for spear tips and shields.

    In April 1519, a Spanish army, under the command of Hernán Cortés,
    arrived on the east coast of Mexico near the present-day site of Veracruz.
    As his small force made its way westward from the Gulf coast, Cortés
    started meeting with the leaders of the various Indian tribes they found
    along the way. Soon he would begin to understand the complex relationship
    between the Aztec masters and their subject tribes. Human sacrifice played
    an integral role in the culture of the Aztecs. However, the Aztecs rarely
    sacrificed their own. In their search for sacrificial victims to pacify their
    gods, the Aztecs extracted men and women from their subject tribes as
    tribute. Cortés, understanding the fear and hatred that many of the Indian
    tribes held for their Aztec rulers, started to build alliances with some of the

    Eventually, he would align himself with the Totonacs, the
    Tlaxcalans, the Otomí, and Cholulans. Finally, on November 8, 1519, when
    Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlán (the Aztec capital), he was accompanied
    by an army of at least 6,000
    Aware that a dangerous coalition was in the making, the Aztec Emperor
    Moctezuma II quickly dispatched ten emissaries to Tzintzuntzan to meet
    with the Tarascan King, Zuangua. The Aztec messengers arrived in October
    1519 and relayed their monarch's plea for assistance. But Zuangua, after
    consulting with his sages and gods, came to believe that the "new men from
    the east" would triumph over the Aztecs. Unfortunately, the Aztec
    emissaries brought more than a cry for help. Apparently, one of them
    carried the disease smallpox into the capital city and into the presence of
    the King.

    With this initial exposure to the dreaded disease, King Zuangua became ill
    and died. In a matter of days, a deadly plague of smallpox ravaged through
    the whole kingdom. Horrified by this bad omen, the Tarascans threw the
    Aztec representatives in prison and sacrificed them to their gods. Shortly
    thereafter, as Tenochtitlán was locked in a life-and-death struggle for
    survival against a massive attacking force, the Purhépechas in Tzintzuntzan
    choose as their new monarch, the oldest son of Zuangua, Tangoxoán II.
    On August 13, 1521, after a bloody 75-day siege, Tenochtitlán finally fell
    to a force of 900 Spaniards and a hundred thousand Indian warriors. Almost
    immediately, Hernán Cortés started to take an interest in the surrounding
    Indian nations.

    Once in control of Tenochtitlán, Cortés sent messengers off
    to Tzintzuntzan. These messengers returned with Tangoxoán's emissaries,
    who were greeted by Cortés and taken on a canoe tour of the battle-torn
    city. The famous conquistador made a point of demonstrating his cavalry in
    action. In concluding his guided tour, Cortés assured Tangoxoán's
    representatives that, if they subjected themselves to the King of Spain,
    they would be well treated. They soon returned to Tzintzuntzan to report
    to their king.

    Convinced that the Spaniards would allow him to continue ruling and
    fearing a terrible fate if he challenged them, Tangaxoan allowed the Spanish
    soldiers to enter Tzintzuntzan unopposed. The only precaution the
    Purhépechas took was to sacrifice eight hundred slaves who they feared
    would join the Spanish if a fight did occur. In July 1522, when the
    conquistador Cristobal de Olíd, with a force of 300 Spaniards and 5,000
    Amerindian allies (mainly Tlaxcalans) arrived in the capital city of
    Tzintzuntzan, they found a city of 40,000 inhabitants.

    Horrified by the sight of the temples and pyramids awash with the blood of
    recent human sacrifices, The Spanish and Tlaxcalan soldiers looted and
    destroyed the temples of the Purhépecha high priests. The occupying
    army, writes Professor Verástique, "required an enormous exertion of
    human labor and the preparation of vast quantities of food." During the
    four months that the occupying army stayed in Michoacán, it soon became
    apparent that the Spaniards were interested in finding gold and silver in
    Tangoxoán's mountainous kingdom. The discovery of gold in western
    Michoacán near Motín in 1527 brought more of the invaders. However,
    several of the Náhuatl tribes in the region resisted the intrusion vigorously.
    With the influx of adventurers and treasure seekers, more of the Tarascans
    were expected to help labor in the mines or help feed the mineworkers and

    On a visit to Mexico City, in 1524, King Tangoxoán II was baptized with
    the Christian name of Francisco. It was Tangoxoán II himself, on another
    visit to Mexico City, who asked the bishop to send Catholic priests to
    Michoacán. In 1525, six Franciscan missionaries, led by Fray Martín de
    Jesus de la Coruña, arrived in Tzintzuntzan in 1525. The next year, they
    built a large Franciscan monastery and a convent. They saved a great deal of
    labor by tearing down much of the Purhépecha temples and platforms,
    using the quarried stones for their own buildings. Augustinian missionaries
    would arrive in Michoacán during 1533.

    In the meantime, however, Cortés, seeking to reward his officers for their
    services, awarded many encomienda grants in Michoacán to the inner core
    of his army. The tribute-receiving soldier, known as an encomendero
    received a grant in the form of land, municipios or Indian labor. He was also
    obliged to provide military protection and a Christian education for the
    Indians under his command. However, "the encomienda grant," comments
    Professor Verástique, "was also fertile ground for bribery and corruption."
    Continuing with this line of thought, the Professor writes that "forced
    labor, especially in the silver mines, and the severe tribute system of the
    conquistadors" soon inflicted "extreme pressures on Purhépecha society."
    Concerns for the impending devastation of the indigenous people of Mexico
    soon reached the Spanish government. The Crown decided to set up the
    First Audiencia (Governing Committee) in Mexico in order to replace
    Cortez' rule in Mexico City and reestablish their own authority. On
    November 13, 1528, the Spanish lawyer, Nuño Guzmán de Beltran, was
    named by the Spanish King Carlos V to head this new government and end
    the anarchy that was growing in Nueva España.

    Unfortunately, writes Professor Verástique, "the government of Spain had
    no idea of the character of the man whom they had appointed as president
    of the Audiencia." Eventually it became apparent that the "law and order
    personality" of Guzmán would be replaced with "ruthlessness and
    obstinancy." As soon as Guzmán took over, "he sold Amerindians into
    slavery, ransacked their temples searching for treasure, exacted heavy
    tribute payments from the caciques, and kidnapped women." Guzman was
    "equally spiteful with his own countrymen," confiscating the encomiendas
    that Cortés had awarded his cronies.

    Almost immediately, the Bishop-elect of Mexico City, the Franciscan Juan
    de Zumárraga came into conflict with Guzmán. Appointed as the
    "Protector of the Indians" and inquisitor of Nueva España, Zumárraga
    initiated court proceedings to hear Amerindian complaints about Spanish
    injustice and atrocities. By 1529, Guzmán was excommunicated from the
    church for his defiance of the church and his abuse of the Indian population.
    Anticipating loss of his position as well, Guzmán set off for Michoacán at
    the end of 1529.

    Accompanied by 350 Spanish cavalrymen and foot soldiers, and some
    10,000 Indian warriors, Guzmán arrived in Michoacán and demanded King
    Tangoxoán to turn over all his gold. However, unable to deliver the precious
    metal, on February 14, 1530, the King was tortured, dragged behind a horse
    and finally burned at the stake. Guzmán's cruelty stunned and horrified the
    Tarascan people who had made their best efforts to accommodate the
    Spaniards and Tlaxcalans. Fearing for their lives, many of Purhépecha
    population either died or fled far into the mountains to hide. Guzmán's
    forces plundered the once-grand and powerful Purhépecha nation. Temples,
    houses, and fields were devastated while the demoralized people fled to the
    mountains of Michoacán.

    Guzmán now declared himself "King of the Tarascan Empire" and prepared
    to leave Michoacán. However, before moving on to plunder Jalisco,
    Guzmán drafted 8,000 Purhépecha men to serve as soldiers in his army.
    News of Guzmán's blatant atrocities rippled through the countryside and
    reached the ears of church authorities. While Guzmán moved on in an
    attempt to elude the authorities in Mexico City, Bishops Bartolomé de Las
    Casas and Zumárraga prepared a case against Guzmán. Eventually he would
    return to the capital, where he was arrested and shipped to Spain for trial.
    Guzmán's cruelty had destroyed the relationship between the Spanish and
    the Tarascans. In a short time, the grand and powerful Purhépecha nation
    had been completely devastated. Had it not been for the effort of one man
    whose ideals, good judgment and ability to put into practice the morals that
    he preached, it is possible that the Purhépechas would not have survived
    this catastrophe. This man was Don Vasco de Quiroga, who at the age of
    60, arrived in Mexico in January 1531, with a mandate to repair both the
    moral and material damage that had been inflicted upon Michoacán by
    Guzmán. A Spanish aristocrat born in Galicia, Don Vasco de Quiróga was
    trained in the law but would play an important role in the evangelization of
    the Purhépecha people.

    According to Bernardino Verástique, the primary task assigned to Quiroga
    was to assume "the pastoral role of protector, spiritual father, judge and
    confessional physician" to the Purhépecha. On December 5, 1535, Vasco
    Quiroga was endorsed by Zumárraga as Bishop-elect of Michoacán. The
    nomination was approved on December 9, 1536, and in 1538, he was
    formally ordained by Bishop Zumárraga in Mexico City. Quiroga, upon
    arriving in Michoacán, very quickly came to the conclusion that
    Christianizing the Purhépecha depended upon preserving their language and
    understanding their worldview. Over time, Quiroga would embrace the
    Tarascan people and succeed in implanting himself in the minds and hearts
    of the natives as "Tata", or "Daddy" Vasco, the benefactor and protector of
    the Indians.

    To attract the Indians to come down from their mountain hideouts and hear
    the Word of God, Don Vasco staged performances of a dance called "Los
    Toritos", a dance that is still performed today in the streets of local villages
    during certain festivities. All the dancers wear colorful costumes and masks,
    one of which is a great bull's head. The bull prances to the music of guitars
    and trumpets as the others try to capture him with capes and ropes.
    Little by little, small groups of natives came down from the hills to
    investigate this strange phenomenon and Don Vasco befriended them with
    gifts. He treated the Indians with "enlightened compassion" and soon many
    families came down from the hills to settle near the monastery, as much for
    protection as to embrace the new faith. Don Vasco stood at odds with the
    cruel treatment the Spanish soldiers meted out to the Indians, and with his
    influence and personal power, he was able to put an end to the crippling
    tribute system the Spaniards had inherited from the Purhépecha kings.
    Don Vasco ensured that the old boundaries of the Purhépecha Kingdom
    would be maintained. He began construction of the Cathedral of Santa Ana
    in 1540. He also established the Colegio de San Nicolas Obispo. As a Judge
    (oidor) and Bishop, Quiroga was driven by a profound respect for Spanish
    jurisprudence and his desire to convert the Purhépecha to a purified form of
    Christianity free of the corruption of European Catholicism. He strove to
    establish "New World Edens" in Michoacán by congregating the
    Purhépecha into repúblicas de indios, or congregaciones (congregations)
    modeled after Thomas More's Utopia. Guided spiritually by the friars, the
    natives of these communities became self-governing. Under this system,
    Augustinian and Franciscan friars could more easily instruct the natives in
    the fundamental beliefs of Christianity as well as the values of Spanish

    Quiroga's efforts to raise the standard of living for the Tarascans gradually
    took hold. Labor in the communal fields or on the cattle ranches was
    performed on a rotating basis to permit the people to become
    self-supporting and to allow them free time for instruction, both spiritual
    and practical, and to work in specialized industries. Gathering the dispirited
    Purhépechas into new villages made possible the development of a
    particular industrial skill for each community. Soon one town became adept
    at making saddles, another produced painted woodenware, and another
    baskets, etc. In time, the villages developed commerce between one another,
    thus gaining economic strength. Don Vasco de Quiroga finally died on
    March 20, 1565 in Pátzcuaro.

    On February 28, 1534, King Carlos issued a royal edict, awarding
    Tzintzuntzan the title of City of Michoacán, and in 1536 it became the seat
    of a newly created Bishopric. However, Tzintzuntzan lost its importance
    when the Spaniards changed their administrative center to Pátzcuaro in
    1540. Then, in 1541 the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza issued an order to
    raise a city called Valladolid, 185 miles northwest of Mexico City. This
    town - originally known as Guayangareo by the indigenous people - was
    elevated to the status of a city in 1545, with the approval of the King of
    Spain. Almost three centuries later, in 1828, Valladolid, the birthplace of
    Jose Maria Morelos was renamed Morelia in honor of the revolutionary
    patriot who served in the War of Independence. Although Tzintzuntzan
    remained the headquarters of the Franciscans, it soon dwindled in size and
    significance as the royal title of City of Michoacán passed to Pátzcuaro.
    During the colonial years, thanks to Quiroga's efforts, Michoacán flourished
    and came to occupy an important position in regard to its artistic, economic
    and social development. The prosperity that flourished in Michoacán has
    been explored in a number of specialized works. Professor Verástique has
    suggested that "Vasco de Quiroga's ideals of humanitarianism and Christian
    charity had a critical influence on the conversion process."

    Unfortunately, the repercussions of Guzmán's cruelty also had long-range
    effects on Michoacán's population. Professor Verástique writes that "three
    factors contributed to the loss of life in Michoacán: warfare, ecological
    collapse, and the loss of life resulting from forced labor in the encomienda
    system." Between 1520 and 1565, the population of Michoacán had
    declined by about thirty percent, with a loss of some 600,000 people. For
    the rest of the colonial period - the better part of three centuries -
    Michoacán would retain its predominantly agrarian economy.
    Michoacán - known as the Intendancy of Valladolid during the Spanish
    period - saw a significant increase in its population from the 1790 census
    (322,951) to the 1895 census (896,495). The 1900 census tallied 935,808
    individuals, of whom only 17,381 admitted to speaking indigenous
    languages. It is likely, however, that during the long reign of Porfirio Díaz,
    many indigenous-speaking individuals were afraid to admit their Indian
    identity to census-takers.

    In the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, one in eight Mexican citizens lost
    their lives. The armies and battlegrounds of this civil war shifted from one
    part of Mexico to another during this decade. Michoacán was not the site of
    major active revolutionary participation, but Jennie Purnell, the author of
    Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico: The
    Agraristas and Cristeros of Michoacán, writes that Michoacán endured
    "attacks by rebel bands, wide-spread banditry, prolonged drought, and
    devastating epidemics." As a result, the population of Michoacán in 1910
    (991,880) dropped to 939,849 in the 1921 census.

    The 1921 census was unique among Mexican tallies because it asked people
    questions about their racial identity. Out of a total population of 939,849
    people in Michoacán, 196,726 persons claimed to be of "indígena pura"
    (pure indigenous) descent, representing 20.9% of the total population. The
    vast majority of Michoacán residents - 663,391 in all - identified
    themselves as "indígena mezclada con blanca" (indigenous mixed with
    white, or mestizo), representing 70.6% of the total state population. Only
    64,886 individuals referred to themselves as "blanca" (white).
    According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and
    more who spoke indigenous languages in the state of Michoacán totaled
    121,849 individuals. The most common indigenous languages in Michoacán
    are: Purépecha (109,361), Náhuatl (4,706), Mazahua (4,338), Otomí (732),
    Mixteco (720), and Zapoteco (365).

    In all, 121,409 persons who spoke Purépecha were tallied in Mexico's 2000
    census, with the vast majority of them living in Michoacán. It is
    noteworthy that the vast majority of these Purépecha-speaking persons -
    103,161, or 85% - also spoke the Spanish language, indicating a significant
    level of assimilation. In recent decades, the people of Michoacán have
    developed a new appreciation of their Purépecha roots and culture. Today,
    the people of Michoacán can look back with pride on several hundred years
    of evolution: from an indigenous kingdom to a Spanish colony to a free and
    sovereign state of the Republic of Mexico.


    Access Mexico Connect. "The Tarasco Culture and Empire." Mexico
    Connect, 1996-2003. Online: April 20, 2003.

    Eugene R. Craine and Reginald C. Reindorp, The Chronicles of
    Michoacán. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
    Departamento de la Estadística Nación, Annuario de 1930. Tacubaya,
    Distrito Federal, 1932.

    Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, A.C., Familia Tarasca : Tarascan Family.
    2001. . August 14,

    Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI).
    Tabulados Básicos. Estados Unidos Mexicanos. XII Censo General de
    Población y Vivienda, 2000. (Mexico, 2001).

    Jennie Purnell, Popular Movements and State Formation in
    Revolutionary Mexico: The Agraristas and Cristeros of Michoacán.
    Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
    Bernardino Verástique, Michoacán and Eden: Vasco de Quiroga and the
    Evangelization of Western Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press,

    J. Benedict Warren, The Conquest of Michoacán: The Spanish
    Domination of the Tarascan Kingdom in Western Mexico, 1521-1530.
    Norman, Oklahoma: Un of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Compiled by: Glenn Welker

Copyright @ 2004, by John P. Schmal

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