Karaoke Nights [repeat] : Radio Ambulante : NPR

DANIEL ALARCÓN: Hello street vendors, an announcement before we begin. You already know that we are campaigning, and that we need to add 1,800 new members to our membership program… Now. So, we just added a super benefit. If you support before the end of the year, you can guarantee your place at Radio Ambulante Fest 2022, a virtual festival in April, with podcast workshops, talks, and listening clubs. We want to celebrate creativity and curiosity in journalism, audio and the arts, and for that we have some special guests... Ira Glass, founder of This American Life; the great Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto; Dominican singer and writer Rita Indiana; the novelist and vlogger John Green and many more… Find all the information at radioambulante.org. Thank you

Today we go to our archives, to one of our favorite episodes. In a way, this story feels like an artifact from another era. We recorded it in December 2018, in a very different world than today. It was a world where closeness and hugs were often taken for granted.

And that's why we want you to hear it again. To remember what unites us, especially now that the Christmas season has begun and that we are relearning to be together after almost two years in isolation.

It is an episode about friendship and about those places that made us happy, an episode full of nostalgia, yes, but also one that reminds us that there is a future, that many of us gave up for lost, but that awaits us.

Here the story.



ALARCÓN: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I am Daniel Alarcon.


LF VARGAS: What can I tell you? In the short time…

ALARCÓN: And the one who sings —if that can be called singing— is our editor Luis Fernando Vargas.


LF VARGAS: Because you have given me the privilege of loving you. Say what you feel...

ALARCÓN: Luis Fernando is 26 years old and lives in San José, Costa Rica.


LF VARGAS: Give what you have and don't regret it And if what you expected doesn't come...

ALARCÓN: I promise you: everything will make sense very soon. Patience.


LF VARGAS: Don't settle. Never stop. But above all things, never forget God... That never works out for me because my rooster comes out.

ALARCON: Just that? (Laughter).

There are two types of people in this world: those who like karaoke and those who don't. Luis Fernando, clearly, is one of the first. He likes it a lot. You've heard it and, well, it's up to you to decide if this is good or bad news.

In fact, the idea of ​​making this episode came at the end of last year, after Luis Fernando told the team that he and his friends had gone to inaugurate the karaoke Christmas tree that they go to almost every week, like who inaugurates a bridge or a building. I mean, we all wonder: who does that?

We, from the Radio Ambulante team, know Luis Fernando well. And I think no one expected this. It was like finding out about a secret life: that your friend and colleague is a superhero, or a spy. I swear to you, if you saw him, you would never imagine him singing in karaoke. Such a social and joyful activity, let's say it doesn't go with Luis Fernando, our own prince of darkness.

LF VARGAS: It's weird because I... usually when they see me, I'm the most unpleasant person in the world. I have… I have my dad's face, which is the most unbearable face in the world (laughs). It's like you see... you see my dad and you say I don't want to talk to that man and I have... I have the same face (laughs).

ALARCÓN: He is one of those people who always dress in black. And when I say always, I mean always. Maybe one day I'll surprise you with a little bit of dark blue, or grey. Or if he's in a really good mood, a brown t-shirt. And there is also a little detail that turns out to be huge if you like karaoke.

LF VARGAS: Well, the microphone still makes me ashamed.

ALARCÓN: Something you forgot to mention in his job interview. Obvious.

So he hates the microphone. It gives you anxiety. Even recording this interview you can tell. I ask him anything and he starts to stutter.

LF VARGAS: Ehm, she… told me… she told me…

But eh... the... the strange thing is that that mu...

And… And… And it's a dark side of karaoke too…

ALARCÓN: Nothing that our dear Luis Fernando has just babbled on makes any sense.

And if you find him in his natural state: looking at nothing or working, that is, not in karaoke, you'll never see him listening to Mijares, or Lucero, or LuisMi, or José José. His favorite music... let's say it has a different aesthetic.


TRENT REZNOR: I take you where you want to go. I give you all you need to know. I drag you down, I use you up. Mr. Self Destruct.

LF VARGAS: Music, well, industrial, very aggressive, depressive, very inner demons, with lyrics... It's like very in your face.

ALARCÓN: Well-known bands, like Nine Inch Nails, or other more far-fetched genres. Noise music, for example, which literally translates to “noise”. Or sucks music, to be honest. I already gave myself away as an old man, but I don't care. Listen to this from the band Daughters and tell me I'm not right. Tell me.


ALEXIS MARSHALL: I've been knocking let me in.

LF VARGAS: Very much to bring out those internal things, of those: I feel bad, I'm maladjusted. Not so much of complete lack of love, but of being alone and others.

ALARCÓN: Or the band Have a Nice Life, which plays what he doesn't know if it's a real genre, but they call it “Doomgaze” and that Luis Fernando describes as the soundtrack of the end of the world.


ALARCÓN: So, yes, he is a musical snob with dark tastes. Hard to imagine then that Luis Fernando loves karaoke. But they already heard him, singing with all the pleasure in the world.

And the story of that love comes from a very particular place.

Louis Ferdinand here.

LF VARGAS: My love for karaoke starts with my love for pancakes. And I'm not talking about those who eat, but about a group of friends, my friends. We are 13. We met at the university and we talk almost every day, to comment on some gossip, news or nonsense. Pancake is the name of our WhatsApp group.

FELIPE ZÚÑIGA: Pancake is an accompaniment group. It's like a family.

LF VARGAS: This is Felipe, he is one of the pancakes. You will hear several of them in this episode, but for now we continue with Felipe.

ZÚÑIGA: We've known each other for more than seven years and I don't know… I once read that after seven years people stay for the rest of their lives. Obviously I have no basis, no study, I just read it. Maybe it was a quote there from the internet. But it seems silly to me.

LF VARGAS: Chiva, that is, cool. And yes, it is goat. This is Ale.

ALEJANDRA VARGAS: Like what are those… like friends like unconditional ones. Like the ones that you know you can ask them for something and it's not like: "Oh, like they're going to charge you for a favor or something like that." Nothing else is like yes, like selfless friendships.

LF VARGAS: In the best moments of my life, they are there with me. And also in the worst, accompanying me, giving me support. They are the most stable and precious thing I have. I say it without hesitation.

A few years ago, most of our adventures took place in Will. Will was a car, Philip's car. A Nissan Pathfinder from the eighties, one of those that can be put in the mud of the mountain, like in the ads. Only this one couldn't anymore, because he was old.

From the outside it looked like a slightly neglected car, but when you got in you realized that it was a dump full of empty bottles, old food, unwashed clothes.

When we were almost all pancakes, obviously we did not fit in the seats, so some of us got on the back plate. Several times I almost ended up with a concussion.

Noches de karaoke [repeat] : Radio Ambulante : NPR

ZÚÑIGA: Sometimes up to seven or eight people would go against the law, totally, but we did it. And we'd move to... I don't know, to a small restaurant or to get a coffee.

LF VARGAS: Those small restaurants were generally bars; and coffees, beers. And so many of those Will trips were to a bar that meant the world to us. It was our safe and secret place in the roughness of San José, a gray, dirty, slightly dangerous city. That bar was called Ko Zin, which is two words in Cantonese. It is written: KO and ZIN.

It was in a quite lonely street, one of those where it seems that you can be robbed at any time. It was far from the bar area that everyone usually goes to. Felipe discovered Ko Zin at 11 p.m. on a Monday in 2013, when he was driving aimlessly, looking for a place to celebrate a birthday.

In front of Ko Zin there was a mini theater, one of those where they put on lousy comedy shows, and there were also old houses, very old, houses that anyone would say are abandoned.

And on the sides of Ko Zin, two parking lots. The bar was in a solitary two-story wooden building: a symbol of resistance. It had not succumbed to becoming a parking lot. And it stood out, but not in a good way. This is Roberth, another member of pancake.

ROBERTH PEREIRA: It was as if an old, rural bar, let's say, made of wood, where there are pigs nearby, right?, where pigs smell in the distance and contraband is sold, crossed paths with a Chinese restaurant in San José.

LF VARGAS: I had a similar impression the first time I went: it smelled old, damp, something that had been stored for many, many years. And everything looked lousy, neglected. It gave me a little disgust to enter, honestly.

The entrance was a burgundy red gate, with beer signs hanging and a board promoting food combos. I remember the one with Cantonese rice, bread and a soft drink for only two thousand colones. Less than four dollars… cheap, very cheap, too cheap. The kind of cheap that sets off the alarms of: "Don't eat there". Which I never did. It was my only rule.

And well, the bar...

GABRIELA FONSECA: It was very crazy, because it was like dark at... at the beginning and it had like a couple of little lights, like that, I don't know what.

LF VARGAS: This is Gaby.

FONSECA: And in the end it was like an explosion of kitsch, I mean, it was a rod like this: bright, with those lucky kittens that were also bright, with a... a calendar there with a lot of glitter, candles, lights, the TV there all little boy, with the fridge.

ZÚÑIGA: A giant portrait of a horse or a duck or a little house, put on the wall. Checkered… tablecloths with transparent plastic on top. Napkin holders on each of the tables, there were a lot of tables…

PEREIRA: Let's add that maybe ten years of missing maintenance of the bathrooms.

LF VARGAS: Phew, the bathrooms. Better not get into that topic. What you're imagining, but worse.

The owner and owner of Ko Zin was a Chinese woman between 50 and 60 years old named Jessi.

FONSECA: Skinny, she had a tired look.

PEREIRA: She wore a cap and she wore a hat. And she always walked like a... a little sweater of... of flowers.

A. VARGAS: Jessi like that from the start although she looks like… she looks kind of curmudgeonly if you treat her well like you saw that she was adorable.

LF VARGAS: She was always there, serving beers and drinks, cooking Cantonese rice, getting paid and guarding the place. All by herself. From time to time you would see her husband helping her by taking care of her, but she would not serve clients because she spoke very little Spanish. She could barely say to you: “Hello, how is she?”. Instead, Jessie...

A. VARGAS: As if she tried to talk and try to get a conversation out of one, even though she didn't understand much of what she was saying.

LF VARGAS: Her Spanish was pretty raw. With a strong accent, limited vocabulary and sometimes did not conjugate verbs well.

It was difficult for him to communicate with her, you had to concentrate. You had to look her right in the face and speak slowly, using short sentences, sometimes repeating what you wanted to say.

When we started going more often, Jessi greeted us by name upon arrival and asked how we were. Short and cordial conversations. Then to drink. One New Year's Eve that we spent there, she even gave us a little Buddha and some Chinese rolls.

But we know little about her. For us she was always more of a character than a person. And I think she wanted it that way. Felipe, who is a filmmaker, tried to interview her dozens of times and never gave up. He was camera shy, maybe, but he didn't seem interested in finishing opening up with us.

What we do know is that she came to Costa Rica from China at the age of 16, looking for a better life, like many Chinese migrants who come to the country. We also know that she first worked with an aunt as a domestic worker and then in the same restaurant that years later she began managing with her husband. They both lived right there, on the second floor. They have a daughter who went to work in the United States, but here in Costa Rica, Ko Zin was everything to them.

Ko Zin might not sound like the best place for a night out and I don't blame them. In a way they are right. For example, the beer: it tasted strange, like it lacked gas and was never really cold cold.

And it is that Jessi turned off the refrigerator at dawn, when she closed, and turned it on again the next day.

ZÚÑIGA: And that cold, hot, cold process was very bad for the beer. Well, it was also interesting, it was a unique beer in the world (laughs).

LF VARGAS: I mean, in a way, Ko Zin failed as a bar even on the most basic level: with alcohol. Even so, we fell in love with pancakes from the first moment. For some it will be stale beer, but for us it was craft. There was something so broken and imperfect about the whole bar that, combined with the kitsch and Jessi's personality, made it charming. Felipe, Gaby, Roberth and Ale started going several times a week. Same with the other pancakes.

But there was a problem. Well, a problem for me.


PANCAKES: Get away from me, there's nothing else to talk about.

LF VARGAS: The karaoke.


PANCAKES: With you I lost, I already have someone to win with. I know there was no one to give you what I gave you.

LF VARGAS: Most hated for my musical snobbery.

ALARCÓN: But if Luis Fernando wanted to continue being a pancake, he had to face the music that he hated the most.

A pause and we return.

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ALARCÓN: We're back at Radio Ambulante, I'm Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, Luis Fernando was telling us about how he fell in love with Ko Zin, this old, neglected and strange bar. But there was a problem: the karaoke.

Before meeting Ko Zin, pancakes used to go out to dance to eighties music. Which is almost a cliché, really. When it comes to dancing, there are hundreds of millions of Latin Americans who live frozen in time: Soda Stereo, Los Prisoners, Depeche Mode, The Cure, etc.

But with the discovery of Ko Zin, pancake weekends changed. Now the plan was to sing. And not that music of the eighties, but the romantic ballad.

Here, with much feeling, Luis Fernando.

LF VARGAS: At least Felipe, Alejandra, Roberth, Gaby and others, half knew these songs, because their families played that music at parties, accompanying drunkenness and hugs or arguments between uncles and aunts. So they were ready to sing without problems. The one who was screwed was me. There are no parties in my house. I didn't know anything, just half a chorus of “40 y 20” by José José.


JOSÉ JOSÉ: 40 and 20. It is love that matters and not what people say.

LF VARGAS: Now that I think about it, it disgusts me. Calm down, dirty old man.

But well, I only remembered that little bit because my mom played a cassette of José José's Greatest Hits when I was little, while she did chores around the house.

But my anxiety made me have this need to comply and look good. He didn't want to be the spoilsport, the one who sat with his arms crossed looking at the others out of the corner of his eye for singing. In other words, being the snobbish and bitter man that he was. I have always had to be that one and I wanted to have a good time with them.

So I started singing in the background, following the others, trying to memorize the melodies for the next time the song is played. From time to time grabbing the microphone, after hearing a piece enough times and on the condition that someone sing along with me. Always helped by a few... many... beers.

Sure, like everything in Ko Zin, the karaoke was...humble.

PEREIRA: Everything was very similar. They had everything on DVD, they were all discs, right? No… they didn't search for things on the internet. No. It was a TV, what was there, with a control.

A. VARGAS: One of those square TV sets from before...

LF VARGAS: Where the lyrics of the songs came from…

ZÚÑIGA: And two microphones that had a PVC pipe attached to them. It didn't make sense, I don't know. I still don't understand what it was for. I guess so the cable doesn't break. But he made it very particular, singing, because one sang with a hose in his hand.

LF VARGAS: The repertoire was in two books, which brought together the songs from three DVDs: two in Spanish and one in English. One of the DVDs in Spanish had modern songs from the '80s and '90s, and a few from the 2000s. The other DVD had rancheras and '70s songs that none of us had ever heard from him. The English DVD had everything from David Bowie and Queen to Linkin Park and Blink 182.

And to request a song, you would yell at Jessi the code that was in the book...

ZUNIGA: 18-42, 20-90, 88-16.

LF VARGAS: She put them on the remote control of the DVD as you said them. And the shifts? fuck it

ZÚÑIGA: So if one told him eight songs in a row, one would sing eight songs.

LF VARGAS: It was a pretty deficient system, honestly. But it was also communal, based on the trust that you are not going to steal someone else's song, based on the solidarity that you are going to drop the microphone at some point to give it to the other.

And if you wanted a song from another DVD, you had to wait a while, sometimes a long time, for everyone to get bored and stop asking for songs from that disc so you could change it. Because it was quite a task for Jessi, who was the only one who could do it: she had to stop the whole operation of the bar, change the DVD and wait for everyone to look at the book again and choose what they wanted to sing to give her a list. . Jessi was honestly lazy...

We went to Ko Zin so much and sang so much that I got used to karaoke. It went from being something hated, to being something normal. And then I understood.


ALEJANDRA AND GABRIELA: It's not that alcohol is the best medicine. But it helps to forget when you don't see the exit...

LF VARGAS: There is a connection with your friends that is born when your voice is lost in the sea of ​​voices. Suddenly the anxieties of one are the anxieties of all. And also joy. We were never more united as a group than when we went to Ko Zin and sang.

That is something that I had never achieved with music. That union. Music, my music, always isolated me. It separated me from the world. He sent me to my room, in the dark, with my headphones, to be alone with all those overwhelming things I was feeling.

And to my surprise, those themes of isolation and pain in my music were also present in the karaoke music. At the end of the day we all live the same, only in different melodies.

I also learned to love karaoke from watching Jessi. If you got to Ko Zin early, like seven or eight at night, especially during the week, when no one was there, you would find her behind the bar, singing “Ángel”, by Cristian Castro.


CRISTIAN CASTRO: Angel who gives light to my life...

LF VARGAS: I don't have any recording of her, of course. But I remember it perfectly. And she didn't use the hose microphone, but a special one just for her, which had a lot of reverb. And she sang with a very, very high pitch. She gave him an angelic touch.

It's hard to describe, but it felt like Jessi was disconnected from what was going on around her, from the hustle and bustle of running a bar by herself. She suddenly didn't look tired, she didn't look shy or cranky. She looked... soulful, amidst all the glitz of Chinese trappings.

When she finished we all applauded. She smiled slightly and continued working, calm, without saying a word. You could tell there was an intimate connection to that song. As if it had helped her to cope with very hard things: leaving a country, learning a new language, starting a life in a culture completely opposite to yours. Who knows. She never told us.

Seeing her was a sample of the power of karaoke: that disconnection from everything. It's just you, the lyrics and the melody. And you can say how you feel with words that might never occur to you, without anyone judging you.

But there is something perhaps more important. And it is that Ko Zin and her karaoke came into our lives at a very particular moment: it was five years ago, when we were all between 22 and 23. We had just left university, most of us were either unemployed or had unstable jobs. Even today, many of us still don't know what to do with our lives or how to live them, but at the time that instability was drowning us. It was classic middle-class young adult angst. But a very real heartbreak. And we survive that instability between the karaoke songs.


ALEJANDRA AND GABRIELA: How can I do it? Deliver everything. I gave it all. Invent a little...

LF VARGAS: Because we learned to sing karaoke amidst fears, uncertainties, loves and heartbreaks. And there is nothing more liberating than screaming —no, it's not singing—, it's screaming out of you all that stress and all that anguish. We learned to love karaoke because we didn't sing alone: ​​we sang as a group of people who loved each other and felt equally lost.

Ko Zin was special for all Pancakes in a different way, but in that place we all live times of transit, of change. Felipe remembers heartbreaks, Alejandra too. Roberth remembers putting prejudices against romantic music aside. Gaby began to consider going to study in Cuba...

I began to deal with my depression and anxiety between Ko Zin trips. While some go to parties to have fun and end up drunk, I went to parties to end up drunk and very rarely had a good time. He was the stupid drunk who ends up crying in the pipe or who gets angry and becomes a bully, that is, aggressive. What we call here the guaro cowboy. Sometimes it was both in one night.

That was my way of dealing with everything: forgetting it. Between trips to Ko Zin I decided to give up alcohol and start going to therapy and taking antidepressants. Maybe people around me didn't notice it as much because I covered it up, but I was very scared during that time. He was very down and the medications had horrible side effects.

He suffered from depersonalization—that one feels that his body does not belong to him and is trapped inside him. Everything was like mist. He couldn't think straight most of the time. He had suicidal thoughts on a daily basis. He was unemployed and could not work because of his condition. He was desperate.

My safe place was going to Ko Zin with my friends, to sing. It was the highlight of the week. And hey, it was sober singing: completely aware of how out of tune I was… that I am.

For a shy person like me, the very idea, at first, was hell. But I got braver, little by little, and I was singing a little harder each time, feeling a little more comfortable with myself and leaving the anxiety aside. There is a long way to go, but I made some progress thanks to Ko Zin.

And singing… singing is a therapy, let me say so. Nothing served me more at that time than going to Ko Zin, ordering a Coca-Cola — Light, of course — and singing “A kiss and a flower”, by Nino Bravo.


PANCAKES: Beyond the sea there will be a place where the sun shines brighter every morning. The stones of the path will forge my destiny. What is dear to us always remains behind.

LF VARGAS: "Beyond the sea there will be a place where the sun shines brighter every morning." Is strong. One feels very intense things when he sings it. But as the wise Nino Bravo said, what is dear to us is always left behind.

Ko Zin closed in early 2017. After about two years we went religiously almost every week. It was out of the blue. Felipe was in France for work and someone sent him a photo of Ko Zin with the gate closed, with a sign from the Ministry of Health that said closed. He notified us through the WhatsApp group.

ZÚÑIGA: I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it! I was shocked. I posted on Twitter too many times: “Please someone confirm this information: Is Ko Zin seriously closed? Please someone go knock on Jessi's door, ask what happened." And indeed: they had closed Ko Zin due to structural failures. It wasn't even about basic, elementary sanitation: structural flaws in the building, that they had to have a remodeling, say, a little… a little strong.

LF VARGAS: In short, the building was uninhabitable. It was not so surprising: it was obvious that Ko Zin did not comply with the security measures for a public place. But it did hurt a lot. Especially since we couldn't say goodbye.

PEREIRA: At that point I was kind of depressed, I think (laughs). Already at the moment I knew that it was not going to open more because there was no other karaoke.

ALEJANDRA AND GABRIELA: It was really crazy, because one of them got sad. He was really sad. And yes, also one being a little selfish, it was like the… I gave the bar where one felt comfortable. Suddenly one felt like: “Say no, and now what are we supposed to do on weekends, already in the wee hours of the morning?”. But also later it was like mae, whore, and Jessi? Because, say, it was this mae who really worked her ass off, the one who accompanied us a lot. In… somehow I feel that she also felt accompanied by us.

LF VARGAS: At least I hope that she did feel accompanied by us.

On January 5th of this year, 2019, we learned from the news that the building had burned down. Felipe went and sent us photos. All Ko Zin was destroyed: the bar, the tables, everything. Jessi was left homeless. The pain then became indescribable. Now it was certain that Ko Zin and Jessi would not return.

With the burning of Ko Zin, he left part of the pancakes, but he also reminded us why we sing: Because we are better when we sing as a collective, when we are just one.

Jessi always told us that Ko Zin meant “forward” in Cantonese. Like many other things about her, I don't want to deny it.

ALARCÓN: Of course, the great absentee in this story is Jessi. Since we broadcast the episode for the first time, she has communicated with Felipe, Luis Fernando's friend. She is fine, healthy and continues to sing karaoke. This story is dedicated to her.

And please. If you have depression or suicidal thoughts, she seeks help. She talks to your friends and family, and she considers seeking professional help. And if you think a loved one is in such a situation, ask them, listen to them and support them.

Many thanks to Jaime García, from La Vasconia, for letting us record the karaoke audios at the bar.

Luis Fernando Vargas is the editor of Radio Ambulante. He lives in San José, Costa Rica, where karaoke bars are still not open, something that makes poor Luis Fernando very sad.

This story was edited by Camila Segura and myself. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Aneris Casassus, Xochitl Fabián, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, David Trujillo and Desirée Yépez. .

Emilia Erbetta is our editorial intern.

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.

Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO show.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I am Daniel Alarcon. Thanks for listening.

And now, my worst nightmare, come true.

ALARCÓN: Hey, I think we should sing something together…

LF VARGAS: Come on

ALARCÓN: But well: one, I sing badly. Two, I'm a gringo, that is, I grew up in the United States, my pop culture, for example, from the romantic ballad, or from José José or Vicente Fernández, all these singers that you mentioned, it's like I don't know them. So we have to sing something that I know of course… Ready?

LF VARGAS: Ok. One two Three…

DANIEL AND LUIS FERNANDO / SHAKIRA - I'M HERE KARAOKE VERSION: I know you won't come/ Everything that was/ Time left it behind/ I know you won't come back/ What happened to us/ It will never repeat/ A thousand years won't reach me/ For borrarte y olvidar/ Y ahora estoy aquí/ Queriendo convertir/ Los campos en ciudad/ Mezclando el cielo con el mar/ Se que te deje escapar/ Se que te perdí/ Nada podrá ser igual/ Mil años pueden alcanzar/ Para que pueda perdonar/ Estoy aquí queriéndote/ Ahogándome/ Entre fotos y cuadernos/ Entre cosas y recuerdos/ Que no puedo comprender/ Estoy enloqueciéndome/ Cambiándome un pie por/ Cara mía/ Esta noche por el día/ Y nada le puedo yo hacer...


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