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“Immigrant Beat” Band MAKU Soundsystem in Conversation & Performance on Democracy Now!

Web ExclusiveJuly 30, 2019
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Immigrant beat. That’s how the New York-based band MAKU Soundsystem describes its riveting sound, which mixes traditional Afro-Colombian rhythms with Afro-funk, punk, psychedelia and other sounds from around the world. While most of the band’s members are originally from Colombia, MAKU formed nearly a decade ago in New York. They came to the Democracy Now! studio in 2018 to perform and talk about their music, including their new EP “5 Fuegos” on Peace & Rhythm Records.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

“Immigrant beat.” That’s how the New York-based band MAKU Soundsystem describes its riveting sound, which mixes traditional Afro-Colombian rhythms with Afro-funk, punk, psychedelia and other sounds from around the world. While most of the band’s members are originally from Colombia, MAKU formed nearly a decade ago right here in New York. MAKU Soundsystem has just released a new EP titled 5 Fuegos, which means 5 Fires. It features the song “Por Encima.”

MAKU SOUNDSYSTEM: [performing “Por Encima”]

AMY GOODMAN: That was “Por Encima” by MAKU Soundsystem. Well, they’re joining us here in our studio, the band’s vocalist, Liliana Conde Sierra, and bassist Juan Ospina.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Juan, talk about MAKU Soundsystem, when you founded it here in the city.

JUAN OSPINA: So, MAKU starts in around 2009. It’s the brainchild of the guitar player Camilo Rodriguez from MAKU. Since then, the band has taken a change. Right? We started about now six albums ago, and in that you can see the growth of the band throughout those years.

AMY GOODMAN: And you call it “immigrant beat.”

JUAN OSPINA: We call it “immigrant beat.” That’s what we call it. We are from Colombia. We live in New York. We’re in an experience that, in this Western reality of ours, fits in the immigrant sound. Right? We’re people from—who are trying to trot the world, who are traveling the world musically and culturally. So, that’s our beat.

AMY GOODMAN: Liliana Conde Sierra, talk about where you came from, how you came to help form this band.

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Sure. So, I came from Barranquilla, Colombia, and I migrated here in 2001.

AMY GOODMAN: When in 2001?


AMY GOODMAN: A significant year.

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: June. Yes, definitely. June, mid-June of 2001.



AMY GOODMAN: Three months later, September 11th happens.


LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Yeah. I had, obviously, no idea what was going on. Just landed, had just landed. Didn’t speak a word of English also, or barely. And so it was quite a shocking experience on many levels, as, you know, you can imagine. And coming from—I was, at the time—I turned 12 about a month and a half after arriving. So, it’s like a pretty pivotal time of just growing up and coming of age. So I feel like I was coming of age, partially in Colombia, and then landed here. And then, just like, my mind was like, you know, blown open by like so much culture and diversity and also so much complexity in the world and, like, in New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you, together with others, form MAKU Soundsystem. MAKU means?

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: So, MAKU, it comes from—it was inspired—the name of the band was inspired from an indigenous community who lived in the Amazon, and they were—they didn’t have any contact with the rest of Colombian society, or actual Colombian society, or they wouldn’t have identified as Colombians—right?—until many years of violence in Colombia reached their community, where they lived, and they were forced to migrate and like live in cities and wear different clothes and speak a different language than their own. So, Camilo actually felt, you know, related to that in a way, by us like being here, learning a different language than our own, and like saw a lot of similarities and took up that name, part of the name.

AMY GOODMAN: And MAKU, Juan, is initials—M, period, A, period, K, period, U, period. Are they really initials?

JUAN OSPINA: Well, no, actually, they weren’t. It’s how the—you know, we have been growing as we have been playing. And the moment where the name was chosen, we—that’s how it was. Nowadays we actually write a straight—MAKU, straight—MAKU, being sort of the association with the everyday people, with the people that come in contact with other cultures, and then you’re either in a dynamic to assimilate or continue to keep your own. So, and that’s—we’re sort of the ordinary people, the everyday people. And the soundsystem brings the celebration, the parties. There’s a party for the everyday people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go back to “Por Encima”—


AMY GOODMAN: —the song we started, in the clip, that you made a music video for, too.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what it means, Liliana.

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Definitely, sure. So, “Por Encima,” to me, the way that song came about, we were just jamming. A lot of this new album, it’s just a lot of the songs for this new album were born in that way, just organically playing. Somebody starts, and then somebody jumps on, and somebody jumps on. And I jumped on singing and like improvising. And what I was thinking at the time, and what I oftentimes am thinking, I like—I think I sing about what I’m going through, right? And so, I was singing to myself, kind of telling myself to not be afraid and, like, to open my wings and not be afraid to take flight. And that’s what the song is about. And—

AMY GOODMAN: It means “Going Above”?

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: It means “Going Above,” going above mountains, above obstacles or what may seem like obstacles that are also there to like help us grow and help us overcome and get to our peak—right?—our peak self.

AMY GOODMAN: You play it in Spanish, but can you explain in English what the words are, as we introduce it?

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Sure, definitely. So, the first verse talks about “No one can trip me. No one can trip me because I go above that. I just fly above that.” And then the rest of, it continues. “Above the mountain. You fly above the mountain. Don’t be afraid. And then spread your wings. I’ll light a candle for you.” That’s the chorus.

And if we showed—I think we showed a clip of the music video. I also just want to mention that the music video was a big collaboration with a crew of young queer filmmakers from Colombia, who live in Colombia, in Santa Marta, and who I was extremely excited to work with, because as a queer person in the U.S., I just couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be queer in Colombia. And so, running into them and meeting them and bonding with them over this song and this music video was a really beautiful experience.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it is a song to challenge transphobia, homophobia.

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Yes. So, very explicitly in the music video, and more openly and metaphorically through the lyrics, because the lyrics themselves don’t talk about sexuality or sexual orientation, but the music video does so.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to “Por Encima.” We’ll go back to it.

MAKU SOUNDSYSTEM: [performing “Por Encima”]

AMY GOODMAN: That’s “Por Encima.” That’s “Going Above.” It’s one of the songs on this latest album of MAKU Soundsystem. The new album is 5 Fuegos, 5 Fires. And we’re joined by two of the founders of the band, vocalist Liliana Conde Sierra and bassist Juan Ospina. Now, Juan, you come from Colombia; you live here. Talk about how you journeyed through New York, because of, well, the way your family migrated, which is an example of so many Latin American immigrants.

JUAN OSPINA: So, how to say this in a short way? I’ve always loved the idea of just being a musician and playing, like since I was a little kid. So, I heard the story of Jimi Hendrix, how he called his dad from England at age 16 and says, “Daddy, I want to be famous!” I’m like, “I want to be that!” Wasn’t quite like that. You know, there was dishes to wash, peppers and onions to chop, and work in three—you know, do all kinds of stuff, learn the language, try not to assimilate but to embrace, try to share, you know, as we learn.

AMY GOODMAN: Here in New York City.

JUAN OSPINA: Here in New—well, it starts in Rochester, New York. For me, it’s starts in Rochester, New York. I lived five years there. I come from Bogotá, Colombia. And my aunt lives there. She migrated to Rochester from New York City, as she would—after working for 15 years cleaning houses, you know? So, I—

AMY GOODMAN: A group of women moved?

JUAN OSPINA: A group of women moved from—you know, friends of her—to Rochester.

AMY GOODMAN: Puerto Rican women, Colombian.

JUAN OSPINA: Puerto Rican, Dominican, and my aunt being Colombian, seeking sort of a different reality than New York, because it became too stressful, too much working, and there’s no—you know? So, 15—so, I go there. I go to Rochester. I don’t speak a drop of English then. I hear your show on the third day, because I started working at this restaurant called Savory Thyme.

AMY GOODMAN: You heard Democracy Now! in Rochester?

JUAN OSPINA: I heard Democracy Now!, but I didn’t understand anything. So, there was there a person whose name is Peg. She’s like a second mother for me. And at that time, we were meeting, and, you know, she’s listening to that radio every day, and to your show. And then, as we get to speak more and more and learn the language and all this stuff, she starts telling me, “Well, this is good news. This is real news. Real news. You’ve got to hear it.” So, for me, the presence of Democracy Now!, it’s been since day third. So, that’s it.

So, music became farther and farther, to be honest. As my reality here started to sink in, working, it came to a point that I wasn’t playing any music anymore. Five years later, I had met the person, you know, my love, my partner. We moved here to her hometown, New York. And fortunately, I started to meet with this family. Little by little, you know, I started see in the parks Colombian music being played on the drums, and rerecognizing that. And in that rerecognition, I started to remember why I came here. And so, we decided that, you know—or I, personally, once MAKU comes in my life in 2009, you know, really early 2010, for me, I jump in, because I felt like I left my entire country, mom and everybody there, to go run an errand that I never completed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Liliana, talk about “Llama,” the next song that we’re going to play, that you performed here at Democracy Now!

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Sure. “Llama” is a really powerful song to me. The title, “Llama,” means “Flame,” or it can also mean “Calling.” And I think the whole song is talking about that, talking about the fire that we have within that’s calling us to do what we’re called to do, to do what we came here to do, whatever that may be. And I think that that’s always, at its root, aligned with what the Earth needs, which is also what the song talks about. There’s a verse in the song that goes, ”Cuando la Tierra te llama, tú siempre contestas.” That means “When the Earth is calling you, you always answer.” And when life is calling you, you always answer.

So, that, to me, I think, is a really important message to share, because we often forget, you know. I have been there, like coming here, and like I can relate to what Juan was saying, right? Coming here and just feeling like, “I’m not from here. I’m not from there. Like, let me just make sure I don’t forget where I come from and what I’m here to do,” which is, in this moment right now, to share this message.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go “Llama.”

MAKU SOUNDSYSTEM: [performing “Llama”]

AMY GOODMAN: That’s “Llama,” MAKU Soundsystem. And we’re joined by two of the founders. Liliana Conde Sierra is the band’s vocalist, and the bassist and singer is Juan Ospina. Do you want to say more about “Llama”?

JUAN OSPINA: I mean, besides what you said, I think, I think it’s right. It’s a calling. It’s a calling to keep on pursuing amidst the hardest, or the hardship of the times, the hardship of our times, of the each individual time. Yeah, there are very good lines talking about like—you know, we had the Allegra drum on that song. You know, that’s a diaspora drum from Africa and Colombia, you know? And it means the happy drum. So, we call onto the happy drum, and really the happy drummer, you know, to really give us his roll, you know, to cure us with that African power, you know, for we feel that a lot of in the music is an act of—I don’t know if it’s revelry, but it’s an act of joy. It’s an act of surviving. It’s an act of survival, of perseverance, to give culture. So that’s what it is. It’s a light. It’s a candle.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go on to “Yemayá,” but it seems, through 5 Fuegos, 5 Flames, the name of your album, is this idea of the Earth and the constant presence. And talk about “Yemayá,” Liliana.

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Sure. So, “Yemayá” is an interesting connection for me, because—so, “Yemayá” is an orichá from the Yoruba tradition. And she embodies—in this Earth, she’s represented by water—right?—represents water, and whether it’s the ocean, the rivers, our blood—right?—the rivers in our veins.

I think I, personally—the song came about just kind of organically, like I came in, and then like you guys are already singing about Yemayá. And I was like, “Oh, OK, I can get into this,” right?

Where I come from, Barranquilla, is a coastal city, that’s a port city right by the ocean. And it’s where the Magdalena River meets the ocean. So, there’s this place called Bocas de Ceniza, which means “Mouth of Ashes,” or “Mouths of Ashes.”


LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Which is where the river meets the sea, the the Caribbean, the Caribbean Sea, in the Caribbean ocean, in Barranquilla. And I remember my grandmother always saying, like, those are the places, where rivers meet oceans, with like the most undercurrents, the most like action is happening. And so, at the same time, like there’s so much action and so much energy in that space, and at the same time that’s coming from water. So, “Yemayá,” in this album, 5 Fuegos, is like balance for me. There’s like so much action going on.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the music, Juan, this combination that you have of, well, all the different, various forms of music.

JUAN OSPINA: So, I mean, the music has been—the most sincere answer I can give you is that it’s the communication between us as members who have been rehearsing every week for the past nine years. So, but there are things that influence us and things that we like. So, maybe not so much in this album, but in the ones prior, you will hear a lot of the Colombian rhythms from specific regions of Colombia being played on the Allegra drum and being—you know, we follow a lot of those traditional rhythms. But then, since the band is eclectic, to say somehow—right?—and is not really—we’re not projecting ourselves as—we’re projecting ourselves as a band that has individual—original material, right? So, in that sense, though, the rhythms are a lot of inspiration on what we hear. So, in this band, if you ask from anybody, we hear music from Haiti, from different places in Africa, you know, from—


JUAN OSPINA: Right. So, there is also our music as Colombians who have heard—you know, from the interior, from the coast.

AMY GOODMAN: Palenque culture.

JUAN OSPINA: Palenque, but also even—


JUAN OSPINA: —like, even ballads that make a difference in our early days, that our parents would listen to. You know, just, I guess there’s so many sort of influences that go into it. But the music that gets to be put out is—at the end of the day, is eclectic, is just—you know, Cape Verde is in there.



AMY GOODMAN: This is “Yemayá.”

MAKU SOUNDSYSTEM: [performing “Yemayá”]

AMY GOODMAN: “Yemayá,” the Yoruba goddess. That’s the latest album of MAKU Soundsystem, one of the songs. And our guests are two of the founders of MAKU: Liliana Conde Sierra, the band’s vocalist, and bassist Juan Ospina. Let’s talk a little about the album. You have this beautiful album cover. And maybe you can talk about it. 5 Fuegos, 5 Flames. Liliana?

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Sure. So, the concept for this album came about through a lot of conversations, and also through like noticing what we were talking about in the songs as the songs were kind of born around the same time, and thinking about—I personally have just been trying to tap into what lessons I can learn from the Earth, right? When these songs were being written, I was teaching an after-school program, and I was teaching—


LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: —in Jackson Heights, at my old middle school. So that was a beautiful cycle, closing a cycle.

AMY GOODMAN: Jackson Heights, for people who don’t know, is in Queens, New York, one of the five boroughs, and it’s the most diverse borough in the world.

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: That’s right. And that’s where I was lucky to grow up, or once I came here. And so, I went back to my old middle school, and I was teaching an after-school percussion class. And there was some space, and I started teaching an after-school gardening class, as well. So I was learning a lot about seeds. And I learned about these seeds that are resistant—not only resistant, but also reliant on fire to germinate. And so, we started talking about this, and it was a beautiful metaphor to kind of hang onto, because these are times of fire, like we’ve been talking about—right?—times that are difficult for us as immigrants or just for humanity, you know, for people, for the humankind and for Mother Earth, right? And so, we wanted to kind of latch onto this hope of the seed that survives the flame, and not only survives it, but uses that flame to flourish at the end—right?—to regenerate green and hope and colors and beauty and whatever may be under threat.

AMY GOODMAN: So, a fire in these very difficult times, Juan?

JUAN OSPINA: Fire in these very difficult times will only make us regreen, you know, out of the strength that comes from our identities, from our diversity, from our beat, from our rhythms, you know? Some sense out of that in these times of fire, so that the fields can be regreened.

AMY GOODMAN: Which takes us to your next song, in English, “If You’re Coming for Me,” “If You’re Coming at Me.” But, Liliana, talk about it in Spanish.

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Sure, yeah. Oh, you want me to talk about it in Spanish?

AMY GOODMAN: No, the title.

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: So, yeah, the title is “Si Me Va a Tirar.” That’s a brand-new song. That’s actually not even in this album. So, sneak preview. But so, “Si Me Va a Tirar,” “If You’re Coming for Me,” the song talks about “You better not miss. If you’re coming for me, you better not miss, because I’ll be stronger afterwards, and I’ll know where you came from, like I’ll know something about you.” And the verse of that song—what I was thinking with the verse was what makes me bigger and beyond whatever conflict I may be having, interpersonal conflict or like something that’s like just momentary, superficial, you know? So, the verse of the song says, “The winds tell my story. I have been here, or I live in the beginning and the end. And the mountain sees me, and she smiles.” And that’s because I’m tapping into that—right?—the power that is in being a universal being. So, like beyond what you may be trying to threaten right now, I’m bigger than that. I go—right? I’m connected to something bigger.

MAKU SOUNDSYSTEM: [performing “Si Me Va a Tirar”]

AMY GOODMAN: “Si Me Va a Tirar,” “If You’re Coming for Me.” And that’s MAKU Soundsystem, and they’re in our studio today, as we continue this interview and move to the last song, which is “Nunca Fácil,” and we’re going to talk about just what that means, with Liliana Conde Sierra and Juan Ospina. Juan, talk about this song. It’s not on the album?

JUAN OSPINA: That one is not, either. And so, we keep on making music. We keep on putting smiles in our face, and give sense to our lives, and we keep on making music as long as we can. And it means “Never Easy.” We’re also talking about, what is never easy is also not impossible, because, I mean, that’s—what else, if it’s not that, you know? So, the song, basically, the lyrics, what they talk about—I put some of those lyrics down, and it was just, again, just times of hardship, seeing—you know, when you start becoming sensible to things that are happening all around you. You know, it’s so easy to be desensitized from what’s happening around us, you know? But then you start focusing, and you’re like, “Oh, man.” You know, you see your closest sister in struggle, your closest brother in struggle. You see yourself in some struggle. And you say, “Well”—you prepare yourself for it. You give yourself a mantra, where you say, “Well, it’s not going to be easy, but it’s not going to be impossible,” when if you let your heart guide, if you retake your time, a little bit of your time, in these times when they’re just trying to make you work and work and work, you may be—you may own a little bit of your happiness again. And this is all, as mantras, as we strive to do the same, right? So, in a nutshell, it’s that. It’s never easy, but it’s also not impossible. You know? And—

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve talked generally, but right now, in this time, in this era of President Trump, I mean, the issue of immigrants being separated from their families—


AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking in a week that a judge, interestingly enough, who’s a Japanese-American federal judge—knows well what it meant for 110,000 people of Japanese descent to be interned during World War II in this country—has ruled that all kids must be reunited with their family, as we speak. The date is actually tomorrow.


AMY GOODMAN: And yet thousands of kids, we believe, have not been reunited. And hundreds of parents have already been deported. Your thoughts as you travel the country, as you sing for different audiences, Liliana, about the immigrant experience? I mean, you don’t even call yourselves just Colombian or Colombian-American; you talk about you’re Colombian immigrants.

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Yeah. Well, I think that—I mean, times of fire, right? So, this is—it’s never been easy to leave your home, to leave your comfort zone. Whenever there’s a crisis or an immigrant crisis or a migration crisis, we need to be asking what’s happening in those places, right? And I think that’s the narrative that I appreciate being present in Democracy Now! so much, and that is completely absent from any other type of mainstream media and attention.

To me, this—you know, the actions of this government, against families as they arrive here, are completely horrendous. They’re hypocritical, when we think about why these families are coming here and the roots of the violence in the countries in Central America and South America. I mean, coming from Colombia. Also, I mean, everything that goes unseen and that is not in the public eye is, you know, something that we need to be asking questions about, right?

So, going around the country and throughout the time of MAKU getting to travel and getting to meet communities and play for communities and share our music for communities, you know, we hope to—I, personally, I always hope to bring some energy and some light and some hope to these communities, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: I saw you performing. It was May Day.


AMY GOODMAN: It was in Bushwick. What’s it like—

JUAN OSPINA: Oh, you were there?

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, of course.



AMY GOODMAN: I was watching you, Juan. I was that one who was watching you, maybe moving my feet and hands a little bit. But what’s it like to perform?

JUAN OSPINA: Oh, it was great.


JUAN OSPINA: It was great. To me, to be able to perform—to me, to be able to play music is what really does give me some peace. Like, I feel like I would not be able to make sense of my life just alone, if I wasn’t being able to let some of it out through music and, for a minute, just kind of be able to to take this life, as an immigrant and families being ripped apart, black people being shot by official bullets because they’re black, you know, people being exploited under the excuse of a good economy, you know, people being miseducated under the promise of progress. People go to a hospital in this nation, in many nations that follow this nation, and if they’re not with anybody that care for them, or if they have no insurance, you can end up dead, in the place that they’re supposed to heal you. That’s the reality of our country. And so, it’s horrendous. It makes you, as an immigrant, immediately start to think about, “What am I doing here? And can they do it without us?” I don’t think so.

AMY GOODMAN: And it was the—when I saw you in Bushwick, it was the May Day festival, the Festival of Resistance. May Day, of course, such a significant time for immigrants, in the last years, when immigrants traditionally rise up, walk in the streets, demonstrate around the policies of this country. That went back even before President Trump.

JUAN OSPINA: Right, right.

LILIANA CONDE SIERRA: Right, right, right.

JUAN OSPINA: So, then, when you say even back, then you were talking about the foundation. The foundation of our nation has to be dealt with so we can have some balance. And this is for all nations. This nation, like many of our nations, were where the seed was slavery, was exploitation, was annihilation of entire communities for economical purpose. When there was a time for many nations to make amends, so communities that were isolated, reprimanded, killed, exploited, whatever, could have a chance, a real platform to grow, Jim Crow came. Whenever there is any type of flavor, Jim Crow comes—right?—saying, “We don’t want that.” But we still talk about freedom. We still talk about equality, when we actually do not act it. So, we need to come break that taboo. There are Latino communities, there are immigrant communities, there are black communities, there are Anglo-Saxon communities, who don’t get along still, and who need to get along under a fair system. But that’s where it’s at.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go to “Nunca Fácil,” “Never Easy,” you’re a dad. You’re a father.

JUAN OSPINA: I’m a father.

AMY GOODMAN: And your son Petro was dancing during your performances here.


AMY GOODMAN: What has it meant to have a child in this country?

JUAN OSPINA: Oh my god. So—

AMY GOODMAN: How old is Petro?

JUAN OSPINA: He’s 5. He’s 5. And I cannot imagine what any parent is going through right now, because I cannot imagine, and I’m—

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t think he could go to court and defend himself?

JUAN OSPINA: No, I don’t think he—it’s so awful. But then we walk and we talk about freedom. Freedom! And I’m not talking about the people who have fought, and here, us, grassroots like, for freedom, some kind of freedom to manifest, just that, you know? I’m talking about people who really use the word, such an atrocious way, atrocious way. I mean, we have real misleading people leading the world and speaking as they are the ones that know, the “experts,” failing at everything. So, as a kid, I will—my kid has the given divine right to be in this land. Wherever it is in this roundness for this land is a being, a mother, you know? I’m talking about the world. And if the small, myopic minds of a few impotent men are going to start to detain, to slow that, there will be music on my end. There will be culture. There will be a fight on my end, for love, for the love of love, of love. There will be love. No war. None of that they speak about. It’s madness, it’s evilness, it’s foolishness, what they speak about. Makes me want to do this [puts fingers in ears]. They don’t make no sense to us. But I’m not surprised, because our foundation needs to be dealt with.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to our final song, “Nunca Fácil,” “Never Easy.”

MAKU SOUNDSYSTEM: [performing “Nunca Fácil”]

AMY GOODMAN: MAKU Soundsystem, “Nunca Fácil,” “Never Easy.” And that does it for this segment of Democracy Now! Liliana Conde Sierra, the band’s vocalist, and bassist Juan Ospina. This is Democracy Now! Their new album, just out, is called 5 Fuegos, 5 Fires. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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