meet the next wave of DJs shaking up chicago's storied music scene

i-D talked to the DJs breaking down barriers in the industry, normalizing gender equality, and asserting their presence in shaping Chicago’s DJ culture.

by Michaela Vargas; photos by Lili Fang
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Jul 30 2019, 12:00pm

For decades, Chicago has been home to a rich club culture. Following the birth of house music in the Midwestern city in the 80s, pioneering DJs across genres from house to footwork and juke to drill helped put it on the international nightlife map. Although Chicago's club scene was born out of its diverse communities, the contributions of women and non-binary DJs in the city are often overlooked.

i-D talked to the DJs that are currently turning the tables and dominating Chicago, by breaking down barriers in the industry, normalizing gender equality, and asserting their presence in shaping Chicago’s DJ culture. Here's what they had to say.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

Chava

How would you describe yourself and your background?
I’m a Mexican DJ in Chicago, a fun-loving, energy-driven person that loves to be around people and create good vibes and music.

What are your main music styles and influences as a DJ?
I play a mix of it all, but I mainly serve the Latin community through playing genres of reggaeton, latin trap, bachata, merengue, salsa, and cumbia, but also hip hop, and R&B. Being Mexican and American allows me to blend both cultures in my DJing in a way that connects with other people who have similar multicultural backgrounds and experiences.

What obstacles have you had to overcome as a DJ?
I found that there aren’t as many women DJs serving the Latin community right now. It was important to me as someone who can relate to the culture, to break into the industry in that way, while connecting younger generations to the music that helps keep our culture alive. I also saw it as a challenge for me to express myself in a way that didn’t position me in a subordinate way to the machismo that I would sometimes encounter within the Latin community and the industry with women being objectified. So, breaking down those barriers and gaining the respect of the audience and my peers for how I DJ and conduct my business is important to me, to amplify that good work is good work no matter what gender you are.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

Alissa Jo

How did you get your start with DJing?
I fell into becoming a DJ. At the time, I was going through a break up and looking for a creative outlet to get myself into a new hobby. I’d aways been interested in DJing and wanted to learn how to be able to mix records at home. I committed a lot of hours to this initial mix I made, which told the whole story of that relationship, all the highs and lows. I really put my heart and soul into it and once I uploaded it I felt the sadness leave my body. It really showed me the power of how cathartic music and DJing can be.

I never really intended on becoming a performing DJ, but then the next day I had a club owner call me and ask to book me, so it was never really planned out it just kind of happened. The reason I’m still a DJ now, is because it’s still very much therapy for me. House music specifically, the genre deep house is very spiritual, emotive, and groovy.

Can you tell us about your organization?
Deep House Yoga is a live DJ yoga event concept. We activate monthly events in Chicago and LA, and we host events at yoga festivals and music festivals. It’s a fun take on the normal yoga practice. It’s like an art form and therapy; it’s really expressive and emotional to play the music. An aspect that’s important in mental health is to give back, to help other people, and go through those healing and meditative processes and sound journeys together. We also extend our practice to the community by donating a percentage from our events to causes like the Chicago Women’s Foundation which supports women who have been in battered homes. Adding those components have been instrumental in fulfilling my purpose of creating spaces for healing with one another.

What advice would you like to give?
Keep trying and stick to your craft. You have to stick to it and prove yourself to show people that you’re serious about it really being your passion and what you want to do. Also support the parties you love, don’t just email and ask to get booked, go and show support and meet people. It’s very community based, so being involved is important.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

Ariel Zetina

How would you describe yourself?
I would describe myself as a 28-year-old Latinx trans woman, DJ, and producer. I'm originally from Florida, but now live and work in Chicago.

How has your background shaped the styles of music you play?
I definitely had a strong mix of influences growing up in northern Florida. My mom was running a Belizean household in the middle of northern Florida. I very much got an immigrants perspective into living in a conservative southern environment. My mom would play Mariah Carey and Gloria Estefan and the idea of these diva’s doing their thing was super influential on me. I love the strong female voice over anything that sounds electronic.

I was also very influenced by the Belizean music I was listening to then, which are mainly punta, bruckdown, and soca. I had the country music influences which were huge for me and I listened to a lot of that growing up too. Emo music played a big part later in my teen years. There were definitely a lot of very different specific sounds that went into my upbringing. My first entrance to dance music was those late 90s Europop trance albums that had Amber's "Sexual" on them, which I got from my Aunt. That for me was the most influential to the sounds I do now.

How did your parties come about and how do they speak to the communities you're a part of?
Creating a space like my party, “Ariel’s Party," came out of necessity, around the time when vogue was coming back and getting popular again, leaving it’s very specific ballroom cultures. It was weird to a lot of us hearing those sounds with all these straight boys in charge of it at parties. We were going to a lot of the queer events, but not necessarily liking the music. Then, when going to some of the straight events, that perhaps happened to be playing the music we like, we didn’t really feel like it was a party where people wanted us there.

I always see myself as a community organizer because I feel like my work is really dependent on representing all the people around me that aren’t getting that in other spaces. All the trans girls who go out know each other. I think we all realized we were into a lot of the same music. Being that trans women are pioneers in the music industry, we wanted to continue that in Chicago with the music and culture that resonates with and represents us. Because our experience is not being shown anywhere, we can’t look to the same sources that everyone else does all the time. We have other sources, and I think a lot of trans women look to me for that, but I also look to a lot of other trans women to find what I’m interested in and connect with.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

Trqpiteca: La Spacer & Cqqchifruit

How would you describe your self?
LS: My DJ name came from "Spacer Woman," an Italo disco song by Charlie. I’ve always had my identity intertwined with music and a feeling of being an outsider, hence my DJ name which also speaks to me operating outside of the gender constructs.

C: I identify as a person of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, as a multidisciplinary artist. Someone who's a part of the queer community and communities of activists and organizers here in Chicago. I feel very fluid in my gender whether it be feminine or androgynous energy.

How has your background shaped the style of music you play?
C: Growing up in Miami I was exposed to a ton of music from South America and the Caribbean, which has a lot of influence on my sound now. Also, hip hop, Miami bass, and booty house always played on the radio and influenced me. There were periods I felt more counterculture to what I was hearing naturally around me, which made me gravitate towards more scene and punk music. The tropical rhythms, the freestyle, and the fusion between cultures which is so strong in Miami, are the things that haven’t left me musically.

LS: I was brought up with Mariachi music and the popular Latinx sounds of cumbia, salsa, and merengue through being raised in a Mexican family, who were huge party people and gathered often to celebrate different occasions. But during the 90s, house music was very much the pulse of the city and for me musically. I also had a dark side that was more fulfilled by industrial music.

Tell us about your organization?
LS: Trqpiteca is an artist duo and production company that is a platform for artists working through queer and tropical aesthetics with house and techno music as the foundation, to create a visual, sonic, and movement experience. At the time there weren't really any official queer parties happening in the South Side of Chicago, they were mostly happening in the North Side. So, we really wanted to bridge that gap and have the community come together to experience these moments in our neighborhood.

C: It was the winter and Chicago winters can be brutal and put you into a slump, and as someone from a warm place year-round I was missing that and getting kind of homesick.

LS: Me being from Chicago and used to it, I was like well in Chicago we brave through the winters and cope, so part of that was the inspiration for Trqpiteqa. To create a night where people can feel like they’re warming up their bodies and spirits through dance music and socialization.

C: We merged our sounds bringing in the warmth from tropical music and then the Chicago house, electronic techno grit. We played with the spelling of our name to emphasize being welcoming to the queer community.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

King Marie

How would you describe yourself and your background?
My name is King Marie. I’m a DJ, singer, creative director, and overall artist born and raised in Chicago. I come from a musical family. Both my older brothers are DJs and my Mom is a singer. She came to America from the Philippines in a traveling band when she was 13. She sang in cover bands, anything from soul, disco, funk, Motown, and 90s and 00s pop were all the genres that she instilled in me from a young age. She also had a restaurant and lounge and would often have me sing on stage and perform these songs—so music has always been the underlying subject in my family. Music is how we all expressed our love to one another and supported each other.

How does your cultural background inform the work you do?
For me being Filipina is not necessarily the core of everything that moves me in what I do, but I do feel like I hold this responsibility and platform. With that, I feel a great sense of wanting to put on for my people. There is a huge lack of representation of the Asian community in general and I find many people sometimes lack some of the knowledge or understanding of what our culture is, what our heritage is, what our ancestors had to go through. I own my heritage of being first-generation American, and having this narrative to share with my ancestors and future children to carry on our traditions as a way to share who I am and where I come from with the world.

Tell us about the initiatives you’ve championed?
I started a series called, “This Is What Asian Looks Like,” in celebration of Asian-Pacific Heritage Month to have a platform of representation for Asian creatives. In part, to break the stereotypes and assumptions of what an Asian person might be perceived as and to be inclusive of the diverse range of asian people that encompass the different countries we’re from.

I also started “Filipinx” as a subcategory to further the conversation specific to Filipinx identity and explore gender constructs within that. Fillipino is historically the umbrella term that inherently carries a masculine connotation, so it was a way to challenge that construct as we become more aware and inclusive of all gender identities in the spectrum and how that relates to Filipinx culture. Since we aren’t readily provided these resources or representation, I wanted to create a space that showcases our artwork and highlights our people, to celebrate us.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

Evie The Cool

How and why did you start DJing?
When I first tried to DJ, I realized it was very technical and I didn’t expect that the learning process was going to take a ton of work. At that moment I didn’t have much time to dedicate myself to the amount of practice it would require. Later, during a rough period when my boyfriend went to jail, I was very depressed and had a lot of idle time on my hands, so I was able to dedicate myself to practicing and learning. I credit DJing a lot for my healing because I’m not really sure what I would have done without it. I used it as a form of meditation through creating mixes and figuring out different transitions.

What’s unique about Chicago DJs?
I feel like women DJs in Chicago are very supportive of one another. I think it’s unique that we also extend beyond our practice or utilize our practice to create safer environments for other women by creating different spaces where women can express themselves and have better access to tools that facilitate their mobility and well-being. I find that there isn’t that experience among men in the DJ community, maybe because the need isn’t there as much. As women, I think we tend to gear towards supporting and uplifting one another in our communities because sometimes we’re all we have. We know how to get the job done!

What advice would you give to other women DJs starting out?
My advice is to practice a lot, and to recognize that DJing is an art and its therapeutic to not only you, but to other people. Understand the power of music and who you're affecting or reaching with it. Also, acknowledge what you could potentially do as a DJ not only for yourself but the people around you.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

DJ Lady D

How would you describe your DJ style?
I love a vocal house track, it’s really important to me to let the music speak. I’ve been influenced by gospel house. I love Detroit techno. I’ll drop some classic soul, funk, and disco into my sets. Sometimes, I’ll even play a whole disco set because it’s pretty hard to play and not something that everybody can do. The way I spin is very improvisational. I don’t perform sets that I’ve practiced at home anymore because I think it takes away a lot of the magic for me, and I’m trying to have those magical moments when I perform. You never know what the environment is going to bring so I like living on the edge.

How has the industry evolved since when you first started to now?
When I was coming up in the 90s, Chicago was all over the map and got a lot of respect from people in London and New York. It was a really cool moment in time for everybody during that big house wave, with a big sense of community. In the 00s, a lot of things changed. For one, the plethora of DJs that exploded and came on the scene. A lot of people wanted to skip the logical steps that made us strong as a community. That led to a lot of unorganized and wacky parties. It devalued a lot of the DJs that had been on the scene for a while. Clubs didn’t care so much for having a good DJ with a great skill-set. They started thinking more about “how can we monetize and commodify house music.”

House music came out of gay, queer, spaces of color, predominately on the South Side. For them not to have had as much control over what was happening and who or what direction House was being taken also played a part in the sound and soul of house getting watered down. Now, the South Side is taking back some ownership of what the space is. They've given house music somewhat of a revival in recent years. It was founded by a bunch of misfits who said let’s make community for each other. If they don’t want us in these clubs, if they don’t want us in these spaces, we’ll make our own spaces. It was a resistance and youth movement. The deep house kids and the techno kids now are creating those same spaces that are more of an underground community feeling to help each other.

How or why did the women’s DJ collective Superjane come about?
In 1997 along with DJs Colette, Heather, and Dayhota, we all partnered to form what is thought of as America's first all-women DJ collective, Superjane. We began throwing events together at various local bars and clubs. Ultimately, we grew the brand to the point of doing national tours. We formed Superjane to use our collective energies to take the mystique out of girls being DJs, to normalize it, as it were. If you see four women all throwing down at once, that idea gets reinforced rather quickly. Even though we rarely perform together anymore, (our last show was for our 20 year anniversary in 2017) these women became my sisters.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

DJ Tess

How has your background shaped the style of music you play?
I was born in Louisiana, so I had a very southern and somewhat rural upbringing with a lot of time spent outdoors. Growing up in the early 80s, my parents listened to a lot of soul and a lot of classic rock, like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dire Straights, and even Zydeco music which is native to Louisiana. When I first started collecting records, I had been living in New Orleans and I started collecting blues and a lot of acoustic and organic sounds before getting into hip hop and house. It helped round out my DJ sound.

How would you describe your sound?
My first blend was—hip hop Biggie Smalls and Talib Kweli—so my relationship with hip hop, with the boom, the bap, the bass, and the snare is what really catapulted me into practicing how to mix those kinds of sounds together in a cultural setting. I’ve discovered more funk in the last few years, so now I’m really inspired by disco, house, and funk, whereas before I leaned more towards, soul, hip hop, and reggae. Overall, I don’t really want people to be able to identify my sound. When people think about DJ Tess, I want them to think about a feeling that they have when I’m there and performing.

What makes Chicago so great as a city and for DJs?
I love the summers in Chicago, that’s no secret to anyone who lives here. There’s such a thriving pulse to the city. Lake Shore Drive lovingly called LSD and seeing that skyline is always magical.

You go around the world and people know about Chicago house music, so I feel like there's naturally been this kind of lure for me to explore that more in my time here. Obviously, the blues growing up in Louisiana and the whole Chicago blues and jazz relationship has definitely influenced my sound too. Chicago has so many influences based on where it’s positioned within the states, where it can receive elements from either of the coasts, or the south, and seamlessly incorporate it into it’s culture. That always surprises me in a great way.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

Selah Say

How would you describe yourself?
I’m a Southerner that currently resides in Chicago. Where I’m from in South Carolina, people have a certain way of interacting with other people through certain mannerisms and I very much embody that expression.

What’s your experience as a DJ in Chicago?
Understanding my sonic relationship with Chicago also means understanding the journey of a black Southerner coming to Chicago because that mirrors the Great Migration. I’ve always known about that cultural narrative and history, but I didn’t know too much about the aftermath of it. So now, in present day, with me having done a similar traveling path, I’m realizing that so much of that Southern culture is still alive in Chicago. That culture having been passed down through the generations, makes Chicago feel like the most Southern place I’ve been to outside of the South.

Tell us about your organization and how it came about?
Make Weekdays Great is a wellness and lifestyle brand where people are able to enrich themselves through community, food, music, culture, and fulfillment every single day not just on the weekends when you feel a sense of relief from the week. We strive to make everyday count by creating events and activities promoting healthy food, sonic cultural experiences, and offering advice on relatable encounters and observations that many of us go through daily.

From my family growing up there was always a connection of using food as medicine for certain ailments. I approach food from that vantage point, and I use that in my integration of serving both the LGBTQ and African American community, alongside DJing, as a way to bridge the gap and bring people in these communities together to promote health and wellness through music, dance, and food.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

Gemini Jones

How has your background shaped the music you play?
I grew up in Chicago’s North Side in Cabrini Green, which was a major housing project before it got torn down. There was always music playing. My music style actually comes from my family and environment. Everything I play is pretty Chicago oriented, juke, house, footwork, and steppers music. All of those styles are memories from my childhood and I’m just continuing to play it back for other people to enjoy now.

What inspired you to become a DJ?
I owe a big part of my music development to Rainbow Skating Rink. That was my first club, party, and turn up. Being there every Saturday listening to DJs like DJ Chip and DJ Clint, who are Chicago Juke legends, were my big inspirations. Then, when I was 16, I started selling mix CDs thanks to LimeWire— shout out to LimeWire! I was always the music girl from that point.

How did your organizations come about?
BPM Chicago developed because I felt DJs in the city needed a space to be able to practice, learn, meet, and share with other DJs across Chicago. It's a place to be creative by doing everything needed to thrive in house. Whether that’s branding aspects, having DJ sessions, or trying out new equipment. I don’t want to be a gatekeeper. I want to spread what I know to a younger generation and I want more women DJs come up in Chicago.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

Rae Chardonnay

What makes Chicago so great as a city and for DJs?
Literally the birth of house music. The dance floor is my sanctuary! I have a responsibility to make others dance with my DJing and I’m always dancing right along with them. In Chicago specifically there’s a soulfulness to how house music and dance music is made here. If I can find that soul beat in the right tempo, I’m going to play it. Being able to bridge older sounds with newer sounds feels much easier to do in Chicago. People understand and appreciate the evolution from then to now, with a respect that other cities don’t always get.

I’m always inspired by the people here, by the grind, by the hustle, the dedication to seeing life through on their terms—Chicago does that so well. In particular, I’m inspired by how black folks and brown folks in the city overcome the many obstacles that are thrown at them on a daily basis. Our social justice movements and activist movements are synonymous with the artists that are coming out of our city.

Tell us about your organization and how it came about?
Party Noire came about because we saw a need for a space that we were not getting in Chicago, which is a space that centers and elevates black femmes and black joy. Within that space, we further saw the need to develop more intimate programming that spoke to the needs of other community members that were coming to the party. So, we started various activities that spoke to those different needs like awarding our unrestricted annual grants to two black women, bike rides through the city, game nights, and a basketball tournament that was a fundraiser for helping victims of intimate partner abuse and sexual violence. My partners and I want to have a space with artist studios and an event venue to further service our community and create more safe spaces for women of color, queer, and trans black women.

As a woman DJ in the industry what obstacles have you had to overcome?
I don’t consider being a woman a factor as being part of this industry and I’ve always tried not to let that dictate or slow me down in any way. There are some times where some people still don’t take me seriously or they might be surprised still, in 2019, when they see a woman DJ which catches me off guard. It should be so commonplace for everyone and not some kind of novelty. I’m a woman, but I’m a human as well and my abilities are not dictated by my gender identity.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

Dani Deahl

Where did you grow up and what inspired you to become a DJ?
I grew up in downtown Chicago. I loved growing up in the city, and I’ve never lived anywhere else. I was inspired by a combination of things, but mostly feeling like an outcast in school and then finding raves, which was a space where I felt accepted. I have very fond memories around dance music because of this.

How did your advocacy work come about?
I fell into it, as with most things in my life. A big marker was when I did my TEDx talk titled “Women, STEM, and EDM.” Most dance music is produced by men and I wanted to break down why that happens and how women are just as capable in the studio. I got a lot of online vitriol after the video went up, but that made me double down, not back down. I knew if an idea as milquetoast as “women can produce music” caused such a visceral response from men then that’s where I had to keep poking. Of course studios are still not friendly places for women if many men are angry at the thought of us occupying them. I hope to inspire other women to DJ, produce, or engineer. And I hope to inspire men to make space and help create equality in the studio and on stage.

What has been your experience being a womxn DJ in this industry or field?
It’s been a rollercoaster, mostly because I have wavered between believing that being a woman informed my artistry and believing it had nothing to do with anything. When I started out, I shoved my gender aside. I didn’t think people treated me differently, but they did. I didn’t realize it until years later. Certain things occurred so often I normalized them, and it happened once I started touring. You need to trust a lot of people you’ve likely never met when you tour, and I assumed I’d have the same safety net that I did in Chicago. But I didn’t. Now I embrace being a woman as part of my DJ identity. I celebrate it and also work to eliminate that sense of being othered for women in music. That comes in a lot of different forms—providing tools for other women to succeed, teaching male allies how they can help, and frankly, having a zero bullshit tolerance and calling things out.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

SC

What inspired you to be a DJ?
Growing up, I was able to hear a beat and just automatically know that one song would blend really well into the next, not even knowing that was a skill or the logic behind certain BPMs matching well with each other. So, I think that natural intuition pushed me into wanting to develop that skill further.

How would you describe your sound as a DJ?
I wouldn’t say that I have a certain "sound” as a DJ. I love a variety of music and have a wide catalog of music that I draw from. With that being said, as a Chicago native, I have a lot of insanely talented friends from the city who are also musicians and artists. I love to play their work during my sets the most to expose new people to new sounds by our local artists.

Tell us about your organization?
Social Works is a non-profit co-founded by myself, Chance The Rapper, and Justin Cunningham. Our mission is to empower the youth through the arts, education, and civic engagement and to further support Chicago Public Schools. We address a variety of issues such as homelessness, mental wellness, education, community engagement, and increasing educational resources in the arts.

Within Social Works, I often get the opportunity to share my journey to children and young adults to inspire them to dream big and follow their dreams no matter how unobtainable they may seem. As someone who’s benefited greatly from the impact of different after-school activities and being exposed to the arts, it was important for me to be part of something that gives back. Especially at a time when funding for art programs were being cut and Chicago Public Schools were being closed down in communities that already experience so much disparity within Chicago’s allocated resources.

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Photo by Lili Fang.

Vitigrrl

What makes Chicago so great as a city and for DJs?
Chicago is so unique in its culture in the way the neighborhoods have their own personality. There’s so many different facets to Chicago that you can always discover something new within it that makes it feel like the city is your own. I also think that’s a main reason why the music created in Chicago is so unique and powerful. There are so many different influences that everyone can constantly draw from. We’re down-to-earth people that aren’t full of pretension and value realness, so respect is earned in a way that lets people know not to fuck with us, but we also have our arms open and are welcoming with our Midwestern style warmth.

Tell us about your organization and how it came about?
Peach Party is a brand and event series. We recognized there weren’t a lot of places for queer women to meet each other. There are no specific queer bars for women and any of the events that did cater to queer women were infrequent, so we decided to put our heads together and throw our Peach Party series, which runs from spring through fall. We play with a different theme for each event in hopes of providing a place that’s super inter-generational, super intersectional, and a safe sexy space for women to be themselves and us being the agents in defining what that space looks and feels like.

What would you like to see for the future of DJs in Chicago?
We really are at a time where things are turning, there are a lot more women, trans, and non-binary DJs getting more recognition and making a name for themselves. I think we definitely owe thanks to our recent elders who have paved the way and done the really important work for us. I think it's up to us to keep that momentum going and expand it in a way where we are vigilant about pushing intersectionality and recognizing who's being booked where, and questioning if there is opportunity for more diversity in a line-up especially if you already have a say— it’s our responsibility to keep expanding that visibility for each other.

Credits

Photographer: Lili Fang
Producer/ Wardrobe Stylist/Director: Michaela Vargas Caro
Assistant Stylist: Katrina Lake
Make Up Artists: Vicki Valente, Leatrice Lloyd, Alexa Mescudi, Jen Brown, Mavelyn Gaor
Production Assistant: Wojciech Powalka
Interviews: Michaela Vargas Caro and Jennifer Pham

Tagged:
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