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Jorge Nicolás Leal: Youth, Rage and Music in the Era of 187

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

Jorge Leal was 17 years old and an immigrant from Mexico living in California when in the spring of 1994 he first heard of Proposition 187. 

“The person who talked about it was a white teacher who taught English at the high school. She was a fervent proponent of the proposition, and that caught many of us by surprise,” says Leal. “To myself and my group of peers who were all recent immigrants to L.A., we thought she should be siding with us because we were good students, at least we tried to.”

That would be a defining moment for Leal, whose immediate family immigrated from Guadalajara but were able to get legal residency through other family members that resided here since the 1920s.

“My family was legally in the country at the time, but not citizens, and we had older members of the family that were born and raised here for generations that turned out to be in favor of 187,” he recalls. It created a lot of tension inside Leal's family. 

From the beginning, he could feel in his gut that the attack was not just really only against the undocumented, he says. He confirmed his suspicions when he saw the Pete Wilson for Governor ad entitled: “They keep coming.”

The ad shows people running the border between Mexico and the U.S. and jumping a fence. The look was grainy, and the voice in off was ominous: “They keep coming,” it repeated.

“That was such an afront, it felt so personal that it was speaking about me, my friends, my family,” says Leal. “The use of that phrase seemed to make it about every single newcomer to California, regardless of status.”

Proposition 187 was a ballot measure meant to deny services to undocumented immigrants and empower social service providers to identify "suspected" unauthorized immigrants and deny education and health care.

Close to 100,000 people marched against it in Los Angeles on October 16, 1994, the largest march that had ever happened in the city at that point.

Leal marched along with his family, and this experience raised his incipient political consciousness even more.

“My parents were from the generation that saw the repression of the Mexican government against any type of social movement, but this time we all decided to march as a family,” he says.

The family were legal residents at the time and not able to vote. “We needed to be part of this process.”

Another phenomenon that influenced Leal was music, the rock en Español, rock latinoamericano and the bands emerging in Los Angeles as “Rock Angelino.”

"That music became for us a space of politicization and solidarity because we were feeling under attack in our schools. We felt targeted and besieged as immigrants.”

Music became a “safe space”. Youth like Leal found themselves identifying with the lyrics of music from Argentina, Chile, which lived state repression and censorship. Rock from Mexico City or just from the other side of the border served "as the soundtrack for a lot of these marches and demands against 187.”

Local bands started emerging and reflecting the immigrant experience of the moment. María Fatal, Los Olvidados, Tijuana No, Ley de Hielo and even a band that existed briefly called: Victimas de la 187. Leal and his friends would attend these concerts and feel themselves in the music and the lyrics.

“It felt that those bands were talking about our experience.”

Leal remembers the increasing politicization around the immigration issue of rock Angelino and even Chicano rock and that there were many smaller or "pop-up" shows that became fundraisers for the fight against 187 or bigger performances in larger venues, including the major Big Top Locos.

“Big Top Locos is a festival that was held in the parking lot of the Olympic Auditorium with two stages which thousands of people attended. It was headlined by Rage Against the Machine, Tijuana no; María Fatal, Tierra, Lalo Guerrero, Tijuana No and the Midnighters, among others.”

Leal became a cultural and urban historian whose research centers on how transnational youth cultures have reshaped Southern California LatinX communities in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

It all began in 1994 with 187.

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