Jorge Nicolás Leal | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

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

Jorge Nicolas Leal: My name is Jorge Nicolas Leal. I am a historian, cultural, urban historian of Southern California 20th century, 21st century. The first time I heard about Proposition 187 was actually in a classroom. I was a high school student at the time. I was, and I'm still, an immigrant and that was in the spring of 94. There had been rumblings in 93, and I was a teenager so that was the last thing on my mind. But the first time I heard it, it was in my classroom and it was a white student- it was actually a white professor, teacher, who taught English at York High School.

She was a fervent proponent of Proposition 187, which caught us by surprise to myself and my group of peers who we were all recent immigrants to Los Angeles, especially because we thought that she was a teacher and she would be siding with us because we were good students or, at least, we tried to be as good students as we could, but then she would employ this message of, "We don't need any more illegal immigrants in the United States. They're taking away benefits that should belong to citizens".

We were really taken aback. I was really taken aback. Being an English class but English being my second language, basically, all the essays I did in that class, all that spring, was to try to refute that immigrants were a burden to the US, but that really accelerated my political consciousness of seeing people that I knew, that I was interacting with them on a day-to-day basis that were against immigration even though it was framed as illegal immigration but in essence, I felt targeted as I was a recent immigrant.

Also, I was a teenager that couldn't vote. I started to think, "How can I counter this? How can I also assert the dignity of immigrants?" There were rumblings before the actual proposition was put into the ballot, but I think we were not really thinking that that was going to happen. The tensions were between us being recent immigrants, what it was called an ESL student, English as a Second Language. The tensions were with students that were born in the US, and this was not only racial, it was also intra-ethnic.

Second, third-generation Latino students and Mexican-American students were also, at some points, either question our presence in the US, sometimes run into and say to us, "Go back to Tijuana", which is quite interesting because I'm actually from Guadalajara. There was this discourse that was already percolating in the environment. I think reflecting the demographics at the time that were changing, and that we were seeing a lot more recent migration from just Mexico, but also other countries in the Northern Hemisphere and Central America.

It started to get really tense in terms of us during lunch, during discussions, and as immigrants in high school, we did feel targeted. That tense environment that we saw as teenagers, was something that parallelly was replicating in the political sense and perhaps, the conversations that were happening in the homes of other students. My nuclear family, we're all immigrants. We all migrated together and we're actually fortunate that because of a long presence of my family in the United States since the 1920s after the Mexican Revolution, that part of my family had been born in the US, we were able to get legal status through family reunification.

I was a legal resident then, my family was at legal residence then, but we have other members of our family that were not, that had unauthorized migratory status. Those conversations with them, but also with family members that were, as I said, all that were born, raised in the US or have been in the US for generations, they were actually in favor of 187. That caused a lot of conflict within our family because even though they were replicating the rhetoric that the supporters of the proposition that this was meant only for so-called, illegal immigrants, we all felt that it was about all of us, the members of our family that were not legal at the time and also us as legal immigrants.

Some of us stopped speaking to each other, others, we started trying to persuade the people that were supporting 187 that it actually meant an attack on the whole community. I actually, as a 17-year-old, I wrote them a letter in my still very altered English to the members of my family that were in favor of 187 trying to persuade them through my letters that they should understand that it was an attack on all of us, and that we would like to have their solidarity not only for all of our family members, relatives or illegal immigrants, US citizens or undocumented.

The Keep Coming commercial. In a very visceral way, the first time I saw it- I would watch American TV to try to learn English or to understand how to better enunciate my English words. The first time I saw it, it was in a local TV station, and it felt that it was viscerally targeted at me, the Keep Coming. That ad was such an affront. It felt so personal that it was speaking about me, it was speaking about my friends, it was speaking about my family. Because it was so close-ended, it was really hard for us to be able to counter it right away but it, unfortunately, was very effective because I think it really persuaded a lot of the California electorate.

On a personal level and also a communal level, it felt as a straight visceral attack against anybody, not only people that have to cross the border in these unauthorized ways, but anybody coming because it says, "They keep coming." That's where I think that we can see the whole defense of Prop 187 has been on, it's only about unauthorized immigrants, not about authorized immigrants but Keep Coming makes it about every single immigrant, every single newcomer to California irregardless of their status.

I was a person in the march of October 16. Yes, along with my family and it was, and still, a very emotional moment because we come from Guadalajara, we come from Mexico. My parents were a part of the generation that saw the repression of the Mexican government towards any type of social movements. Growing up, I was dissuaded from being part of any type of political movement or any type of march whatsoever, because we were fearful and my parents were fearful of what would be the repercussions since they lived in Mexico during the times of this repression of youth movements, of labor movements.

All the way to- I was 17 here in the US, I had been warned not to be part of any political activity that required marching, but 187 changed it. Not only I decided to go march, my parents also made a decision that we would all march together as family because we felt that it was a time we needed to be part of this process, even if we couldn't vote yet because we were still just legal immigrants, residents. All the fear that we had, coming from Mexico or even the US, I had family members that were for Proposition 187 that they would say that, "Good immigrants do not march", or, "Are not part of this political mobilization." We decided to do so as family, so we all took a bus -an RTD bus then, now MTA- to downtown Los Angeles, and we marched together as a family. That was a very important moment in my political consciousness that became accelerated. Perhaps if Prop 187 would not have happened, I would have not become interested in politics or become politicized the way it was. It wasn't only me, it was in my family. Pushback the fear that they had of becoming part of a political mobilization, and we all marched together.

Rock in Español, rock Latinoamericano, however you want to call it. The first thing that meant for me and other peers here in Los Angeles, it created a place, and it created that congregated recent immigrants, not only from Mexico, but from El Salvador, from Guatemala, and also immigrants from South America, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile. The music acted as a conduit to create a space where, as immigrants, we would feel welcome, we will feel as part of a greater community of immigrants. That was the first part and that's what attracted me as a young person going to these shows and, of course, the music, and being around people of my same age, having fun.

As Proposition 187 came about, the spaces, the scene within rock Latinoamericano, rock Angelino became a space of politicization and became a place of solidarity because we were filming under attack in our schools, people that were older, out of work in just the street, we felt targeted and besieged as immigrants. The music shows became our safe place, our sanctuary, but also not only as a place for us to seek refuge but then, to start mobilize and understanding this, "How are we going to counter this? How are we going to respond to this, us as immigrants?" Then, we found in the music, which comes from different countries and different areas that had dealt with dictatorships, in the case of Argentina and Chile. The case of state repression and censorship, in the case of Mexico.

We found that a lot of the lyrics and a lot of the message in the music but also in the aesthetics, in the films around this music, in the literature around this music, was opposition-- it articulated ways to fight back against repression against auto-totalitarianism. In those lyrics, it allows us to find some sort of language of solidarity amongst each other, solidarity with people that have lived our experience in Latin America, but also allow us to find the connections we could with people in Latin America, with people in Baja California, in Tijuana, and people in other places to create music, but also to create spaces where we could articulate these political messages.

Also, the music, the rock Latinoamericano, serve as the soundtrack for a lot of these marches, serve as the soundtrack for a lot of our demands against 187 but also, our advocacy for- rock Latinoamericano serve as a way for us to assert and defend our dignity as humans, as immigrants in the United States. I would say that within the show, sometimes you would have bands talk about what just happened to them. In here, I'm thinking of Los Olvidados with their song Viernes, which is about an immigrant trying to find work. Going to a place and asking for work and somebody asking them in English, "Do you have a green card?" The narrator in the song saying, "Well, I don't even have a car, much less a green car." This understanding of not having the proper documentation.

Those were lyrics that reflected on some of our experiences, of not being able to find work, or not being able to be visible in this society because of lack of documentation. Other times I'm thinking of things that, perhaps, some of us lived in different ways that happened just before the show of being the object or the target of insults along anti-immigrant insults. Going to a show or by the securities, which were at the time mainly white, burly men at the venues and then, feeling that the bands such as Maria Fatal with their Ojotas y Suecos which is a song that discusses how everybody does this migratory journey once you get here, and you start working then, they call you that you're a thief of work for others.

Those are experiences that I think that we resonated because it might have happened to us right before we came to the show or during those weeks. Once we were at a concert, we would hear something similar to our experiences in the everyday of Los Angeles or Southern California in 1994, which was a time that we felt this targeting either on an everyday basis in our, either at work or at school. Going to these shows felt that those bands were talking about our experience, and in a way, we were trying to do commiserate about each other but also understand that we were together in this, trying to see how we're going to articulate our response, our fight to it.

As cultural producers, bands and musicians sometimes are at the forefront of in terms of what's changing in society, what's changing in politics, and I think that particularly the bands that were composed of immigrant members here in Los Angeles, or people that were such as Tijuana No! that went back and forth in the words, really understood what was going on even before 187 came about. The anti-immigrant sentiment that we see in 94, it's a crescendo that had already happened in the years before. The sound and the lyrics that we hear by bands like Tijuana No! like Maria Fatal, Los Olvidados, Ley de Hielo that are created during that time, have [unintelligible 00:17:26] qualities. One it is the viscerality, the almost rawness so a lot of the-- it's using accelerated almost punk beats to their music because that's how we felt.

We were clenching our teeth constantly, not only at the shows as we were moshing or pogoing. That was how we felt outside in our everyday lives. That's the music, the music had that rawness but that intensity a couple with the lyrics. Were chronicles of immigrant mistreatment, of living as an immigrant in this very racialized and very tense city between 92 and 94. 92 being the Los Angeles riots, and 94 Proposition 187. Those lyrics capture those tensions and those lyrics capture also how immigrants were feeling at the time and also, how they were being targeted by these xenophobic and racist forces.

Rock Angelino in the early music landscape was the way it has been for people of color, segregated. It was segregated because of language, it was primarily sung in Spanish, but also because of most of the members of the band. Rock Angelino and also their audience were immigrants, first-generation immigrants. At the time that's where it was segregated in, primarily, immigrant neighborhoods, in Southeast Los Angeles with, perhaps, a couple of places where one could go in Central Los Angeles. It was separated from the Chicano rock scene because it was mostly sung in English, and so there was that tension. Much less it was very far from the 1990s rock alternative-mainstream, white rock alternative.

What changed in 94 is that the scenes of rock Angelino, which as I said it was primarily immigrant and sung in Spanish, started coalescing, started creating solidarities with the rock Chicano that had not quite figured out what to do with rock Angelino, but because of this trend that was 187 was supposed to be, not only as a policy but how it was creating this anti-immigrant environment, but anti-Latino environment because they keep coming, man, all of us we keep being here in California. He created these solidarities that had not been prensent in the past.

You start seeing bands such as then punk veterans as Los Illegals, Chicano punk veterans Los Illegals started to pay attention and also collaborating with this rock Angelino bands that were composed of immigrants, some of them perhaps having at the time just a very basic understanding of English. Then you start seeing those connections and those solidarities and shows happening together.

Those two crowds, the crowd of Chicano rock, which was primarily second, third generation, started going to shows by rock Angelino bands. It wasn't only just about the music, but it was about the political awareness and this shared identity along ethnicity, understanding themselves as this pan-Latino identity. Also, that the music had a message. [unintelligible 00:21:01] rock and rock Angelino started developing a higher more acute political message at the time.

During Prop 187, Maria Fatal was at the forefront of rock Angelino, it was one of the best-known bands. They get to be signed by Aztlan Records, an indie label that was releasing records by US base Latino bands. Maria Fatal was really a favorite during 187, as their lyrics and also the political activity that members engage was in solidarity with immigrants. Also they had a very define social consciousness to their lyrics.

They have songs such as Ojatas y Suecos, which discusses this immigrant journey and what immigrants in the US confront once they're here. The rejection, the scapegoating of immigrants, that's in their songs. Also, Maria Fatal begins to create bridges between the rock Angelino scene and the Chicano scene. Maria Fatal is invited to perform in Big Top Locos, which is this festival that becomes this anti-187 music festival event just a couple weeks before the election.

Their part of a line of that was primarily a Chicano lineup with LA bands, such as reaching as Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hills, along with [unintelligible 00:22:49] of Chicano bands, but then Maria Fatal along with Tijuana No! become the representatives of Latin American rock in this festival. Their cultural production of Maria Fatal at this time it is quite pivotal as they were responding to 187, but also they were asserting the humanity and dignity of immigrants through their lyrics and also throught their videos.

Los Olvidados it is also a rock Angelino band that comes of age during the 187 times, they start playing in '92, but by '94 a lot of their lyrics deal with the immigrant experience. They use a lot of their humor in their lyrics to try to dispel the notion that immigration is an easy process, they actually countered that. In some of their songs, they even question why is it that we migrated because we're being treated so badly. In others, they counter the notion of assimilation, how assimilation is required to immigrants, but it's almost impossible to incorporate as immigrants are constantly being pushed out of American society.

Also, Los Olvidados what they do with their cultural production with their lyrics it is also to point out how Mexico and other countries in, by extension, had expelled immigrants and then completely forgotten about them. This is why they take their name. Los Olvidados, the forgotten ones because they're forgotten in their country. Once they migrate and they've even seen as traitors, but then in the US, they're forgotten as members of society. The lyrics, the cultural production that Los Olvidados do, I reflect on those times.

People that would go and see them or would listen to their songs really took on that message. They even tie and question the force of migration all the way to colonization. This is in a three to four minutes song, which is quite brilliant. Along with my Maria Fatal, Los Olvidados are able to find an audience not only in rock Angelino with immigrants, but also second, third generations, so they become quite popular on college campuses particularly with Latino-Chicano, our student organizations.

Other two bands that were also favorite was Ley del Hielo, whose lyrics are a little bit more simplistic, but they discuss Pete Wilson in derisive ways, but as a way of this very raw response to Pete Wilson in their lyrics. Eclipse, one of the first rock Angelino bands that gets a chance to record a record, their first, let's call, hit or their first single from the record is actually called Que Triste Vive Mi Gente En Los Estados Unidos. How sad my people live in the US. Is this critique of, again, the unfulfilled promise for my immigration, the hard work that it takes to be a migrant.

Eclipse also questions, makes visible the tension between immigrants and second-third generation Latinos in the US, which is something that we would see during Proposition 187. It's really taken together Maria Fatal, Los Olvidados, Ley del Hielo, Eclipse. During this time and with their songs, with their videos and their performances, they become the chroniclers of the immigrant experience. Not only as, "This is how bad this is", but also, they try to articulate our response to how immigrants could fight back against this nativism that they were experiencing.

Tijuana No! it is a band that, obviously is from Tijuana, Mexico. The presence of Tijuana No! in Los Angeles extends throughout the 1990s and the 2000s because as people living in the border, they understood the forces of racism in ways that perhaps other bands in other parts of Latin America didn't quite understand in the same way, so it took them a little more. Tijuana No! because of many of their members, in particular, Luis Guereña being part of first the punk scene, the borderlands punk scene, he knows and he's connected to different circuits. He understands US society in very keen way.

The lyrics of Tijuana No! definitely discuss racism in the US. Also discuss the process of immigration in the border. In their songs, they also extend and share their solidarity to people that have been marginalized throughout the US, Mexico, and other parts of the world. Not only their lyrics become quite potent during 187 to denounce racism today and denounce xenophobia, but also their constant presence in Los Angeles, it was meaningful to see Tijuana No!, a Mexican band, talking about these issues, extending their solidarity to immigrants and to US Latinos at the time

They're also part of Big Top Locos, this show created by the cultural clash. The Mexican presence in Big Top Locos. The lyrics of Tijuana No! and the presence of Tijuana, their constant shows in Southern California extend that solidarity to immigrants. Their songs become the soundtrack of how that solidarity can extend across borders in just very strong ways or simplistic ways to fight back against racism.

Víctimas de la 187, or Victims of 187. It is a band, an LA band, a Los Angeles-based band that it's created by members in the aftermath 187. They have a punk rhythm and the message was their lyrics were talking about how immigrants were not going to be affected, what we were thinking before 187, but how they were already being affected as 187 was passed into law.

It is unfortunate that there's very few documents besides flyers, and perhaps a couple of songs recorded here and there from them. What we've seen just even in archival evidence of this band that was around from 94 to 97 or so, or perhaps a little later in the '90s. It is that they understood that their role in the music scenes in Los Angeles was to make visible who were the victims of these policies, even if 187 was held up in court. You would see Víctimas de la 187 playing alongside other bands that were also politically conscious. Both in the rock Angelino scene, in the rock urbano scene, which is a scene that draws more from punk and metal, and it's primarily followed by people from Mexico City.

Rock Angelino being followed by immigrants from different parts. Also, they were involved in punk shows and in socially conscious spheres. These socially conscious spheres that were bands like Ozomatli would then emerge from. Even in their brief existence as Víctimas de la 187, it is important to see how cultural production in these bands were being created, and what message they were being articulated in the time after 187.

In the time before, during, and after the electoral campaign of November 1994 that saw the approval of 187, you do see not only the articulation of messages through lyrics or people going to shows, but that these immigrant communities that were part of this music cultures. The rock Angelino music cultures actually mobilize in strategic and concrete ways to respond to 187. There were shows that were created, there were fundraisers that were created. These, at the very small scale of a tocada, of a gig that would happen in what I call, the [unintelligible 00:32:44] forum, so improvised places where people would charge five bucks, and half of them would go to an organization that was working against 187. That at the grass-root level.

At the larger level, you saw in almost very spontaneous ways, larger concerts or larger fundraisers being created to fundraise for the campaign against 187, and also for all members that would need, perhaps some financial support. From here as a fundraiser, you do see one show that becomes quite iconic in the history of, perhaps Chicano rock and also rock Angelino, which is Big Top Locos. First of all, that becomes even bigger than I think that, perhaps, the organizers thought, it is this festival in the grounds -in the parking lot really of the Olympic auditorium that has two stages. As it's being publicized, you see in the flyers this very sharp political message, "Rebuke against 187. Rebuke against Wilson", and the assertion of the immigrant rights, and the immigrant identity.

That becomes a large [unintelligible 00:34:05] festival that is aimed to raise funds for one, the campaign against 187, and then, the legal defense that would come after 187. That is a show that thousands of people attend. It's headlined by Rage Against the Machine, Tijuana No! And Maria Fatal. You do see this mobilization, not only in the realm of cultural production but actual material that bans promoters, organizing to fundraise to support the campaign against 187 and also, support the legal campaign that would follow after 187.

For us immigrants, particular young immigrants that were fans of Rage Against the Machine. It was the first time that we saw a band where we saw ourselves by looking at Zack de la Rocha as being this young guy that was being fairly successful in the early '90s and had a Spanish surname. Then, we learned that his father was a Chicano artist and activist. We had empathy already for him. We understood that some of their lyrics were political, but it wasn't until 187 where we understood that Zach de la Rocha by extension, Rage Against the Machine, as a collective, were in full solidarity with us.

That was a very powerful moment. We felt seen, we felt supported by the band, and that their lyrics were specifically talking about what we're feeling. That was the moment that we understood there was this solidarity between Chicanos and recent immigrants or immigrants. The Rage Against the Machines when they played Big Top Locos, we were all very excited that they were there. That they were supporting. That they were actually so explicitly in our side as immigrants but then, they play songs that they hadn't play. I think that they started playing songs like The Man Without a Face.

During that event, I think that song had a very particular meaning and we understood it. We understood that was the soundtrack for us to keep the fight, the politicization, the mobilization that we needed to do through those songs. For us immigrants, and I think for people that listen to music, trying to find that language and that response during 187. Rage Against the Machine, their lyrics, and their presence, their constant presence at the frontlines of the marches of the music festivals became very important for us. You felt that somebody that had attained American fame and recognition in American rock and in American society, not only saw us, they understood that we were part of the same community, and they were singing songs that related to our struggle at the time at the time, and at a time where we didn't see much of that elsewhere.

Big Top Locos became rather than a watershed moment, a unifying moment. I think that it just happened by a coincidence and confluence of conditions. The fact that you had a lot of the big LA bands at the time, such as Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hills, along with bands like Tijuana No! Maria Fatal, and also other bands from Southern California, coming together, also became this moment of solidarity between later-generation Mexican Americans, or Latinos, Chicanos, with recent immigrants, and also white progressives coming together in one show to one, express our repudiation against 187, but also for us to imagine a way forward as a collective community.

In previous times, we were divided along our citizenship status, "Are you a citizen? Or are you an immigrant?" Then, perhaps, "I don't trust you." This is the time where, as a community, first, ethnically between Chicanos and recent immigrants, it became a moment of solidarity, but also politically. It wasn't only ethically. Politically, you had people that understood, that felt that humanity and citizenship shouldn't be constrained to this very narrow constrict, but how all of us could be part of Los Angeles and all of us are part also of California. Hopefully, all of us are part of the US irregardless of our race, irregardless of our gender, irregardless of our citizenship or legal status. That expansion of what it is to belong I think it started germinating, it started percolating in Big Top Locos, in this festival.

A long other places such as the marches, but I think that Big Top Locos created by culture clash provided that space where we saw those solidarities on the ground by perhaps, listening to music. That then, were generated and replicated elsewhere. Not only during 94, but in the years after when we started seeing the expansion of membership in Los Angeles, in California, but also this expansion of solidarity that then, we see in the decades after. The Big Top Locos line up, it consisted of Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hills, which were the mainstream bands. You also had this very established Chicano bands such as The Midnighters, Tierra, the elder of Chicano music, Lalo Guerrero, alongside Tijuana No! From Baja, California, and rock Angelino on Maria Fatal.

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

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

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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