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In long black peacoats, the five men of the most popular norteño Mexican group in the world, Los Tigres del Norte, walked inside the walls of Folsom Prison—a maximum security facility northeast of Sacramento, California. They were walking the footsteps of people like inmates Luis Flores, Melchor Juárez, and Javier Dominguez—incarcerated men at Folsom who, like many Mexican music lovers, carry the songs of Los Tigres ingrained in their systems.

They were also walking in the same path that was walked by Johnny Cash 50 years ago when he performed his iconic song, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he famously said, to which he received wild applause.

To honor Cash and his career of prison performances and advocacy for prisoners, the group co-created with Zach Horowitz a Netflix documentary featuring their music and the stories of incarcerated Latino men. Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison, released in September, is also a way to highlight the lives of Latino prisoners during Hispanic Heritage Month. All the interviews in the documentary are in Spanish.

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“Nosotros somos Los Tigres del Norte,” the five men enter the scene, walking toward the greystone facility. Watchtowers loom ahead underneath an overcast sky. An American flag waves behind barbed wire, a buzzer rings, and the door opens as the band enters the facility.

Translation: “We are Los Tigres del Norte.” Like Johnny Cash, they truly need no introduction. Their global popularity and influence is immeasurable. “Los Tigres del Norte, I’ve listened to their music for as long as I can remember,” Flores said, with his eyes off to the side as if viewing his memories. “They’re kind of like the voice that tells stories to the rest of the world. The stories of ‘el pueblo’”—of the people.

Los Tigres del Norte fans at Folsom Prison wildly cheer at their prison concert.

Cash went on to perform many prison concerts and became an advocate for criminal justice reform—he testified in 1972 before a U.S. Senate subcommittee for prison reform to call for keeping minors out of jail and for shifting incarceration to rehabilitation. The Folsom that Johnny Cash walked through was different than the one Los Tigres saw on their visit—but maybe not in the way Cash might have imagined, or hoped, it would become. Cash might not have imagined that decades later California’s prison population would swell to the point where inmates would be sleeping in gyms and hallways, dozens of riots and attacks would happen every year, and the suicide rate would be 80% higher than the rest of the country’s prisons. 

He might not have thought that after decades of tough-on-crime policies like its three-strikes law in the 1990s, California’s prison population would reach 173,000, which it did in 2006. Folsom, built to hold 1,800 inmates, at one point housed 4,427. And while California has taken steps to reverse its swollen incarceration over the last decade, letting thousands of inmates out of prison or jail, the number is still at about 127,000. The percentage of Californians in state prisons has nearly doubled.

And another way that incarceration has changed in the decades since Cash visited Folsom—today 43% of all inmates in the state of California are Latino. Los Tigres brought special attention to the Latino population at prison by giving space for the prisoners to share their stories “de paisano a paisano”—from “country man to fellow countryman.” Their stories discussed immigration, families who’ve participated in the bracero program, and growing up with the music of Los Tigres. At one point, they brought inmate Manuel Mena up to the stage to play his accordion with the group.

The prisoners also shared their honest stories of poverty, crime, and the ways in which incarceration has broken their families. Some of them noted that they were incarcerated after committing what was their third strike under California’s three-strikes policy.

Another way in which Folsom has changed since the time of Johnny Cash—back then there were no women. Halfway through the documentary, Los Tigres introduce themselves at a separate facility at Folsom, where 400 women are incarcerated, and a quarter of them are Latina. The women shared their experiences growing up with immigrant parents whose long workdays sometimes meant they were neglected and fell into paths that included drugs, alcohol, and crime. They also shared their stories of their own motherhood.

Lorena Mendoza, who came from Michoacán and struggled with alcohol, depression, and being undocumented dabbed at her tearful eyes sharing the ways in which she plans on being a better mother and grandmother upon her release. Angie Medina, who was born in Mexico and came when she was a young girl, said she had her son while she was incarcerated and discussed the pain of being away from him.

They shared how the music of Los Tigres was meaningful to them because of their experiences. “They have always spoken for those who don’t have a voice, or for those of us whose voices are sometimes silenced,” Medina said. 

Los Tigres asked for some of their favorite songs: “La Puerta Negra” and “Golpes en El Corazon” are requested, and the women flip back their hair and partnered up for dancing when the band complied.

When Los Tigres played “La Prisíon de Folsom”—their version of “Folsom Prison Blues” to which they “added a shot of tequila”—it fit right in with the songs they usually played. Their music tells stories of immigration, hard work, love and betrayal in family, and romantic relationships.

Their music has been cited for its leftist sentiment and they have also advocated for political causes they believe in, such as boycotting Arizona for anti-immigrant legislation. “We have always felt a deep bond with Johnny Cash and his music,” said Los Tigres member Hernán Hernandez. “Johnny Cash’s music, like ours, is about those who struggle, the marginalized, and the voiceless.”

Johnny Cash played for prisoners and advocated for them because he believed in a future where they would not be forgotten. Los Tigres del Norte, in recreating his message, not only gave space for these men and women to share their stories, but also to imagine a different future for the poor, immigrant, troubled people who live behind bars.

Alexandra Arriaga

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....