Drab images of walls, fences, barbed wire, and lookout towers flash across the screen. A chyron displays the name of the fearsome prison. Inmates talk about solitude and the abandonment by friends and family they must deal with while doing time. But then comes salvation in the form of one of America’s greatest musical acts, dressed head to toe in black, greeting prisoners in their cells, ready to bring a voice to these voiceless with a concert.
You’ve heard this one before, of course. But no, you haven’t. Fifty years ago, Johnny Cash recorded the live album At Folsom Prison not just to sell records but also to bear witness to this country’s inhumane penal system. To honor that storied performance, conjunto norteño legends Los Tigres del Norte followed in Cash’s steps with their own concert last year and then, last fall, released Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison, an excellent one-hour Netflix documentary and a live album of the same name.
“We’ve always felt a deep bond with Johnny Cash and his music,” Los Tigres bassist Hernán Hernández says off camera in the documentary, speaking in Spanish as he readies for the show. “Johnny Cash’s music, like ours, is about those who struggle, the marginalized.”
In purely musical terms, Los Tigres’ Folsom foray works wonderfully. The quintet starts with a driving Spanish-language take on “Folsom Prison Blues,” a remake that lead singer and accordionist Jorge Hernández jokes was remixed with “a shot of tequila.” After that, inmates and viewers are treated to the greatest hits of a group that has dominated Mexican regional music with its accordion-driven mestizo polkas for five decades—and to a performance that loses little of the immediacy and energy of a live show on the small screen. There are interviews in Spanish and Spanglish with prisoners, but the music never stops. Play this as the soundtrack to your weekend chores, and you’ll do a two-step while sweeping.
But Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison functions even better as a sociopolitical statement. Fans and critics have long hailed (and assailed) the San Jose–based group for slipping messages about the worth of immigrants, Latinos, and the working class into inimitably danceable tracks. Like Bruce Springsteen’s, Los Tigres’ lyrics are openly skeptical about an American dream that requires you to neglect family and friends as you try to succeed in a country where the odds are fundamentally stacked against you.
In the era of President Trump and his immigration politics, watching Los Tigres perform within the confines of Folsom, under the watchful eyes of guards, makes their message ring even louder. The titles of the songs they perform before male and female inmates say it all: “La Jaula de Oro” (the golden cage), “América,” “Tres Veces Mojado” (three times a wetback), “La Bala” (the bullet), each a thoughtful barn burner.
The overall context of this performance makes the inmate interviews especially powerful. Los Tigres note that their Folsom audience is starkly different from the one Cash encountered: more than 40 percent of the prisoners are now Latinos, either immigrants or progeny of them who openly, tearfully talk about how their parents sacrificed everything just to see their children throw it all away. The men and women before us are the protagonists of Los Tigres’ morality play.
In one of the documentary’s most moving scenes, 51-year-old Manuel Mena, who’s serving 36-to-life for murder, talks about how he, his father, and his siblings once had their own norteño band and dreamed of becoming as popular as Los Tigres. “I killed dreams, not just mine,” Mena says as he tears up. “I killed the dreams of my brothers. I killed the dreams of my dad. I lost my family. The group ended.”
Mena’s honest admission segues into an inevitable, but still powerful, reveal: Los Tigres invite him to play a mournful accordion on their iconic remake of the Christian country classic “One Day at a Time,” to the cheers of the audience.
The documentary is simultaneously enjoyable and sobering, and the band ends the concert with a promise to share the stories of its audience with the world.
“We came here to bring light to this dark place,” Jorge Hernández says at the end. “It doesn’t matter their crimes. There’s the possibility of redemption for all of God’s people.”
For prisoners and Latinos in the United States alike.
Gustavo Arellano is a contributing editor at Alta and a features writer for the Los Angeles Times. His story “The Tomb of the Unknown ‘Wetback’” appears in Alta‘s Winter 2020 issue.