La Celda 27: The Unlikely Origin of a Popular Corrido

The Legend

There’s a Mexican ballad, “La Celda 27,” that used to be very popular many years ago. Perhaps one of the best interpretations of the song comes from Conjunto Primavera, a norteño band that played in the Chihuahuan variation of that musical style. The band itself was also immensely popular at one time, largely in the nineties and the early aughts when norteño music was still hot on the charts. Were it not for Conjunto Primavera’s rendition, the song wouldn’t be as popular as it is.

The song itself is purportedly based on an old legend dating to nineteenth century Durango, Mexico during the Porfiriato Era. The name of the song translates to “Cell 27” (as in jail cell) which, according to tradition, was in the Carcel de Durango located in the capital of the state — Ciudad Victoria de Durango.

As the legend states, the cell had a reputation of being cursed, because every prisoner that was housed there died of unknown causes. Locals affectionately called it “La Celda de la Muerte,” or “The Death Cell,” and as things usually go in dark Mexican folklore, the devil was supposedly to blame.

The story would not have had the longevity it’s enjoyed if there weren’t a hero involved. As the story goes, there was a man named Juan who was engaged to the most beautiful woman in town. In some versions, Juan is a teacher who accidentally shoots and kills an innocent bystander as he’s trying to save a group of kids from a rabid dog. In another version, he is imprisoned for standing up to the local hacendado (wealthy planter) after he tries to seduce Juan’s betrothed.

In the shooting version, Juan is sentenced to 20 years in prison for manslaughter, and seven years in, he is offered the choice of spending one night in Cell 27 in exchange for his freedom — that’s if he survives the night.

In the love triangle version, it’s unclear how long he was jailed for, but the story tells us that Juan — the stereotypical Mexican macho — chooses to spend the night in the cell to gain his freedom rather than spending life in prison.

In both versions, Juan — being a cunning and clever individual — asks for a stool, candles, and a box of matches. Using candlelight as his source of comfort, Juan waited vigilant all night to see what fate awaited him. Around three in the morning, the witching hour, he heard sounds around the cell, and as luck would have it, he was on his last candle.

Juan couldn’t make out what was making the sound, but he moved away from it and huddled in the opposite side of the cell. Around five o’ clock, right at the crack of dawn, he saw the culprit responsible for so many deaths. There it stood in front of him, the largest scorpion anyone had ever seen ready to strike at the slightest provocation. Why a scorpion and not some other terrifying monster, you ask? Well, if Durango is commonly known for anything it’s for scorpions.

On seeing the fiend, Juan instinctively grabbed his sombrero, threw it over the beast, and trapped it by placing the stool over his hat. Moments later, the guards opened the cell to check in on the valiant prisoner. The paramedics have also came porting a stretcher to retrieve the body they were certain to find. To the surprise of all, Juan survived the night. Directing the guards to the trapped villain under his hat ans stool. As he walks out a free man, Juan exclaims: “Yo ya me gane el indulto!” (I’ve earned my pardon!). This is the final line of the corrido.

In the end, Juan is a hero for defeating the monsters of his time — the privilege of the hacendado and the injustice of the law — and gets the girl. As Americo Paredes showed in his foundational study, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958), these kinds of stories are the source material for traditional Mexican corridos.

Our corrido periodizes this tale in the year 1880 (“por el año del 80”), during Porfirio Díaz’s first term (February 17, 1877 to December 1, 1880). Interestingly, the problematic years of the Porfiriato did not occur until his return to power in 1884, and even then it took some time for his authoritarianism to take shape. These facts run counter-intuitive to the subtext of the corrido, bu that’s not important here.

The point of this story is to highlight the authorship of this popular song. As stated above, the most well-known version of this song is from Conjunto Primavera. An online search for the song will exposes that it has been covered by many groups over the years. Some of the earliest renditions date to the early seventies. It’s possible that bands were singing the corrido in the sixties, but it is doubtful that anyone ever sung it before 1962.

The Corrido

Luis Miguel Garcia was born in the small town of Corrales, Durango, Mexico in 1925. He was a studious young man who graduated high school and attended university (possibly Universidad Juárez del Estado de Durango) where he received a teaching degree. In 1947, Luis married Otilia Marquez, and a year later they moved to the United States settling in Denver, Colorado.

Fans of the corrido have no idea that Luis Miguel Garcia is the composer of that famous song. Possibly homesick of his native Durango, he penned that song in 1962 as an ode to his motherland. Besides his love for his wife and family, Luis’s passion was music. He wrote over 200 songs, including such titles as “Durango,” “No Vayas a Llorar,” “Por Cariño y Por Amor,” and “Hasta Que Nos Lleve el Tren.” These songs were made famous by his son Luis Miguel Jr.

In 1964, two years after writing “La Celda 27,” Luis, Otilia, and their six children moved to Anthony, New Mexico — a town just north of El Paso, Texas. There, Luis and the family operated the Joy Drive-In Theater. In their off time, Otilia and her husband groomed and instructed their children in the art of music eventually forming several bands, such as Los Hermanitos Garcia and La Ritmera Garcia Band.

The only reason I know this brief history of Luis and his family is because, as a collector of vinyl records — in particular Chicano/Tejano music, I happened to find a record of La Ritmera Garcia Band, entitled “Cuidadito Con La Liberacion” (1978), in one of my digs. It was released under the family’s own label Durango Records, and the songs are mostly cumbias in the “Grupero” style. I searched everywhere for any reference to the band and the album to no avail. As an active contributor to the crowdsourced musical database website Discogs, my submission is the only reference to Luis and La Ritmera you’ll find on that site and online in general.

Curious about the band, I had been researching it off and on since I copped the record pictured above back in 2017. It was not until recently that I finally found something useful, but unfortunately, it’s an obituary. Luis Miguel Garcia died on December 5, 2019 surrounded by his loving family in Anthony, NM.

What brings this home to me is that I just returned home from spending a year as a visiting scholar at the University of Texas-El Paso. Had I known that the composer of one of the most popular corridos in the last 25 years was just a few short miles away from me, I would have requested an interview. It’s sad to know that Luis — who inspired generations of musicians through his music — went to his grave without the recognition he deserved. I just hope this brief expository homage will in some way at least give him the credit he’s due. Gracias por tu musica y tus canciones, Luis.

Conjunto Primavera Video: https://youtu.be/GrqgPzc_zWk

Sources

Baca’s Funeral Chapels. “Obituary for Luis Miguel Garcia.” Accessed June 23, 2020. https://www.bacasfuneralchapelslascruces.com/obituary/luis-garcia?lud=C6613BD9993EB91315913A4149A1D8C5.

musica.com. “La celda 27 Letra — Conjunto Primavera.” Accessed June 23, 2020. https://www.musica.com/letras.asp?letra=1282323.

Paredes, Américo. With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, 2016 [1958].

Payán, Armando. “Leyenda del Alacrán de Durango.” Letras, Reflexiones Y Sentimientos (blog), September 19, 2018. http://www.letrasreflexionysentimientos.com/leyenda-del-alacran-de-durango/.

Revista Buen Viaje. “El Alacrán de la Cárcel de Durango.” Accessed June 23, 2020. https://www.revistabuenviaje.com/conocemexico/viajemistico/alacran_durango/alacran-carcel-durango.php.

Scholar, activist, & history professor. Research explores Chicano indigeneity, Mex indigenist nationalism, Coahuiltecan identity, & the subaltern history of TX.