by Subcomandante Marcos, Illustrated by Domitila Dominguez, Translated by Anne Bar Din
Cinco Puntos Press
Well, one day old man Antonio is walking in the mountainous jungle of Chiapas with his friend Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos when he sees a macaw bird, its feathers blessed with each and every color, like a rainbow. The bird reminds the old man of a story that he thinks that his friend Marcos should know. It's the story of how the gods found all the colors in the world. Antonio sits down on the ground and begins :Once upon a time, of course, the world was just black and white with gray in between. Black and white and gray? The gods were understandably bored and angry, so they went looking for other colors to brighten the world for the people.
This wonderful folktale reveals some of the down-to-earth wisdom of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. At the same time, it provides us with a fresh perspective on the struggles of the people there. They fight to conserve their culture and a vision of the world which they see as flowering with holiness, a holiness that cannot be measured in dollars or defined by politics.
The text for La Historia de los Colores is taken from the communiqué dated October 27, 1994 from Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos to the Mexican People.
N.E.A. Couldn't Tell a Mexican Rebel's Book by Its Cover
March 10, 1999
New York Times
By JULIA PRESTON
MEXICO CITY -- A macaw with scarlet and violet plumes soars across the cover of a book called "The Story of Colors," inviting children to read a folk tale about Mexican gods who took a gray world and filled it with brilliant hues.
There are a few surprises, though, in this eye-catching bilingual children's book just published by a small publisher in El Paso, Texas, which won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Its author is Subcomandante Marcos, the political mastermind and military strategist of the Zapatista guerrillas of southern Mexico. On the inside flap, he appears in a photo with a black ski mask hiding his face and bullet-laden ammunition belts slung across his chest.
On Tuesday, the chairman of the Endowment, William J. Ivey -- who is working to rebuild the agency after its recent reprieve from a death sentence issued by congressional Republicans -- abruptly canceled the grant for the book. Ivey overruled a multilayered, year-long grant approval process, acting within hours after the book was brought to his attention by a reporter's phone call.
He said he was worried that some of the Endowment's funds might find their way to the Zapatista rebels, who led an armed uprising in 1994 against the government of Mexico.
Ivey's decision stunned the Cinco Puntos Press, a shoestring operation that had laid out $15,000 to print 5,000 copies of the book, half of which was to be paid by the Endowment grant. The agency canceled grant funds of about $7,500, which was to have paid for about half of the printing cost. The books are ready to be distributed and carry the Endowment's logo on the last page, together with an acknowledgment of "generous support" from the agency.
"This is spineless," said Bobby Byrd, a poet and editor of books on border issues who runs the publishing company with his wife and daughter from their home in El Paso. "This book is essentially about diversity and tolerance, everything the NEA is supposed to stand for, and they just don't have the courage to publish it."
"The Story of Colors" reflects a literary, sometimes whimsical side that has distinguished Subcomandante Marcos, the only non-Indian among the Zapatistas' highest leaders, from other steely Latin American guerrilla commanders. (His real name is Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, and he is a former university graphics professor.)
Mr. Byrd said he had made clear in his grant proposal that no part of the grant would go to the author, Subcomandante Marcos, because the guerrilla leader had declared that he did not believe in copyright and had formally waived his rights in talks with the Mexican press. Mr. Byrd said the Guadalajara press would be paid a small amount for the artwork.
In the text the masked rebel leader describes himself as lighting up his pipe, one of his hallmarks, and sitting down on a jungle pathway to hear a tale from an Indian elder named Antonio. The old man recounts how mythical gods grew bored with the universe when it was tinted only in grey, and went about inventing colors one by one. In the end they pin all the colors on the tail feathers of the macaw.
The bird "goes strutting about just in case men and women forget how many colors there are and how many ways of thinking, and that the world will be happy if all the colors and ways of thinking have their place," the text concludes.
The illustrations are bright, broad-stroked paintings of gods with horns and bug-eyes done by Domitila Dominguez, a Mexican Indian artist.
Spun in the sensuous tradition of Latin storytelling, the tale includes elements that might be controversial in the mainstream American children's book market. As the story opens, the text reads, "The men and women were sleeping or they were making love, which is a nice way to become tired and then go to sleep."
The double-page illustration shows a reclining naked woman in a sexual embrace with figure that appears to be a male god.
There are no references to the Zapatistas' cause or their military tactics, but in a cover blurb, Amy Ray, a member of the Indigo Girls, a Grammy-winning American song duo, says, "This beautiful book reminds us that the Zapatista movement is one of dignity that emanates from the grassroots of the indigenous people of Mexico."
"The most important thing is that it is a beautiful book," said Byrd, whose press specializes in bilingual children's books. "A lot of our stories in the United States have been cleaned up with a politically correct sentiment, and so much detail has been washed away."
He added, "I can imagine how someone would rewrite this for an Anglo audience," referring to non-Hispanic Americans. "There wouldn't be anybody smoking or making love."
"The Story of Colors" was originally published in Spanish in 1997 by a press in Guadalajara, Mexico called Colectivo Callejero, which supports the Zapatistas' cause.
Byrd said that he provided a copy of the original to the Endowment when he applied for the grant to translate it in March 1998. His first request, for $30,000 to translate a total of five books, passed two levels of review at the agency but the funds were cut back to $15,000. Byrd said he conferred repeatedly with literature experts at the Endowment when he chose to leave "The Story of Colors" in a revised grant request he presented to translate only two books.
Cinco Puntos Press (the name means Five Points in Spanish) received a written notice in February that the funds had been approved. The only step left was for the agency to send the money.
Ivey, the Endowment chairman, said that he was not concerned about the book's contents and had not seen the finished printed book. When he went over the grant records Monday night, he said, he became worried about rights payments, which the El Paso press had contracted to make to the publishing group in Mexico.
"There was an uncertainty about the ultimate destination of some part of the funds," Ivey said. "I am very aware about disbursing taxpayer dollars for Americans' cultural life, and it became clear to me as chairman that this just wasn't right for the agency. It was an inappropriate use of government funds."
An Endowment official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that it is very unusual for the chairman to step in at the last moment to override the work of several review committees, including the 26-member National Council on the Arts, which includes six federal lawmakers.
When Republicans gained control of the Congress in 1995, they were frustrated with the Endowment's support for art works they regarded as offensive and vowed to eliminate the agency. But the House moderated its views under election year pressures and voted overwhelmingly in July 1998 to keep the agency alive.