Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores

author: Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
illustrator: Domitila Dominguez
translator: Ann Bar Din
Cinco Puntos Press (1999)
grades 5-up 

This enchanting bilingual book for children and adults with the imagination of children is a story in more than one way. As told by old man Antonio in the jungle to his friend Marcos, it’s the story of how the world, born black and white with gray in between, took on a rainbow of color. For this, as Antonio relates, we can thank a bunch of cranky gods who got bored with the way things were so they went looking for other colors to brighten the world for the people. Red, green, blue, and on they go, finding new colors in ways both goofy and supremely logical. My favorite is how yellow was born: from a laughing child. One of the gods stole his laughter, making it the seventh color—what else?!

Today we see the macaw bird with every color in its feathers, representing this bright new world. As Marcos tells us, it struts 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.” With that reminder of the wisdom so often found in Indigenous cultures, the book says “FIN”—The End—in a swirl of pipe-smoke.

The illustrations by Domi (Domitila Dominguez), an Indigenous artist born in Oaxaca, are as original and unpredictable as the tale itself. Both refuse to romanticize, westernize, or stereotype the culture and worldview of Chiapas’ Indigenous people. Anne Bar Din’s English text is on the same wavelength; she is adept in her resolution of translation-defying phrases and presents no problems other than an occasional Spanish-ism (better than anglicisms!).

Appropriately, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos stays in the background while old man Antonio tells the story. But he is there in meaningful small ways: lighting his pipe, commenting on human idiosyncrasies, and dropping reminders that people often make love (“a nice way to become tired and then go to sleep”). The gods in this tale are often not godlike but instead bumbling and stumbling around. Refusing to be pompous, enjoying a light irony, the style of this wonderful story constantly reminds us of who the author is.

That identity gave birth to the story about the story. In November 1998 Cinco Puntos Press, a small publisher in El Paso, Texas, won a $7,500 National Endowment for the Arts grant after going through a yearlong approval process including several review committees. With these funds, Cinco Puntos planned to pay half the cost of printing The Story of Colors. But NEA Chair William Ivey abruptly cancelled the grant.

Ivey said he was “concerned about the final destination of the money”—meaning some might go to Zapatista rebels or Marcos himself (even though the grant proposal had stated no part of the grant would go to Marcos, who had formally waived his rights). Recent attempts by Congressional Republicans to eliminate the NEA were obviously in the front of Ivey’s mind.

But Ivey’s blatant censorship backfired. News articles about it appeared in major media and Borders put in an order for 1,000 copies of the book. Another grant came almost immediately from the Lannan Foundation, a public arts organization, and it was twice as big as the cancelled NEA grant. The book went back to press for another run.

Like the Zapatistas themselves, The Story of Colors has become a symbol of truth overcoming lies, courage overcoming cowardice, and passion overcoming prejudice. Ever since they rose up on New Year’s Eve of 1994 in armed rebellion against 500 years of brutal colonization, naming themselves for the hero of Mexico’s 1910 revolution, they have stood for all Indigenous peoples. They have also stood for the universal dream of human liberation and true democracy. Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, their main spokesperson, has been that most dangerous kind of leader: a soldier with the soul and voice of a poet.

The NEA, trying to disclaim political censorship as the motive for canceling that grant, said the book didn’t fit into the “mainstream” of children’s books. True enough—and grounds for celebration. Its originality, its voice coming from a culture so long ignored or despised, is its great strength. There may be parents concerned about the references to smoking or lovemaking. Without dismissing such concerns, let me just say: these cannot begin to equal the assault on young people by mass media images that equate smoking with sophistication, or love-making with sexual activity wherein somebody has to conquer somebody. Let parents talk with their children about these issues, if they wish, and never forget that this is a folktale—not MTV (thank the gods).

The Story of Colors is about the joy of seeing the world around us with new eyes. It is about the way that very ancient peoples can often see very far. It is about the holy power of harmony and balance among the many forms of life on our planet. It is a gift, this book: food for hungry spirits. Highly recommended.

We the orphans of opportunity
have dared to pass through the door opened by the Zapatistas
and cross to the other side of the mirror
where everyone can be the same
because we are different,
where there can be more than one way of living
where rejection of the present system
exists together with the desire to build a new world
in which many worlds will fit.

—from the Zapatista movement

—Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez
(published 4/19/13)

This review first appeared in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin (AltaMira Press, 2005). We thank the publisher for permission.

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