The Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores

A Bilingual Folktale from the Jungles of Chiapas



By: Subcomandante Marcos
Illustrator: Domitila Domínguez
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.
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Read about the whirlwind controversy behind The Story of Colors

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. Originally published in Mexico with illustrations by Domitila DomÕnguez as La Historia de los Colores © 1996 by Colectivo Callejero, Guadalajara.

Listen to the special report from NPR: National Public Radio about the National Endowment for the Arts and their cancellation of the grant for the publishing of this book because it is written by Subcomandante Marcos, of the Mexican Zapatista guerilla movement.

Read the New York Times article about the NEA canceled the grant to publish The Story of Colors.


The Story Behind the Story of Colors

On March 9, 1999, the National Endowment for the Arts informed Cinco Puntos Press that it was revoking funding for a storybook written by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos of Mexico’s Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The storybook was illustrated by indigenous artist Domitilia Domínguez.

Funding had been approved by the NEA in November 1998. After reviewing a copy of the manuscript and a biography of the author, the NEA budgeted $7,500 for the publication of The Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores: A Bilingual Storybook from the Jungles of Chiapas, whose release date has been moved up to March 18. But after a call from New York Times reporter Julia Preston on March 8, NEA chairman William Ivey, personally canceled the part of the grant that supported the publication of this book.

The NEA has been involved in a series of funding battles with Congress, generally over issues of sexuality and obscenity. Mr. Ivey’s cancellation of the grant represents the first time that the NEA has censored an art project dealing with cultural diversity.

Cinco Puntos Press is grateful to the Lannan Foundation for their generous support of The Story of Colors. They stepped in when we needed it. ¡Muchísimas gracias!


America Happened to Us.


A commentary by publisher Bobby Byrd

On Monday March 8, Julia Preston of the Mexico City Bureau of The New York Times interviewed me by phone about a bilingual storybook we had just published, The Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores. She found it curious and delightful. The book is a Mayan legend about how a bunch of gods went out and found all the colors in the world. Julia, being a correspondent in Mexico, was very interested in the author: Subcomandante Marcos, the most well known leader of the Zapatistas, who walked out of the jungles of Chiapas on New Year’s morning 1994, and made war on the Mexican government.

We talked a long time, Julia and I, about many different subjects. But Preston also was curious about the fact that Cinco Puntos had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for a book by a revolutionary. I told her that Cinco Puntos bought the rights from the Mexican publisher, Colectivo Callejero, which had published the book in Mexico. The writings of Marcos, I reminded her, are in the public domain. He has given up copyright. I told her the NEA has a long and proud history of publishing important works in translation. Indeed, the NEA’s purpose is to support and encourage diversity in the arts. There was nothing particularly unusual about this book.

So she called the NEA to verify facts and to ask several questions. The next day, Bill Ivey, the chairperson of the NEA, rescinded funding for The Story of Colors. Ignoring two review panels, he made the decision, as they say in Washington, "unilaterally." He was worried, he told the press, that NEA funds might end up in the hands of the Zapatistas. But Cherrie Simon, a public relations person at the NEA, told me the night before that what the NEA was really worried about was the Washington Times, the newspaper owned by the Reverend Moon and which is oft-quoted by right-wing talk-babblers Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy.

When Bill Ivey informed Julia Preston of his decision, she was upset and contrite. She called me up to apologize. Cinco Puntos was out $7,500. She asked me how I felt about his action. Angry, I said. Ivey’s decision was spineless and cowardly. He caved in before there was any pressure. The next day, because of Bill Ivey, Cinco Puntos Press and The Story of Colors were on the front page of The New York Times.

The phone started ringing before the sun came up, and it didn’t stop for three days. During that time, between our distributor and ourselves, we sold out of the first printing of 5,000 copies, and we started selling the second printing of 8,000. The Lannan Foundation—the same organization that stepped forward to fund the Mapplethorpe exhibition after it too had lost funding—promptly offered to reimburse us for the money lost. In fact, they doubled it. The story made the major papers across the nation, and it also became big news in Mexico. It was a strange media frenzy, a true boon to Cinco Puntos. But real ideas and issues got lost in that frenzy, the most important of which is the indigenous struggle for autonomy and land in Chiapas.

Also not be forgotten is the chilling message that Ivey’s action sends to artists and arts organizations in the United States. For the last 30 years the NEA has been a major player in a great flowering of literary expression in this country. For the first two thirds of the century, our literature was dominated by a monolithic structure rooted in universities and New York City media. Then, poets and writers from all sorts of diverse communities—African American, women, Latino/a, Native American, Gay and Lesbian, simply geographically or ideologically isolated communities, etc.—started clamoring for national attention. With the new technologies at hand, people were up all night after their day jobs putting together important books.

Meanwhile, the Endowment made the diversification of its peer review panels a basic tenet of its philosophy. It was a courageous and truly democratic endeavor. The panels became multicultural, they became multi-racial, they became multi-ideological. Alternative presses in supposedly backwater communities like El Paso began to receive funding, and readers throughout the United States began to read and hear different voices. But all these voices speaking at once is contrary to the body politic. Politicians from the right wing, those like William Bennett who staunchly believe in maintaining the purity of inherited European traditions and ideas, began to ask questions. They worried that the monolith was crumbling.

Indeed, it was.

But the NEA and its supporters responded with their own simple question: Why not? This is America, this is a democracy. In the last few years, however, the NEA’s critics became more and more vociferous and powerful. The right wing Republican Congress, apprehensive of multiculturalism and its political dissonance, began chopping away at the NEA’s funding, threatening even to dismantle the organization altogether. Bill Clinton whimpered and let them do what they wanted. Ivey was hired in 1998 to chair the NEA, and immediately he began to hear demons in the hallways.

After telling me that he was rescinding funds for The Story of Colors, Bill Ivey said to me that it was not a censorship issue. But he is wrong. His decision speaks to all persons and organizations writing a grant to the Endowment. Their choices will be tainted by that decision. Meanwhile, Cinco Puntos has prospered because Ivey was afraid of those demons in the hallway. We sold a lot of books, we received tremendous publicity. But not all writers or small presses will have that same opportunity. Nor will the indigenous communities of Chiapas, the place where the story for our beautiful book was born. Nor will the Zapatistas who are still surrounded by the Mexican Army which, of course, receives generous support from the United States government.

Awards and Accomodations

Special Recognition, Firecracker Alternative Book Award, 1999
Latino Literacy Hall of Fame
Accelerated Reader
Children's Book Award, Firecracker Alternative Book Award, 2000

6 reviews for The Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores

  1. New York Times Book Review

    …[A] lovely book, gracefully translated…and distinguished…by the vibrant illustrations in pastel and paint by…an indigenous artist from Oaxaca, Mexico. It will deligfht young readers of Spanish and English (the text is printed in both languages)…
    – Patrick Markee

  2. The New York Times

    There are a few surprises…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….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.
    – Julia Preston

  3. School Library Journal

    Employing elements of both fable and indigenous pourquoi tale, this story explains the origin of colors in the world and how the macaw acquired his bright plumage. Old Antonio relates that the gods, bored with black and white, go out into the world and collect colors—red from blood, yellow from a child’s laughter, etc. The colors combine and make more colors. The gods, needing a place to keep them safe, spot the macaw and decide on his feathers. And so 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, colloquial and rolling in both Spanish and English, has rhythm, motion, and a sense of authenticity. Domínguez’s primitive forms have volume and solidity, along with a kinetic energy that gives them the sense of movement. The figures, structured on a line as pure as that of Picasso, carry the action in the black-and-white sections, but the colors as they are introduced are vibrant and fresh as if they had, indeed, just been found, newly minted. The meld of artwork and text is flawless. This said, some caveats are in order. There are several lovely, natural references to love-making, and the accompanying illustration shows a woman and a male god in an unmistakably sexual embrace. Within the context of the story and culture from which it derives, it speaks to a way of life in which sexuality is accepted as a natural and cotidian element. Finally, this publication has received a lot of press because the author is a Zapatista insurgent involved in guerrilla warfare with the Mexican government. The book, however, stands alone as a lovely, integrated folktale with a meaning and message all its own, and is deserving of purchase.

  4. Amy Ray of Indigo Girls

    As citizens of the United States, our apathy, over-consumption and lack of moral political conviction has created situations all over the world similar to the one in Chiapas. This beautiful book reminds us that the Zapatista movement is one of dignity that emanates from the grassroots of the indigenous people of Mexico. It is a lesson for all of us in the human spirit.

  5. Joy Harjo

    The Story of Colors reminds me of the kind of stories told in my own Mvskoke country. It’s rich in detail, humor and wisdom, and within it is the sense that we are part of some large amazing universe that will go on creating itself despite the foibles of humans, other creatures and gods.

  6. The Nation

    COMIC RELIEF, NEA-STYLE

    The world is a bleak canvas, all black and white, with only some grays “so that the black and the white [don’t] bump into each other so hard.” The gods are quarrelsome and bored. They begin looking for true colors, find them by various ingenious and accidental means, paint the world anew and, in the end, make sure that the people never “forget how many colors there are how many ways of thinking.”

    Representative Ralph Regula says this children’s story—presented in Spanish and in English, illustrated with boldly hued, fantastical images of birds and beasts, of gods bearing little resemblance to those in pre-Columbian art, of people smoking or lying in each other’s arms, of the Zapatistas’ inspired pamphleteer with trademark ski mask and pipe—”isn’t appropriate for American children.” In commenting on the National Endowment for the Arts’ recent decision to break its $7,500 promise to Cinco Puntos Press for production of the book, Regula said NEA chief William Ivey did “exactly the right thing in stopping the grant.”

    He’s right. The decision got the book on the cover of the New York Times; within twenty-four hours the Lannan Foundation came forward with an even bigger sum, $15,000; and booksellers ordered 3,000 copies. This—on top of the 500 bought directly by people who kept phones trilling for a day and a half at Bobby and Susie Byrd’s home-publishing office in El Paso—guaranteed a sellout of the first printing of 5,000. The Byrds protested Ivey’s decision (virtually unprecedented in that it came after the award had been granted and all that was left was to cut the check), but without it they wouldn’t now be planning a second run of 6,000, maybe 10,000 copies. For small publishers, getting their books noticed and getting people to buy them has always been more important than government beneficence. And for Colectivo Callejero, the artists’ collective in Guadalajara that first published La Historia de los Colores two years ago and was granted all royalties from the US edition by Subcomandante Marcos, more American sales could help finance a reprinting of the Mexican edition (only 2,000 originally run)—or at least bolster the collective’s regular work of producing subversively beautiful art for the people.

    So, more money for Cinco Puntos, more money for the Colectivo and, for us (and those delicate “American children”), more opportunity to read this magical book. As Marcos has declared many times in the Zapatistas’ communiqués, “everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves.”

    There is another, less material reason to find gratification in the NEA’s refusal to honor its monetary pledge—and here I shall put to one side the flash-point question of whether any artist should desire a state seal of approval. Since they burst into public consciousness on January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas have often been discussed as if they were an art installation: the guerrilleros in the mountains, unseen but everywhere represented, most famously in the communiqués but also in the masked dolls backpackers return with from Chiapas; in the snacks and condoms and assorted goods bearing their image that suddenly appeared on the streets of Mexico City from producers excited to exploit so seemingly romantic a rebellion; in the hearts of the world’s radicals longing for a reminder that just because, as Marcos wrote, the enemy is “shoving the struggle for democracy, liberty, and justice into the corner reserved for utopias and impossibilities,” it needn’t be so.

    They’ve been called “postmodern” so regularly—even, bizarrely, on the flap of The Story of Colors, which also applies the word to Domínguez’s pictures, rich though they are with the influence of her Mazatecan culture—and still no one knows what it means. Maybe the word stuck because Marcos is so fond of attaching postscripts to his letters and pronouncements, or because he regularly mixes jokes and storytelling with polemic, or because noncombatants in that New Year’s uprising marched with wooden guns to signal sympathy with those bearing real ones, shooting hot lead.

    It certainly isn’t there because the Zapatistas bleed like real revolutionaries, or propagandize like real revolutionaries (the best of whom always suited “form and content” to the times), or aim to dislodge every brick in the wall of power—political, economic, cultural, ideological—like real revolutionaries. And it isn’t because, with only 2,000 troops under arms, the Zapatistas have so discomfited the Mexican government and its US sponsors that a 1995 memo from Chase Manhattan Bank urged their “elimination,” and today one-third of the Mexican Army is deployed in the mountains, villages and forest remnants of Chiapas. No, the only postmodern turn on this story is a parlor game of supposition: if, instead of being an intellectual and a revolutionary and a storyteller, Marcos were an intellectual-turned-revolutionary-turned-storyteller playing for arts grants behind a guerrilla’s mask; and if the US government, straightening its own mask as patron of the arts, were to find his “work” a “provocative” commodity worthy of its subventions; if, in other words, the joke was on us! Marcos, and now the NEA, have spared us that agony.

    The Story of Colors joins all the other stories, easily mistaken for charming digressions, in Marcos’s political writing. Some may see it as a traditional creation myth, but it’s not. The gods, in their bickering and fatigued bumbling, in their longing for a beauty of their own making and for comfort in a draught of pozol, are not too different from the people, who more than once are imagined making love (“a nice way to become tired and then go to sleep”) and drawing deep on tobacco. “These gods,” after all, are “not like the first ones, the seven gods who gave birth to the world.” These gods don’t even know “who made the birds. Or why.”

    Cinco Puntos, which specializes in bilingual children’s books and literature of the border (its lively list can be got at https://www.cincopuntos.com), says The Story of Colors is a bit of “holiness” from an indigenous culture “that cannot be measured in dollars or defined by politics.” Bobby Byrd says it “is essentially about diversity and tolerance.” But I don’t think it’s those things either.

    In Shadows of Tender Fury, a wonderful compendium of the letters and communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos published a couple of years ago by Monthly Review Press, the figure of Old Antonio, who narrates the tale of the colors in this book and who, in real life, invited the Zapatistas into the first community they organized back in 1985, frequently appears as the Zaps’ guide to the history and traditions—even the geography—of Chiapas. He is their link to the past and the future, the one who confirms for them that, indeed, there are no words in the native languages of Chiapas with which to translate the term “to give up.”

    Here, Antonio offers an allegory not of “diversity”—a timid, lackluster thing—but of dissatisfaction and its creative possibilities. The world that seems fixed and oppressive can be changed; the “gods” can be anyone, but what they make they must safeguard against forgetfulness in case the spirit of revolt should dim or be tamped down. And so the gods, who color the world with a thrilling abandon, use the last of their pigment to paint the feathers of the macaw, a bird revered in the highlands, “because they didn’t want to forget the colors or lose them.”

    It’s no minor matter that the Zapatistas call themselves after Zapata, or that, while insisting upon the absolute integrity of indigenous culture, they speak to the whole of the country, invoking a radical nationalism that is inconceivable, because historically impossible, in the United States. In a sense, Marcos has been telling the story of colors in different ways since he first explained the Zapatista struggle to a curious world. In a February 14, 1994, letter (reprinted in Shadows) to a coalition of workers, campesinos, students and intellectuals called the National Coordination of Civic Action for National Liberation, Marcos wrote:

    The oldest of the old of our peoples spoke words to us, words that came from very far away, about when our lives were not, about when our voice was silenced. And the truth journeyed in the words of the oldest of the old of our peoples. And we learned through the words of the oldest of the old that the long night of pain of our people came from the hands and words of the powerful, that our misery was wealth for a few, that on the bones and dust of our ancestors and our children, the powerful built themselves a house, and that in that house our feet could not enter, and that the light that lit it fed itself on the darkness of our houses, and that its abundant table filled itself on the emptiness of our stomachs, and that their luxuries were born of our misery….

    But the truth that traveled on the paths of the word of the oldest of the old of our peoples was not just of pain and death. In the word of the oldest of the old also came hope for our history. And in their word appeared the image of one like us: Emiliano Zapata. And in it we saw the place toward which our feet should walk in order to be true, and our history of struggle returned to our blood, and our hands were filled with the cries of our people, and dignity returned once again to our mouths, and in our eyes we saw a new world.

    Not a folk-tale new world; folk tales aren’t dangerous.
    – JoANN WYPIJEWSKI, April 19, 1999

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