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 and 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 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.