I bought the t-shirt in Palenque. The market there had all the typicos that catch tourists’ eyes but I spied a souvenir shirt with a black and white photograph of a masked guerrilla fighter on it and the caption Subcomandante Marcos. I knew who he was—at least I knew what could be known about him. Marcos was a legendary insurgent leader who might have been a college professor or a university grad student or some other lettered and middle class Mexican. But he had gone underground, taken to the wilderness in the mountains of Chiapas and become the spokesman for the Zapatista guerrilla forces against the Mexican government in the cause of rights for the indigenous people.
Very romantic story but the issues were real and the lives of the people in Chiapas could have used some economic and social justice. I hiked through the jungle for hours with a Lacandon boy as guide to visit the remarkable murals in the ruins of Bonampak. I wandered over the beautiful feminine ruins at Palenque and shared some local rice and beans and brew with fellow travelers. I got shin splints, mosquito bites, astonishing views and great photographs—all research for a novel and soul food for my adventurer’s heart. And when I got home to Manhattan, I wore the t-shirt.
I wore it for a few years; it complemented my pinko hippie credentials nicely. I stopped wearing it after 9-11 when I got funny looks and realized that the masked photograph looked a little bit like Bin Laden. But by then I had unearthed La Historia de los Colores at the Strand bookstore and I read it to my very young kid in Spanish. The book, by Subcomandante Marcos, is a bilingual retelling of a Mayan legend about how colors came to be in a black and white and gray world. The Story of Colors has lush art by Domitila Dominguez on thick coated stock—it’s a pleasure to handle. Today, I re-read it in English.
Probably just as well I read the Spanish to the four-year-old as the legend is very Mayan—the gods are constantly picking fights and bitching about things when they aren’t discovering red in the color of blood and making love so they could become tired and fall asleep. Once they’ve found enough colors, they have a sort of paintball fight at the top of a ceiba tree and get colors all over everything. Boys. In the end, after an interesting evolution of the handful of colors the gods turn up, they grab a macaw and stretch its skimpy gray feathers long enough to hold all the hues and entrust the colors to the bird for safekeeping.
So that’s how the macaw turned into a crayon box and how the world came alive in reds, greens, blues and yellows. For fun, my copy has an errata sheet tucked into it that explains that the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew committed funding for the book. Was the funding failure due to the bad-boy author or the copulation of the colors to give us all those rainbow shades? Congressional pressure, no doubt. Uptight idiots—who elects these people? Not me. I just keep subversive literature around my house where even children can find it. <G> Good book.
The Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores: A Bilingual Folktale from the Jungles of Chiapas (English and Spanish Edition) Subcomandante Marcos | Cinco Puntos Press 1996