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The Story Behind The Story of Colors

"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."

The Story of ColorsListen to NPR's story about the NEA withdrawing the grant.

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!

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.

Bobby Byrd

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