Make your own free website on

Julianne Hammink LING 5341

Bilingual Text Analysis June 23, 2000

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. La Historia de los Colores / The Story of Colors. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 1999.

ISBN 0-938317-45-8

I. Analysis

The book I chose has a controversial history, both for the identity of its author, as well as for some of the subject matter it contains.


The story is told as a traditional pourquoi tale: a myth which explains an animal characteristic or a natural phenomenon. The story concerns the origin of colors in the world. The gods, bored with the two colors which then existed, set out to search for more. They find others, like the yellow of a child’s laughter, the green of hope, and the blue of the world, and store them in a box. While the gods are sleeping, the colors combine and create new colors. The gods use these new colors to haphazardly paint all the creatures and objects in the world. They use the last few colors to paint the macaw, as a reminder that there are many different colors and ways of thinking in the world.

Cultural Setting

The story takes place in the Lacandon jungle of southeastern Mexico. The macaw and the ceiba tree are native to this region. The people of this area are ethnically Mayan, and speak varieties of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Zoque, and Tojolabal.

The Author

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos is the revolutionary leader of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or EZLN, an indigenous guerilla movement active in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The EZLN declared war on the Mexican government in 1993, making Marcos an outlaw in his own country. Although next to nothing is known about the “real” identity of Subcomandante Marcos, he is probably not native to Chiapas himself, and although he speaks French, Italian and English in addition to Spanish, he does not speak an Indian language.

History of the Book

The text of the book is an anecdote from a communiqué by Marcos, dated October 27, 1994. The Colectivo Callejero, of Guadalajara, originally published the book in a Spanish edition in 1996. In November of 1998, Cinco Puntos Press of El Paso Texas received a grant of $7,500 from the National Endowment for the Arts to publish a bilingual edition. However, the grant was canceled on March 8, 1999 (ten days before the book’s release date) by William Ivey, the director of the NEA. Ivey claimed that the grant would not be an appropriate use of government funds. This decision put the book, and the publisher, on the cover of the New York Times. A day later the Lannan Foundation offered Cinco Puntos Press a grant for $15,000, twice the amount of the rescinded NEA grant. The first printing of 5000 copies sold out in three days.


The language Marcos uses in the book is often colloquial and distinctive, and there are several terms and expressions that might be difficult to understand for speakers of other varieties of Spanish. The English translation by Anne Bar Din is somewhat plainer. The names of wildlife native to the Mexican rainforest- terms like guacamaya, tucan, and ceiba, and their English equivalents- might be unfamiliar to readers from the desert of the southwestern U.S. Expressions like “se fue mero pa’rriba” reflect the vernacular Spanish Marcos uses throughout the book. Bar Din’s translation “went straight upwards” does not reflect the same informal tone. Likewise, “chilla y chilla un buen rato” becomes “screaming and squawking for quite awhile,” which lacks some of the humor of the original. The translations are formal and correct in a way that the original text is not. The translation note at the back of the book acknowledges this:

It’s been noted in several places that his conversational writing is influenced by the Spanish of the indigenous people around him, and their Spanish is, of course, their second language. This makes for difficulties in the translation. We have tried to keep as close to the original as possible, but also we wanted to make the story a comfortable book to read.

The translator does seem to choose words which a beginning reader would be more likely to know. The English version of the story had a larger percentage of the top one hundred high-frequency words than did the Spanish original.

Occurrence of high and low frequency words in both texts.

In the nine pages of text sampled, 53% (n= 507) of the English words and 44% (n=445) of the Spanish words were on the high-frequency word list. I did not count conjugated Spanish verb forms as high-frequency words unless those forms appeared on the list. This had a major effect on the percentage of high-frequency words counted in the Spanish text.

Complexity of Structure

I sampled twenty sentence pairs from different pages of the text. The average English sentence was slightly longer than the corresponding Spanish sentence.

Average sentence length, in words.

This probably is the result of cliticization in the Spanish text. The clitic pronouns were not counted as separate words in the Spanish, but the equivalent English (non-clitic) pronouns were counted. Even twenty words is rather long for a sentence in a children’s book, though. Long sentences are typical of Marcos’s writing style but this is not necessarily a feature which makes the book easy for children to read. Consider the following sentence and its English translation:

Se bajó como pudo, a tropezones, y se llegó al lugar de la asamblea de los dioses y les dijo, “En mis ojos traigo el color del mundo”, y “azul” le pusieron al color sexto.

(He came down as best he could, by fits and starts, and he arrived where the assembly of the gods was and said to them, ‘I am carrying the color of the world in my eyes,’ and they named the sixth color blue.)

This sentence is typical of those found in the story. The Spanish sentence is 35 words long and contains at least four clauses which could be separated into individual sentences. This type of compound sentence, though colorful, causes the emergent reader to work much harder than she should have to.

Sample Page

Examining a sample page from the text reveals that the two texts differ in complimentary ways in terms of sentence length and number of words per sentence, but are comparable in terms of number of words per page.



Number of Sentences



Sentence Length



Total Words/Pg.



A comparison of text features

Marcos prefers to join sentences with “y,” while the translator will break the long sentences into shorter, simpler ones.


Uno de los dioses agarró en caminar para pensar major su pensamiento y tanto pensaba su pensamiento que no miró su camino y se tropezo en una piedra así de grande y se pego en su cabeza y le salió sangre de su cabeza.


One of the gods took to walking so that he could think better. And he thought his thoughts so deeply that he didn’t look where he was going. And he tripped on a stone so big that he hit his head and it started to bleed.

The result is an essentially parallel English translation with more, and shorter, sentences.


As I mentioned before, the most noticeable difference between Marcos’s original text and Anne Bar Din’s translation is the relative formality of the language. Marcos uses repetition, run-on sentences, and non-standard forms, all of which add flavor and intimacy to the story. Bar Din remains faithful to the story, but uses standard English, which may be easier to read, but which lacks friendliness and warmth. “De repente están riendo y de repente están llorando” has a rhythmic quality to its repetition which “they can be laughing one minute and all of a sudden they are crying” lacks. This isn’t a fatal flaw, but it does affect the aesthetic quality of the text.


The book was illustrated by Domitila Domínguez, a Mazatecan artist. The paintings are in oil, on wood. They tend to be abstract, and they evoke the text rather than illustrate it. An early reader seeking to gather information about the story from the illustrations might be confused rather than assisted, but the paintings themselves are striking, with bright colors, texture, and a primitive style.


There are a number of factors which negatively affect the appropriateness of this book for less advanced readers and young children. The book contains some content which might be considered objectionable. Marcos mentions lovemaking as “a nice way to become tired and then go to sleep.” Some parents might find this offensive. The many gods depicted in the book are described as lazy and clumsy, which might disturb religious individuals. There is also a mention of smoking in the story. These details limit the usefulness of the book in a classroom setting, and it is advisable that parents preview the book before sharing it with children.

II. Presenting the Story

The long sentences, the abstract illustrations, the multiple possible readings of the story, the idiosyncratic language, and the somewhat delicate details combine to make this book more appropriate for older students and adults than for children. It would be a good introduction to a high school discussion about diversity, for example. For younger students, the book might serve to introduce a thematic unit about color or the pourquoi story genre.

Sample Activities

Science- Color mixing. Students work out all the possible combinations of the three primary colors and predict what color might be produced when two primary colors are mixed. Students test their predictions using water and food coloring and record their results. Use these results to put the rainbow’s colors in order.

Science- Rainbows. Students observe rainbows using prisms and spray mist water bottles. Students learn how a prism breaks light into separate wavelengths and use this information to develop a theory about why rainbows occur after rainstorms.

Reading- porquoi stories from different cultures. Students read and compare pourquoi stories like those in Kipling’s Just So Stories, the Anansi stories, and Native American myths. Students use a Venn diagram to list similarities and differences between the two stories, and from these diagrams develop a list of the characteristics of a pourquoi story.

Language Arts- Writing and publishing an original porquoi story. Students write their own pourquoi stories, illystrate and bind them into books. Students may share these books with other classes, or act them out in puppet shows or plays.


La Historia de los Colores is not a book which was written for children. The language of the story is more the transcription of a tale recounted orally than that of a literary text. This makes the book an enjoyable one to share with a child, but a difficult one for a child to read alone. The mature viewpoint of the story, the few potentially offensive details, and the sophisticated illustrations all suggest that the intended audience for this book is adult, not school-aged.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Bobby Byrd on Bi-lingual Publishing.

Byrd, Bobby. NEA Rescinds Funding for Book by Subcomandante Marcos.

Cinco Puntos Press. March 9, 1999.

EZLN Declaration of War Against the Mexican Government. 1993.

Official Website of the EZLN.

Marcos, Subcomandante. La Historia de los Colores.

Guadalajara: Ediciones Colectivo Callejero, 1996.

Marcos, Subcomandante. Story of the Colors. October 27, 1994.

Reavis, Dick J. Chiapas is Mexico. Progressive. May 1994.

Tuck, Jim. The Zapatista Movement - Then and Now.

Wypijewski, JoAnn. Comic Relief, NEA-Style.
The Nation News. April 1, 1999.