Bobby Byrd is sitting at his dining room table in El Paso, eating a burrito with his wife, Lee, and fantasizing about ways their small, gutsy press, Cinco Puntos, might provoke the National Endowment for the Arts to slam the book they have just published by Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of Mexico’s Zapatista guerillas. “One of my new goals in life,” says Byrd, a poet as well as a publisher, “is to publish books that make the front page of the New York Times again.
“The new work, Questions and Swords: Folktales of the Zapatista Revolution, is a sequel to a book by Marcos that the Byrds published two years ago. That simple children’s tale, titled The Story of Colors, made international news when the NEA rescinded $7,500 in grants for its publication. It did so because it feared that proceeds from the book could help fund Marcos’ rebellion against the Mexican government, but as a result of the buzz, the work sold 20,000 copies, four times its original printing.
While The Story of Colors was politically benign—it’s a folk story about how Mayan gods took a gray world and created colors—Questions and Swords is truly revolutionary. In it, Marcos contributes folktales that reveal his philosophy of war. In one he tells about a sword that is strong enough to topple trees but loses its edge when it slashes at a stone. The sword manages to break the stone into pieces. However, when the sword attacks water—an element it considers weak—the water silently wraps itself around it. In time, the sword rusts and disintegrates. “Now is the hour of turning ourselves into water,” writes Marcos of the Zapatistas, warning that strong nations, such as Mexico, are no match for people they consider “weak” if the people quietly, patiently, and persistently resist.
Marcos is no Gandhi, and his philosophy is by no means nonviolent. The Zapatistas declared war on Mexico in 1994 and continue to fight for constitutional reform to protect the civil rights of the country’s indigenous people. However, the new story does reveal the ideas behind Marcos’ controversial rebellion. “It’s a way to identify the struggle of the Zapatistas of Mexico with the mythos of the Mayan people,” Byrd says. “He’s telling the world that they will fight no matter what happens and ultimately that they will win.”
The Byrds are a rarity even among independent publishers, and they were born to create ripples. Bobby grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and even though it’s been years since he lived in the South, he still rolls his r‘s like big old Southern marbles. Lee, a fiction writer, is from Plainfield, New Jersey. Bobby, Lee, daughter Susannah, and son-in-law Ed Holland run the press on a shoestring out of two houses on Louisville Street. Since they started the press sixteen years ago, they have published 63 titles, most of them involving Mexico and the Southwest, and gained a national reputation by winning the American Book Award and the Southwest Book Award.
“We’re fools,” says Bobby, through the sparkle of blue eyes. “One of our premises is that we want to publish books that lead us to unexpected places. The Marcos books sure have.” One of the reasons that some people have called Marcos the first postmodern revolutionary is that unlike his hero, Che Guevara, he lives in an age that allows his ideas to be accessed instantly by people all over the world. In fact, everything he writes is posted on the Internet at ezln.org, and he doesn’t receive any money directly from the book. “He doesn’t believe he owns the words—they’re public words, and so he renounced the privilege of copyright,” Byrd says.
However, the Byrds did pay a small Mexican press in Guadalajara called El Colectivo Callejero, which first published both books, for the right to publish the books in the United States. The directors of the press, Antonio Ramírez and Domitila Domínguez, also illustrated them. They are supporters of the Zapatistas and could well have used some of the money to contribute to the rebellion. As for the Byrds, they also believe in the struggle and disagreed with the NEA when it made its decision to withdraw the grant. “They were spineless, but it resulted in good sales,” says Byrd. “Now we’ve given Americans a book that gives them a reason to support the Zapatista revolution. If ever there was a book worthy of an NEA ban, this is it.”