In a myth dating back to pre-Columbian times, the world is robbed of its colors by a villain. A butterfly turns into a young girl named Are, who sets out on a magical journey through numerous “kingdoms of color” with a single mission: to wrest back the colors and restore them to the world.
Twenty years ago, Alister Ramírez Márquez, a professor in BMCC’s Modern Languages Department, penned his own version of that ancient tale and called it ¿Quién se robó los colores? (Who Stole the Colors?)
“But I could never figure out what to do with it,” says Ramírez Márquez, a highly regarded writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Eventually, he thought of the ideal application of the story: He would use it to help people learn to read and speak Spanish.
Reaching out to heritage speakers
¿Quién se robó los colores? was first published in 2009. Now, Ramírez Márquez has published a new edition (Wayside Press), expanded and restructured in collaboration with Professor Alicia Bralove, an associate professor of modern languages at Bronx Community College.
Illustrations are by celebrated Canadian artist Scot Richie. Each of the story’s 10 chapters is accompanied by reading exercises, with an emphasis on context, expressions, verb tense, parts of speech, and grammar.
The principal audience for ¿Quién se robó los colores? is what Ramírez Márquez refers to as “heritage speakers”—U.S.-born Hispanics who have learned Spanish primarily by hearing it spoken at home.
“I thought that ¿Quién se robó los colores? could provide a non-traditional means of helping heritage speakers develop all language skills—reading, listening, speaking and writing,” he says.
But linguistic fluency is only part of Ramírez Márquez’s mission.
“Regardless of which country to which they trace their origins, Hispanics in the U.S. all share a common Latin American heritage whose roots go back to ancient times,” he says. “My book is designed to help readers understand not only the Spanish language, but their own culture and history as well.”
In the land of las hormigas culonas
While Ramírez Márquez says that ¿Quién se robó los colores? represents a departure from his past work, it is imbued with a sense of playfulness and fantasy that characterizes his two previous novels, Mi vestido verde esmeralda (My Emerald Green Dress) and Los sueños de los hombres se los fuman las mujeres (When Women Smoke Men’s Dreams).
In one of Are’s adventures, she encounters an army of ants based on hormigas culonas, a species of the insect indigenous to Colombia.
“The ants are so-named because they have very large behinds,” says Ramírez Márquez. “One more thing: They are edible and delicious.”
As a novelist, essayist and journalist—his work appears regularly in Colombia’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo—Ramírez Márquez says his first duty is “to use everything I know to reach the greatest number of people.”
Steeped in the culture of both Spain and his native Colombia, he says, “I want readers in the U.S. to know they can appreciate their culture and where they came from—and to take pride in their own literature and traditions.”