By Paul Rozycki
It may have been St. Paddy’s Day March 17, but that didn’t stop a number of leading Hispanic leaders and their families and friends from gathering at Mott Community College Sunday afternoon to launch a newly published novel by Flint-based author Martin Barillas. About three dozen attended the event at the Regional Technology Center.
Barillas’ novel Shaken Earth: A novel of Guatemalan life against Nazi influence is a story of race, class conflict, and international intrigue during the 1930s. Barillas said the idea for the novel grew out of his life experiences, and that the original working title was, Stories My Father Told Me.
His novel takes place during the year of 1932-33, when Hitler was coming to power in Germany and similar rulers were in place in Guatemala. Barillas said one of the goals of the novel is to reveal the complexity of figures on both sides of the conflicts and ideologies of the time.
It was a time when both communism and fascism were on the rise, not only in Europe but in Central America as well. He said his goal is to try to “find the humanity in the characters, even those who are evil. History is often made by strange bedfellows.”
He pulls in various strands of world history and said he feels that “the story is true to the period, but also gives life to the characters.” He tells his story with voice of a young Guatemalan woman in a troubled marriage and an American travel writer trying to explain events to her readers.
The title Shaken Earth refers to Guatemala’s many volcanos and earthquakes, but it also refers to the political turmoil both in Guatemala and around the world at the time—the rise of fascism and communism, the Russian and Mexican revolutions, American political involvement to defend the United Fruit Company, and the impact of those events on the average people of Guatemala.
Feeding into all that was “the smoldering resentment of centuries of oppression, exacerbated by expropriation of communal lands just decades before, had been sharpened by the spread of revolutionary ideas from Mexico and Russia,” he said.
But the story is not simply an historical novel. Barillas said he feels that much of what happened then, “is timely in light of today’s immigration issues and debates over building a wall with Mexico.”
Edwin Black, author of a number of books on the Nazi era and who visited Flint during Holocaust Remembrance week last year, attended the book launch in support of Barillas.
He said of Barillas’ novel, “Shaken Earth’s distinct level of erudition and attention to historical detail pulls in the strands of American business, Nazi eugenics, and political intrigue. Shaken Earth boldly comes to grips with the outpouring of humanity from Central America fleeing generations of want and oppression.”
Barillas spent three years working on his first novel, though he has been a freelance writer for media outlets and has served as a translator. Though his family has roots in Guatemala, he was born in Michigan and has local Flint ties.
He is a former U.S. diplomat, having served with the U.S. State Department in Europe and Latin America. He also is co-author of Hidden Killers, a report to Congress on the threat that landmines pose to civilians.
After his foreign service Barillas designed and implemented pro-democracy programs funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Department of State, and has traveled throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico to advocate for governmental and electoral transparency.
The book launch and discussion were pulled together by several individuals. Black was instrumental in guiding Barillas’ book to what he called the “best publisher.” Eric Wood, faculty member at the Middle College at Mott Community College, was moderator for the event on the campus and plans on having Black speak to his class this week.
Two leaders in the Hispanic community, Lee Gonzales and Ralph Arellano, also assisted with the event and spoke of their times working with Barillas as they introduced him. Gonzales is a former state House member, and is currently with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, and Arellano is director of the Hispanic Community & Technology Center of Greater Flint, part of Mott Community College.
At the close of the event Barillas signed copies for those in attendance. The book, published through Dialog Press, is available at most book stores and on Amazon.
EVM staff writer and political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at email@example.com.