The fiction writer known as H. G. Carrillo (and familiarly as Hache, which is Spanish for H) died from COVID-19 this April 20th, shortly before turning 60. He was considered a “Latino” writer, specifically an Afro-Cuban exile, whose oeuvre prominently reflected and reputedly plumbed the meaning of that identity. He was also a gay man. However, he was hardly known in the Cuban American community, and it seems he never did Miami (his life transpired in Michigan, Chicago and the Northeast). His chief work and only novel was Loosing My Espanish (2004), whose protagonist is a Cuban American; he also wrote short stories and a 2007 piece titled “Who Knew Desi Arnaz Wasn’t White?”
On May 22nd, the Washington Post ran his obit with the expected data, quickly replaced by a dramatically revised version after WaPo was contacted by his sister and niece. It came out his real name was Herman Glenn Carroll, born in Detroit, and neither Cuban nor “Latino” at all. His false persona, kept up over 20 years, was apparently only known by his family–it was news to everyone else, even his husband and partner of many years. His sister had confronted him long before over disowning his true identity, which had hurt his mother, but his response was evasive, and he didn’t see his family much.
Carroll apparently taught himself Spanish. After his then partner died of AIDS in 1988, he took up writing, adopting the Carrillo persona by the 1990s. He got a BA in Spanish from DePaul and an MFA from Cornell, where he was mentored by Chicano writer Helena Viramontes. After that, he taught at George Washington University for 8 years as a specialist in “Latinx” writers. At his death, he was Chair of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, a writers’ association. His whole literary and academic career was based on his “Latino” persona (a third identity card to play), and he was taken for an exponent of the Cuban exile experience (or “emigre” experience, as WaPo put it). One must admit he pulled it off amazingly well.
I doubt he visited Cuba, and he apparently steered clear of real Cuban exiles and Miami. According to newspaper archives, he was never featured in Miami’s Nuevo Herald and only once in the Miami Herald (a 2004 review of his novel, but only about the book, not him). In 2005, he visited a college in central Florida to present his novel, and the Orlando Sentinel ran a brief interview with him. Asked who’d had the most influence on his writing, he named several authors–who included no Cubans, not even Reinaldo Arenas, but did include Gabriel García Márquez, who is anathema to the Cuban American community. It should have smelled fishy, but Orlando is not Miami.
At least as early as 2005, and presumably for many years thereafter, he was working on a second novel about Cubans in the US, reportedly involving the death of Fidel Castro, but very little is known about it, and it never came to fruition. Perhaps he realized he was biting into more than he could chew, or maybe he decided not to push his luck and left well enough alone. Such a novel could have attracted very risky attention from the wrong people, namely real Cuban Americans, though even his long-time literary agent bought his Cuban act.
After he died but before WaPo outed him, memorial acknowledgments of his passing were posted online by Cornell University, George Washington University and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. They are still up and unrevised, and I could find no subsequent posting from any of those institutions addressing the truth about “Hache.” It is no doubt “polite,” expedient and PC to “let it go.” Even the revised WaPo obit was exquisitely tactful, as if great care was taken to avoid any, uh, unpleasantness—which I seriously doubt would have been the case if Carroll had been a white heterosexual who’d posed as “Latino.” Rather tellingly, WaPo never used the term cultural appropriation in its extensive obit, although the fact was blatant enough.
Apart from this blog, which ran the story May 26th, most of the Cuban exile blogosphere does not appear to have picked it up (including, curiously, blogs by Cuban writers). Neither major Miami newspaper reported Carroll’s death nor his unmasking. The media at large has not seized upon this as a hot item, and there has been no real condemnation, let alone outrage, from the usual suspects (I fully expect this was one “Cuban” who voted Dem and backed Obama’s Cuba policy). It’s as if Carrillo was an illusion only meant for and consumed by non-Cubans, who cannot get worked up over being deceived. It’s also as if special dispensation has been granted to this assiduously sustained lie, for fairly obvious reasons.
So, why did Carroll do it and how did he go about it? Most likely we’ll never know–probably even his family doesn’t, and everything indicates he didn’t tell anyone else. However, the key story here is not the fraud but the reaction to it, such as it’s been.