Old trick of ‘passing’ still happens
I have never known a man who faked his own death, but I have known a man who faked his own life, then sadly failed to live long enough for us to talk about it.
I’m talking about the late Hache Carrillo, a rising, award-winning literary talent whose reputation grew quickly after the publication of his 2004 novel, “Loosing My Espanish,” about a Cuban-born high school history teacher in Chicago.
With his playful use of Spanish and “Spanglish,” a mashup of English and Spanish, the book impressed critics with its mix of colonial history and personal memories that centered on his Afro-Cuban roots and queer identity.
But Carrillo’s reputation took a shocking turn after his death from COVID-19 in early 2020. About a month after he died, the Washington Post published an obituary about his life, then corrected it with a revised version the next day — along with an editor’s note.
It turned out that many of the stories Carrillo had been telling people about himself were untrue.
As his sister and niece informed the Post, his name was not Hache Gernan Carrillo but Herman Glenn Carroll, the name his family called him. He was born and raised in Detroit, not Cuba. In fact, nobody in the family had Latino heritage.
What went wrong? His niece Jessica Webley told the Post that once he started writing and gaining fame in the 1990s, they seldom saw him.
Needless to say, those of us who knew Hache personally view him a bit differently now.
My wife, Lisa Page, knew him at George Washington University, where they both taught creative writing, and at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, where he chaired the board of directors.
“I thought of him as a sweet and complicated genius,” she wrote in an essay for the Post, “devoted to his students and to the evolving literary world.
“The news was a slap in the face for those of us who knew him,” she continued. “We mourned him, but we also reeled in shock. Hache passed for something he wasn’t, even at home with his husband in Berwyn Heights (a Washington suburb), He did the same with colleagues and students at George Washington University and at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. I wasn’t the only one who felt betrayed. And so terribly sad.”
Yet, as she also noted, the literary world has its own version of “passing,” as we Americans call the age-old trick of “passing for white” to thwart racial restrictions, if your complexion is light enough.
Among nonracial examples, my wife reminded me of John le Carre, also known as David Cornwell, the bestselling British spy novelist. Or Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin who, to dodge sexist bias, replaced her own name with George Sand. Did Herman Glenn Carroll think similarly to avoid discrimination? Or take advantage of it?
Unsurprisingly, a number of Cuban American bloggers have been upset with Carrillo, putting his faux-Cuban pose in the same trash bucket as Rachel Dolezal or George Santos.
Cuban American author and translator Achy Obejas, who fled Cuba with her family as a child and now lives in California, spotted signs of ethnic inauthenticity in Carrillo/Carroll’s act when he signed up for her Cuban American literature class at DePaul University.
Like some other Spanish-speaking readers, she had noticed some of Carrillo’s language didn’t accurately reflect the linguistic differences in structure and slang expressed by different nationalities. For example, his novel, “Loosing My Espanish,” uses the word “vato” often as a Cuban expression, even though the word, which means “guy” or “dude,” is “purely Mexican,” Obejas noted.
What explains such charades? In a March 13 profile of Carrillo by New Yorker writer D.T. Max, Carrillo’s sister Maria said she didn’t think her brother was hiding from his blackness. “I just think he wanted a more interesting narrative to his story,” she said, “and who better to write it than himself.”
The thin veil separating his imagination from reality apparently wore too thin. Perhaps the same explains the bizarre coincidence of Carrillo’s controversy leading to the unmasking of another professor at the same university.
Jessica Krug, an African American history expert also at GWU, was found to have falsely claimed African ancestry. She apologetically resigned.
There are others and more probably will emerge in the future. Perhaps such cultural tourism is to be expected in our land of reinvention, but it’s not ethical to lie about it.