Pitt professor’s ‘Dead Boys’ addresses impact of violence
In her first collection of essays, Adriana E. Ramirez writes about a topic that makes many people uncomfortable. “Dead Boys” concerns those who have died “too young, too soon,” in Pittsburgh and, especially, near the U.S.-Mexican border where she lived at one time.
She admits it’s not the stuff of a pleasant summer read.
“Not everyone has an inherent fascination with the dead,” Ramirez says.
“Dead Boys” recently won the first PEN/Fusion Prize, awarded to a writer younger than 35 for an unpublished work of nonfiction addressing a global or multicultural issue. The award includes a $10,000 cash prize.
Angie Cruz, an assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh who taught Ramirez, is not surprised her former student won.
“I am thrilled Adriana’s work has finally received the attention it deserves,” Cruz says. “Her nonfiction is about an invisible America, that is both personal and political, both tender but terrifying. She makes it clear to us all that everyone is impacted by violence both here and abroad, and we must pay attention.”
Ramirez teaches in the English department at Pitt and has an extensive background in poetry. In 2006, Individual World Poetry Slam ranked her as the No. 26 slam poet in the world. While attending Rice University in Houston, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in English, she started to become interested in nonfiction because there were stories to tell.
“Poetry is a lot more fun,” she says. “Poetry is my hobby writing, and nonfiction is my job.”
The second chapter in the book, “La Frontera” is about nine people who were found hanged on a pedestrian bridge in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on May 4, 2012, near where Ramirez used to live. She had crossed the bridge many times and was stunned by the impersonality of the news.
“At first, they didn’t publish the names,” Ramirez says. “They were just nine bodies. But they were people. I tried to figure out who they were or try to understand them, and I couldn’t find any information. I started thinking there are so many bodies that wash ashore or are in conflict. There were 14 heads found in coolers (the same day). It’s just an incredibly violent situation, and we find greater disconnect from it by just reading numbers in the news. I tried to do my best to tell the story.”
Ramirez admits she and her friends sometimes became immune to the violence that was nearby. They’d worry more about going shopping or to clubs than the loss of life.
That loss of life, however, also became cliched.
“After people die, we tend to make them into saints,” Ramirez says. “Or we make them perfect, or we just make them victims of a tragedy instead of being human beings with agency. I think we are desensitized to violence, but also that we deify the dead, as well.”
Ramirez admits that being “upbeat and a bit gregarious” sometimes obscures that she approached the stories in “Dead Boys” with utmost seriousness.
But she cannot deny her nature.
“It’s also very Colombian,” she says, noting her Mexican-Colombian heritage. “Colombian people are happy people, but their county has been at civil war for 60 years. But the music is happy, and death makes the stakes of living a little higher. Everyone kind of takes carpe diem to heart. Life is too short to be miserable, and it’s also a way that we cope. We cope with sadness and how hard and difficult all of this can be by sort of making a promise to the gods to do our best to live with it.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.