American Culture

Oscar Zeta Acosta: One of God's own prototypes

by Amaury Nora

When I was asked to do a writeup for Oscar Zeta Acosta as our latest Scroguero, I was happy to do it. I, like most people who hear Oscar’s name, know him for his literary works, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972) and The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973). As I was doing my research, though, I realized that Oscar—a legendary, compelling figure in Chicano history—remains in the shadows of the general American culture. He has never really gotten his due.

Acosta’s name is not one that rings many bells today, and if it does, most people remember him as being the inspiration for Dr. Gonzo, the character immortalized in Hunter S. Thompson’s book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In Fear, the character of Dr. Gonzo—a man with a gargantuan appetite for food, drugs and dangerous living—is the perfect complement to Thompson’s journalist alter ego, Raoul Duke, who uses his assignment to cover an off-road race as an excuse to overindulge in booze and drugs in Vegas.

Oscar Zeta AcostaOscar, however, is more than simply an inspiration for a character, albeit an important one. Acosta was a gifted writer and storyteller, an activist, a civil rights attorney, and is considered the Malcolm X of the Chicano/a community. He wrote two of the most important novels of the Chicano Protest Movement; his books were precedent-setting works and in the literary style of Gonzo journalism were pseudo-documentaries of California’s Latino movement; they set the writer/attorney at the front lines of literary Chicanismo.

His mysterious disappearance happened three years after the notorious drug-fueled bacchanalia in Vegas – the “mythical journey to the heart of the American Dream.” Oscar has twice been portrayed on-screen in film adaptations of Thompson’s work; first in an Anglo characterization by the late Peter Boyle in Where the Buffalo Roam, and more recently, by Benicio del Toro in a memorable performance that hews closer to the characterization in the book.

Thompson’s book and the subsequent films provided but a small glimpse into Acosta’s real story, not the true essence of the Brown Buffalo.

Oscar was born in El Paso, Texas, and was raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley. According to Acosta in an unpublished essay in Ilan Stavans’ Oscar ‘Zeta’ Acosta: The Uncollected Works, his family left El Paso during the Depression and moved to California so his family “could work as migrant field workers.” Acosta writes about his father, Manuel Mercado Acosta, who was naturalized after he served in the US Navy during World War II:

My father was a little different than the other people where we lived. He wanted me to compete more than anything else, so he pushed me into competition with himself. When I was five he encouraged me to argue and fight with him, which is unusual in a Mexican family. I guess that is where I became as nasty as I am.

Elsewhere, Oscar describes his father as “an indio from the mountains of Durango” who “operated a mescal distillery before the revolutionaries drove him out.” He credits his mother, Juana Fierro Acosta, for his love of music. In his autobiography, he writes that he inherited her passion for music, becoming a clarinet player and always nurturing a love for jazz. As an adolescent, he would often play in bands. He was so good he even got a music scholarship to the University of Southern California, but for romantic reasons decided to join the Air Force Band.

Oscar had fallen in love with a Caucasian girl. In Brown Buffalo, the character Jane Addison is the girl who broke his heart because her parents rejected him over his ethnic background:

I got a music scholarship … but I was going with this Anglo girl whose parents didn’t like me so I decided to get out of the way by going into the Air Force Band. We planned to get married when I came out. After a year of her visiting me and hiding around, she split and I was stuck in the service.

The scar of the racial division between lovers would haunt him forever and played a key role in his development of brown pride, so named because of the color of the buffalo.

It was not until adulthood that Acosta saw racism and injustice through a new lens and made his transformation from Oscar Zeta Acosta to Buffalo Z. Brown, Chicano lawyer. His entrance to the theater of Chicano history was extremely timely.

Having exited the service, he completed college and went on to graduate from San Francisco Law School in 1965 and passed the California Bar exam in 1966. Acosta worked as an attorney for the East Oakland Legal Aid Society in Oakland, CA, for a year. He left frustrated with the inequalities his clients faced before the legal system and his inability to make significant change. After Acosta left his position, he traveled to Colorado where he met Hunter Thompson and picked up odd jobs in construction and restaurants. He had long wanted to write a novel and recognized the activism arising from the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles as a way to get back before the bar and as a source of literary inspiration. Soon he began sharing the stage with Angela Davis and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, the militant poet who wrote I Am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquín.

Reenergized, he became an anti-poverty, civil rights, people’s lawyer who represented activists such as the Saint Basil 21 (Católicos por La Raza), Brown Berets member Carlos Montes, Corky Gonzales, the Biltmore Six, and East L.A. Chicanos. He was an outspoken critic of racism and anti-Mexican sentiment, and he further saw himself as the Robin Hood of the Chicano poor in the Southwest, taking something away from the rich: power and authority. From Revolt:

All through law school, my secret dream had been to work with [César] Chávez and the campesinos… My fantasies ran to the vineyards and orchards at César’s side, a union organizer rather than a courtroom attorney.

Both cases86597300zx8East L.A. Thirteen (Carlos Montes et al. v. Los Angeles County) and Biltmore Six (Carlos Montes et al. v. Los Angeles County) – were among the first civil disobedience and protest actions in Los Angeles to gain national media attention. The cases would later server as a basis for activists to articulate discrimination against Mexican-Americans, as well as to express their Chicano identity.

The first trial case he took was the defense of thirteen Chicano militants (East L.A. Thirteen) who were indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury on charges of conspiracy to disrupt public schools. In 1967, under the guidance of civics teacher Sal Castro and members of the United Mexican American Students (UMAS), professors, professionals, clergy, and the Brown Berets, a group of high school students began organizing to protest conditions in the schools. Demonstrations took place in support of the East L.A 13, and the Los Angeles Police Department responded with violence. The trial revealed that the LAPD, in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, informants and undercover officers, were planted in communities and student organizations identifying with the Chicano Movement. As a lawyer, he argued and won the case on the grounds that the LAPD violated the defendants’ First Amendment rights of free association and free speech.

There was more at stake in the Biltmore case. On April 24, 1969, the California Department of Education invited then-Governor Ronald Reagan as the keynote speaker at the banquet held at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. An attempt was made by Chicano demonstrators to drown out Regan’s speech with shouting, stomping, and clapping. However, a fire broke out in a linen closet on the tenth floor. Firefighters arrived immediately, yet no public attention was drawn to the fire. Later, a grand jury responded by indicting ten people—six for arson, burglary, malicious destruction, and conspiracy to commit felonies. Three of the six were formerly defendants in the East L.A. Thirteen case: Moctezuma Esparza, Carlos Montes, and Ralph Ramí­rez. The defendants in this particular case became known as the Biltmore Six. However, because Esparza and Montes had been previously indicted, both were now facing possible life sentences. As the lead defense attorney for the Biltmore Six, Acosta fought to show that Mexican-American citizens, particularly those with clear Spanish surnames, had been excluded from participating in the Los Angeles County grand jury. This move by authorities compromised fairness and the pursuit of justice, he argued. Oscar would twice be jailed for contempt of court before the Biltmore Six finally walked free after several years of legal wrangling.

Then in 1970, Buffalo Z. Brown ran for sheriff of Los Angeles County under the La Raza Unida Party. From his candidacy statement:

Neither the expenditure of huge sums of money nor an increase in the personnel of all the law enforcement agencies throughout the county has diminished the decay inherent in our communities. On the contrary, history is replete with examples to prove that the privilege of bearing guns and their use under color of law has in all probability increased the incidence of violence. There can therefore be no justification for the continued waste of millions of taxpayers dollars in the maintenance of the militia within the confines of the county. Because the forces of oppression and suppression—the law enforcement agencies—continue to harass, brutalize, illegally confine and psychologically damage the Chicano, the black, the poor and the unrepresented, I hereby declare my candidacy for the office of Sheriff of Los Angeles County.

When he entered the race, he knew that his chances of winning were nil. Still, he ran a spirited campaign promising to disband the Los Angeles police force. According to Ilan Stavans in Bandido: Oscar Zeta Acosta and the Chicano Experience:

He pledged the ultimate dissolution of the sheriffs department; the interim actual and symbolic demilitarization of deputies; the immediate withdrawal of concentrated forces in the barrios and ghettos ; the immediate investigation into criminal activities of law enforcement officers; the implementation of community review boards from the various areas; the immediate use of personnel, equipment, and facilities for utilitarian and socially beneficial programs as recommended and approved by community review boards; and equality of treatment and justice for all.

Oscar ultimately lost by a wide margin, but he still received more than 100,000 votes. Hunter Thompson captured the excitement level Acosta engendered even in defeat:

[I]n defeat, Oscar managed to create an instant political base for himself in the vast Chicano barrio of East Los Angeles- where even the most conservative of the old-line “Mexican-Americans” were suddenly calling themselves “Chicanos” and getting their first taste of tear gas at “La Raza” demonstrations, which Oscar was quickly learning to use as a fire and brimstone forum to feature himself as the main spokesman for a mushrooming “Brown Power” movement that the LAPD called more dangerous than the Black Panthers.

Oscar Zeta Acosta in an ad for his autobiographyBut rather than capitalize politically on the momentum of his campaign, Oscar underwent another major existential change. By spring of 1972, he had given up practicing law and decided to go back to his first love, writing, which cemented his place in American literary and counterculture history.

In 1974, Acosta disappeared while traveling in Mexico. Nobody knows what exactly happened to him, except that witnesses say they saw him board a boat and head out into the ocean. To this day, his disappearance is still unresolved. No death certificate, no letters home, no clues, no body. Some believe the civil rights attorney was shot during a dope deal gone bad. Others believe he suffered a final nervous breakdown, succumbing to the damnation of all the years of drugs and debauchery, as famously depicted in Thompson’s book.

Perhaps it’s best to invoke Hunter’s raw, moving obituary of Oscar. Thompson wrote, in the exaggerated language and rough camaraderie of crazy, heroic giants:

The weird grapevine will not wither for the lack of bulletins, warnings, and other twisted rumors of the latest Brown Buffalo sightings. He will be seen at least once in Calcutta, buying girls out of cages on the White Slave Market … and also in Houston, tending bar at a roadhouse on South Main that was once the Blue Fox … or perhaps once again on the midnight run to Bimini: standing tall on his own hind legs in the cockpit of a fifty-foot black cigarette boat with a silver Uzi in one hand and a magnum of smack in the other, always running ninety miles an hour with no lights and howling Old Testament gibberish at the top of his bleeding lungs…

Yeah, that’s him, folks—my boy, my brother, my partner in too many crimes. Oscar Zeta Acosta. Stand back. He is gone now, but even his memory stirs up winds that will blow heavy cars off the road. He was a monster, a true child of the century—faster than Bo Jackson and crazier than Neal Cassady… When the Brown Buffalo disappeared, we all lost one of those high notes that we will never hear again. Oscar was one of God’s own prototypes—a high-powered mutant of some kind who was never even considered for mass production. He was too weird to live and too rare to die…

Goodbye, ese. And welcome back.

15 replies »

  1. Aside from reading “Fear and Loathing,” never knew his story before. Thanks for enlightening us, Amaury, and providing us with an inspiring year-end Scrogue.

  2. Good piece about an important apostle for justice.

    The influence of poet and teacher Ricardo Sanchez convinced me to assign “Revolt of the Cockroach People” to one class of State U undergraduates. Several of them got hung up on his self-confessed felonies, and I failed as a teacher. If these students could set aside their small-minded moralities long enough to appreciate the quest for justice in East LA, they might have been able to see the criminal behaviors of George W and cronies without illusion. I suppose it is a bit poetic that I loaned my copy of “Revolt of the Cockroach People” to a young undergraduate at a religious college and haven’t seen it since. After reading “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” this morning, and then this blog, I’m convinced I need to replace the stolen book and read it again.

  3. the more i read about zeta the more fascinated I am. I feel his legacy and life has been deliberatly written out of history for the very reasons that the original EAST L.A. 13 were arrested for in the first place – they were tired of class/racial propaganda being shoved down their throat and they wanted a more personal history – a more relevant education. As for thompson – one cant help but notice both major feature films are essentially about oscar. ‘where the buffalo roam’ is a great example – because zeta or the young radicals he is working with in the movie are are all WHITE! he is painted as a lunatic as Thompson slowly distances himself from zeta’s revolution. what the film doesn;t show is that the reason why thompson was backing off was simply because he was a white man, and was downright scared of zeta’s ‘chicano power’ movement. On the other hand if it wasn’t for hunter we’d probably know nothing about zeta at all. What i think as a Los Angeles chicano, is that the life and times of zeta must radically be re-interpreted – and while professor stavans has largely led the charge in this area – he hasn’t escaped the charges of being to conservative and overly critical of zeta – focussing more on the negatives of zeta life than actually trying to inspire people to be as brave and socially committed as oscar could be. No, it isn’t that we should cannonize oscar as a saint, but in a way, and considering how the historians of los angles would have like nothing better than to write zeta out of history – it is up to chicano writers to ressurect his ghost ina positive light – one that can inspire the kind of radical change he always was committed to. at the end of the 2003 edition of ‘bandido’ stavans admits that he was tempted to change alot of things about the book – and one can only guess that maybe he knows deep down he only gave oscar the short end of the stick with all his ‘journalistic objectivity.’