Going Gonzo: The Short life and Enduring Legacy of Oscar Zeta Acosta

“I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist”. —Jack London

by Roberto Leal

Oscar Zeta Acosta at a demonstration in downtown Los Angeles, CA.

I had just finished watching Stephen IvesThe West on Netflix. Goddam depressing! White un-settlers killing Indians, Chinese, Mexicans, and buffaloes. Billions and billions of magnificent buffaloes slaughtered into extinction.

Goddam depressing!

I went out for a drink. It was Happy Hour and the bar was serving complimentary, spicy hot Buffalo wings. Couldn’t take it. After three bottles of Modelo Especial and an equal number of tequila shots, I went back home.

Checked my email. There was an email from KLRN, my local PBS station. Did I want to come to a pre-screening of a documentary at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center; The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo.

“Oh no.” I thought to myself, “Another downer documentary about the wholesale massacre of the American bison.”

I was wrong. Very wrong.

As I read further, I discovered this was a documentary by Phillip Rodriguez about the noted and notorious Chicano activist, author, lawyer and counter-culture icon: Oscar Zeta Acosta.

Wait. Who?

I’d taken a Chicano Literature class back in the ‘70s. I read, and loved, Rudolfo Anaya’s classic Bless Me, Ultima. But never heard of Oscar Zeta Acosta. So, I showed up for the screening to watch, listen and learn.

The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo was presented by San Antonio’s PBS station, KLRN and hosted by The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, located in the city’s historic and ethnically rich West Side. There was free food and drinks served prior to the film. The tamales were just like Mom and Dad used to make at Christmas time. I should have had seconds.

Phillip Rodriguez’s genre-bending film is done in a very effective mockumentary style.  It evokes memories of Rob Reiner’s Spinal Tap and Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Rodriguez assembles a talented cast of actors doing re-enactments of significant episodes of Acosta’s turbulent life. A narration by Acosta himself (played by actor Jesse Celedon) and actual, historical film footage gives it a nice cinema vériteé flavor. The well-written script is by Rodriguez and David Ventura.

Born in El Paso, Texas in 1935. Acosta was raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley. After getting his law degree, Acosta moved to East Los Angeles and got involved in the Chicano Movement. As an attorney for the movement, he tirelessly, passionately, and often recklessly, defended Chicano groups and individuals caught up in legal jams.

Through the re-enactments and narration, Acosta’s larger-than-life persona, personal demons and glaring shortcomings are revealed, often in not so flattering terms. His excesses were the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy and PC nightmares; booze, drugs, womanizing. As a force of nature, The Brown Buffalo had more in common with Jake LaMotta’s Raging Bull than Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason.

Aspen, Colorado, 1967.

During the Summer of Love, Acosta, the East LA barrio barrister, caught the attention of journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson had written a piece about the incredible hulking Chicano, firebrand, and civil rights attorney. A simpatico, spiritual and chemical bromance ensured. They were kindred spirits who shared a love for quirky writing, drugs, alcohol and fast living.

They took a fateful road trip together from LA to Nevada that was the genesis of Thompson’s seminal work: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Dr. Gonzo character in Thompson’s novel, is based on Oscar Zeta. Acosta. And contrary to popular mythology, gonzo journalism, historically attributed to Hunter S. Thompson, was in fact inspired by Thompson’s admiration of Acosta’s raw, soulful, first-person narrative style of writing he did for the Chicano newspaper, La Raza.

Acosta wrote only two books: The Autobiography of the Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People. Acosta had studied creative writing in college and had developed a unique, highly-personalized, offbeat approach to writing that Thompson greatly appreciated. Both books have now found their rightful place in the rich canon of Chicano literature.Then, just as suddenly as he exploded onto the Chicano Movement scene, Oscar disappeared.

In 1974, during a trip to Mazatlán, Mexico, Acosta slipped off the edge of the planet into the abyss of oblivion, myth, and legend. Like Judge Crater, Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa before him, there has been endless speculation as to what happened to Acosta in Mexico. A drug deal gone bad? Political assignation? Mental breakdown resulting in a catatonic state?

My theory, and of course I have absolutely no proof, is that Acosta fell through an LSD-laced wormhole into an alternate space-time continuum. He landed on some planet where Dark Matter meets the Mad Hatter. He’s in some smoky cantina knocking down beer and tequila shots with the other myths and legends, comparing notes, drunker than a fucking monkey. Acosta is now the Attorney General of his beloved but never realized, Aztlan.

As Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Rolling Stone, there will be “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan.”

It’s the fabled land of Chicano destiny where the national bird is a poisonous, winged, feathered serpent. It’s where the national anthem is a rocking conjunto by Flaco Jimenez. It’s a land where Trump’s maldito will is covered from Brownsville to San Diego with beautiful, proud Chicano murals

Acosta is in court defending the civil rights of Chicanos from one end of the universe to the other. And in the process, pissing off Judge Crater, refusing to represent Hoffa because he’s not a Chicano and seducing Amelia Earhart.

And as usual, Acosta is showing up in court higher than a nosebleed, cobble-stone street in Guanajuato. Well, that’s my theory.

Phillip Rodriguez’s imaginative, insightful, often unsettling portrait of The Brown Buffalo, shows us a flawed human being who had a raging social conscience.

Oscar Zeta Acosta was a Chicano counter-culture icon, a civil rights activist, advocate, writer. He was a meteor who blazed across the Aztlan night sky all too briefly but left behind an enduring glow and legacy of social justice for our people.

The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo is currently being aired on PBS. The story of Oscar Zeta Acosta is one worthy of a full-length, theatrical, feature film.




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