Acosta, Oscar Zeta

   Can a 1960s legendary West Coast Chicano lawyer–activist truly be thought a member of the Beat roster, not least given his various disparaging remarks about the movement? If, indeed, he can, it might be as a kind of Beat anti-Beat figure on his own ironic self-reckoning the “faded beatnik” or on that of hunter s. thompson, “the wild boy . . . crazier than neal cassady.” (Thompson based Dr. Gonzo in fear and loatHinG in las veGas on Acosta.) Certainly in life, as in his writing, Acosta, like the Beats, plays out a key countercultural role, the maverick, roistering voice from California’s supposed ethnic margin. Whether the sheer theater of his sex-anddrugs personal life; his Oakland, San Francisco, and East Los Angeles law work in domestic and tenants rights and defense of Brown Power militants; his community politics; or his two landmark autobiographical fictions—The autoBioGrapHy of a Brown Buffalo (1972) and The revolt of tHe cockroacH people (1973)—Acosta embodies a heady, often flamboyant, brew. Life and art overlap, the acting-out both in real time and place and on the page of the persona he at various times designated “Buffalo Zeta Brown, Chicano Lawyer,” “The Samoan,” and “Dr. Gonzo.” On the one hand this interface of self and chicanismo and the awareness of his own considerable brown flesh within a white America makes him an unlikely Beat candidate. On the other hand, the Beat argot, “on the road” adventures, search for a transcendent spirituality, and gift for a jack kerouac–style speed of narrative, gives him genuine Beat plausibility. Acosta, thus, can be construed several ways. There is the Acosta raised in California’s Riverbank– Modesto who becomes the legal-aid lawyer after studies at the University of Southern California and qualification for the bar in San Francisco in 1966. There is the air-force enlistee who, on being sent to Panama, becomes a Baptist-Pentecostal convert and missionary there (1949–52) before opting for apostasy and a return to altogether more secular ways and times in California. There is the inmate of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in 1968 who was forced to argue in local court for his own interests in uncertain street Spanish (or caló) after a spat with a hotelkeeper. There is the tequila drinker and druggie who spent 10 years in therapy, the hugely overweight ulcer sufferer who spat blood, and the twice-over divorcee.
   Not least there is the Acosta of the barricades, the battling lawyer of the “High School 13” and “St Basil’s Cathedral 21” protests in 1968, each trial of the vato loco militants, and the police-cell death of the youth Robert Fernandez and the shooting of award-winning correspondent Reuben Salazar of station KMEX. There is the “buffalo” who runs as La Raza Unida independent candidate for sheriff of Los Angeles in 1970 and becomes the friend and political co-spirit of César Chávez and Denver’s “Corky” Gonzalez. Finally there is the Acosta who leaves for Mexico in despair at the marring internal divisions of Chicano politics, and there is the eventual desaparecido in 1974, aged 39, who was last heard from in Mazatlán, Mexico. His end has long been shrouded in mystery. Was he drugs or gun running, a victim of accident or foul play, or a kind of Chicano Ambrose Bierce who had created his own exit from history?
   From a literary perspective there remains the Acosta of The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of The Cockroach People, the voice who can both speak of City Lights Bookstore as “a hang-out for sniveling intellectuals,” yet of himself as a “flower vato,” or disrespect Ginsberg and Kerouac even as he reminisces about his own “beatnik days.” Beat Chicano or Chicano Beat, Acosta supplies the grounds, however paradoxical, for an affiliation of spirit and art to the movement.
■ Lee, A. Robert. “Chicanismo’s Beat Outrider?: The Texts and Contexts of Oscar Zeta Acosta.” In The Beat Generation: Critical Essays, edited by Kostas Myrsiades, 259–280. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.
   A. Robert Lee

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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