ALTHOUGH I WAS very much around Los Angeles during the tumultuous sixties, I somehow missed meeting Oscar Zeta Acosta—although I cannot be completely sure I didn’t. Even if I never actually set eyes on him, I felt as if I knew him well after reading about the encounter Acosta had with Dorothy Healey, chairperson of the Southern California Communist Party. In Revolt Of The Cockroach People, he described meeting her on a picket line protesting police brutality in front of Parker Center in 1968. Acosta was writing about Los Angeles as the epicenter of his people’s struggles in the late sixties and early seventies, shortly before his own almost B. Traven-like disappearance into Mexico.
Next to Cesar Chavez, Acosta was the best known Chicano activist in town. His other book was Autobiography Of A Brown Buffalo. He also wrote some short stories, and is remembered especially for one, “Perlaw is a Pig.” Despite the thinness of his literary output, his legacy as the first great Chicano writer is beyond question.
Acosta was a swarthy man who looked like an Aztec warrior. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson dubbed him “The Samoan,” the attorney who had even more contempt for the law than Thompson did. But in no way was Oscar a Samoan, which was probably a whimsical and even ironic description by Thompson. But he was a Chicano, one of the founders of the Brown Berets in Los Angeles, whose work celebrated not Mexicans as much as those people whose ancestors were Aztecs who had farmed the land both in Mexico and in southern California for hundreds of years.
He grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, attending Modesto Junior College, San Francisco State College for creative writing, and then San Francisco Law School at night for his law degree. Initially, he found work as an anti-poverty lawyer in Oakland, where he met and got to know the Black Panthers well, with their trademark black berets. He learned to love his own brown skin by watching blacks learning to love their black skin. Thus it is no surprise that when he came down to Los Angeles, where he did his major work, he was in effect a pioneer Brown Beret and one of the key founders of the Chicano movement.
Acosta was a political activist first, then a lawyer, and ultimately a writer. Just as he helped to create the Chicano movement, he also became its first and best literary practitioner. He only became a revolutionary later.
Not long ago I had reason to watch a protest against police brutality in front of Parker Center. One thing that was different—one protest leader was carefully explaining to me that the protesters weren’t anti-cop—they just wanted the bad apples out. A few feet away from him, a black officer in full riot gear, listened intently and joined in the conversation. “That’s all we want too,” he said.
Understand, this is still new having black cops with power in the LAPD, traditionally one of the most bigoted police forces outside the deep South. During the Monica Lewinsky affair, down to a man, the white cops would carry on about how the President was a sleaze and a scofflaw for having behaved as he did.
“Oh, come on,” I said to one, “if a zaftig, sexy lady came on to you, you’d refuse her advances?” He didn’t say anything, and then agreed he might not have acted any different than Clinton.
At any rate the white officers would carry on about what a rat Clinton was while the black officers (man or woman) saw it Clinton’s way. The Clinton scandal wasn’t about upholding morality, it was about really dirty politics where you stop just short of assassination. That was what was being done to Clinton, the black officers realized.
Back in the sixties, black officers were a lot scarcer than today, and the legacy of the man after whom Parker Center was named was that cops invariably come in only one variety—big tall Aryans with guns and batons they constantly fingered like masturbators. When black cops were hired, they were assigned such tasks as taking out black militants.
When I was a student at Los Angeles City College, which was first a center of civil rights and later anti-war activism, a white man couldn’t walk down Melrose Avenue with a black man without being stopped by police from the Rampart Division and thrown up against a police car for a pat-down. At the same time, blacks and whites from Los Angeles were streaming out of the Xanadu and going South to register voters. Police Chief Bill Parker operated in the J. Edgar Hoover mode and didn’t like such subversive goings-on. And of course it always came down to one thing. If a white man was with a black woman, it was even worse than if a white man and a black man were seen together on the streets around the Xanadu. Things are different now; but if you think Acosta’s writings about the period were exaggerated, take it from me: they were not.
One of my roommates from City College days was then student body president Ron Everett, who changed his name to Ron Karenga and founded the religion Kwaanza. Another was an African named Paul Sumbi and yet another was Ed Bullins, who went on to achieve considerable success as a black playwright before his early death.
I asked a black police detective about Karenga, whether or not he was really as dangerous a character as he was later portrayed. “Not at all,” he said. “Most of those guys, including the Black Panthers, did very litde. We were making it look like they were.” Then the detective lowered his voice. “My superiors wanted me to get rid of Karenga. They all but gave me a license to kill.”
I mention all this to explain the tenor of the times Acosta was writing about. I thought about them not only because of the recent protest I had covered, but also because of the irony of a statement released upon the recent death of former Chief William Parker’s widow by Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. Parks may be black, but he described Parker as the greatest police chief ever. That is like a Jew commending Hitler on his leadership abilities. Did Chief Parks live through the same times I had, I wondered.
Acosta reveled in being the revolutionary, even though one sensed a lot of playacting in his revolutionary impulse. But not all the violence going on in those days was playacting. Acosta’s meeting with Dorothy Healey came during the 1968 California primary, shortly before the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Acosta was the organizer of a picket line, as well as the attorney for the political inmates who were inside Parker Center jail on a hunger strike. Then as now, a phalanx of L.A.’s finest kept the protesters from entering the “glass house.” Because Acosta was the inmates’ attorney, he was able to walk back and talk to his clients inside. Their crime was a familiar one for Chicanos in Los Angeles: even then, they were fighting to improve their substandard schools.
Dorothy Healey was among those on the picket line, as were some people from the Black Panthers. She asked Acosta if he thought her presence might embarrass him and his cause. He put his arm around this “beautiful woman with flaming sunset hair,” squeezed and chided her. “Listen, Dorothy, you can march with me anytime ... and besides, the Chicanos are ten times farther to the left of the Communists now.” Her green eyes twinkled, he reported, and she stayed on the line.
I was one of a generation of radicals in the fifties and sixties who were in love with Dorothy—no doubt for some of the same reasons Acosta put his arms around her. Here was this woman who was supposed to represent evil revolutionaries, and yet she was so damned huggable.
Mike Davis, the author of City of Quartz and other basic books about Los Angeles, was another one who learned at Dorothy’s feet. For many years, Dorothy was the human face of socialism in Los Angeles. When I was sixteen and just discovering politics and literature as well as a bit about love and life I spent many afternoons in Dorothy’s kitchen and living room, asking her questions not just about politics but everything else. I was, of course, in love with her in a virginal kind of way. Her looks and sexuality were part of her intelligence and knowledge.
As much as I found myself thrust back into those wild days of the sixties as I read Acosta, I knew that in real life he would never have given me the comfort of being the guide for the perplexed that Dorothy had. Dorothy almost always made immediate sense when I was pondering things, whereas Acosta dealt with those most uncomfortable existential realities of oppression and violence to which easy answers are never found. There are, of course, other things to be learned from someone who lived life with the abandon Acosta did; but the way he pushed the limits made for better literature than solace.
Jack Smith in the Los Angeles Times could and did write a long and sympathetic portrayal of Dorothy, in part because she was persuasive, charming, and pretty and could be more easily portrayed in the pages of a “family newspaper” than the Brown Buffalo. Oscar would have presented a much more problematic subject had Smith wanted to write about him, and he was much more part of the sixties counter-culture, where sex and drugs were the weapons of cultural terrorism in that generation’s arsenal.
Dorothy no doubt regarded Acosta as an ‘infantile leftist.” Like a lot of radicals of the day, he was inspired by the anarchist notion of “direct action.” In Revolt of the Cockroach People he writes without shame about having been involved in the torching of a mini-mall and a bombing at the courthouse that killed one person—a Chicano, as it happened. How much he was fictionalizing is hard to say.
He also ran for sheriff against Peter Pitchess in 1968, pulling more than one hundred thousand votes—a fairly respectable showing—and numbering among his supporters people like the actor Anthony Quinn. His flamboyance and his passion in defending Chicano activists was legendary, and he was familiar to a lot of people, some of whom have become today’s City Council members, district attorneys, judges, and potential mayors.
Acosta was very much the voice of the early Chicano movement when it was full of romantic and revolutionary impulses. And he also was part of a long tradition of Mexican revolutionaries who had thrived in Los Angeles from the turn of the century. Acosta’s particular take on being a Chicano was that Chicanos were more Aztec than Hispanic. He defined Chicanos as the people who had lived in the land that became California long before Mexican independence from Spain.
Acosta’s libidinous nature somehow seemed wrapped up with the primeval force of fecundity, just as Dorothy’s beauty and sexuality unleashed intense jealousy from her critics in and out of the party. Within the ranks of the party, Dorothy was violently opposed by the Stalinists. And though she was a dedicated, disciplined communist, there was also a sense of playfulness about her that riled their dour Weltanschauung.
With Marxist ideologues there’s always a classic dichotomy between a political explanation of things and a sexual explanation of them. It was not accidental that in the late forties and early fifties as more and more people abandoned their Depression-era communism, they also moved away from a Marxist view of the world to a more Freudian interpretation. Even with many who maintained their political stance through the McCarthy years, there was a turning toward the notion that sex and not class struggle was the real motivating force behind history. Acosta wrote about sex in the gargantuan manner of a Henry Miller and a Charles Bukowski. But he did so with the added dimension of his identity as a swarthy brown man.
For Acosta this culminated in his affair with a black juror in the St. Basil’s trial. Their relationship was the logical conclusion to the shame he had felt growing up the son of a peach-picking family in the small Central Valley town of Riverbank. As a kid in that foggy land at the base of the western slope of the Sierra, 300 miles north of Los Angeles, the Oakies used to call him Nigger because he was so dark. The affair with the juror seemed to reaffirm the notion that had been growing in him for years—namely that black and brown are both beautiful. Acosta was a man who would never make it as a hero in this day and age where the ideal allows only slick, taut bodies. Acosta was proudly a big, sloppy animal.
His affair with the beautiful jet-black juror really had more to do with soul attraction than merely a sexual one. It was his identity as a Brown Buffalo. He reveled in being brown, in being a buffalo, so of course he reveled in the woman’s blackness—and, by extension, in his own brownness throughout the affair.
All of which drove him to real brilliance during the summation to the jury: he spoke about the Spanish and the Aztecs. He described how Montezuma gave up his million-man army to the Spanish, and how the Aztecs were forever vanquished. The Spanish raped and conquered Mexico for the Catholic Church in 1500. In 1850 more white men—the so-called Anglos this time—conquered the Southwest, the ancient land the Aztecs called Atzlan. Again brown people were subjugated, as they remained subjugated in the Los Angeles of the late sixties.
Growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Riverbank and Ceres, Oscar Zeta Acosta had learned first hand about that odd synergy of sex drive and nationality. For oppressed or oppressor, miscegination always has the lure of forbidden fruit; sex and nationalism are a potent combination. There he had fallen in love with Oakies girls who seemed high and mighty to him, whose approbation he craved and who usually kicked him in the groin for his efforts. But there can be no denying the fascination between peoples, and Acosta writes well about that. He loves Mexican women, he loves Italians, blacks, Russians and Irish women equally
A few generations earlier when a young writer first wrote in the Enterprise about the Miscegination Society in Virginia City, Mark Twain knew what he was doing, and guessed quite accurately it would touch a nerve.
In Riverbank, Acosta also suffered the indignity of getting beaten up by the fathers and brothers of the Oakie girls he fancied—especially one in particular who fancied him back. They stripped him and laughed at his small penis. Mexicans who got beaten up—and in Riverbank in those days they were Mexicans or braceros, not Chicanos—knew better than to complain to local authorities. The cops were Oakies too.
The Riverbank area seems worlds apart even from the Highway 99 flat-land scene celebrated in the movie “American Graffiti,” and there have been more changes since Acosta’s boyhood there. Nowadays, Highway 5 swoops across the valley floor, a good thirty miles west of Ceres, Riverbank, Modesto, Merced and Turlock, while Highway 99 has been reduced to little more than a local road between these towns, not the link to Los Angeles and San Francisco that it once was. But when Acosta was a child, the world outside his little town was still the flat land that radiated out from Highway 99, which at its grandest was no more than a four-lane affair, two lanes in either direction. Highway 99 was an eerie portal into the valley, lined for many of its miles by eucalyptus that gave shade to the pavement in summer and ghostly guidance on a foggy night.
So Acosta had come the long way around from Ceres to Los Angeles by the time he arrived in the late sixties, even though it wasn’t much more than a five-hour drive.
And Oscar came to Los Angeles not to become a lawyer but to write the great novel. “I’ve been in town six hours and now lie naked on my bed with the window of my sleazy downtown hotel room open to the sounds of the city... Already my bones have told me that I have come to the most detestable city on earth.” He sees L.A. as a place right out of Hades, especially for his people.
Describing Whittier Boulevard, the “Chicano Sunset Strip,” he wrote that “every other door is a bar, a pawn shop or a liquor store. Hustlers roam freely across asphalt decorated with vomit and dogshit. If you score in East Los Angeles you score on the Boulevard. Broads, booze and dope. Cops on every corner make no difference. The fuzz, la placa, la chota, los marranos, la jura or just the plain old pig. The eternal enemies of the people.”
Despite the tawdriness of the city, circumstances conspired to push Acosta center stage. An intermediary from the mayor’s office kept leaving messages at the desk for Acosta to call: Mayor Sam Yorty wanted to meet with him. To Acosta’s surprise, Sam came clean right away. He leaned up close to Acosta and said, “The blacks picketed for years ... for years. They marched and did the very things you people are doing. And you know what? The honest to God truth ... they didn’t get a thing out of it until Watts. That’s my opinion.”
Now being Sam Yorty, he might have thought he was pulling of a brilliant piece of agent-provocateuring. After all, Sam, who it was said had had an affair with Dorothy Healey, used to take out ads for his Assembly race in the People’s World in order to court the communist vote. So his venom against communists in the fifties was intensely personal as well as opportunistic.
A man who will act the agent-provocateur will just as easily race-bait, which is always a winner for scoundrels. Sam was both a red baiter and a race baiter. The irony is that Dorothy learned her greatest lessons as a farm worker organizer in the Imperial Valley in the thirties. The people she worked with were primarily of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath era—mostly the same Oakies who so tormented Acosta as he was growing up. Thirty or so years later when Acosta slipped his big brown arms around Dorothy in 1968, there was a resonance even the two of them didn’t quite understand.
It would be too simple to call Acosta a hedonist and Dorothy the disciplined revolutionary. How, for instance, does one deal with Acosta’s insistence that he really had wanted to be a cop, but got a little sidetracked on the way there? He was probably too dedicated, in that sixties way of his, to mind alteration in all its myriad forms ever to have become a cop. He told the story of how one Al Mathews led him astray from the profession of upholding the law.
Mathews and Acosta were both dedicated drinkers, not unlike the Consul in Under The Volcano, doing a death dance with the bottle, only to die, at least metaphorically, by being thrown down the mouth of the active volcano Popocatepetl. The only dignity left to the Consul in plunging into the abyss was that the dead dog came after, not before him. Acosta’s story has some of the same elements.
Oscar shared with Mathews a love of reading and writing. But Mathews “settled for reading and drinking,” Acosta wrote. “All he ever wanted out of life was Rainier Ale and red wine with a wet towel over his forehead and a book in his hand while he lay flat on his back in a filthy, cold apartment.”
Next Acosta tells of an improbable drunken rampage involving a police pursuit and a few weeks in the pokey, and then reveals the fact that he actually was turned down in his efforts to join the ranks of the law because of some previous rampages having nothing to do with Al Mathews.
A moment of truth came for Acosta when Cesar Chavez, the grand old man of the Chicano movement, summoned him. Acosta was already becoming known as the Chicano movement’s lawyer, but he didn’t want to continue in that vein. He wanted to get back to writing.
Like many who admired and loved Chavez, Acosta did not particularly agree with his mentor’s nonviolence. Still, when Chavez called, Acosta was excited. Just the fact that he had been invited gave him validation.
They met in the chapel of the union-owned ranch in Delano.
“Is that you, Buffalo?” Chavez asked as Acosta walked into the room.
Chavez told him that the work he did as a Chicano lawyer and street leader was important. He added that he knew L.A. ate up organizers.
Acosta told Chavez he was no pacifist. Chavez replied: “It doesn’t matter if I approve or if anyone approves. You are doing what needs to be done ... I’m a man, just like you. Each of us has a different role, but we both want the same thing, don’t we?”
Chavez urged Acosta to stay on for the sake of the Chicano movement. Oscar replied he still didn’t want to be a lawyer. Who in their right mind would? Chavez replied, somberly adding, “Buffalo, you go back to L.A. and take care of business.”
The political and societal violence in Malcolm Lowry’s story of the Consul from Under the Volcano in 1939 and Acosta’s Los Angeles in the late sixties and early seventies have their similarities. Lowry’s story, of course, is a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, for the triumph of fascism. True to the spirit of the sixties, Acosta came to believe in “direction action.” He was more of an anarchist than a communist in that way. And he was a hippie in his taste for drugs and celebratory mass sexuality—never a dedicated, disciplined revolutionary.
Acosta wrote about revolutionary times, and he was not uncomfortable with chaos, a quality not unique in the best of American writing. But, of course, it wasn’t really that simple for Acosta. Early on he figured out that he was more an Aztec than a Spaniard, yet he wrote in the episodic novel tradition begun by Cervantes in Spain a few centuries before.
Still, what the Brown Buffalo was all about was an assault on the pure, lilly-white world of Anglo-America that he found especially manifest in Los Angeles.
Acosta came to his nationalism slowly. He lost his virginity to a Mediterranean lady in a Modesto area whorehouse, an older woman who specialized in educating the young. There are many other permutations of this: there was a period of proselytizing for Christ as a Protestant missionary in a leper colony in Panama. However there is very little attachment to Catholicism anywhere in his books because, in his view, he was not Hispanic—he was Aztec, and by extension, Chicano.
After he became disillusioned with religion and Christ, he went to San Francisco where he met bohemians, writers, and women of all and most varied description. He wrote like Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski—and at his best, he wrote his prose like Dylan Thomas wrote poetry—deep from deep within some inner place.
After a trip to Mexico, a time in a Mexican jail, he come back into the country through El Paso, where he had been born. When he goes before a Mexican court, he protests to the Mexican judge—a woman—that he is a lawyer in the United States, who practices in San Francisco.
The judge won’t talk about his nationality. She warns him about his dubious connections to the counter-culture underground.
She’s right, of course.
“If you’re a lawyer you should act like like one,” the judge says to him sternly.
“Cut your hair or leave this city. We got enough of your kind here. You spend your money on the putas and then don’t even have enough to pay your fines when you’re caught with your pants down,” she says.
So he showed the proper amount of guilt and remorse, and paid the fine. Of course the soldier kept a bit more for himself, offering the suggestion that he go home and learn to speak his father’s language.
On the way back to the states, he was greeted by a very blond guard packing a .357 magnum who asked Acosta where he was born.
He replied that he was and that he was an attorney in San Francisco.
True enough at the time, Acosta practiced law as a socially conscious lawyer in Oakland—close enough to count as Frisco.
“I thought you said you were from Paso,” the guard says.
“I’m a lawyer. I was born in El Paso. I practice in Frisco.”
Acosta said this having no ID. The guard eventually let him through while saying, “You don’t look like an American, you know.”
Then he had an epiphany in his hotel room. The Brown Buffalo had pawned his clarinet and camera for $15 and checked into a greasy hotel room in downtown El Paso where he removed the cockroach-infested clothes from his lice-infested body—the result from being held in a Mexican jail.
He was naked as he sat down on his bed and looked at himself in a mirror. “I am a brown buffalo lonely and afraid in a world I never made. I enter the womb of night and am as dead to this world of confusion for thirty-three hours.”
When Acosta later ran for sheriff of Los Angeles County, he wasn’t kidding about taking over law enforcement. He was representing a people who had been set upon, spat upon, exploited and brutalized for many years in Los Angeles. And now they were angry.
A lot of the sixties “direction action” types were more theater than substance. And to a great extent this was no doubt true with Acosta. With his writings it’s often hard to know exactly where reality left off and fantasy began. Much of his work was basically good solid journalism, which is much the same thing you could say about Hunter Thompson. It’s just that characters like Sheriff Peter Pitchess become Sheriff Peaches and Ruben Salazar became Roland Zanzibar. Then again, at other times, he will employ a person’s real name.
Nowadays when corporate newspapers hold seminars on journalistic ethics, the major point they make is to get a person’s name spelled right. That’s the depth of our ethics. I guess Acosta would have flunked the ethics seminar at Gannett newspapers.
Thompson and Acosta were gonzo, but they also were very good journalists even if their journalism bordered on fiction. But what they wrote still rang truer than most of what you read in the papers today. In a way that tradition is not new. Even when Mark Twain told a tall tale, he always told the truth.
With Acosta, the hyperbole he uses becomes transposed into surreal magic, which not so coincidentally seems to be a mark of a lot of the greatest of Latino literature.
In his second book, the one that takes place mostly in Los Angeles, The Revolt Of The Cockroach People, he describes running against Sheriff Pitchess as a radical Chicano and getting enough votes to affect if not win any electoral contest. How much of his descriptions of “direct action” by Chicano activists pillaging and rampaging in a mall or a bank is Walter Mitty we will never know. Emotionally he was capable of such things.
There was, of course, a tremendous amount of paranoia in the story, partly because of the heavy duty politics going down when Hunter Thompson hooked up with Acosta while writing about Ruben Salazar. Acosta was Thompson’s introduction to the politics of the barrio. The other part of the yarn has to be the paranoia-inducing drugs that were so abundant on paper and no doubt in the real lives of both Acosta and Thompson. And Acosta’s mysterious disappearance in Mexico after 1974 also adds that B. Traven element to the legend.
But he hardly needed to have done so. Apparently what you read was what you really got—at least according to Thompson. Acosta was himself quite sensitive to the fact that at one point, anyway, he was more famous as a character out of Thompson’s writing than as a writer.
Acosta was very real, however. His guerrilla theater was dead on. Acosta had the temerity to subpoena every superior court judge in Los Angeles County in order to bolster his contention that racism was so pervasive that a Chicano could never get a fair trial. He also represented the Chicano Six—defendants accused of trying to burn up the Biltmore Hotel while Ronald Reagan gave a speech.
Despite his large, angry Aztec appearance, Acosta was a man plagued by massive insecurities—insecurities he dealt with by overindulgence in food and drugs and alcohol. Along with his paranoia, Acosta was a gentle and sensitive man who wrote with an intensity and poetry that would have given him the stature of a first rank writer.
Octavio Paz wrote about Los Angeles In The Labyrinth of Solitude and talks about living in Los Angeles, “a city inhabited by over a million persons of Mexican origin.” then going on to somehow dismiss “...the city’s vaguely Mexican atmosphere, which cannot be captured in words or concepts.” In fairness to Paz, he was writing in the fifties, and Acosta didn’t really emerge in print until the seventies. Acosta alone gave Los Angeles validity as the capital of Chicano literature. But he was its supreme moment, and I suspect will remain so for some time.
The history of the great Latin American writing is that it is always highly charged with working class and revolutionary impulse, and has also been rich in religious pageantry and symbolism. They represent different ends of the same spectrum, of course, as Eisenstein’s movie, “Day of the Dead” shows.
I think Acosta represented the existential and leftist impulse that has distinguished Latino culture’s greatest moments. The sentimental memories of an ancient paradise are cheap shots. The great Latino artists, from Diego Rivera to Pablo Neruda, believed that paradise had to be made by working class struggle, strange as that may sound to American ears, although in fact America’s greatest writers from Mark Twain to Jack London to Upton Sinclair wrote unabashed working class literature. In Latin America Rivera and Neruda reflected the great stream in Latino culture that, much to the dismay of the American State Department, makes heroes of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro himself.
Acosta was not a Che Guevara or a Castro. What he left behind makes you know the times and understand them—and his works give us something to compare with present day reality. With Acosta, the peculiar intermingling of cultural paradigms is what gives his books their insights and unique character and most likely, their real significance.
And that’s why the picture of Acosta slipping his arms around Dorothy that day on the picket line in front of Parker Center seems like a moment frozen in time, as if from some old snapshot. But it was more than a snapshot—it was a resonant moment in another time and place that tells much about us today, including the fact that our collective amnesia still abounds in the new Millennium.
This is adapted from Lionel Rolfe's book, "Literary L.A.," available at Amazon's Kindle Store and Scribd and soon a number of other digital outlets.