Iconic Hispanic Angelenos in History: Oscar Zeta Acosta | KCET
Iconic Hispanic Angelenos in History: Oscar Zeta Acosta
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15 through October 15, join us as we celebrate the Hispanic individuals that have influenced culture, social justice, and progress in Los Angeles and, in some instances, the nation. Check back often as we highlight a new iconic Hispanic Angeleno throughout the month.
Today we celebrate Oscar Zeta Acosta:
Famously depicted as Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Oscar Zeta Acosta was a lawyer, activist and writer who played an important role in the Chicano Movement in East L.A.
Born in El Paso, Texas in 1935, Acosta was raised in the San Joaquin Valley. After a stint in the Air Force, Acosta moved to San Francisco, where he took night classes at San Francisco Law School. He passed the California Bar exam in 1966 and started working at Oakland Legal Aid. In 1968, feeling he couldn't do much for the people that came to him for help, Acosta moved down to East Los Angeles, well-aware of the Chicano movement that was beginning to take shape.
Within two years of moving to East L.A., Acosta had become an integral part of the Chicano Movement. In 1970 he ran for Sheriff under the Raza Unida Party, a small party that aimed to bring Chicano issues to light. Acosta ran with the single platform of wanting to disband the LAPD; he received over 100,000 votes, which wasn't enough to win him the election, but demonstrated his popularity within the community.
Acosta became the legal counsel in two important court cases in 1970: He represented the East L.A. 13, which encompassed students, activists, leaders of the brown berets, and teachers who were arrested after the East L.A. Blowouts; and the Biltmore 6, who were arrested for starting a fire at the Biltmore Hotel during Ronald Reagan's visit. In the course of these cases, Acosta subpoenaed 70 L.A. county superior court judges as witnesses, questioning them over the institutional racism of the legal system, specifically in the grand jury selection. Acosta claimed that because judges were able to select members of the grand jury, it was not a body that represented the community. The court decided otherwise, claiming that there was no right to proportional representation, but this did not stop Acosta. He earned the ire of police, politicians, and judges, often interrupting court proceedings, such as in the Ruben Salazar hearings. During this time, Acosta also wrote for La Raza, a Chicano publication in which he shared information about the cases he took on and wrote about the problems of the legal system.
Hunter S. Thompson first mentioned Acosta in "Strange Rumbling in Aztlan," an article he wrote in 1971 for Rolling Stone about the aftermath of journalist Ruben Salazar's death. This led Acosta to join Thompson on a trip to Las Vegas, in which both could talk openly about race -- and became the inspiration for Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
Acosta eventually left the legal profession and concentrated on writing. He published two works, both of which would become essential to the Chicano Movement. "Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo" published in 1972, was a fictionalized biography which ended with the main character moving to East Los Angeles after hearing about the Chicano Movement. East L.A. was a place he could finally feel welcomed and at home -- a place that would accept that he was neither American or Mexican, but somewhere in between. In "The Revolt of the Cockroach People," published in 1973, Acosta depicted a fictionalized version of the 1970 Chicano Moratorium.
Acosta disappeared in 1974 at the age of 39 while travelling in Mexico.
- Depicted as Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
- Received a music scholarship to the University of Southern California, but instead joined the Armed Forces Band
- Dated a caucasian woman whose parents didn't accept him -- which became a catalyst for his brown pride activism
- East L.A. 13 and Biltmore 6 were among the first civil disobedience cases in Los Angeles to gain national media attention.
- Read excerpts from his novels at the 1971 Festival de Flor Y Canto at USC, videos of which can be found here
- Gave up practicing law in 1972 to concentrate on his literary aspirations
- The 1980 film "Where the Buffalo Roam" depicts Acosta's life (played by Peter Boyle) and his relationship with Hunter S. Thompson