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Acosta, Oscar “Zeta”

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States

Frederick Luis Aldama

Acosta, Oscar “Zeta” 


writer and lawyer. Oscar Acosta was born in El Paso, Texas, on April8, 1935 (though biographical records differ slightly on this date). Soon after his birth, in search of work, his Mexican émigré parents moved to a small town at the outskirts of Modesto, California. Acosta grew up in this largely agricultural belt of the San Joaquin Valley, where he learned early on of his differences both racially as a Mexican American and in physical size. On the school grounds, he was regularly the target of racist epithets, especially from his white, working-class “Okie” classmates but also from bigoted teachers. In his autobiography, he powerfully recalls his childhood: “I grew up a fat, dark Mexican—a Brown Buffalo—and my enemies called me a nigger” (Acosta 1972, p. 86). As a teenager, Acosta continued to rub up against a racist America, and he survived by learning to laugh at and make fun of his xenophobic world. This spirit later transformed into a playfully satiric writing style.

After barely making the grades to graduate from high school (a fact he later extolled as part of his comedic tendency to play up his mediocrity), Acosta first worked as a missionary in Panama and then attended creative writing and French classes at a junior college in Modesto. He spent some time in Los Angeles, where he sat for and passed the sheriff's exams (he campaigned unsuccessfully to become the LA County sheriff). Later, he settled in San Francisco. After years of taking night-school law courses, he eventually passed the California bar exam on June28, 1966. During the civil rights movement, Acosta worked as a lawyer representing the urban poor in Oakland, California. Relocating to Los Angeles, he worked as a defense attorney for activist Chicanos and Chicanas wrongfully incarcerated during the height of the Brown Power movement in the late 1960s. He became well known among Chicanos and Chicanas and was a media headliner because of his sharp wit yet playful and sardonic defense style.

From an early age, Acosta was fascinated by stories, including his father's experiences as a horse trader and as a U.S. sailor during World War II and his mother's experiences as a naturalized Mexican growing up in El Paso. Although he did not excel at school, Acosta as a young man was greatly influenced by writers such as Federico García Lorca, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and Bob Dylan. He sensed that one day he would be a writer, and he saved all his notes, journals, stories written on scraps of paper, and poems. In 1970, he published his first short story, “Perla Is a Pig,” in the Chicano and Chicana literary magazine Con Safos. The story was later included in Ilan Stavan's collection Oscar “Zeta” Acosta: The Uncollected Works (1996). His playful tone and mixing of fact and fiction became a trademark in books such as The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972) and The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973). Acosta's blurring of fact and fiction and quick-paced, drug-induced writing style informed Hunter S. Thompson's “gonzo style” of reportage. Thompson's alleged failure to acknowledge Acosta's creative contribution to his work tore their friendship apart, according to Acosta's published account of their rupture in the October 15, 1973, issue of Playboy magazine. This account was later included in Stavan's Oscar “Zeta” Acosta: The Uncollected Works.

When Acosta published The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, many Chicanos and Chicanas celebrated its satiric irreverence not just toward mainstream society but also toward its critique of categories of racial self-identification that stifle one's experiences in the world. In this picaresque odyssey, he continually blurs the line between fact and fiction, reordering biographical chronology to announce his age as the same “as Jesus when he died,” for example (Acosta 1972, p. 18). He playfully identifies himself variously as Samoan and American Indian to disrupt prejudice and finally comes into his sense of self, declaring: “I am neither a Mexican nor an American. I am neither a Catholic nor a Protestant. I am a Chicano by ancestry and a Brown Buffalo by choice” (Acosta 1972, p. 199). Acosta wrote The Revolt of the Cockroach People in the same playful and parodic style, creatively refashioning the time he worked in Los Angeles defending activists incarcerated during the explosive civil rights battles over racist education systems and public policy making that discriminated against Chicanos and Chicanas. Acosta brings to life both the pains and the pleasures of the landmark case Castro v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles, in which he defended with his trademark wit and bravado those indicted during the East Los Angeles high school walk outs.

Sometime in June 1974, Acosta disappeared off the coast of Mazatlán on a friend's sailing boat. It is believed that he died at sea, but his body was never found. Many have speculated that Acosta relocated to somewhere in Mexico, having staged his death to slide off the “wanted” list of the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA). Acosta's creative spirit was a step ahead of his time and certainly far ahead of many so-called “first-wave” writers who often portrayed Chicanos and Chicanas as cut off from the mainstream and in an essentialist light. A Chicano writer, activist, and social critic, he dared to experiment with storytelling form and to self-reflexively contour Chicano and Chicana experience as intricately woven into U.S. mainstream culture.

See also Literature.


Acosta, Oscar Zeta. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972.Find this resource:

    Acosta, Oscar Zeta. The Revolt of the Cockroach People. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1973.Find this resource:

      Aldama, Frederick Luis. Postethnic Narrative Criticism: Magicorealism in Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, Ana Castillo, Julie Dash, Hanif Kureishi, and Salman Rushdie. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.Find this resource:

        Rivera, Tomás. “Into the Labyrinth: The Chicano in Literature.Southwestern American Literature2, no. 2 (1972): 90–97.Find this resource:

          Rodríguez, Joe D.“The Chicano Novel and the North American Narrative of Survival.Denver Quarterly16 (Fall 1981): 229–235.Find this resource:

            Rodríguez, Joe D.“God's Silence and the Shrill of Ethnicity in the Chicano Novel.Explorations in Ethnic Studies4 (July 1981): 14–21.Find this resource:

              Rodríguez, Joe D.“The Sense of Mestizaje in Two Latino Novels.Revista Chicano-Riqueña12 (Spring 1984): 57–63.Find this resource:

                Smith, Norman D.“Buffalos and Cockroaches: Acosta's Siege at Aztlán.Latin American Literary Review5 (Spring–Summer 1977): 85–97.Find this resource:

                  Stavans, Ilan. Bandido: Oscar “Zeta” Acosta and the Chicano Experience. New York: IconEditions, 1995.Find this resource:

                    Stavans, Ilan. Oscar “Zeta” Acosta: The Uncollected Works. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                      Frederick Luis Aldama