You might not have heard about the Chicano lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta, but Los Angelenos should all know this colorful character who was part of the rise of the Chicano movement and became a character in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The docudrama “The Rise and Fall of Brown Buffalo” airs on PBS 23 March 2018 and will be available to stream online thereafter.
Directed by Philip Rodriguez, the documentary uses dramatized portrayals of Acosta (Jesse Celedon) and his sometimes friend Hunter S. Thompson (Jeff Harms) and others with archival footage.
Although Acosta was born in El Paso, Texas, he was raised in the San Joaquin Valley, and after his discharge from the US Air Force, he first attended Modesto Junior College and went on to San Francisco State University and then so the San Francisco Law School. After Passing the California Bar, he worked for the East Oakland Legal Aid Society. Not bad for the son of a Native American father who only had a third grade education.
Moving to East Los Angeles in 1968, Acosta became a member of the Chicano Movement, using his legal skills to defend Chicano activists. He once ran for LA County Sheriff and yet he wrote:
“I have no desire to be a politician. I don’t want to lead anyone. I have no practical ego. I am not ambitious. I merely want to do what is right. Once in every century there comes a man who is chosen to speak for his people. Moses, Mao and Martin are examples. Who’s to say that I am not such a man? In this day and age the man for all seasons needs many voices. Perhaps that is why the gods have sent me into Riverbank, Panama, San Francisco, Alpine and Juarez. Perhaps that is why I’ve been taught so many trades. Who will deny that I am unique? For months, for years, no, all my life I sought to find out who I am. Why do you think I became a Baptist? Why did I try to force myself into the Riverbank Swimming Pool? And did I become a lawyer just to prove to the publishers I could do something worthwhile? Any idiot that sees only the obvious is blind. For God sake, I have never seen and I have never felt inferior to any man or beast.”
Acosta lived large–immortalized as a “300-pound Samoan” in Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and died mysteriously, disappearing in Mexico in 1974. He had already published “Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo” (1972) and “The Revolt of the Cockroach People” (1973). The former was about an activist lawyer and the latter a fictionalized account of the 1970 Chicano Moratorium and the death of LA Times columnist Rubén Salazar.
Although Los Angeles was first settled by Latinos, Acosta was confronting the prejudices of the times: “A hippie is like a cockroach. So are the beatniks. So are the Chicanos. We’re all around, Judge. And judges do not pick us to serve on Grand Juries.”
The Civil Rights Movement in Los Angeles was a little different, Acosta described in “The Revolt of the Cockroach People, “It seemed that twenty-five thousand Chicanos had marched down Whittier Boulevard. But what had started as a protest against the burning of peasants in Vietnam turned into a massive public declaration by fire of their own existence”
In Los Angeles, Civil Rights was more than just a black and white issue and Acosta was one of the people who led the way. Acosta wrote, “What is clear to me is that I am neither a Mexican nor an American. I am a Chicano by ancestry and a brown buffalo by choice. And I suspect the gods of war are not yet through with me.”