Oscar Zeta Acosta

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"Oscar Acosta" redirects here. For the Major League Baseball pitching coach, see Oscar Carlos Acosta
Oscar "Zeta" Acosta
Oscar Zeta Acosta.jpg
Born Oscar Acosta[1]
April 8, 1935
El Paso, Texas, United States
Disappeared May 1974 (aged 39)
Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico[2]
Occupation attorney, author
Known for activism, friendship with Hunter S. Thompson
Notable work Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo
The Revolt of the Cockroach People
Movement Chicano Movement

Oscar "Zeta" Acosta (April 8, 1935 – disappeared 1974) was an American attorney, politician, novelist and Chicano Movement activist, most well known for his novels Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People,[3] and his friendship with the American author Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson characterized him as his Samoan attorney, Dr. Gonzo, in his acclaimed novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Acosta disappeared in 1974 and is presumed dead.[4][5]

Life and career[edit]

Acosta was born in El Paso, Texas to Manuel, from Mexico, and Juanita (née Fierro) Acosta, from El Paso. Oscar was the third child but second surviving born to his parents. He had an older brother, Roberto, born in 1934.[1] He was raised in the small San Joaquin Valley rural community of Riverbank, California, near Modesto.[2][3] Acosta's father was drafted during World War II.

After finishing high school, Acosta joined the U.S. Air Force. Following his discharge, Acosta worked his way through Modesto Junior College, then he attended San Francisco State University where he took up creative writing[3] becoming the first member of his family to get a college education. He attended night classes at San Francisco Law School and passed the California Bar exam in 1966.[6] In 1967, Acosta began working as an antipoverty attorney for the East Oakland Legal Aid Society in Oakland, California.[2]

In 1968, Acosta moved to East Los Angeles and joined the Chicano Movement as an activist attorney, defending Chicano groups and activists, such as the Chicano 13 of the East L.A. walkouts, Rodolfo Gonzales, members of the Brown Berets, and other residents of the East L.A. barrio. His controversial defense earned him the ire of the LAPD, who often followed and harassed him. Local law enforcement and the FBI also linked Acosta to a shadowy organization called the Chicano Liberation Front that claimed responsibility for numerous bombings in southern and northern California.

In 1970, Acosta ran for sheriff of Los Angeles County against Peter J. Pitchess, and received more than 100,000 votes. During the campaign, he spent a couple of days in jail for contempt of court, and vowed that if he were elected, he would do away with the Sheriff's Department as it was then constituted. Acosta, known for loud ties and a flowered attaché case with a Chicano Power sticker, didn't come close to Pitchess' 1.3 million votes, but did beat Everett Holladay, Monterey Park Chief of Police.

In 1972, Acosta published his first novel, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, about a lawyer fighting for the rights of a marginalized people. It included a fictionalized story that mirrored the murder of Rubén Salazar. In 1973, Acosta published The Revolt of the Cockroach People, a fictionalized version of the 1970 Chicano Moratorium.

Friendship with Hunter S. Thompson[edit]

In the summer of 1967, Acosta met Hunter S. Thompson, who would in 1971 write an article on Acosta and the injustice in the barrios of East L.A. for Rolling Stone titled "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan". This article also discusses the murder of Los Angeles Times columnist Rubén Salazar. When working on the article, Thompson and Acosta decided a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, was in order, so that they could discuss Salazar and racial injustice in L.A. openly. A write-up of the trip has now been immortalized by the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

As Hunter Thompson wrote in his 1977 article "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat," the legal department of the publisher of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas stated that the publisher could not publish the book unless clearance was given by Acosta, due to the obvious references to the attorney. When written for permission, Acosta refused on the grounds that he did not want to be referred to as a "300-pound Samoan." He did, however, understand that having this reference substituted by his name would mean the book could not be published on time, so he promised clearance provided that his name and picture would appear on the dustjacket.


In May 1974, Acosta disappeared while traveling in Mazatlán, Mexico.[2][4] His son, Marco Acosta, believes that he was the last person to talk to his father. Acosta telephoned his son from Mazatlán, telling him that he was "about to board a boat full of white snow." Marco is later quoted in reference to his father's disappearance: "The body was never found, but we surmise that probably, knowing the people he was involved with, he ended up mouthing off, getting into a fight, and getting killed."[7]

In 1977, Thompson's investigation of Acosta's disappearance, titled "The Banshee Screams For Buffalo Meat," appeared in Rolling Stone.[8] According to Thompson, Acosta was a powerful attorney and preacher but suffered from an addiction to amphetamines, and had a predilection for LSD. The article was Thompson's response to rumors that Acosta was alive somewhere around Miami.

Thompson stated he believed Acosta was either murdered by drug dealers or was the victim of a political assassination.[2] Others have speculated that Acosta overdosed or suffered a nervous breakdown.[4]

Quotes about Acosta[edit]

Oscar was not into serious street-fighting, but he was hell on wheels in a bar brawl. Any combination of a 250 lb Mexican and LSD-25 is a potentially terminal menace for anything it can reach – but when the alleged Mexican is in fact a profoundly angry Chicano lawyer with no fear at all of anything that walks on less than three legs and a de facto suicidal conviction that he will die at the age of 33 – just like Jesus Christ – you have a serious piece of work on your hands. Especially if the bastard is already 33½ years old with a head full of Sandoz acid, a loaded .357 Magnum in his belt, a hatchet-wielding Chicano bodyguard on his elbow at all times, and a disconcerting habit of projectile vomiting geysers of pure blood off the front porch every 30 or 40 minutes, or whenever his malignant ulcer can't handle any more raw tequila.

Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone #254, December 15, 1977

Every century there are a few individuals who are destined to lead the weak, to hold unpopular beliefs and, most important, who are willing to die for their cause. My father's whole life was given to the fight for "the people".

One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.

Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone December 15, 1977, eventually part of the film adaption of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Motion pictures[edit]

Acosta has been twice portrayed in major motion pictures:

The 1980 film Where the Buffalo Roam loosely depicts Acosta's life and his relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, and takes its name from Thompson's obituary to Acosta "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat", which in turn is a reference to Acosta's book Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. Peter Boyle portrayed Acosta, who is referred to in the film as "Carl Lazlo, Esquirem"[9] and Bill Murray portrayed Thompson.

The 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an adaptation of Thompson's novel of the same name, which is an account of Thompson and Acosta's trip to Las Vegas in 1971. Benicio del Toro portrays Acosta,[10] referred to in the film and novel as "Dr. Gonzo", while Johnny Depp portrayed Thompson (under the alias of Raoul Duke).


  1. ^ a b "Birth certificate of Oscar Acosta". Texas State Department of Health. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Doss, Yvette C. (June 5, 1998). "The Lost Legend of the Real Dr. Gonzo". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 25 March 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c "Guide to the Oscar Zeta Acosta PapersCEMA 1". California Digital Library. 
  4. ^ a b c Martinez Wood, Jamie (2007). Latino Writers and Journalists. pp. 1–2. Retrieved 25 March 2015. 
  5. ^ "Top 10 Famous Disappearances: Oscar Zeta Ocasta". Time Magazine. Retrieved 25 March 2015. 
  6. ^ "Oscar Acosta - #38731". State Bar of California. Retrieved 25 March 2015. 
  7. ^ "Shermakaye Bass". Retrieved 2009-01-18. 
  8. ^ Thompson, Hunter S. (December 15, 1977). "The Banshee Screams For Buffalo Meat". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 25 March 2015. 
  9. ^ Moorhead, Jim (April 28, 1980). "It Gets Rather Messy 'Where Buffalo Roam'". The Evening Independent. 
  10. ^ Olsen, Mark (December 11, 2008). "A rebel force". Los Angeles Times. 

Further reading[edit]

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