When I pose it to others, even Latinos, if they know the name Oscar Zeta Acosta, the answer is usually no. My next question is invariably “have you seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?” to which many people say yes. Then I tell them that Oscar Zeta Acosta is the character portrayed by Benicio Del Toro known as Dr. Gonzo. This is usually more familiar to people but there is so much more to the man Oscar Zeta Acosta than how he was portrayed in that movie. Oscar Zeta Acosta was a self-made man. A proud Mexican American, author, lawyer and most importantly an activist.
Oscar Acosta was born in El Paso, Texas a border town that doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects for young students. So Oscar went west to attend San Francisco State University and eventually earned his law degree at the San Francisco School of Law.
It was around the late 60’s and early 70’s when Los Angeles was a hotbed of political unrest and activism and soon Acosta found himself in L.A. in the thick of it all. He became heavily engaged in the Brown Pride and Chicano movement and fought tooth and nail in Los Angeles courtrooms to fight discrimination against Mexican Americans.
Hostility in the Streets
These were very tense times for everyone. African Americans were fighting for equality and Mexican Americans, who felt disenfranchised by the government, harassed by the LAPD and generally unheard in local politics, were fighting for a fair shake at the American dream. Oscar was a typical figure at many Chicano protests in Los Angeles and took the cases of many Chicano activists who could not afford legal counsel.
The Chicano contingent was galvanized and came to a head when in 1970 a Hispanic reporter named Ruben Salazar was sitting peacefully in a bar in the Whittier area when he was struck in the head by a tear gas can fired by an LAPD officer and killed immediately. The Chicano community was outraged and it was none other than the fiery Oscar Acosta who demanded persecution of the officer and even subpoenaed every single judge of the Los Angeles Supreme Court.
He was a leader and unifier of the Chicano movement and took the cases of other high profile Chicano figures such as Rudolfo Gonzales who founded the Denver based Chicano organization “Crusade for Justice.”
The Man Vs. the Myth
To say that Oscar Acosta was a man of conflicting interests would be an understatement. He was so zealous that he wouldn’t think twice about taking a ridiculously impossible case so long as it afforded him the chance to rail against the Anglo government system that he saw as the enemy. He fought vehemently and often too vehemently-taking cases of violent offenders who claimed to be Chicano. He was always in the barrio talking to and organizing the Mexican population in Los Angeles and this sometimes meant being in the company of unsavory characters.
He was a man of the people, even criminals. That fact coupled with the caricature based on Acosta known as Dr. Gonzo created by the author Hunter S. Thompson have overshadowed the accomplishments and noble endeavors of Oscar Zeta Acosta. It is kind of sad that I have to point out that he inspired the character of Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for people to even begin to know who I am talking about but that is how much Acosta’s legend has outgrown his reality.
Acosta disappeared mysteriously off the coast of Mazatlan, Mexico in 1974 and has long since been presumed dead. People have suspected political assassination, a random argument spurred by politics that got to heated and resulted in his death and simply hanging out with the wrong people. At any rate, the fact that his death still remains a mystery seems fitting for a man who has since become more of a legend.