Thompson's hell-raising buddy in 'Las Vegas,' but his true legacy
remains in the shadows.
Oscar "Zeta" Acosta--an outrageous lawyer who once subpoenaed every
member of the Los Angeles County grand jury to prove a pattern of
discrimination against Mexican Americans--is somewhat of a Chicano
He was a driven, hell-raising attorney who was involved in high-
profile civil rights cases in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early
'70s and inspired the character of Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson's
surreal book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
Acosta eventually gave up law and wrote two semi-autobiographical
books, and then disappeared like a puff of smoke off the coast of
Mazatlan, Mexico, in the spring of 1974. But not before leaving an
indelible mark on the pages of L.A. political history and Chicano
His disappearance took place three years after the notorious drug-
enhanced trip to Las Vegas that is the subject of Thompson's book and
the current Terry Gilliam movie starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del
But the book completely obscured Acosta's background and the film only
hints at his real story. The legend of Oscar "Zeta" Acosta--a
compelling figure in Chicano history--remains in the shadows.
In "Fear and Loathing," the character of Dr. Gonzo--a man with a
gargantuan appetite for food, drugs and dangerous living--is the
perfect complement to Thompson's journalist alter ego, Raoul Duke, who
uses his assignment to cover an off-road race as an excuse to
overindulge in booze and drugs in Las Vegas.
"I recognized in Oscar [someone] who would push things one more notch
toward the limit," said Thompson of his Mexican American friend, who
in the name of ambiguity liked to refer to himself as a 300-pound
Samoan. "You never knew with Oscar what was going to happen next."
Acosta was an ambitious, hard-working man, born in El Paso, Texas, and
raised in the San Joaquin Valley. He attended San Francisco State
University, where he took up creative writing. After getting his law
degree from San Francisco Law School, he worked at the East Oakland
Legal Aid Society, but eventually decided that rather than work within
the system, he would use his law degree to challenge it. According to
those who knew him, he was also restless, someone who was always
looking for more out of life.
"The thing about him is that he never took things too seriously," said
his son, Marco Acosta, 38, a San Francisco-based musician and
vocational counselor, who manages his father's estate. "Whenever he
set out to do something, he went at it full force, but he was never
satisfied with any one thing."
Oscar "Zeta" Acosta's personal explorations of cultural identity and
divergent career choices brought him to Los Angeles during the late
'60s and early '70s, one of the most explosive periods in the city's
political history: In 1968, 13 Chicano activists were indicted on
conspiracy to disrupt the schools after a walkout by teachers and
community members who were protesting educational inequality; in 1969,
two Brown Berets were charged with felonies stemming from the
disruption of a speech by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan at the Biltmore
Hotel; and, in 1970, Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar was
killed by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy following a Vietnam
War protest rally in East L.A.
Acosta was involved as defense attorney in the first two notorious
cases, but his 1970 bid for sheriff of Los Angeles County (in which he
won half a million votes, coming in second) is what assured him a
place in Los Angeles political history.
And it was Thompson's invitation to Vegas--the two had been introduced
by a mutual friend--that assured Acosta a place in U.S. literary
"I dragged Oscar away while he was working on the 'Biltmore Seven'
trial because we couldn't talk in that war zone," Thompson recalled.
"So I said, 'Let's get the hell out of town.' "
Thompson, a practitioner of the kind of "New Journalism" that writers
such as Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer popularized in the '60s, said he
was inspired by his adventures with Acosta to take his writing to a
new level, hence the term "gonzo journalism." It's Thompson's own take
on a style of writing in which the journalist participates in his
"Thompson is damned talented and one of the best writers of his
generation, but the book itself without Oscar would be like . . .
taking the heart away from the book," said Del Toro ("The Usual
Suspects," "Excess Baggage"), who gained 45 pounds to more
realistically portray the rotund lawyer.
But in the book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Duke refers to his
associate as a "Samoan, or something"--never as a Mexican American--so
Gonzo is a character with no cultural context. The real Acosta is, in
a sense, swallowed up by his alter ego, a man with no defined identity
aside from his role as Duke's buddy.
"There's no point in the book that you ever realize this guy was a
real lawyer and an activist," Del Toro said.
"I think that's a big part of the book that was missing," said
Thompson of his work, which was first published in Rolling Stone in
In the film, however, director Gilliam and producer Laila Nabulsi
opted to add that cultural context, in a sense bringing Acosta back
out of the relative obscurity he sank into after his disappearance.
Props used in production of the film are the only clues to Dr. Gonzo's
true identity. In one scene, Duke phones Gonzo at his L.A. office. On
Gonzo's walls are posters with the images of the United Farm Workers'
symbol and UFW leader Cesar Chavez's face.
But Acosta told his own story. Just as Thompson was inspired by his
adventures to write "Fear and Loathing," Acosta too was inspired to
document his experiences, most notably in two semi-fictionalized
books, "Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo" (1972) and "Revolt of the
Cockroach People" (1973), which his son is developing into feature
"Oscar had that kind of natural weird spirit," Thompson said. "There
aren't that many of us in the world, and we recognize each other. His
writing was just an extension of that."
In his 1995 book, "Bandido: Oscar 'Zeta' Acosta and the Chicano
Experience," author Ilan Stavans likens him to a "flirtatious yet
angry" version of "A Streetcar Named Desire's" Stanley Kowalski. And
it was Acosta's wild spirit and extreme persona that attracted Del
Toro to the role of Dr. Gonzo. That, and Thompson's amazing written
account of their friendship, according to the actor.
"Dr. Gonzo is all about rage," Del Toro said. "And about forcing the
silent majority to wake up. He's all about loathing."
Rage and complete disregard for authority were Acosta's trademarks.
They're the stuff legends are made of, the kind of attributes that
make some people larger than life.
"He would do things like drop me off at the airport in my rental car,
and then two months later I'd get a bill for three weeks that he used
the car," Thompson said, laughing at the memory. "He'd forget to take
Acosta literally vanished without a trace. His body was never found
and his family assumes he met a bad end in Mexico. Thompson speculated
that he was either the victim of a political assassination or that he
died at the hands of drug dealers.
Rolling Stone received a hospital bill for a broken arm for a patient
named Oscar Acosta in 1977. RS was unable to trace the bill any
farther than the hospital
In the foreword to a reprint of Acosta's "Revolt of the Cockroach
People," Thompson summed up his friend's life:
"His birthday is not noted in any calendar, and his death is barely
noticed. . . . But the hole he left was a big one, and nobody even
tried to sew it up."
These days, that hole is still gaping, according to Thompson. "For
some horrible reason I miss him. I miss him like I miss the smell of
Oscar Zeta Acosta (April 8, 1935-) was a writer, lawyer, and political
activist. He was born in El Paso, Texas and was raised in California's
San Joaquin Valley, near Modesto. As an attorney his activities began
in Oakland but it was in East Los Angeles where he gained notoriety,
prior to his mysterious disappearance in Mexico in the Spring of 1974.
Acosta is most well known as the author of two of the most important
novels of the Chicano Protest Movement, Autobiography of a Brown
Buffalo (1972), and The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973). Both
novels are highly acclaimed as major contributions to the Chicano
literary renaissance. They are semiautobiographical and relate to
Acosta's search for self-identity in the midst of an Anglo society at
a time of great social unrest within the Chicano community.
Immediately following high school, at the age of seventeen, Acosta
enlisted in the Air Force and was honorably discharged after four
years of service. During a tour of service in Latin America, Acosta
converted to Protestantism and became a Baptist missionary in a leper
colony in Panama, although later, in Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo,
he rejected Christianity. Following his discharge, Acosta worked his
way through Modesto Junior College, and attended San Francisco State
University where he took up creative writing. After his graduation he
attended San Francisco Law School at night and passed the State Bar
exam in 1966. Acosta was married twice--his first wife was Betty Daves
during the years 1956-1963. His second marriage was to Socorro
Aguiniga from 1969-1971. As a lawyer, he first worked for the East
Oakland Legal Aid Society, an antipoverty agency. Later, he moved to
East Los Angeles, where he joined the Chicano Movement and generated
controversy as an activist attorney during the years 1968-1973. Acosta
defended various Chicano protest groups and activists such as the
Saint Basil 21 and Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzalez. As an attorney, Acosta
figured prominently in legal cases which addressed political, social,
and educational injustices against Chicanos. He frequently clashed
with the judicial system, winning ardent supporters as well as making
political enemies. He garnered respectable grass-roots support when he
ran for Los Angeles County Sheriff, winning well over one hundred
Acosta was last heard from in May, 1974, with a telephone call from
Mazatlan, Sinaloa, to his son Marco. The journalist and author Hunter
S. Thompson, who was Acosta's close friend and confidante, speculated
on Acosta's untimely disappearance as either a political assassination
or murder at the hands of drug dealers. Acosta is presumed dead.