By LIONEL ROLFE email@example.com
Although I was very much around in Los Angeles during the tumultuous '60s, I somehow missed meeting Oscar Zeta Acosta -- although I cannot be completely sure of that.
Even if I never actually set eyes on him, I felt as if I knew him well after reading about the encounter Acosta had with Dorothy Healey, chairman of the Southern California Communist Party. In "Revolt of the Cockroach People," he described meeting her on a picket line protesting police brutality in front of Parker Center in 1968. Acosta was writing about Los Angeles as the epicenter of his people's struggles in the late '60s and early '70s, shortly before his own almost B. Traven disappearance into Mexico.
These days I work as a police reporter in the press room at Parker Center and I have had occasion to cover several protests against police brutality in front of the building -- which is ironic in that in the '60s I would more likely have been an active participant out front with Acosta and Healey.
Next to Cesar Chavez, he was the best-known Chicano activist around. His other book was "Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo." He also wrote some short stories, and is remembered mostly for one, "Perlaw is a Pig." Despite the thinness of his literary output, his legacy as the first and, so far, last great Chicano writer is without question.
Acosta was a swarthy man who looked like an Aztec warrior. Hunter Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" dubbed him the Samoan. Thompson's Samoan attorney was a man with more contempt for the law than even Thompson.
Today, a few months into the new Millennium, I had a protest leader carefully explain to me that the Protestants weren't anti-cop -- they just wanted the bad apples out.
A few feet away from him, a black officer all done up in riot gear listened intently and joined in the conversation. "That's all we want too," he said. Understand that it's still new having black cops with power in the LAPD, traditionally one of the most bigoted police forces outside the deep south. During the Monica Lewinsky affair, down to a man, the white cops would carry on about how the President was a sleaze and a scofflaw for having carried on that way with Monica Lewinsky.
"Oh come on," I said to one, "if a soft, sexy lady came on to you, you'd refuse her advances?"
He didn't say anything, and then agreed he might not have acted any different than Clinton, who after all was enough of -- literally -- a "good ol' boy" that he stopped short of having intercourse with Monica. At any rate, the white officers would carry on about what a rat Clinton was, while the black officers (man or woman) saw it Clinton's way. The Clinton scandal wasn't about upholding morality; it was about really dirty politics where you stop just short of physical assassination. That was what was being done to Clinton, the black officers realized.
Back in the '60s, black officers were a lot more scarce than now, and the legacy of the man after whom Parker Center was named was that cops invariably come in only one variety -- big tall Aryans with guns and batons they constantly fingered like masturbators at the starting bloc.
When I was a student at Los Angeles City College, which was first a center of civil rights and later anti-war activism, a white man couldn't walk down Melrose Avenue with a black man without being stopped by police from the Rampart Division and thrown up against a police car for a pat-down. At the same time, blacks and whites from Los Angeles were streaming out of the Xanadu, a coffeehouse on Melrose Avenue, right next door to the Ukrainian Cultural Center, and going south to register voters. Then Police Chief Bill Parker was in the J. Edgar Hoover mode and he didn't like such subversive goings-on.
And, of course, it always got down to one thing. If a white man was with a black woman, it was far worse than if a white man and a black man were together on the streets around the Xanadu. Mixed couples --friends as well as lovers -- were subject to lewd remarks and nasty digs, at a minimum.
Things are a little different now. But just so you don't think Acosta's writings about the period were exaggerated, take it from me. They were not exaggerated.
One of my roommates from the city college days was then student body president Ron Everett, who changed his name to Ron Karenga and founded the religion Kwaanza. Another was an African named Paul Sumbi and yet another was Ed Bullins, who went on to achieve considerable success as a major black playwright, like LeRoi Jones, before his early death.
I asked a black police detective about Ron, whether or not he was really as dangerous a character as he was later portrayed over the years.
"Not at all," he said. "Most of those guys, including the Black Panthers, did very little. We were making it look like they were." Then the detective lowered his voice. "My superiors wanted me to get rid of Karenga. They all but gave me a license to kill."
I mention all this to explain the tenor of the times Acosta was writing about. I thought about those times not only because of the recent protest I had covered, but also because of the irony of a statement released upon the recent death of Chief William Parker's widow. Police Chief Bernard C. Parks may be black, but in a statement released upon the recent death of the widow of Bill Parker, he described Parker as the greatest police chief ever.
Did he live through the same times I did?, I wondered.
Alright, Acosta probably never would have argued like that black cop guarding Parker Center that he wanted to be a cop just to throw out the bad apples. Even though there's some evidence the greatest Chicano writer who ever lived had a hankering to be a cop -- for one thing he ran for sheriff and got 100,000 votes -- Acosta reveled in playing the revolutionary, even though one sensed a lot of playacting in his revolutionary impulse.
But not all the violence going on in those days was playacting. Acosta's meeting with Dorothy was during the 1968 California primary, shortly before the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Acosta was the instigator of the picket line, as well as the attorney for the political inmates who were inside Parker Center jail on a hunger strike. Just like now, a phalanx of L.A.'s finest kept the protesters from entering the "glass house," but they weren't engaging in banter -- even semiserious banter -- with the protesters.
Because Acosta was the inmates' attorney, he was able to walk back and talk to his clients inside. Their crime was a familiar one for Chicanos in Los Angeles. They were fighting to improve their lousy schools. Dorothy was among those on the picket line, as were some folks from the Black Panthers. She asked Acosta if he thought her presence might embarrass him and his cause. He put his arm around this "beautiful woman with flaming sunset hair," squeezed and chided her. "Listen, Dorothy, you can march with me anytime ... and besides, the Chicanos are ten times to the left of the Communists now." Her green eyes twinkled, he reported, and she stayed on the line.
I was one of a generation of radicals in the '50s and '60s who were in love with Dorothy -- for; no doubt, some of the same reasons Acosta put his arms around her. Here was this woman who was supposed to represent evil revolutionaries, and she was so damned huggable. Mike Davis, the somewhat controversial popular historian of Los Angeles in books such as "City of Quartz," was another one who learned at Dorothy's feet. For many years, Dorothy was the human face of socialism in Los Angeles. When I was 16 and was just discovering politics and literature as well as a bit about love and life I spent many afternoons in Dorothy's kitchen and living room, asking her questions not just about politics but everything else. I was, of course, in love with her -- in a virginal kind of way. Her looks and sexuality were part of her intelligence and knowledge.
As much as I found myself thrust back into those wild days of the '60s as I read Acosta, I knew that in real life he would never have given me the comfort of being the guide for the perplexed that Dorothy had. Dorothy almost always made immediate sense when I was pondering things, whereas Acosta dealt with those most uncomfortable existential realities of oppression and violence to which easy answers are never found. There are, of course, things to be learned from someone who lived life with the abandon Acosta did, suggested by the B. Traven kind of way he mysteriously disappeared in Mexico in the early '70s not long after he left Los Angeles. The way he pushed the limits maybe made for better literature than solace, however. Dorothy did not have the same effect today as she had when I was young. I'm far less romantic and easily convinced of the perfectibility of things. Dorothy herself has moved away from her old politics, although I think the same humanistic brush strokes are still there in the mix.
The last time I ran into Dorothy was at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, and somehow the passage of years hers -- and --mine had tarnished the legend. I no longer hung on her every word as I once had. Jack Smith in the Los Angeles Times could and did write a long and sympathetic portrayal of Dorothy, in part because she was persuasive and charming and pretty and could be more easily portrayed in the pages of a "family newspaper" than Acosta could have. Oscar would have presented a much more problematic subject had Smith wanted to write about him. Acosta was much more part of the '60s counterculture than she, where sex and drugs were the weapons of cultural terrorism in that generation's arsenal.
Dorothy no doubt regarded Acosta as an "infantile leftist." Like a lot of radicals of the day, he was affected by the anarchist notion of "direct action." In "Revolt of the Cockroach People" he writes without shame about having been involved in the torching of a mini mall and a bombing at the courthouse that killed one person -- a Chicano, as it happened. How much he's fictionalizing is hard to guess at.
He also ran for sheriff against Peter Pitchess, and pulled more than 100,000 votes -- a fairly respectable showing and numbered among his supporters people like Anthony Quinn. His flamboyance and incredible passion in defending Chicano activists was legendary, and he was a familiar person to a lot of people, some of whom have become today's council persons, district attorneys, judges, and possible mayors.
Acosta was very much the voice of the early Chicano movement when it was full of romantic and revolutionary impulses. And he also was part of a long tradition of Mexican revolutionaries who had thrived in Los Angeles from the turn of the century. Acosta's particular take on being a Chicano was that Chicanos were more Aztec than Hispanic. He defined Chicanos as the people who had lived in the land that became California long before Mexican independence from Spain.
Acosta's libidinous nature somehow seemed wrapped up with the primeval force of fecundity, just as Dorothy's beauty and sexuality unleashed intense jealousy from her critics in and out of the party. Within the ranks of the party, Dorothy was violently opposed by the Stalinists. And although she was a dedicated, disciplined communist, there was also a sense of playfulness about her that riled their dour weltschaung.
With Marxist ideologues there's always a classic dichotomy between a political explanation of things and a sexual explanation of them. It was not accidental that in the late '40s and early '50s as more and more people abandoned their Depression era communism, they moved away from a Marxist view of things to a Freudian interpretation of them.
Even with many who maintained their political stance through the McCarthy years, there was a turning toward a Freudian interpretation of things. Even though the founder of psychoanalysis observed that sometimes a cigar really is nothing but a cigar, a lot of people surrendered to the notion that sex and not class struggle was the real motivating force behind history. Acosta was certainly a better example of the one rather than the other.
Acosta wrote about sex in the gargantuan manner of a Henry Miller and a Charles Bukowski. But he does so with the added dimension of his identity as a swarthy brown man. He arrived at his belief that brown is beautiful from the black militants he had known when he had worked in Oakland who said that black is beautiful.
For Acosta, this culminated in his affair with a black juror in the St. Basil trial. The affair was the logical conclusion to the shame he had felt growing up the son of a peach picking family in the small Central Valley town of Riverbank. As a kid in Riverbank, in that foggy land at the beginning of the western slope of the Sierra, 300 miles north of Los Angeles, the Oakies used to call him "Nigger" because he was so dark. The affair seemed to reaffirm the notion that had been growing in him for years -- namely that black and brown are both beautiful.
His thing with the beautiful jet-black juror really was more of a soul attraction than just a sexual thing. It is his identity as a Brown Buffalo, to a black woman, wherein the concept of Black and Brown are Beautiful was made manifest. He revels in being brown, in being a buffalo, so of course he revels in the woman's blackness -- and, of course, by extension, and he reveled in his brownness through the affair.
"Revolt of the Cockroach People" starts out, "It is Christmas Eve in the year of Huitzilopochtli, 1969. Three hundred Chicanos have gathered in front of St. Basil's Roman Catholic Church. Three hundred brown-eyed children of the sun have come to drive the moneychangers out of the richest temple in Los Angeles. It is a dark moonless night and ice cold wind meets us at the doorstep. We carry little white candles as weapons. In pairs on the sidewalk, we trickle and bump and sing with the candles in our hands, like a bunch of cockroaches gone crazy." By the time he's wrapping up the St. Basil trial, he is no longer a protest demonstrator. Now he is the attorney defending the protesters. And as such with the practiced eye of the defense lawyer, he looked each juror in the eye. "One at a time, I pierce them. And when my eyes reach Mrs. Jean Fisher, I notice for the first time she is beautiful."
He described her "soft brown-bronze" skin, her brilliant black hair with a touch of gray. And he notices that this teacher in Watts will be a strong ally on the jury because "I see for one second, one split second, a mere flash of time: she's hooked before I open my mouth."
And that drives him to real brilliance during the summation to the jury. He talks about the Spanish and the Aztecs. He described how Montezuma gave up his million-man army to the Spanish, and then the Aztecs were forever vanquished.
The Spanish rape and conquer Mexico for the Catholic Church. That's in 1500. In 1850 more white men -- these were the so-called Anglos -- conquer the Southwest, the ancient land the Aztecs called Atzlan. Again brown people are subjugated, as they remain subjugated in the Los Angeles of the late 1960s. By way of explanation for what the Basil 21 were doing in Cardinal McIntyre's Church, he said to the jurors -- and by now specifically to Jean Fisher: "We are Chicanos from Atzlan. We have never left our land. Our fathers never engaged in bloody sacrifices. We are farmers and hunters and we live with the buffalo."
What happened at St. Basil's was no more than the ancient Aztec people in Atzlan trying to explain their need for justice, for education, for food, for jobs, for freedom and happiness.
It's an argument that Fisher, the black teacher from Watts, understood well and agreed with. At the end of the trial, he learned his hunch about her was true. She winked at Acosta as the jury went into the deliberating room. It was "just a short, fast wink," he wrote. But when the jury returned, he saw tears on her face. The jury pronounced a split decision -- some of the St. Basil 21 were deemed guilty as charged and others escaped that guilt. She called him right after the trial.
"You know, I've been watching you," she tells him.
"Well, you know."
They get together at her house. After she told him what he wanted to know about what occurred in the jury room, suddenly she was in his face.
"I am not thinking, not talking," Acosta wrote. "Everything is going slowly, inside the darkness of dark flesh and the clothes are sliding to the floor without a sound, without a hitch. There is no hesitation, nothing unusual. Nothing out of the ordinary. As if we'd done this all our lives, no one is nervous here and my hands glide over and over, around and around a warm belly and soft breasts of a middle-aged woman who is hungry and biting my ears and crying and sinking deeper into my stomach and down and down to my belly."
He stayed the next morning and she cooked him breakfast. She told him she felt guilty calling him because all during the trial she wanted to touch him and hold him. And she hoped now she'll be able to see him once in a while. This was more than a man and woman falling into each other's arms. This was simply a meeting of the brown buffalo and the black panther and rather than fight, they loved.
As a child growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Riverbank and Ceres he learned first hand of that odd synergy of sex drive and nationality. Be they oppressed or oppressors, mesegenation always has the lure of forbidden fruit. Yes, sex and nationalism is a potent combination.
In truth, of course, there are few "pure" types. People of all types have been mixing it up for thousands of years. Pure "races" have mostly been a fiction. And they wouldn't even be good biology if they were real. Hybrids are usually the healthier mix. A lot of Acosta's writing was about the struggle he had inside himself being more Aztec than "Hispanic." It took most of his life to feel attracted to Mexican women, as marriage partners and lovers. His lust for prostitutes in Mexico was the unlikely beginning of this.
As a boy growing up in Riverbank, he had mostly fallen in love with Oakies' girls, who seemed high and mighty to him, whose approbation he craved, and who usually kicked him in the groins for his efforts. His mother kept asking why he didn't like Mexican women? He never had a good answer.
Perhaps it was that to Acosta, Mexican women meant people like his mother, his sisters, their friends, and the cousins. True, there was the wayward cousin who two brothers discovered they had had intercourse with. But there can be no denying the fascination between peoples, and Acosta writes well about that. He loves Mexican women, he loves Italians, blacks, Russians and Irish women equally.
A few generations earlier, when a young writer first wrote in the Enterprise about the Mesegenation Society in Virginia City, Samuel Clemens knew what he was doing, and guessed quite accurately it would touch a nerve. In Riverbank, Acosta certainly grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. He also suffered the indignity of getting beaten up by the fathers and brothers of the Oakie girls he fancied -- especially one in particular who fancied him back. They stripped him and laughed at his small penis. Mexicans who got beaten up and believe me in Riverbank in those days they were Mexicans or Braceros, not Chicanos -- knew better than to complain to local authorities. The cops were Oakies too. That's not to say he didn't fight back sometimes and get his revenge.
Acosta also was a man who would never make it as a hero in this day and age where the ideal allows only slick, taut bodies. Acosta was proudly a big, sloppy, animal. His childhood in Riverbank was achingly stark. He grew up in a family of peach pickers, in that foggy land at the beginning of the western slope of the Sierra. To this day, it remains a cold, snowy, rainy, foggy, sunny place of dark, dank, rich looking soil, the kind that can produce the most wonderful fruit. Riverbank is right below the point where the Sierra slowly, then dramatically rises to the east. It is rich farmland that then turns into forests and later high mountain flower fields, giant streams, and a glacier, the last of the Ice Age, sitting on the divide.
The roads in the farmland at the beginning of the western slope into the Mother lode are still mostly single lane affairs, dotted here and there with quaint wooden covered bridges dating back to Gold rush days. The Riverbank area seems worlds apart from the old Highway 99 flatland world celebrated in the movie "American Graffiti." For one thing it is beginning to become the rolling farmland on the gentle western slopes of the Sierra as opposed to the Valley Floor just a few miles further west. For another, towns like Ceres and Riverbank east of old 99 developed along the Santa Fe tracks whereas Highway 99 followed the Southern Pacific tracks. The two railroads built competing parallel tracks back in the last century. The Valley itself is painfully flat. The Great Central Valley is always being compared to Kansas because they are both very flat. But even Kansas has ancient little hills, little dales, little surprises in the topography. The Central Valley, which may be the world's greatest breadbasket, is completely flat, except for the mountain walls on either side the Sierra on the east and the Coastal Range on the west. Both suddenly pop up out of the fertile, flat valley floor and form the great steep walls on either side. There have been changes since Acosta's boyhood there. Now, of course, the great Highway 5 swoops across the valley floor, a good 30 miles west of Ceres, Riverbank, Modesto, Merced and Turlock. Highway 99 has been reduced to nothing more than a local road between these cities, not the link to Los Angeles and San Francisco that it once was. When Acosta was a kid, the world outside his little town was still the flat land that radiated out from Highway 99.
There was no Highway 5, and Highway 99 at its grandest was no more than a solid four-lane affair, two lanes in either direction. Highway 99 was an eerie portal into the Valley, lined for many of its miles by eucalyptus that gave shade to the pavement in summer and gave ghostly guidance on a foggy night.
So Acosta had come a long ways from Ceres to Los Angeles by the time he got here in the late '60s even though it wasn't much more than a five-hour drive. Acosta came to Los Angeles not to become a lawyer but to write the great novel. "I've been in town six hours and now lie naked on my bed with the window of my sleazy downtown hotel room open to the sounds of the city.... Already my bones have told me that I have come to the most detestable city on earth." He sees L.A. as a place right out of Hades, especially for his people.
Describing Whittier Boulevard, the "Chicano Sunset Strip," he wrote, "Every other door is a bar, a pawn shop or a liquor store. Hustlers roam freely across asphalt decorated with vomit and dog shit. If you score in East Los Angeles you score on the Boulevard. Broads, booze and dope. Cops on every corner make no difference. The fuzz, la placa, la chota, los marranos, la jura or just the plain old pig. The eternal enemies of the people."
Despite the tawdriness of the city, circumstances conspire to push Acosta center stage. An intermediary from the mayor keeps leaving messages down at the desk for Acosta to call. Mayor Sam Yorty wants to meet with him.
To Acosta's surprise, Sam came clean with him. He leaned up close to Acosta and said, "The blacks picketed for years.... for years. They marched and did the very things you people are doing. And you know something, the .... honest to God truth ... they didn't get a thing out of it until Watts. That's my opinion."
Now being Sam Yorty, he might have thought he was pulling of a brilliant piece of agent provocateuring. After all, Sam used to take ads out for his assembly race in the People's World.
It's said that Sam had quite an affair with Dorothy Healey -- both were short little people. He was a freshman assemblyman then, taking out ads in the People's World to court the communist vote. So his venom against communists in the '50s was intensely personal as well as opportunistic.
A man who will agent provocateur will just as easily race bait. Race baiting is always a winner for scoundrels. Sam was a red baiter and a race baiter. The irony is that Dorothy learned her greatest lessons as a farm worker organizer in the Imperial Valley in the '30s. The people she worked with were primarily of Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" era -- mostly the same Oakies who so tormented Acosta as he was growing up. When Acosta slipped his big brown arms around Dorothy back in 1968, 30 or so years later, there was surely a lot of resonance even the two of them didn't quite understand.
It would not be correct to call Acosta a hedonist and Dorothy the disciplined revolutionary. Things are never quite so simple. How, for instance, does one deal with Acosta's insistence that he really had wanted to be a cop, but got a little waylaid on the way there?
The poor guy ended up being nothing more than the first and last great Chicano writer Los Angeles has produced, but maybe if he had become a cop that wouldn't have been the case. He was probably too dedicated, in that '60s way of his, to mind alteration in all its myriad forms to have ever become a cop.
Acosta told the story of how one Al Mathews led him astray from the profession of upholding the law. Mathews was more of a drunk than Acosta. Mathews and Acosta, for that matter, were both dedicated drinkers, not unlike the Consul in "Under the Volcano," doing a death dance with the bottle, only to die, at least metaphorically, by being thrown down the mouth of the active volcano Popocatepetl.
The only dignity left to the Consul in plunging into the abyss was that the dead dog came after, not before him. Acosta's story has some of the same elements. He shared with Mathews a love of reading and writing. But Mathews "settled for reading and drinking," Acosta says. "All he ever wanted out of life was Ranier Ale and red wine with a wet towel over his forehead and a book in his hand while he lay flat on his back in a filthy, cold apartment."
Next Acosta tells of an improbable drunken rampage involving a police pursuit, a few weeks in the pokey, and revelation of the fact that actually he was turned down in his earlier effort to join the ranks of the gendarme because of some previous rampages having nothing to do with Al Mathews.
A moment of truth also came for Acosta when Cesar Chavez, the grand old man of the Chicano movement, summoned him. Acosta was already becoming famous as the Chicano movement's lawyer but he didn't want to continue in that vein. He wanted to get back to writing.
Like most people who admired and loved Chavez, Acosta did not particularly agree with his mentor's non-violence. Still, when Chavez called, Acosta was excited. Just the fact he had been invited gave him validation.
They met in the chapel of the union-owned ranch in Delano.
"Is that you? Buffalo," Chavez asked as Acosta walked into the room.
Chavez told him that the work he did as a Chicano lawyer and street leader was important. He added that he knew L.A. ate up organizers. Acosta told Chavez he was no pacifist. Chavez replied: "It doesn't matter if I approve or if anyone approves. You are doing what needs to be done. ... I'm a man, just like you. Each of us has a different role, but we both want the same thing, don't we?" Chavez nearly begged Acosta to stay on as the first Chicano movement's lawyer. Acosta replied he didn't want to be a lawyer. Who in their right mind would? Chavez replied, somberly adding, "Buffalo, you go back to L.A. and take care of business."
The political and societal violence running through Mexico in Malcolm Lowry's story of the Consul from "Under the Volcano" in 1939 and Acosta's Los Angeles in the late '60s and early '70s has some similarities. Lowry's story, of course, is a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, for the triumph of absolute fascism. More true to the spirit of the '60s, Acosta came to believe in "direction action." He was more an anarchist than a communist in that way. And he was a hippie in his taste for drugs and celebratory mass fucking -- not a dedicated, disciplined revolutionary. Acosta wrote about revolutionary times and he was not uncomfortable with chaos, a quality not unique in the best of American writing. Acosta wrote mostly about the late '60s and early '70s, which were very much happening in L.A. as much as they were in San Francisco and the rest of the world. American literary heroes have often been rebels, and sometimes the rebels don't really have a discernible cause. There was a certain nihilism in Acosta's life and work that might have put him in that category of a rebel without a cause, dedicated only to dissipation and chaos. But, of course, it wasn't really that simple for Acosta. Early on, he sorted out that he was more an Aztec than a Spaniard, yet he wrote in the episodic novel tradition started by Cervantes in Spain a few centuries before.
Still, what the Brown Buffalo was all about was an assault on the pure, lily-white world of Anglo America that he found especially manifest in Los Angeles.
Acosta came to his nationalism slowly. He lost his virginity to a Mediterranean lady in a Modesto area whorehouse, an older lady who specialized in educating the young. There are many other permutations of this: there was a period of proselytizing for Christ as a Protestant missionary in a leper colony in Panama. There's very little attachment to Catholicism anywhere in his book because, remember, he was not Hispanic -- he was Aztec, and by extension, Chicano. After he becomes disillusioned with religion and Christ, he went to San Francisco where he met bohemians, writers and women of all and most varied, wonderful description. He wrote like Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski -- and at his best, he wrote his prose like Dylan Thomas did poetry -- deep from within some inner and legendary place.
After a trip to Mexico, a time in a Mexican jail, he come back into the country through El Paso, where he was born. Always there's the subtext implicit in a lot of his writing of a tension between his nationality and his larger humanity.
When he went before a Mexican court, where he protested to the Mexican judge -- a woman judge -- that he is a lawyer in the Untied States, who practices in San Francisco, at least they don't tell the Brown Buffalo "you're no a writer. You are a spy!" or whatever it was Mexican authorities told the Consul in "Under the Volcano."
The judge doesn't talk about his nationality. She warns him about his dubious connections to the counterculture underground. She was right, of course.
"If you're a lawyer you should act like like one," the judge says to him sternly.
"Cut your hair or leave this city. We got enough of your kind here. You spend your money on the puntas and then don't even have enough to pay your fines when you're caught with your pants down," she says.
So he showed the proper amount of guilt and remorse, and paid the fine. Of course the soldier keeps a bit more for himself, offering the suggestion that he go home and learn to speak his father's language. On the way back to the states, he was greeted by a very blond guard packing a .357 magnum who asks Acosta where he was born.
He replied that he is and that he is an attorney in San Francisco. True enough, Acosta had practiced law as a socially conscious lawyer in Oakland, actually, not San Francisco.
"I thought you said you were from Paso," the guard says.
"I'm a lawyer. I was born in El Paso. I practice in Frisco."
Acosta said this having no ID. The guard eventually let him through while saying, "You don't look like an American, you know."
Then he had an epiphany in his hotel room in Paso. The brown buffalo had pawned his clarinet and camera for $15 and checked into a greasy hotel room in downtown El Paso where he removed the cockroach infested clothes from his lice-infested body. This is what he had gotten from being a Mexican jail.
He was naked as he sat down on his bed, and looked at himself in a mirror.
"I am a brown buffalo lonely and afraid in a world I never made. I enter the womb of night and am as dead to this world of confusion for thirty-three hours."
Acosta was, like almost all-great writers, of two, maybe three minds, about things. But make no mistake, he was a cultural terrorist. He was not unknowledgable about a torching at a mini mall. But mostly words were his weapon of choice.
When Acosta later ran for sheriff of Los Angeles County, he wasn't kidding about taking over law enforcement. He was representing a people who had been set upon, spit upon, exploited and brutalized and killed for many years in Los Angeles. And now they were angry. A lot of the '60s "direction action" types were more theater than substance. And to a great extent this was no doubt true with Acosta.
With Acosta's writings, it's always hard to know exactly where reality left off and fantasy began. His description of publicly recorded things he was involved in are simply very good journalism -- it's just that folks like Sheriff Peter Pitchess become Sheriff Peaches and Ruben Salazar became Roland Zanzibar. Then, explicably other times, he will use a person's real name.
Nowadays when corporate newspapers hold seminars on journalistic ethics, the major point they make is to get the person's name spelled right. That's the depth of our ethics. I guess he would have flunked the ethics seminar at Gannett newspapers.
Well Thompson and Acosta were gonzo, but they also were very good journalists. True, their journalism bordered on fiction. But their journalism still rang truer than 99 percent of the stuff you read in the papers today. In a way that tradition is not new. Even when Mark Twain told a tall tale, he always told the truth.
In this Acosta is like Hunter Thompson, the man who immortalized him in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Underneath the drugs, the booze and the craziness, there beat the heart of a very competent and keen journalist.
Unlike Thompson, Acosta surpassed the gonzo form, perhaps more than the man who wrote abut him and encouraged his writing. With Acosta, the hyperbole Thompson uses becomes transposed into surreal magic, which not so coincidentally seems to be a mark of a lot of the greatest of Latin literature.
In his second book, the one that mostly takes place in Los Angeles, "The Revolt of the Cockroach People," he describes running against Sheriff Pitchess as a radical Chicano and getting 100,000 votes -- enough to affect if not win any electoral contest in Los Angeles County.
He also describes running around town with "direct action" Chicano activists and sometimes pillaging and rampaging a mall or a bank or some such, and for actually blowing things up and creating mayhem. Of course some of it could be a Walter Mitty reality popping through too. But who knows for sure. Emotionally he is capable of such things.
So here was this guy, an attorney, a proud bomb-throwing anarchist, and oh by the way the first and last great L.A. Chicano writer. There was, of course, a tremendous amount of paranoia in the story, partly because of the heavy-duty politics going down when Hunter Thompson hooked up with Acosta while writing about Ruben Salazar. Acosta was Thompson's introduction to the politics of the barrio.
The other part of the yarn has to be the paranoia-inducing drugs that were so abundant on paper and no doubt in the real lives of both Acosta and Thompson. And Acosta's mysterious disappearance in Mexico also adds a B. Traven element to the legend. But he hardly needed to have done so. Apparently what you read was what you really got -- at least according to Thompson. Acosta was himself quite sensitive to the fact that at one point, anyway, he was more famous as a character out of Thompson's writing than as a writer.
Acosta was also very real. His guerrilla theater was dead on. Acosta had the temerity to subpoena every superior court judge in Los Angeles County in order to bolster his contention that racism was so pervasive, a Chicano could never get a fair trial. He also represented the Chicano Six -- defendants accused of trying to burn up the Biltmore Hotel while Gov. Reagan gave a speech there.
Despite his large, angry Aztec appearance, however, Acosta was a man plagued by massive insecurities -- insecurities he dealt with by overindulgence in food and drugs and alcohol.
In addition to being a very paranoid man, Acosta was a gentle man, a very sensitive man, who wrote with intensity and poetry that gave him the stature of a first rank American writer.
Acosta came out of a long Los Angeles tradition -- that of the Mexican revolutionary. Some important elements of the Mexican Revolution were masterminded from Los Angeles, a fact that horrified General Otis of the Los Angeles Times.
Octavio Paz wrote about Los Angeles in "The Labyrinth of Solitude." Paz talks about living in Los Angeles, "a city inhabited by over a million persons of Mexican origin" and then goes on to somehow dismiss "..the city's vaguely Mexican atmosphere, which cannot be captured in words or concepts."
In fairness to Paz, he was writing in the '50s, of course. Acosta didn't really happen in print much until the '70s. Acosta alone gave Los Angeles validity as the capital and Mecca of Chicano literature. But he was its supreme moment -- and I suspect will remain so for some time.
A lot of Latin American literature may be revolutionary. But believe me, the powers that be in Los Angeles today will tolerate safe Chicano literature -- but they will never allow another Acosta.
The history of the great Latin American writing is that it is always highly charged with working class and revolutionary impulse, and has also been rich in religious pageantry and symbolism. They represent different ends of the same spectrum, of course, as Eisenstein's movie, "Day of the Dead" shows. I think that Acosta represented the existential, for lack of a better word, and leftist impulse that has distinguished Latino culture's greatest moments. The sentimental memories of an ancient paradise are cheap shots. The great Latino artists, from Diego Rivera to Pablo Neruda, believed that paradise had to be made by working class struggle. That sounds strange and foreign to American ears, although in fact America's greatest writers from Mark Twain to Jack London to Upton Sinclair wrote unabashed working class literature.
In Latin America Diego Rivera and Pablo Neruda reflected the great river in Latino culture that, much to the dismay of the American State Department, makes heroes of Che Guervera and, for that matter, Castro himself, and not the damn Pope.
Acosta was not really a Che Guervera or a Castro. What he'll leave behind is what he wrote. What he wrote makes you know the times and understand them -- and his works give us something to compare to present day reality.
Acosta was one of those who would not have been taken seriously by the staid book review journals who act as if they have the power to anoint what is proper for "minority" writers to say. Mythic pasts are OK, but don't get carried away with utopian visions of a fairer, better world. Be satisfied with a literature submerged in the more trivial aspects of Chicano existence, not those that bring the powers down on your head.
With Acosta, the peculiar intermingling of cultural paradigms is what gives his books their insights and unique character and most likely, their real greatness.
And that's why the picture of Acosta slipping his arms around Dorothy that day on the picket line in front of Parker Center seems like a moment frozen in time, as if from some old snapshot. But it wasn't just some old snapshot -- it was a resonant moment in another time and place that nonetheless tells much about us today, including the fact that our collective amnesia still abounds in the new Millennium.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of "FAT MAN ON THE LEFT: Four Decades in the Underground," "LITERARY L.A." and theforthcoming "DEATH AND REDEMPTION IN LONDON & LA" as an e-book from http://deadendstreet.com http://silverlake.magicplace.com/rolfe.htm