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Oscar Acosta: The Chicano Hero Behind Dr. Gonzo.

By Jim Carvalho

DECEMBER 28, 1998: 

HUNTER S. THOMPSON'S classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas documented the strange and savage exploits of Raoul Duke and his 300-pound Samoan attorney, Dr. Gonzo. Duke, as everyone knows, is Thompson. Less familiar to readers is the fact that Dr. Gonzo is also based on a real person.

In early 1971, Thompson visited the Silver Dollar Café on East L.A.'s Whittier Boulevard. Six months earlier, on August 29, 1970, the Silver Dollar had been the scene of a murder. As Thompson wrote: "That was the day that Ruben Salazar, the prominent 'Mexican-American' columnist for the Los Angeles Times...walked into the place and sat down on a stool near the doorway to order a beer he would never drink. Because just about the time the barmaid was sliding his beer across the bar, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy named Tom Wilson fired a tear gas bomb through the front door and blew half of Ruben Salazar's head off. The death of Salazar, an activist in East L.A.'s nascent Chicano movement, galvanized the Hispanic community."

While researching Salazar's death for his brilliant piece of investigative journalism, "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan" (Rolling Stone, April 29, 1971), Thompson met another Chicano activist--an overweight firebrand attorney named Oscar "Zeta" Acosta. Thompson and Acosta recognized each other as kindred spirits and became fast friends. Acosta figures prominently in "Strange Rumblings," and is the real-life Dr. Gonzo of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

In fact, when that book was released, there was a dispute over rights of authorship; a deal was struck that led to the publication of two books by Acosta that are now recognized as masterpieces of Chicano literature: The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972) and The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973). Acosta's writing is more personal and introspective than Thompson's: He obsesses over his too-big belly and two-small dick, and helps usher in the whiny victim ideology that sadly permeates so much of today's "ethnic" literature. Nevertheless, Buffalo and Revolt are important books.

When Acosta mysteriously disappeared off the Mexican coast in 1971, Thompson eulogized his friend and partner in typical fashion: There was more mercy, madness, dignity, and generosity in that overweight, overworked and always overindulged brown cannonball of a body than most of us will meet in any human package even three times Oscar's size for the rest of our lives--which are all running noticeably leaner on the high side since that rotten fat spic disappeared...Oscar was one of God's own prototypes--a high-powered mutant of some kind who was never even considered for mass production. He was too weird to live and too rare to die....

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