Mexican American Writer Oscar Zeta Acosta - Literature Essay Example

Mexican American Writer Oscar Zeta Acosta

 

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Chicano literature evidents a unifying paradigm: to a professed threat to the existence of the culture, the work itself responds, becoming an evidence of survival. Within this pattern there functions what Ramón Saldivar calls the dialectics of difference? Chicanos in literature choose to be other than U.S. American or Mexican. They refuse the chaos of de-culturation, but in the act of defining themselves they find out a non-Mexican identity as well. The literature is the production of a space of differentiation, an intercultural synthesis between dialectical forces, be they United States vs. Mexico, urban vs. rural, English vs. Spanish, or even rock ‘n’ roll vs. polkas. To attempt to purge entirely one or the other is to cease to be Chicano, though certainly individuals can favor more U.S. or more Mexican content in their lives. Chicanismo is the product/producer of continuing synthesis, constantly drawing from what seem to outsiders to be conflicting cultural elements. Therefore, the literature proposes an alternative, an “inter” space for a new ethnic distinctiveness to exist.

It was not until the end of the 1950s and start of the ’60s that Chicanos began to put out in larger, though still not great, numbers, most notably after the rise of Chicano civil rights movements across the Southwest. Besides, the appearance of modern Chicano literature generally coincides with the demise of many Spanish-language publications, so there was a requirement to create new publishing houses to print the new literature. These small publishers, while having the gain of targeting a specific readership, could not afford to misread their audience’s abilities. They knew, or soon found out, that the Chicano reading public had modifying their preference towards English, a natural shift thinking that most Chicanos are trained in school systems where only English is spoken and live in this country where English is the language of freedom and power. Within the Chicano community, those most expected to buy a book are those most digested into the general society, that is, those who speak and read English. True, there are some writers — Tomás Rivera, Sergio Elizondo, Rolando Hinojosa and Miguel Méndez — who wrote in Spanish with the cognizant purpose of preserving the language. With the omission of Méndez, the choice to write in Spanish was just that, for they could have just as by far written in English, as all three have demonstrated in one text of another. Not all Chicano writers have this facility with both languages.

To anyone working in Chicano literature in the late sixties it was clear that the linguistic relationships among Chicano texts, authors and readers were multifarious (Méndez M., Miguel, 1981). While many, if not most, Chicano audiences reacted with a surge of acknowledgment to the Spanish used by the Teatro Campesino in their early Actos, at times the response was more to the mere actuality of usage of the language in a public opportunity than to complete comprehension of the meaning. The Campesino’s plays, as they budge from those designed for the mainly Spanish-speaking farm workers to those aimed at an urban audience, featured increasingly less Spanish (Valdez, Actos). As the use of some Spanish, often the very essential familial type, was conventional and even encouraged, there was a general recognition that Spanish was no longer the favored language of Chicano readers. This was obviously demonstrated when the first major Chicano publishing house, Quinto Sol (Berkeley, California), determined that any text in Spanish would have to be printed bilingually convoyed by an English translation but those written in English could be published without a Spanish version. The economic facts after the decision were convincing: English, not Spanish, sold books.

On the other hand, another prospect arose in the ’60s that proved quite marketable then: the interlingual text. These are pieces written in a merge of Spanish and English. They are not bilingual in that, in the finest examples, they do not attempt to retain the two language codes separate, but develop and create the prospective junctures of interconnection. This results in a diverse code, one in which neither monolingual codes can stand alone and relay the same meaning. Translation becomes impractical, and purists from either language deny its feasibility. Monolinguals, from either side of the border, often respond to it as if they were being individually insulted. Though lexical inter-lingualism received a great deal of consideration as an innovation during the Movement phase of the literature, it was not the main mode of Chicano writing, even in the late sixties, and never has been.

Thus, what we now call Chicano literature that is; writing by anyone of Mexican heritage inhabiting permanently in the U.S.A. should not be taken as an effort to preserve the Spanish language. Nor must it be judged in terms of loyalty or infidelity to that language.

Chicano writers, like any writers, lean to use the language they control best. If that happens to be English, as in the majority of cases, then that is the writer’s native language. Finally, Chicanos are citizens or enduring residents of this country and have a perfect right to assert its national heritage as their own. That numerous Chicano writers nostalgically wish they could write in Spanish is a separate problem; that they write in English, out of choice or obligation is significant.

One of the most popular Mexican writers is Oscar Zeta Acosta, whose two novels coincide with the Quinto Sol Prize project (The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, 1972, and The Revolt of the Cockroach People, 1973). There are those who would rather not take in Acosta in the canon. His cherished contact with the mainstream counter-culture formed the opposite sensation. In Acosta’s works the interaction between Chicanos and the great mixture of other groups that make up the U.S. people was too close and eventually unavoidable. Certainly my reason to choose Zeta Acosta is that his characters are less than completely Chicano.

Oscar “Zeta” Acosta was born in El Paso, Texas in 1936 and grew up in California. Subsequent to serving in the Air Force, Acosta attended college and graduated from law school. His semi-autobiographical novels, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People were written in a high-energy style and describe the adventures of a hard-living lawyer and writer seeking uniqueness among Chicanos and Anglos. In 1974, during a vacation in Mazatlán, Mexico, Acosta disappeared. Various rumors have thrived during the past eighteen years, such as those suggesting that he had worked for the CIA or that he was killed as of his political activity on behalf of Chicanos in Los Angeles (Martínez, Julio A., and Francisco A. Lomelí, 1985).

Oscar “Zeta” Acosta was a lawyer who became concerned with the militant Chicano movement in Los Angeles throughout the late 1960s, wrote two personal accounts of his political experiences. In The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972), Acosta depicts himself as a Robin Hood of sorts. And in The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973), he refers to his fellow Chicano colleagues and friends with disparaging and candidly volatile terms like “bugs”. Acosta’s dazzling, anarchic fictional voice has long been recognized by an underground readership (Hames-García, Michael R, 2000).

In writing his autobiography, Acosta documented the procedure through which he reintegrated the incongruent parts of his cultural sources, realigned himself with his people’s chronological experience, and came at last to recognize some truth about the reality of life for Chicanos in North America. What he learned is that the individual and the community are not detach entities, that even when the individual is trying hardest to sever his relations with his people he is still reacting to the dictates and shared life of that community. The chronological experience of a cultural group, then, shapes for better or for worse the personal experience of the individual. Distinct the customary notion that the autobiographical “I” stands isolated, consumed in dissecting an autonomous self, the fundamental recognition between the “I” and the “we” is a principle of ethnic autobiographical awareness for writers like Acosta. In fact, it is in moving away from the “I,” away from isolation and sickly self-consciousness, that the Chicano shapes a personal identity, an “I” competent not only of living with a troubled historical legacy, but also of acting to convey that legacy (Olivares Julian, 1988).

The tension between individual desires, what the self believes it is or may become, and the acknowledgment of the Chicano’s place in America concurrently shatters the personality and leads to its locus of identity. For the Chicano, much as, say, for the black, the “consistency of misrelationship” with American society is the very standard of experience that leads to self-knowledge. Since relations with the external world are tenuous, if not simply aggressive, one can fairly say that Acosta comes into being as a consequence of the way in which American society has constantly defined and limited him to a type, and likewise as a consequence of his often misdirected recoil against such limitation. Always a “greaser” in spite of desire or achievement, the Chicano comes into being mainly as a response to an obstinate interplay with the outer world. For Acosta, as for many Chicanos, the effects of such intimidating relations with society take in contradictory responses: first, feelings of anger and obstinate detachment from whites, then feelings of baffled self-image, hostility toward the self for not being American enough, and a self deceiving effort to resolve the divergence by acting as American as possible. When he fails to persuade America’s demands, as he must, he withdraws, escapes, and runs from the self he is not permitted to be.

Acosta moves from one costume to another. He is the Baptist preacher saving souls in Panama, the aspirant writer hitting the road in search of material, the aggravated attorney representing the poor, the failure hippie cavorting with numerous strangers on the road in the late 1960s. Even more symbolic of his failure to fix upon a single identity is the success with which he wears diverse brown masks. At various times he passes for a Samoan; in a bar in Ketchum, Idaho, he is Henry Hawk, a Blackfoot Indian Chief; and, paradoxically, in Mexico he passes for a Mexican, until he opens his mouth and betrays himself as a gringo. Actually, at one point in Autobiography, this interchangeability of dark-skinned identities forces him to pretense the self-confronting question of just who or what he really is, having been mistaken all his life for “American Indian, Spanish, Filipino, Hawaiian, Samoan and Arabian. No one ever asked me if I’m a spic or a greaser. Am I Samoan?” (68).

Acosta, certainly, plays the ironic game here, since it is and always has been obvious that those who call him a spic or a greaser are barely interested in asking him if he is a spic or a greaser. Always placed within one or another category of darkness, the man of color begins to wonder whether there actually is any difference. He is everyone, but he is no one. Perceived as a changeable but always dark-skinned foreigner, the individual finds his awareness of the self to be confounded, indistinct by the racially insane situation in which he finds himself. The masks he should wear not only hide him from hostile eyes, but, tragically, shatter the inner man, leaving him with little or no personality of his own (Padilla Genaro M. 1993).

His existence, which of running, remaining elusive, ends up being accurately the fate his oppressors have planned for him. For Acosta, as for Ellison’s invisible man, the plan is to “keep him running.”( Stavans Ilan. Bandido, 1995)

Only while he finally discards the defensive protean mask can he reconcile himself to the individuality into which history and cultural circumstances have shaped him. Like Malcolm X, who in getting the recognition of Brother discovers not another mask but himself, so Acosta discovers himself when he attains identification as a Chicano.

It is, inevitable enough, in the city of his birth, El Paso, Texas, that he finally begins to come to terms with himself and his descent. When he arrives, the city scene reawakens memories of his early childhood, before the family moved to pocho California. There is the usual chagrin with things that have changed over the years, but the old neighborhood suggests vivid memories of the child’s stepping up life in a Chicano barrio. Across the river in Juarez, the crowded streets filled with brown-skinned people stir feelings of nearly forgotten arrogance in his own dark self. For the first time in his adult life, he regards Mexican women as life-giving and gorgeous.

The passion with the white goddesses of his youth is finally obliterated (188). In one sweep, he is reunited with his “sisters,” “cousins,” “aunts,” and, considerably, the “seven Chicanas” from high school whom he once shunned as “homely and square.” As he looks at these Mexican women, charmed and “blinded by love,” he imagines that they, symbolizing his rediscovered Mexican’s, possess the curative for his pain (189).

However, having romanticized the Mexican source, there is a surprising but expected discovery Oscar must make while he is in Juarez. If in the eyes of his fellow Americans he always has been and always would be a “greaser,” in Mexico, once he is denied of his darkness, he is only another gringo. After a week in Juarez, and at just concerning the time when he has started to feel at home, he gets into trouble and ends up in jail for acting like an conceited gringo before a hotel clerk. When he comes up before the magistrate, he tries to summon his status as an attorney and an American citizen to ease himself off the charges. His delusions about his Mexicanness are further deflated by the magistrate’s denial to speak to him in English, even though she speaks “perfect English.” Acosta is enforced to admit his “gringo arrogance and Americano impatience” (193).

As a final biting remark, the magistrate lets him go by asking why he doesn’t go home and find out his father’s language (194).

Disenchanted with the dream of Mexicanness, he makes his way back to El Paso, the American sector, but he is stopped and challenged by the American border guard who, as typical, refuses to believe that he is a citizen and tells him that he doesn’t look similar to an American (Ordóñez, Elizabeth J. 1980).

Truly without any identification and confused and tired, he takes a cheap room and, as he did at the commencement of his search, stands naked before a mirror, stripped, without any more disguises. He begins to sob and falls into a long sleep (195). It is during these 33 hours of sleep that the 33-year-old searcher, in a silent, skeletal state, undergoes a symbolic rebirth which settles the fragmented parts of the self and generates a renewed vision of his place in the world. He awakens to transformed strength, with his emptiness, alienation, and numerous identities burned away.

Rejecting the definitions that have been forced upon him, he realizes that he must renegotiate the terms of his search for individuality. If he has failed to find the answer to his questions, it is as he has allowed himself to be bandied concerning between extremes. “One son of abitch tells me I’m not a Mexican and the other one says I’m not an American,” he complains. But it is in realizing that he is neither Mexican nor American that he finds his identity, an identity that Juan Bruce-Novoa has aptly termed “the space (not the hyphen) between the two. It is within the space between Mexican American that a recognition of the self as Chicano is realized. Acosta finally locates his experience in that space realizing, “I am a Chicano by ancestry and a Brown Buffalo by choice” (Juan Bruce-Novoa, 1975, 199).

While blotting the location of a distinct cultural identity, the space between Mexican American is wide enough to permit Acosta his own personal identity. That the two, however, are inextricably tied together is obvious. As the Brown Buffalo, Acosta may roam the terrain of his own life, but his freedom to do so, he now recognizes, is largely determined by the circumstance of the herd itself. Almost impulsively, he knows that, like the buffalo “who were slaughtered, butchered and cut up,” the Chicanos face spiritual and cultural extinction, if not absolute physical extinction, unless they band together. Acosta may snub to compromise those parts of the self that give difference to the personal life; he may remain outrageous, angry, even destructive; but once he comes to recognize his cultural-historic identity, that energy is given purpose, and if he is bent on destroying anything it is a crooked social system instead of the self.

Having defined the terms of his own freedom, in the final pages of Autobiography, he predicts his own role in his people’s struggle to describe theirs. Swaggering and audacious, Acosta boards a bus for Los Angeles, “the home of the biggest herd of brown buffalos in the entire world.” Although he originally arrives with the idea of writing concerning the “revolution” he has heard is about to break, he ends up systematically radicalized by what he sees. Within a few months, he is not only concerned in the movement, he is at its vortex (Monsiváis, Carlos, 1983).

Ultimately, Acosta discovered that he was incapable single-handedly to change the world. He did rise to distinction as a radical attorney, a movement spokesman, and an audacious media figure who garnered prevalent attention for the Chicano movement, but, like the movement itself, he could not maintain the energy and commitment requisite for a long fight. The system proved too firmly entrenched, the assault upon the defender failed, and little changed. At the end of The Revolt of the Cockroach People, Acosta pictures himself as leaving the scene of the battle, disenchanted and very tired of the fighting. His social ideals and his anger, though, remain smoldering beneath the cinders. Driving away, back on the road again, he signals a personal truce, but he recognizes that the historical process does eliminate the personal life after all. The revolt of the cockroach people, all cockroach people, ends to begin somewhere else, perchance in another city or another time, led by another generation, but inexorably again and again.

I believe, more than the delicacy of Acosta’s ethnic foundation, what bothers some Chicano readers is that Acosta draws into question the flimsiness of a Movement based on ethnicity in the framework of a mobile and extremely versatile society like the United States. Though, Chicano witnesses for both sides in the matter of the death of a Chicano reporter. Into this microcosm of Chicano conflict, Acosta brings in César Chávez and Rodolfo Corky Gonzales as legislature of opposite alternatives of pacificism and militant violence, and he places himself between, the link that holds them jointly, the source of a rhetoric that might lend order to chaos and disintegration. But in the end, Acosta is forced to flee after attempting to bomb the Chicano judge’s chambers, an effort that apparently kills a Chicano. This was not the picture of ethnic unanimity Chicanos wanted to see.

 
Work Cited

Martínez, Julio A., and Francisco A. Lomelí. Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Ordóñez, Elizabeth J. “Chicana Literature and Related Sources: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography.” Bilingual Review 7, no. 2 ( May-August 1980):143-64.

Monsiváis, Carlos. “Literatura comparada: literatura chicana y literatura mexicana.” Fomento Literario 1, no. 3 ( 1983):42-49.

Méndez M., Miguel. La Palabra: Revista de Literatura Chicana 3, no. 1-2 ( 1981):3-120.

Hames-García, Michael R. “Dr. Gonzo’s Carnival: The Testimonial Satires of Oscar Zeta Acosta, Chicano Lawyer. ” American Literature 72.3 (2000).

Juan Bruce-Novoa, “The Space of Chicano Literature”, De Colores 1, no. 4 ( 1975): 27.

Olivares Julian, ed. U.S. Hispanic Autobiography. The Americas Review 16, no. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1988).

Padilla Genaro M. My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography. Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Stavans Ilan. Bandido: Oscar “Zeta” Acosta & the Chicano Experience. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972; reprint. New York: Vintage, 1989.

The Revolt of the Cockroach People. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1973; reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

 

 

Annotated Bibliography

Martínez, Julio A., and Francisco A. Lomelí. Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Márquez explores the development of a shift in modem autobiography. This guide includes comprehensive information on authors; pivotal articles on the history of the literature, as well as three literary genres (the novel, poetry, and theater), Chicano children’s literature, and Chicano philosophy; and a chronology of Chicano literature and glossary of useful terms.

Ordóñez, Elizabeth J. “Chicana Literature and Related Sources: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography.” Bilingual Review 7, no. 2 ( May-August 1980):143-64.

An exhaustive annotated compilation of critical essays, bibliographies, anthologies, poetry, and prose focusing on or written by Chicana authors. Ordóñez critically evaluates the quest for and definition of Chicana cultural identity through Chicana poetry.

Monsiváis, Carlos. “Literatura comparada: literatura chicana y literatura mexicana.” Fomento Literario 1, no. 3 ( 1983):42-49.

Monsiváis establishes the validity of a parallelism between Chicano and Mexican literatures and points out the seminal differences. Papers stress the themes of national character and identity through literary “space,” as well as satire and humor in Chicano literature.

 

Méndez M., Miguel. La Palabra: Revista de Literatura Chicana 3, no. 1-2 ( 1981):3-120.

This guide includes comprehensive information on authors; pivotal articles on the history of the literature, as well as three literary genres (the novel, poetry, and theater), Chicano children’s literature, and Chicano philosophy; and a chronology of Chicano literature and glossary of useful terms. Special issue of La Palabra focusing on the work of Miguel Méndez M.; includes an interview with Méndez, a collection of critical writings on his work (especially Peregrinos de Aztlán), and several of his poems and short stories.

 

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