Thinking about Oscar Zeta Acosta

Reading today over at the excellent blog, Lotería Chicana, Cindy has written today about Oscar Zeta Acosta who would have turned 75 this year.  It’s a great post on a great blog and inspired me to put down my own thoughts about the Chicano wild child lawyer and writer that was Oscar Zeta.

His biography is probably equal parts history and myth.  In the passionate and wild time that was the the Chicano movement in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles, Acosta still stood out as larger than life.

I first encountered Zeta Acosta’s prose in Revolt of the Cockroach People.  I read it when I as eighteen, followed quickly by Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. However much I may take issues with the sexism and narcissism of Acosta’s texts, I love these books and on some level, have compared every bit of Chicana/o writing I’ve read since to them. Though Acosta wasn’t originally from Los Angeles, these are Los Angeles texts about a moment in our history when everything was being questioned, when change was both seen as possible and being demanded.

It’s fitting, perhaps, that the birthdays of César Chávez and Zeta Acosta are so close — the men were born a decade and a week apart.  Chávez is seen as the saintly figure who fought self-lessly for decades to life and move his people forward, fighting for the rights of downtrodden farmworkers from the 1960s until his death, peacefully in his sleep, in 1993.  Acosta raged through life, a representation of raw Chicano manhood.  He also fought for his people, but it was for the urban Chicanos in Los Angeles, fighting within the law, politically and outside the law through the use and abuse of drugs, women and alcohol.  He never  officially “died” and never went quietly, instead disappearing in 1974.

One of things I’m looking forward to most about teaching Chicana/o studies is the chance to teach Zeta Acosta.  He deserves to be remembered, not as a saint but as a hero, complete with flaws and tragedy.

Happy birthday Oscar Zeta Acosta.


[In celebration of my dissertation being accepted today by my university’s library, I’m put up its abstract. Don’t worry, I’m probably not going to post the whole thing.]

Title: ”Splitting Aztlán: American Resistance and Chicana Visions of a Radical Utopia”

My dissertation researches American resistance movements, focusing on nineteenth-century Transcendentalism and the Chicano/a movements of the 1960s through 1990s.  It is concerned specifically with the emergence of Chicano/a literature from the late nineteenth century through the twentieth century, especially Chicana authorship and editorship as part of a tradition of U.S. resistance literature.

The 1960s was a period of renewed interest in the literature of American Transcendentalist communities, especially the writings of David Henry Thoreau regarding resistance and civil disobedience.  This re-reading shaped and informed American civil protest literature of the 1960s, including that of the Chicano Movement. Reverberations connect the two periods in the area of non-violent social protest.  Further resonances may be heard now between the nineteenth-century suffrage and abolitionist movements and the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements, as they questioned the United States’ role as an imperial nation — a role begun with the nineteenth-century policy of Manifest Destiny.

The replication of and discursive focus on nation and universalized communities of men, opened space for women as editors and authors.  Chicana writers and editors of the late twentieth century, like the protofeminists of the nineteenth-century suffrage movement, split the single “divine soul” by pointing out the contradictions and flaws in a discourse on the nation which presumes only masculine subjects.  Both ultimately created textual communities as sites for feminist, cosmopoetic and cosmopolitical interventions.  At the same time, like African American feminists of the same period, they resisted the essentialist and universalizing feminist gaze, creating out of this a U.S. differential feminism of color.

The opening section of my dissertation, comprising the first two chapters, is an introductory discussion of textual communities and resistance literature, focusing on both United States Transcendentalism and the emergence of Chicana feminist authors and editors.  Chapter Two is a reading of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s 1872 text, Who Would Have Thought It?, as both a satire of United States northeastern culture and politics, and a statement of resistance to Manifest Destiny.  Ruiz de Burton’s work resists the westward gaze of northeastern U.S. literature, instead looking east from western / Californian eyes, specifically at the New England northeast.  A satire, the novel was explicitly written to resist the author’s sense of cultural annihilation, against both the Californios’ sense of their own invisibility and the larger national policy of Manifest Destiny.

The second section of my dissertation, comprising Chapters Three and Four, looks at the emergence of Chicana authorship and editorship during the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  Chapter Three examines late twentieth-century Chicana authorship and editorship, using close textual readings from diverse archival sources, including the Chicano newspaper El Grito del Norte and its collective of writers and editors, especially Elizabeth Martinez and Enriqueta Vásquez, to explore the evolution of Chicana editorship and the development of textual communities within and around the developing mythology of Aztlán.  Chapter Four focuses on Chicana edited anthologies in the 1980s, especially This Bridge Called My Back and Chicana Voices.  The two anthologies, though different in many respects and created for different purposes, created  textual communities of writers which participated in the project of developing and defining a specific new feminism by women of color, as well as Anzaldúa’s border theory.  This research examines and participates in the discussion of emergent writing and editorship by women of color, and how these feminists fit into the larger tradition of textual communities in the United States.

The dissertation concludes with a re-examination of Aztlán as a site of resistance, a borderland cosmopolitan and cosmopoetic space.  While “cosmopolitan” traditionally speaks of urban sensibilities, recent scholarship on the modern and postmodern evolution of cosmopolitanism offers a new and renewed vision that utilizes pre-Kantian cosmopolitanism.  This vision imagines a world city space and citizenship which exists outside the confines of borders, while also tempering the effects of globalism; a space which acts against the confines of nationalism and outside the power of the state.  This new type of cosmopolitanism has been named “borderland cosmopolitanism,” one which exists at rural crossroads as well as in cities; it is a cosmopolitanism of the indigenous as well as the elite.  Borderland cosmopolitanism does not just attack the nation; it also destabilizes citizenship and, in doing so, endangers the authority of the state and nation.