When Zeta met Hunter

Nearly 40 years after an uneasy friendship between Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta created gonzo journalism, the urban legend that Thompson alone was its genesis persists while Acosta’s collaboration has been virtually whitewashed out of the picture.

Last month, on a program about the recently released documentary film Gonzo, Charlie Rose remarked: “Thompson was a maverick journalist. He is the creator of gonzo journalism — that made reporters not just witnesses but central figures of their stories.”

There is a telling moment in Gonzo that flies in the face of such assessments. It is a reenactment featuring the actual audiotapes that Acosta and Thompson made on the freewheeling road trips recounted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

“We are looking for the American Dream, and we were told it was somewhere in this area,” Acosta says to a waitress at a roadside taco stand. Thompson then asks about the quality of the stand’s “5 for $1” tacos. Acosta’s retort is priceless: “Don’t judge a taco by its price.”

The late poet raúlrsalinas and Acosta were part of the first Floricanto Chicano Literary festival held at USC in 1973.

“Zeta was a very important person,” Salinas told an interviewer, “an optimist, a dreamer, always encouraging things to change. But the Anglo establishment exploited his talent. In his case it was Hunter Thompson. That guy stole Brown Buffalo’s gonzo style; he turned it into mass-produced merchandise.”

Oscar Z. Acosta, born a Tejano in 1935 in El Chuco, grew up in California. He later became a lawyer and part of the Chicano cultural and civil-rights movimiento in the late 1960s. He ran as a Raza Unida candidate for sheriff of Los Angeles County in 1970. Despite a minuscule campaign budget, he came in second with more than 100,000 votes. His platform: Abolish the police department.

Later that year he journeyed to Aspen to help Thompson campaign for sheriff in the Colorado town. One look at the respective campaign posters shows how Thompson appropriated the Chicano power symbol for a gonzo fist.

Shortly thereafter, Oscar approached Hunter for a favor. Would he write a piece on the death of Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar at the hands of an L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy and the cover-up by the L.A. police that had left the Chicano barrios in an uproar? “Strange Rumblings in Aztlán,” published in Rolling Stone in April 1971, was a groundbreaking piece. Acosta’s righteous Chicano flow and rascuache-influenced voice resonates passionately in Thompson’s prose. In the interaction between Zeta and Hunter, gonzo was born.

During Thompson and Acosta’s research for “Rumblings” and again after it was published, the two compadres undertook a road trip as Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo — the dope generation equivalents of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, el Gordo y el Flaco, or Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. The resultant narrative, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” appeared as a two-part series in Rolling Stone with the byline Raoul Duke.

In its 25th-anniversary tribute to “Fear and Loathing,” Rolling Stone called it a “literary byproduct” and “a happenstance of artistic genius.”

Acosta felt Thompson had betrayed him. Later, in a letter to Playboy Forum, Acosta accused Thompson of appropriating all the credit for gonzo journalism. “My God! Hunter has stolen my soul,” he reportedly told his editor. “He has taken my best lines and used me.”

Acosta threatened to sue Rolling Stone and prevent the book version from being published. The magazine relented and forged a deal: Zeta would not receive credit as co-author of Fear and Loathing, but to validate his participation in the writing, a dated photo of Acosta and Thompson in Las Vegas would appear on the back cover.

In return, Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow Books would publish two novels by Acosta. Additionally, Rolling Stone was required to refer to him in all print publicity as “a creator of Gonzo Journalism.”

Acosta published two major American novels in the gonzo style in less than two years: Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo in 1972 and The Revolt of the Cockroach People in 1973, his version of “Rumblings in Aztlán.” He was lauded as one of the first novelists of the Chicano literary renaissance. But, by the end of the following year, he vanished in Mazatlán. No one has discovered under what circumstances he died or if he is still alive.

Thompson later wrote a long, moving obituary, “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat,” in which he wrote, “Zeta was too weird to live and to rare to die.”

Still, Hunter wasn’t about to wax poetic about his friend’s death and quickly sold “Banshee” to the movies. The result? Where the Buffalo Roam, a Dumb and Dumber type comedy with Bill Murray as Hunter. Oscar’s character, played by Peter Boyle, is no longer Samoan or Chicano, but a Rumanian attorney named Lazlo.

In 1997, I met Thompson at a book signing on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. He seemed genuinely touched when I mentioned my involvement in the Raza Unida Party in Crystal City. Afterward, he offered me a ride in his limo. I had parked near the infamous Viper Room off Sunset, then owned by Johnny Depp, who later portrayed Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s film version of Fear, with Benicio Del Toro as Acosta.

Inside the limo, Thompson adjusted a wrist splint and juggled to sign my books without spilling his drink. Finally, in disgust, he handed over a roll of signed bookplates. “Let’s see if these are worth more some day.”

I had brought a copy of the 25th-anniversary edition of Fear that Modern Library had published the previous year. The famous Vegas photo was on the cover, but Acosta had been cropped out and only the quizzical Thompson remained.

I was about to ask him why he had betrayed Oscar’s legacy by approving the change when we reached my car. As I drove away, I honked at Thompson, now standing outside the Viper on the exact spot where the young actor River Phoenix had died of a drug overdose.

Hunter did his best to stand at attention, then shouted into the neon night, “¡Qué viva la raza!” He then saluted and raised his clenched fist in a sign of Chicano Power, or perhaps his own gonzo fist.

“Is Zeta a hero? A myth?” Salinas told an Acosta biographer. “I guess it depends on whom you ask. The older Chicano generation has a deep affection for Brown Buffalo, but young people know very little, if anything, about him. Tú sabes? They know almost nothing about el movimiento.” •

Acosta gonzo

Oscar Z. Acosta’s most important work remains in print and on video. This list highlights the best.

His two gonzo novels The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People (Vintage paperbacks) contain an introduction by Thompson and an afterward by Acosta’s son, Marco.  

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson is required reading to see who influenced whom in this ultimate gonzo novel in search of the American Dream. The Modern Library edition also contains “Strange Rumblings in Aztlán,” the first time Zeta and Hunter appear together in print.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: The Criterion Collection DVD of Terry Gilliam’s film contains a supplementary disc that spotlights Acosta. Included are a short bio, photos, a 30-minute reading of Revolt by Acosta at the 1973 Floricanto Festival, and a recording of Thompson reading his gonzo obit for Acosta.

Acosta’s gonzo reading from Revolt is also available online at:

— Gregg Barrios

Backgrounder: Rasquachismo

Chicano art critic Tomás Ybarra-Frausto defines rasquachi or rascuache as: “ ... a bawdy, spunky conciousness. To seek to subvert and turn ruling paradigms upside-down. It is a witty, irreverent, and impertinent posture that recodes and moves outside established boundaries. Rascuachismo is an underdog perspective.” 

Current contributor and culture critic Pablo Miguel Martínez summed it up in last week’s profile of artist David Zamora Casas as “the art of making do with what you’ve got, no matter how meager, and turning it into something beautiful.”

Yolanda Broyles-Gonzáles, in her book Teatro Campesino, defined it thusly: “Rasquachismo, or the Rasquachi Aesthetic (all spellings are acceptable), encompasses a shared memory system of performance elements grounded in a working-class, underdog perspective.”

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