RIVERBANK — Oscar Zeta Acosta hero to the Chicano movement, hard-living pal of Hunter S. Thompson first raised hell in Riverbank.
He grew up in a rough part of town around World War II and took to drinking and chasing girls as a teenager. Yet he was smart and driven enough to become a lawyer and writer, best known for fighting discrimination against Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles in the 1960s and '70s.
Acosta was the model for Dr. Gonzo, the lawyer who accompanied Thompson's character on a drug-fueled road trip in the semifictional "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
Acosta's life came to a mysterious end in 1974, when he disappeared during a sailing trip off Mazatlán, Mexico.
Nearly four decades later, the Riverbank Historical Society is paying tribute with a small exhibition in its downtown museum. It is belated recognition for a man who is well-known to students of Chicano history but not so much to many Stanislaus County residents.
"He achieved sort of a legendary status," said his son, Marco Acosta, an attorney in Marin County. "A lot of folks associate him with Hunter Thompson and mix the two together, but he had his own talent, especially in the field of literature, and his legal work."
Boyhood friends offered varying opinions.
"I didn't see the wild side," said Ralph Moore, who went to high school and Modesto Junior College with Acosta. "He was just a nice boy when I knew him. We would have philosophical discussions about religion and the nature of the universe."
Felix Ulloa said he disagrees with the idea of honoring Acosta because he became a "bully" who squandered his potential.
"It's sad because we know what could have been," he said.
Acosta was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1935, one of five children of Manuel and Juana Acosta. The family moved to Riverbank when he was a young boy.
The first of his two books, "The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo" from 1972, mixes fond memories with off-color adventures. Much of it is in the style that Thompson dubbed "gonzo" free-wheeling first-person accounts, with some details that are not entirely true.
Some passages are simple and sweet, such as Acosta's description of the family home on Patterson Road:
"We lived in a two-room shack without a floor. We had to pump our water and use kerosene if we wanted to read at night. But we never went hungry. My old man always bought the pinto beans and the white flour for the tortillas in 100-pound sacks which my mother used to make dresses, sheets and curtains. We had two acres of land which we planted every year with corn, tomatoes and yellow chiles for the hot sauce."
The town at the time had about 4,000 residents, including long-established families, recent Dust Bowl migrants and people from Mexico. Or as Acosta put it:
"Riverbank is divided into three parts, and in my corner of the world there were only three kinds of people: Mexicans, Okies and Americans. Catholics, Holy Rollers and Protestants. Peach pickers, cannery workers and clerks."
Acosta attended Riverbank Grammar School and Oakdale High School before Riverbank had a high school.
He was Oakdale High's class president, a football lineman and a clarinetist in the band. But he couldn't stay out of trouble, especially after his father and uncle opened a Riverbank bar called the Pink Elephant.
"After my 14th birthday I had access to all the beer, corn chips, Polish sausages and pigs' feet me and my buddies could consume," he wrote. "We'd simply back the car into the storage room and load her up for the evening's action. The Fearless Four, as we called ourselves, went cruising Tenth Street in Modesto, circling Burgie's Drive Inn or (drag-racing) the Okies along the canal banks with the trunk loaded with Goebel beer every night for three years."
Acosta joined the Air Force after high school. He converted from Catholicism to become a Baptist during this time and evangelized among the natives while stationed in Panama, including visits to a leper colony. He then rejected Christianity while still in the service.
After his discharge, Acosta studied French and creative writing at MJC, then enrolled at San Francisco State University. From 1956 to 1963, he was married to his first wife, former Modesto resident Betty Daves, the mother of Marco Acosta.
In about 1960, Acosta wrote a novel based on his experiences in Riverbank, but he never got it published. He enrolled in San Francisco Law School, passed the bar exam and by 1966 was working at a legal aid center for low-income people in Oakland.
Acosta's activism took him to Los Angeles, heart of the struggle for Chicano rights. He defended the East L.A. 13, a group of teachers and allies who walked out to protest unequal school conditions. In another case, he subpoenaed several judges to ask why criminal grand juries lacked Mexican-American members. He ran for sheriff, finishing a distant second to the incumbent but still getting more than 100,000 votes.
And he did drugs marijuana, LSD and more, according to "Bandido," a 1995 book on Acosta by Ilan Stavans.
Acosta met Thompson through a mutual friend in 1967 and in 1971 joined him on the trip that inspired "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." In the book, Dr. Gonzo is an attorney with a yen for drink, drugs and dangerous living.
The book was made into a 1998 movie, with Johnny Depp as Thompson's alter-ego and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo. Another film, "Where the Buffalo Roam" from 1978, featured an Acosta-inspired character, played by Peter Boyle.
Acosta was 39 when he disappeared off Mexico. Years later, Thompson speculated to the Los Angeles Times that his friend was killed by political foes or drug dealers.
Thompson recalled Acosta in his 1989 introduction to a new edition of "The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo":
"There was more mercy, madness, dignity and generosity in the 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. ... "
Marco Acosta said last month that the death remains a mystery. He also said that despite the drug use, his father worked hard for his causes and left writings still studied in college classes.
"He was a good dad," he said. "It's unfortunate he ended up where he ended up, but he left a lot of things behind that make up for it."
Toward the end of his first book, Oscar Zeta Acosta reflected on his work for Chicano rights:
"I don't want to lead anyone. I have no practical ego. I am not ambitious. I merely want to do what is right. Once in every century there comes a man who is chosen to speak for his people. Moses, Mao and Martin are examples. Who's to say that I am not such a man?"
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.
WHERE: Riverbank Historical Museum, 3237 Santa Fe St.
WHEN: The exhibit will be in place indefinitely. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Thursdays and 1 to 3 p.m. Saturdays.
"The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo," a 1972 book by Oscar Zeta Acosta on his Riverbank childhood and further exploits
"Revolt of the Cockroach People," a 1973 novel by Acosta about the Chicano movement
"Bandido: The Death and Resurrection of Oscar Zeta Acosta," a 1995 book by Ilan Stavans
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Hunter S. Thompson, 1971