In the 1960s, there was an uprising within the Hispanic culture. This was known as the Chicano movement. Due to poor living conditions as a result of World War II, those of the Hispanic race formed a movement as a means of achieving equality. However, within the movement there were still issues of oppression. Many were divided by race, class and gender. These issues are explored in Oscar Zeta Acosta’s Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. In his novel, author/activist Acosta demonstrates this identity crisis through the narrator as well as the other various characters. Chicano autobiography has “often been linked to an emerging ethnic consciousness, but also to the creation of an essentialist Chicano identity” (Bracher 169), which leaves the reader with the question: is Acosta searching for or trying to form a distinct Chicano identity? Or is he depicting the many selves in dialogue with one another?
After the end of World War II, the United States experienced what became a period of unparalleled economic growth between 1945 and 1960. During this time, many white men were given the chance to live the “American Dream.” However American Black, Mexican and Asian men were left out of this fortune: “The 1960 census of the United States graphically showed how far the minority populations lagged behind white America” (Gutierrez 45). These realizations were made effective by Cesar Chavez, who was an activist for farmworkers, among other activists like Chicano lawyer and author Oscar Zeta Acosta. These forces combined to spark the Chicano Movement. The term “Chicano” is originally defined as “an immigrant who becomes different from his or her cultural origins, or his or her ancestors’ cultural origins, and yet remains distinct in the place where he or she now resides” (Smethurst 123). The Chicanos demanded equality with white America, along with an end to racism as well as an assertion of their right national self-determinism.
Within this Chicano movement, there was a struggle to find identity. There were issues involving race, class and gender. This search for an ethnic identity is demonstrated in Acosta’s novel Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. In his novel, Acosta “demands a recognition of a distinct Chicano identity within the framework of U.S. cultural production” (Bracher 172). Essentially, Acosta sets out to achieve a specific Chicano identity within the movement in the United States. However, in his search for a distinct ethnic identity, Acosta discovers and represents the many that arise within the Chicano culture and movement.
Acosta attempts to destabilize various notions of Chicano and ethnic identity. He does so first by underscoring regional differences between Chicanos and Mexicans. Northern Californian Chicanos consider Texan Chicanos “inauthentic” while Southern Californian Chicanos speak similarly about the Northern Californian Chicanos. A Mexican judge in the novel challenges the narrator to “go home and learn to speak your father’s language” (ABB 194). Acosta then points out class differences among the Chicanos. His own position as a lawyer separates him from the people he represents, and because of his special status, he is treated very differently from the people around him in the movement by police and other authority figures.
In addition to these divisions in the group, the also Chicanos faced “social emasculation and cultural negation” (45). This led to a cultural assertion of masculinity by young radical men. To achieve this, Chicanos sought inspiration in a heroic Aztec past. This past emphasized the “virility of warriors and the exercise of brute force” (45). Young Chicano men invested themselves with images of power, such as images that show the male figure carrying a “voluptuous, often half-nude princess á la Tarzan and Jane” (Goldman 168). These were gendered visions that rarely extended to women.
These gendered images led to problems within the Chicano movement. By 1969, female members of the movement (“Chicanas”) felt oppressed by not only their race, but by their class and gender as well. Women were not allowed leadership roles in the movement and were asked only to perform menial, stereotypical tasks, such as cleaning, making coffee, carrying out the orders men gave and servicing their needs. This resulted in a feminist uprising within the movement, often criticizing the machismo that was rampant in the Chicano culture.
This idea of machismo and masculinity is often represented in Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. Throughout the novel there is an incessant, constant assertion of masculinity, misogyny and homophobia. Acosta often battles with his self-image in terms of “machismo.” He often likens himself to such “rugged” or “burly” characters and people such as Charles Atlas and Tarzan:
I pound my chest and shriek the call of Tarzan swinging through the jungle. I didn’t eat all that protein and lift all those weights for nothing. I mastered Charles Atlas at the age of ten and no beach bully will ever again kick sand in my face, God damn it!” (ABB 195-196)
He also summons his “three favorite men” Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson:
I stare into the mirror for an answer. See that man with the insignificant eyes drawn back, lips thinned down tight? That suave motherfucker is Mister Joe Cool himself. Yes, old Bogey…And now with the upper lip tightly curled under and baring the top row of white teeth, can’t you tell? See how he nods his head, shaking it from side to side in a tremble of uncontrollable anger? Right! James Cagney, you rotten scabs! And if you loosen up a bit, puff those fat cheeks out slightly and talk deep in your throat with the chewed-up cigar sticking you in the face…my name is Edward G. Robinson and I don’t want any trouble from you guys. See? (12).
All of these men he commands were renowned for their fearlessness and brute masculinity.
However, though he often likens himself to, or aspires to be such men, he knows that in actuality these are not the type of man he could be, or the company he keeps. When he tells Ted Casey, a rugged Irish sailor from Brooklyn, that he slept with his girlfriend Alice, he hears that Ted was “going to cut his balls off if he ever caught him in his house again” (41) and so he no longer visits them. In addition to this, the reader finds out that he is impotent. When he spends the night at Maria’s house, he falls asleep in the bathtub instead of sleeping with her. When she is angered, he tells her of his problem:
I thought fast with my little limp prick floating in the soap suds. “I don’t like to talk about it…I had an accident.”
“Oh, fuck, Osca…that’s an old one.”
“I know…but in my case…look.” I looked at my wilted penis. “I swear to God that thing hasn’t risen in ten years.” (46)
After this, Maria becomes one of his many female friends. In addition to this, at the start of the novel when he is in the shower, he says that “because I am a smooth man without hair the steam burns me more than normal people” (15). This lack of hair also denies him a sense of masculinity, since hair is often connected to masculinity by conventional standards.
While a sense of masculinity was important to the men in the Chicano movement, Acosta never fully achieves this sense of machismo in his novel, and he places great importance on his female characters, which often influence his actions. An example of this is the character Pauline, Acosta’s secretary. Pauline takes on the menial tasks women were often forced to do, but upon her death Acosta realizes just how important she was. Pauline supported him in his job and helped him negotiate the bureaucracy. When she passes away, the narrator decides that without Pauline’s support he cannot continue in the job:
I never even said to her how much I appreciated her, depended on her or liked her…I only know that I can’t continue. The improbable has now become possible. Without the lady to fill my cup and shut the door to those TRO’s I can no longer put up the pretense that I am a lawyer. It should be clear to you by now that I am a mere pretender. (ABB 30)
Despite the oppression women felt, they were just as important to the movement as men. Acosta acknowledges this in his work. In addition to this, he also recognizes the importance of ethnicity.
Despite Acosta’s destabilization of ethnic categories, he does not reject ethnicity altogether. He signs the Acknowledgments “Oscar Zeta Acosta, Chicano Lawyer,” implying that he has not discarded the ethnic category of “Chicano.” Also, the most “assimilated” Chicano characters in the novel – the narrator’s brother and sister – read Chicano nationalist newspapers. Many critics argue that the novel transforms Acosta from “alienated lawyer of Mexican ancestry with no sense of purpose or identity into a Chicano activist and someone who affirms his Mexican roots” (Rodriguez 5). Critic Philip Bracher, however, argues against this and states that instead, throughout the novel, Acosta freely shifts through ethnic identities. At one point in the novel, the narrator tells the reader: “I grew up a fat, dark Mexican – a Brown Buffalo – and my enemies called me a nigger” (ABB 86). In another passage, he writes: “I’ve been mistaken for American Indian, Spanish, Filipino, Hawaiian, Samoan, and Arabian. No one has ever asked me if I’m a spic or a greaser” (ABB 68). This proves, as Bracher states, that “ethnic identity is an equally indeterminable and dialogic process” (177).
Oscar’s narrative, ultimately, is not a search for a collective identity or the creation of a unified one, but instead it is the “depiction of the many selves in a dialogic interaction” (178). Essentially, Acosta’s work does not try to form a new unique Chicano identity, but instead depicts all of the races, classes, and genders that make up the movement in dialogue with one another. This relates closely to the movement itself because the ultimate impact of the Chicano movement was on the daily lives of ethnic Mexicans in the United States; its goal was to obscure the class character of the racial order. The imagined community was one stratified by region, by class, by generation, by color, and by gender. Despites issues with identity in the movement, it is because of all the different unique identities working together that the movement was a success.
Acosta, Oscar Z. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.
Bracher, Philip. “Writing the Fragmented Self in Oscar Zeta Acosta’s Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo.” MELUS. 21 Apr. 2009
Goldman, Shifra M. “The Iconography of Self-Determination: Race, Ethnicity and Class.” Art Journal Depictions of the Dispossesed 49 (1990): 168.
Gutierrez, Ramon A. “Community, Patriarchy and Individualism: The Politics of Chicano History and the Dream of Equality.” The John Hopkins University Press 45 (1993): 44-72.
Perez-Torres, Rafael. “Chicano Ethnicity, Cultural Hybridity, and the Mestizo Voice.” Duke University Press 70 (1998): 153-76.
Rodriguez, Joe D. “Oscar Zeta Acosta.” Dictionary of Library Biography. Vol 82. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. 5.