Study Guide

The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo

by Oscar Zeta Acosta

The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Oscar “Zeta” Acosta’s first novel, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, is a fictional journey through many facts of his life. His tale is vulgar, gross, obscene, frankly carnal, truly pained, wildly raucous, and funny in turns. Acosta’s anti-intellectual stance and his rejection of literary convention express the shock and chaos he invokes to undo his own assimilation, re-create his life, and construct for himself a new and revitalizing identity. Acosta declares his novel an autobiography to dramatize the powers of artistic transformation and re-creation that Chicanos can apply to their lives. One’s identity, like a novel, is a work of art.

On Monday morning, July 1, 1967, Acosta is a lawyer with one year’s experience in an antipoverty agency in Oakland, California. Born in El Paso, Texas, and long a resident of California, Acosta feels increasing tensions between his Mexican ancestry and his personal and professional assimilation into mainstream American culture. He bursts with self-loathing; he sees himself as a little brown Mexican boy in a barrel-bellied, sweating, tormented wild Indian adult body. Crazed with tranquilizers, alcohol, and the bad food he uses to appease his ulcer, Acosta snaps when he discovers his secretary Pauline has died. He walks away from his work and his life.

His quest takes him from California through the Southwest to his birthplace in El Paso, Texas. Then he goes to Mexico, where he recounts his life. All the while he is manufacturing and assuming new fictional identities and reliving old ones. Six months of exploring his past and present lead to his reclaiming his Mexican self and reaffirming his American identity. Both, however, are quickly rejected in the novel’s close with the assertion of his new being as a Brown Buffalo. He and his people are like the buffalo, slaughtered by everyone, and like their Aztec ancestors, brown. He discovers true identity is something one constructs for oneself. He calls his new self Zeta and takes up a new life in East Los Angeles as an activist.

Acosta mysteriously disappeared in 1974, and his fate has never been determined. With only two novels and few stories he nevertheless remains one of the first and most original voices of Chicano literature.

The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo Bibliography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Rivera, Tomás. “Into the Labyrinth: The Chicano in Literature.” Southwest American Literature 2, no. 2 (1972): 90-97.

Rodriguez, Joe D. “The Chicano Novel and the North American Narrative of Survival.” Denver Quarterly 16 (Fall, 1981): 229-235.

Rodriguez, Joe D. “God’s Silence and the Shrill of Ethnicity in the Chicano Novel.” Explorations in Ethnic Studies 4 (July, 1981): 14-21.

Simmen, Edward. The Chicano: From Caricature to Self Portrait. New York: Mentor, 1971.

Smith, Norman D. “Buffalos and Cockroaches: Acosta’s Siege at Aztlan.” Latin American Literary Review 5 (Spring-Summer, 1977): 85-97.