Academic journal article MELUS

Conversion, Deconversion, and Reversion: Vagaries of Religious Experience in Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autofictions

Academic journal article MELUS

Conversion, Deconversion, and Reversion: Vagaries of Religious Experience in Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autofictions

Article excerpt

I finally gave up on Catholicism and admitted to Duane Dunham that he knew more about Jesus than I did. We went into the boiler room under the barracks and he called down the Holy Ghost to save me. I took Jesus as my savior and became a Baptist right on the spot.

--Oscar Zeta Acosta, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (131)

I took to rising at 3:00 A.M. to pray and read my Bible.... But I was miserable. I hurt inside. I didn't have the peace of mind that Jesus promised if we did his work.

--Oscar Zeta Acosta, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (133)

It is Christmas Eve in the year of Huitzilopochtli, 1969. Three hundred Chicanos have gathered in front of St. Basil's Roman Catholic Church. Three hundred brown-eyed children of the sun have come to drive the money-changers out of the richest temple in Los Angeles.

--Oscar Zeta Acosta, The Revolt of the Cockroach People (11)

Scholars of Chicano literature have not yet explored the nuanced religious content of Oscar Zeta Acosta's two autofictions, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972) and The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973). (1) Perhaps this is because scenes of Acosta's conversion to the Baptist Church in 1954, his deconversion two years later, and his turn back to Catholicism are underplayed in these narratives, and throughout both texts Acosta's autobiographical personae continually make light of deity, religion, and religious practices. And yet, certain passages, sometimes tenebrous or ironic, and supported by extratextual material, betray how deeply religion affected his life. I offer corrective readings for these texts that are attentive to the significance of religion for Acosta and thus round out the portrait of this important Chicano figure. Recent articles and books look at Acosta's autobiography in the context of fat studies (Chamberlain), "testimonial satire" (Hames-Garcia, "Dr. Gonzo" and Fugitive), a bildungsroman of Chicano counterculture (Lee, Chicanismo), and "magicorealism" (Aldama, Postethnie and "Oscar"). Other than scholars noting that Acosta established a rhetorical identification with Jesus, instantiated in his inaccurate reiteration of his age at the time of narration as thirty-three, "the same age as Jesus when he died" (Autobiography 18), and H6ctor Calderon's view that the Autobiography follows the trajectory of a "Christian narrative of guilt, confession and redemption" (98-99), only one article specifically deals with the role of religion in Acosta's texts.

Joe D. Rodriguez's 1981 assessment of religion in three Chicano "novels" acknowledges the religious dilemmas faced by Chicano writers as they confront a multiplicity of blended religio-cultural traditions (Catholicism, curandismo or folk healing, and indigenous Mexican religions) and must reconcile their religious identification with Chicano group identity. Rodriguez fails, however, to grasp the complex role of religion in Acosta's texts; his final analysis implies that Acosta sublimates his religious yearnings into drug use, which in turn helps him adapt to opposing religious outlooks. Rodriguez's article thus does little to further an understanding of the complex social forces behind Acosta's conversion and deconversion to the Baptist Church and the role of Catholicism in his life. A more comprehensive approach to the matter of religion in Acosta's texts is long overdue.

My own research suggests that Acosta's religious experiences instantiate his failed assimilation into mainstream white America and his return to an ethnically symbolic Mexican American Catholicism. However, I register a number of caveats in making these claims. It is difficult to hypothesize widespread sociological significance or to make broad generalizations about Mexican American experience from Acosta's highly experimental autofictions. Furthermore, it is somewhat perilous to claim that Acosta's fictionalized narratives necessarily reflect his own religious experiences or identities. …

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