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Architecture

The Brown Buffalo & St. Basil’s ~ Wilshire District

10:29 AM PST on March 9, 2007

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St. Basil's Catholic Church ~ 3611 Wilshire Blvd. (& Harvard), Los Angeles, CA 90010

When I visited St. Basil's Catholic Church the other day on Wilshire and Harvard, I found its spooky statues and modern geometries inspiring, a place where even the most amateur of photographers will make an attempt at artistic snapshots (see below). However, the reception at St. Basil's was not so friendly 37 years ago when it was visited by the Brown Buffalo (pictured above).

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Oscar Zeta Acosta, AKA "Buffalo Z. Brown", was one of the lawyers who lead the "Católicos por la Raza" coalition in an ill-fated protest at St. Basil's on Christmas Eve, 1969. He appreciated neither the modern aesthetic of the church nor the intentions of its well-heeled denizens, as he recounts in the beginning of his book, The Revolt of the Cockroach People:

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. [...]

From the mansions of Beverly Hills, the Faithful have come in black shawls, in dead furs of beasts out of foreign jungles. Calling us savages, they have already gone into the church, pearls in hand, diamonds in their Colgate teeth. Now they and Cardinal James Francis McIntyre sit patiently on wooden benches inside, crossing themselves and waiting for the bell to strike twelve, while out in the night, three hundred greasers from across town march and sing tribal songs in an ancient language.

St. Basil's is McIntyre's personal monstrosity. He recently built it for five million bucks: a harsh structure for puritanical worship, a simple solid excess of concrete, white marble, and black steel. It is a tall building with a golden cross and jagged cuts of purple stained glass thirty feet in the air, where bleeding Christ bears down on people of America. Inside, the fantastic organ pumps out a spooky religious hymn to this Christ Child of Golden Locks overlooking the richest drag in town.


Most people become familiar with Acosta through the works of Hunter S. Thomson, where his identity is thinly veiled in the character of the "Samoan" lawyer Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or in Where the Buffalo Roam as the drug-addled utopian Carlos Lazlo, Esq. In the movie versions, Acosta's character was played by Benicio Del Toro and Peter Boyle (Raymond's Dad in Everybody Loves Raymond (!)) in these movies, respectively. What a badass.

Here's a little quiz out for TACO readers: Can you identify which is the picture of Bill Murray and Boyle; Johnny Depp and Del Toro, and the real gonzo journalist with his faithful sidekick and legal council?

a.)
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b.)
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c.)
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While Acosta only managed to write two books before he disappeared mysteriously in Mexico in 1974, there are twice that many books about his life and writings. As I read Acosta's words, I wonder why, with our national and ecological situation as screwed up as it is, we don't have more organized groups and protests and demonstrations. Why does it seem like we are sitting back, and in the words of John Mayer, waiting for the world to change?

Or are we? True, the protests and demonstrations today are fewer and not quite as dramatic as those led by Acosta and his colleagues during the late 60s, but it just might be that our current reform strategies are more subtle and in some ways more effective. Whereas the LAPD planted undercover agent provocateurs in the Chicano Movement in Acosta's day, Chicanos have in many ways infiltrated the establishment while busily creating facts on the ground. While almost any politician elected to office is unable to ascend to an influencial position without some degree of compromise and sacrifice to pragmatism, a mayor like Villaraigosa is still a milestone. An alcalde that was born in East LA and lead MEChA at UCLA as a student is evidence of a slow but steady progress on the path of change, a change perhaps more "evolutionary" than "revolutionary".

Similar examples can be found. Whereas the inadequacies of the public school monopoly once sparked walkouts into the street, many inner-city students and their families these days are leaving the public schools to join a flourishing charter school movement that we hope will provide an alternative, with more choice, responsiveness, and opportunities for parental involvement. The Catholic cardinal that Acosta protested held out support for UFW boycotts and is said to have compared Chicano protesters to "rabble at Christ's crucifixion"; the current cardinal, Roger Mahony, learned Spanish while working with migrant laborers in the San Joaquin Valley and has maintained that he will instruct priests to disobey a proposed law that would impose criminal penalties to anyone who assists undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States.

Almost anywhere you look, and in Los Angeles more than most places, the flavor of our nation is changing as salsa seeps though the cracks to settle in places where only ketchup was before. And the country is becoming better for it.

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