Manuel Acosta, painter, sculptor, and illustrator, was born on May 9, 1921, in Aldama, Chihuahua, Mexico, the son of Ramón P. and Concepción Sánchez Acosta. The family moved in 1924 to El Paso, where a daughter and five more sons were born. Acosta grew up in various barrios of southern El Paso and graduated from Bowie High School in 1941. As a child he copied illustrations in newspaper advertisements and later sketched pin-up girls. He continued to sketch and paint while serving in the United States Air Force during World War II and decided to become an artist after seeing the work of Francisco de Goya and other masters while on tour in Europe.
After his discharge Acosta became an American citizen. In the fall of 1946 he attended the College of Mines and Metallurgy (now the University of Texas at El Paso), where he studied drawing and sculpture under sculptor Urbici Soler. He then studied for a year at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and six months at the University of California, Santa Barbara, before returning to El Paso, where he established a home and studio and resumed his studies at Texas Western (1951–52). During this period Soler introduced Acosta to Peter Hurd, whom Acosta assisted in painting murals for the Prudential Insurance Company in Houston and the pioneer murals at the Museum of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Hurd encouraged Acosta to use his Mexican-American heritage in his work, and the people and scenes in El Paso's barrios subsequently became Acosta's primary subject matter.
Acosta's talents began to be recognized in the mid-1950s, when he was commissioned to paint murals at the Casa Blanca Motel in Logan, New Mexico; the First National Bank in Las Cruces, New Mexico; and the Bank of Texas in Houston. He began exhibiting his work by participating in the Art U.S.A. exhibition in Missouri (1958), the Texas Watercolor Society exhibition (1960), the American Watercolor Society exhibition in New York City (1965), and the Hurd-Wyeth Family Group show in Roswell, New Mexico (1965). His first solo exhibition was mounted by the Chase Gallery, New York City, in 1962. His work was also exhibited at the Dallas Museum of Art, the Diamond M Foundation Museum in Snyder, the Chihuahua Art Museum in Mexico, and museums and galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Lubbock, Texas, Scottsdale, Arizona, Santa Barbara, California, Tucson, Arizona, and Juárez, Chihuahua. The El Paso Museum of Art mounted a solo exhibition of his work in 1974, and in 1984 his work was included in a touring exhibition of watercolors sponsored by the Burlington Foundation. Acosta served as an advisor to the Texas Commission on the Arts and Humanities during the 1970s.
He painted the people and scenes of El Paso's barrios in a realistic style enlivened by lush colors and, in some works, a dramatic chiaroscuro effect. He worked primarily in oils, though he was fluent in such other media as watercolor, charcoal, casein, and tempera. He also sculpted some works in bronze. Acosta painted series of bullfighters, children, floral arrangements, and allegorical works based on popular songs of the Mexican Revolution. Perhaps his most successful works were his self-portraits and portraits of elderly Mexican-American women. In his painting of Doña Maria Caldera, for example, he conveyed the subject's dignity, humble character, and a life of hard work by focusing not only on her face, but also on her hands, which he described as the "question mark, the exclamation point to the person."
Acosta's paintings of El Paso's Mexican Americans won new appreciation and recognition during the Chicano movement of the mid-1960s and early 1970s. He painted a portrait of César Chávez for a 1969 Time magazine cover, and in 1971 illustrated Canto y Grito Mi Liberación, a book of poems and prose by Chicano activist Ricardo Sánchez. Acosta's painting A Chicano-Portrait of Gonzalo Gómez, which graces the cover of Sánchez's book, provides another example of his skill as a portraitist. The book also depicted people being beaten, Brown Berets, children playing in tenement hallways, and the humble dwellings in El Paso's barrios.
In the early 1970s Acosta was forced to move from his studio home to make way for a new highway. With the help of his family and friends he built a large stucco and adobe studio at his new home at 366 Buena Vista, which became the site for theatrical and musical performances as well as art activities. Although not an activist, Acosta supported the Chicano movement with his art and by making his studio available for political rallies and fund-raisers. He was murdered in his home on October 25, 1989, by Cesar Nájera Flores, a Mexican national. His work is represented in a number of public and private collections throughout the United States, including the National Portrait Gallery, Washington; the El Paso Museum of Art; the Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock; the Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe; Harmsen's Western Collection, Colorado; and the Time, Incorporated, collection, New York City.