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San Diego artist and sports enthusiast Rafael Acosta dies at age 50

SAN DIEGO -- A much beloved member of the community, Rafael Acosta, died last Sunday after an acute illness took over his system. It was his 50th birthday.

Acosta had been sick with flu-like symptoms for several weeks, and many friends were unaware how serious his condition was until Sunday morning, when his family called, gathering them to his bedside at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest.

Ed Johnson, a close friend who played softball and team-traveled with Acosta for over 20 years, described his sudden death as "shocking."

"I just played pool with him at Pecs the Sunday before," Johnson said.

"We were laughing, drinking beer and having a good time. He never told me he didn't feel well, and he seemed fine. A week later we were planning his memorial. I feel like we're in an episode of Punk'd."

It is not surprising that many people are still trying to make sense of his sudden death.

After all, 10 years ago Acosta survived a very rare form of cancer generally found in children, called Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumor (PNET).

Acosta lost a large portion of the upper inside of his left arm when the tumor was removed and then underwent an intensive regimen that consisted of eight weeks of radiation, followed by six months of chemotherapy. He fought hard and it held him down for a time, but once cancer-free, Acosta was back participating in all of his favorite local sports like nothing had happened.

He remained actively working, playing, displaying his art and participating in life, right up until the day before he died.

Since his passing, friends have shown an outpouring of love and support to Acosta, by creating a Facebook page In Memory of Rafael Acosta in his honor, where they are sharing photos and memories from his life.

A memorial fundraiser is planned tonight at Pecs, 2046 University Ave., from 7 to 10 pm.

This fundraiser is to help raise money for his family and the unexpected burial expenses. His friends also attest that Acosta graciously helped support his entire family, so his loss will not only be an emotional burden, but a financial burden as well.

For more information, see the flyer at top right.

A talented and gifted soul, engulfed in family, friends, sports and art

Born Jan. 29, 1962 in Navajoa, Sonora, Mexico, Acosta soon migrated to the border city of Tijuana, Baja California, with his family.  As a teenager, he and his family later relocated across the border to National City, where he attended local elementary, middle and high school.

"Rafael was warm, gentle and loving and had a sense of humor that was good to be around," said Jose "Cookie" Salas, his close friend of many years. "He lived his life selflessly with honor and courage."

Salas and Acosta met 25 years ago. The two became fast friends and soon realized their birthdays were just one day apart, Jan. 29 and 30.

"Back when we were roommates, we celebrated our birthdays together for years, calling them 'Jose & Rafael parties'," Salas said. "We had a lot of fun and it was always special. To lose him on his birthday, the day before mine, was very bittersweet."

Acosta was a man of extraordinary talent for the arts, having been employed at Balboa Park’s Old Globe Theater as an artist and carpenter, creating backdrops and props.

"He had a knack for building just about anything with his talented hands," Salas said.

Aside from being a great friend, Acosta was also a beloved and talented member of the San Diego GLBT community. 

As an artist, he was known as an expert manipulator of ink, resin and other art mediums, which is apparent in all of his work.

He shared his art with his friends and the community often, exhibiting at several local establishments over the years, such as Baja Betty’s, Bamboo Lounge and Gossip Grill, always with great success.

His most recent exhibition started this past Saturday, Jan. 28, at Bamboo Lounge in Hillcrest. Salas, Johnson and other friends were there to help him get set up, but they say Acosta was feeling so ill, he left just as the exhibition started.

"I saw him as he was leaving," Johnson said. "He looked ashen and gaunt, but I just thought he had the flu and was going home to get some rest and get well."

The next day, he was gone.

You can still see his work all this month at Bamboo Lounge, as his family has graciously has agreed to keep them on display for the public. Tonight at Pecs, four pieces of his artwork have been donated by family and friends for auction.

To see examples of the work that will auctioned, click HERE.

An avid sportsman, Acosta played with the San Diego Volleyball Association, the Sparks soccer team, the America’s Finest City Softball League, and also with the San Diego American Flag Football league, for many years.

He will be remembered fondly by all his teammates, friends and family, for his uncanny ability to light up a room with his "bigger than life" presence, personality and wicked sense of humor.

Friends speak about his life and his art

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News reached out to several of Acosta's friends during the writing of this obituary. Here are what they had to say about their friend.

Cookie Salas:

"As a highly charismatic and extremely entertaining person, Rafael left his inimitable print on every person he touched and will never be forgotten. Those of us lucky enough to have known this wonderfully warm and extraordinary talented man will forever be grateful for the memories he left us with."

Tom Mullen:

"Rafael only saw good in people. If you weren't [good] but had potential, he would sit with you, drink a beer, and make you come out as a better person, as an individual (and I stress individual) with redeeming qualities.

"In our world where people are judged by physical attributes first, Raphael never got caught up in that ugly cycle. To him, your beauty was judged by our hearts and our minds.

"I simply lost a friend who taught me so much, (things I am really only starting to realize due to his passing) but he will live in my heart for the rest of my life.  He had a herculean impact on my own sense of being. I will cherish his friendship and the times we spent together."

Ed Johnson:

"He was an incredible artist. My partner and I have several pieces of his work. He was a lover of life and always cheering for the underdog. He was a good soul. He'll definitely be missed."

Curt Janka:

"I first met Rafael playing in the gay flag football league here in San Diego eight years ago," Janka said. "Since then, I have played alongside him in softball and volleyball. Along the way we've won some and lost some, but we always laughed harder than the other team.

"Rafael had such a unique ability to welcome anyone and make them feel important, while inevitably making them laugh. He was that fearless guy who would strike up a conversation with anyone nearby and I can't count the number of people I may never have met if it weren't for Rafa pulling them over to say hello.

"This week, I lost a dear friend but have been blessed in two ways: I've had the privilege of meeting his beautiful family who reflect every one of Rafael's best traits and I've heard some hilarious stories from all the friends that knew him."

Could Acosta's death have been prevented?

As his friends and family come to terms with his sudden death, mourn their great loss and come together to celebrate the life Acosta lived, there is one thing that resonates with everyone.

In retrospect, perhaps his untimely death could have been prevented, had he only sought medical attention sooner.

Jose "Cookie" Salas shared these words with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

"During these times of economic struggle, many of us are without jobs, posing more challenges as a community, but as such, we must keep our friends closer in communication, so that unprecedented and tragic losses such as this can be avoided.

Specifically, we as a Latino men, culturally we don't always seek out medical attention promptly in hopes that we can either 'weather the storm' on our own and it will pass. Fear, or simply having an attitude of minimizing the situation, is simply unacceptable.

As a community, we have lost many creative and precious lives already and no one deserves to be lost solely from the fear of not having medical insurance. Everybody’s life is too precious to be ignored.

Rafael was a great humanitarian with a great sensitivity for his fellow man and would want us to look out for each other.

We owe it Rafael and we owe it to ourselves."

His friends hope sharing this information will help others in the same position and save lives.

No one knows for sure why he waited so long, but one can surmise he had many reasons holding him back, keeping him from making the decision to seek a doctor's care: He was Hispanic. He was a gay man. He was uninsured.

All these things add up to certain insecurities, and thought processes that could make anyone hesitate when it comes to getting the help they may need.

There are many resources available in our own community that will help those who lack insurance, one being the San Diego LGBT Center. Seek the help you need.

If you haven't already, share in Acosta's life by visiting the In Memory of Rafael Acosta Facebook Page and join his friends and family tonight at his favorite gathering place, PECS Bar located at 2046 University Ave. (at the edge of both Hillcrest and North Park), from 7-10 pm.

You can also see an exhibition of his art work on display at Bamboo Lounge throughout the month of February

Jose "Cookie" Salas helped contribute to this article.