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Carmen Zapata, A Latino Hollywood Legend, Dead at 86

Created: 10 January, 2014
Updated: 26 July, 2022
5 min read

An artist, activist, teacher, mentor, and community leader, the passing of Carmen Zapata leaves the world a better place…and a little less bright.

Cecilia Garcia, a dear friend of actress, activist, and teacher, and leader Carmen Zapata, posted the sad news on her Facebook account on the evening of Monday, January 6:

zapataBilingual Foundation of the Arts mourns for Doña Carmen Zapata. She passed away last night, Sunday January 5. She will be missed in our hearts; our Star as left us but we will hold her legacy to the fullest. Rest In Peace, Dear Carmen. We love you and always will. You will always be our great actress, female role model, teacher, and mentor. So many Excellent achievements to look up to. Thank you for the memories and your giving to all.

Carmen Margarita Zapata, born in New York in 1927 to a Mexican father and an Argentine mother, distinguished herself as an actress, teacher, activist, and leader of Latino Hollywood for more than sixty years.

Carmen began entertaining on the musical stage, making her Broadway debut in the chorus of Oklahoma in 1946, and continued working in regional and summer stock roles in Bloomer Girl, Bells Are Ringing, Guys and Dolls, Carnival (with Liza Minnelli) and many others. In 1956 she appeared on Broadway in The Innkeepers, starring Geraldine Page and directed by Jose Quintero. Carmen was active on the stand-up comedy circuit as well, performing in clubs and hotels across the country while billing herself as “Marge Cameron” in order to encourage non-discriminatory employment.

She returned late to acting in the early 1960s as Carmen Zapata, and the search for ethnic support roles proved both difficult and unfulfilling. It was impossible to steer clear of the severe stereotypes imposed on her, yet she managed to establish a name for herself on 1970s TV. She appeared as a series regular alongside Anthony Quinn in The Man in the City. In 1971; she played the matriarch in the ethnic family sitcom Viva Valdez in 1976 and appeared as Arthur Hill’s housekeeper in the detective drama Hagen in 1980. She also had recurring roles in everything from The New Dick Van Dyke Show to Flamingo Road.

Always striving for dignity, intelligence and a positive approach in her work, she was often defeated by token appearances that underused her vast talents. When afforded the opportunity, she could be quite touching and heartfelt. Dramatic and comedic performances included roles in literally hundreds of dramas and comedies throughout the Seventies and Eighties, from Bonanza and Marcus Welby, M.D. to Wonder Woman, L.A. Law, Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman, and many, many others. She was seen sporadically in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the daytime soap Santa Barbara and most recently appeared as one of the choir nuns in the box-office bonanza Sister Act (1992) and its sequel.

More significantly, Ms. Zapata established herself as a prominent benefactor to the Los Angeles-area performing arts. In 1973 she co-founded the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts (BFA), a resident theater company and organization dedicated to bringing the Hispanic experience and culture to the Southern California community via the medium of bilingual stage productions. Serving as its president and producing director, many honors have been bestowed upon her for her selfless contributions. Establishing a durable relationship with the Los Angeles Unified School District to bring the works of great Hispanic authors to public school students, she produced over 80 plays on BFA’s mainstage. At the same time, she starred as the town mayor for nine seasons on the PBS bilingual children’s television show Villa Alegre.

As a teacher of drama, Carmen has offered her talents and services to the Academy of Stage and Cinema Arts and the East Los Angeles College Theatre Arts, among others venues. Moreover, a BFA facility was set up as an extension of UCLA.

Carmen also co-translated the groundbreaking plays and poems of such renowned Hispanic figures as ‘Federico Garcia Lorca for more than thirty years.’ These important translations have included Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, The House of Bernarda Alba, and Yerma, which won a Dramalogue Award in 1980. She also took on the small role of Garcia Lorca’s mother in the film Death in Granada starring Andy Garcia as the maverick Spanish poet and playwright who was executed by firing squad for his political stoicism.

A narrator for the Oscar-nominated documentary Las madres de la Plaza de Mayo (1985), Carmen’s focus in her later years was on her work as a lecturer at universities and theater conferences across the country. Her unwavering dedication in preserving Hispanic-American culture continued to be a source of pride to the Los Angeles community and her profound influence has extended nationwide. She was the recipient of several L.A. industry awards as well, including the Dramalogue and Nosotros Awards for excellence in theatre. She was even knighted by King Juan Carlos of Spain and received the Cross of Isabel, La Catolica for her contributions to the preservation of Hispanic culture, ranging from the Golden Age to the present, and for educational programs that have informed and inspired generations. In 2003 she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

We join with everyone in the Latino community and in the world of entertainment at large in mourning the passing of one of the great women in our industry-a lifelong champion of all that makes us great.