On Sunday, January 5, 2014 Carmen Zapata passed away in her home in Van Nuys at the age of 86. She will be remembered as a Hollywood trailblazer, an accomplished actress, and the driving force behind the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, an institution that continues to provide stage work for Latino actors.
Carmen Zapata was born in New York, the daughter of a Mexican father and Argentine mother. She played Broadway at the young age of 20, making her debut in the Oklahoma chorus. A triple threat, Zapata could sing, dance and boy could she act. At some point while still living in New York she also ventured on stage to do stand up comedy under the name of Marge Cameron. She tried changing her name in hopes she could be seen for her talent alone, and could steer clear of the ethnic pigeonholing. In spite of the difficulty, she did go on to do some great work, appearing in over one hundred movies and TV shows. Her film roles, among dozens, include Boulevard Nights, Death in Granada, and the Sister Act franchise, for which she is best remembered as one of the singing nuns. She worked a lot on TV from the 60’s through late 2000’s. Among her credits are L.A. Law, Married With Children; a series regular on Trapper John, M.D. from 1981 – 1985; and as Carmen Castillo in the soap Santa Barbara from 1985- 1989. One of her longest-running roles was on the bilingual children’s program Villa Alegre, where for nine years she played lead character “Doña Luz.
In 1972, Zapata co-founded the Screen Actors Guild Ethnic Minority Committee with actors Ricardo Montalban, Edith Diaz and Henry Darrow. In 1973 she founded the Bilingual Foundation for the Arts along with Cuban-born actress, playwright, and director Margarita Galban and Argentine-born, award-winning set designer Estela Scarlata. The BFA became the theater most every Latino actor got their first acting gig in Los Angeles, Andy Garcia and Lupe Ontiveros among them. The BFA was where actors went to do the Spanish classic plays such as Federico Garcia Lorca, Blood Wedding, The House of Bernarda Alba, Yerma and Pedro Paramo. The BFA extended variations of these productions Los Angeles Unified School District. Moreover, a BFA facility was set up as an extension of UCLA
Zapata helped inspire and shape many careers through her drama classes, teaching at the Academy of Stage and Cinema Arts and the East Los Angeles College Theatre Arts, among others venues, as well as through the productions at BFA.
An accomplished actress, translator, theater producer, and community leader Carmen was Knighted by King Juan Carlos of Spain. She also received the Cross of Isabel, La Catolica for her contributions to the preservation of Hispanic Culture ranging from the Golden Age to contemporary, and for educational programs.
In 2003 Ms. Zapata is honored to have received a Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to live theater.