Carmen Margarita Zapata, born in New York in 1927 to a Mexican father and an Argentine mother, has 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 continuing 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 and the City in 1971, played the matriarch in the ethnic family sitcom Viva Valdez in 1976 appeared as Arthur Hill’s housekeeper in the detective drama Hagen in 1980, and had recurring roles in everything from The New Dick Van Dyke Show to Flamingo Road.
Always striving for dignity, intelligence and positiveness 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 has produced over 80 plays on BFA’s mainstage. On TV, 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. Since 1976, Carmen has been co-translating the groundbreaking plays and poems of such renowned Hispanic figures as ‘Federico Garcia Lorca.’ These important translations have included Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, The House of Bernarda Alba and Yerma, which won a Dramalogue Award in 1980. In return, she portrayed 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 later focus has been as a lecturer at universities and theater conferences across the country. Today, Ms. Zapata’s unwavering dedication in preserving Hispanic-American culture continues to be a source of pride to the Los Angeles community and her profound influence has extended itself nationwide. At various times, she has been the recipient of several L.A. industry awards as well, including the Dramalogue and Nosotros Awards for excellence in theatre. She has been 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 contemporary, and for educational programs.
In 2003 she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.