Called by many the uThe First Lady of the Hispanic Theater,” Carmen Margarita Zapata was born in New York City to a Mexican father and an Argentine mother. Growing up in the barrio of Spanish Harlem, she struggled early in school, as the family spoke only Spanish at home. As a girl, she took an interest in the arts, studying violin, singing in the school choir, and performing in school plays.
In 1946, Zapata made her debut in the cho¬ rus of the hit Broadway musical Oklahoma. She eventually earned a lead role in the pro¬ duction, and she played principal roles in sev¬ eral other hit Broadway shows, such as Bells Are Ringing and Guys and Dolls. She continued to appear in musicals for another twenty years. At the same time, she also performed as Marge Cameron, a musical comedy act she created for appearances in nightclubs.
In 1967, Zapata decided to move to California. She obtained several roles in films, although they were mostly for stereo¬ typed, negative Latina characters, such as prostitutes or maids. These offensive roles inspired her to act for change. She played a role in forming the initial minority committee of the Screen Actors Guild, and she helped Ricardo Montalban (see no. 40) form a Hispanic actors organization, Nosotros.
Zapata eventually found success in tele¬ vision acting. Over the course of her career, she has made more than three hundred tel¬ evision appearances and has received three Emmy nominations. One of her most memorable roles, and the one of which she is most proud, was the character of Dona Luz, which she performed for nine years on the Public Broadcasting System’s bilingual children’s program Villa Alegre.
After she was asked to perform the lead role in the Spanish-language play Cada quien su vida (To Each His Own), Zapata discovered the beauty of performing works in the native language of her ancestors. She then became actively involved in efforts to introduce English-speaking audiences to Hispanic literature and theater.
In 1973, she co-founded the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts (BFA) in Los Angeles, to provide the general public with the opportunity to experience Latino culture and theater. The BFA also designed Teen Theater Project, a theater education program for at-risk students.
In the 1980s, Zapata was appointed by the estate of the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca to translate his trilogy, Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House ofBernarda Alba.Zapata has received numerous awards and honors for her activism, and in 1990, she was given El Lazo de Dama de la Orden de Merito Civil (the Civil Order of Merit) by Juan Carlos I, King of Spain.