In a six-decade career encompassing theater, movies and television, Carmen Zapata has established herself as a dynamic, prolific and versatile performer. As one of the first Latin American female actors to achieve mainstream success, the multiple Emmy Award nominee also has served as example and mentor to many young bilingual performers.
Born in New York to a Mexican father and an Argentine mother, Zapata achieved a career breakthrough when she performed in the Broadway company of the landmark musical “Oklahoma!” in 1946. She progressed from the chorus to a small part to playing Annie in the national touring company.
In the years that followed, she continued to perform on regional and summer stock stages in musicals such as “Bells Are Ringing,” “Carnival” (with Liza Minnelli) and “Bye Bye Birdie.” She also made a number of guest appearances on some of the era’s leading variety and chat television programs, including the Jack Paar and Ed Sullivan shows.
She moved to California in 1967 and began adding to her growing list of large- and small-screen credits. She has appeared in scores in movies and television shows, including “Bonanza,” “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Married…With Children,” “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” “The Streets of San Francisco” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” among many others. She played the recurring role of Nurse Lopez on the CBS medical drama “Trapper John M.D.,” was Carmen Castillo in “Santa Barbara” and for nine years held the role of the lead character, town mayor Dona Luz, on the PBS bilingual children's program “Villa Alegre.”
For many years Zapata billed herself as “Marge Cameron” so as to avoid industry type-casting and discrimination. Throughout her latter career, she has been highly engaged in fostering more professional opportunities for her fellow ethnic-minority performers and raising their profiles throughout the entertainment industry. In 1972, she cofounded the Screen Actors Guild Ethnic Minority Committee with fellow performers Ricardo Montalban, Edith Diaz and Henry Darrow.
The following year, Zapata cofounded the L.A.-based Bilingual Foundation of the Arts (BFA), a resident theater company and cultural organization, with the playwright, actor and director Margarita Galban, and the set designer Estela Scarlata. In her prominent longtime role as the BFA’s president and producing director, Zapata helped to make high-quality bilingual theater accessible to Angelenos and Southern Californians, including thousands of local schoolchildren.
She has taught drama at a number of educational venues, including East Los Angeles College, and has helped translate the works of playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. She also has served as commissioner of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department.