Actress Carmen Zapata Dies at 86

Carmen Zapata 1971 - P 2014
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Carmen Zapata 1971 - P 2014

She appeared on dozens of TV shows and in the "Sister Act" films while fostering Latino culture in L.A. with her Bilingual Foundation of the Arts.

Carmen Zapata, an accomplished character actress on TV, film and the stage and a leading force in showcasing Latino culture in Los Angeles, died Sunday at her home in Van Nuys. She was 86.

Los Angeles’ Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, which she co-founded in 1973, said Zapata had been suffering from a heart condition, KABC-TV reported Monday.

Zapata appeared as one of the choir nuns in Sister Act (1992) and its sequel, had a regular role on the NBC soap Santa Barbara and played the matriarch on Viva Valdez, a 1976 ABC summer sitcom. For nine seasons, she starred as the mayor on the PBS bilingual kids show Villa Alegre.

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Zapata appeared on dozens of other TV shows during her six-decade career, including The Bold Ones, Bonanza, Marcus Welby, M.D., Medical Center, Adam-12, Mod Squad, The Rookies, The Streets of San Francisco, McMillan and Wife, Chico and the Man, Falcon Crest, Married … With Children, L.A. Law and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Her film résumé also includes her role as the mother of famed poet and dramatist Garcia Lorca in Death in Granada (1996) opposite Andy Garcia.

A native New Yorker who was the daughter of a Mexican father and Argentine mother, Zapata was knighted by King Juan Carlos of Spain in 1990. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003.

Zapata made her Broadway debut in the chorus of Oklahoma! in 1946 and a decade later starred opposite Geraldine Page in The Innkeepers. She appeared around the country in such productions as Bells Are Ringing, Guys and Dolls, Carnival and Stop the World, I Want to Get Off and produced more than 80 plays herself. She also taught drama.

Zapata founded the BFA with Cuban-born actress, playwright and director Margarita Galban. The foundation’s Spanish-language theatrical productions are meant to instill cultural pride in Spanish-speaking audiences while introducing Hispanic culture to the English-speaking crowd. The 99-seat Carmen Zapata Theatre in Lincoln Heights hosts many of its productions.