Carmen Zapata Dies at 86
01/07/2014 AT 06:00 PM EST
Zapata, who started a foundation to promote Hispanic writers because jobs were so scarce, died Sunday at her Van Nuys-area home, said Luis Vela, marketing manager for the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts in Los Angeles.
Zapata started her career in 1945 in the Broadway musical Oklahoma and went on to perform in Bells Are Ringing, Guys and Dolls and many plays.
"She was an inspiration for me," Vela said. "She taught me that art is the key to resolving differences in the community."
He said Zapata was once asked how she wanted to be remembered – as an artist, producer or founder. " 'I prefer people remember us as educators,' " Vela recalled her saying.
Her movie credits included Sister Act, Gang Boys and Carola. She also appeared in dozens of television series, including nine seasons on the PBS bilingual children's show, Villa Alegre. Zapata had continuing TV roles in The Man and the City and The New Dick Van Dyke Show. She sang in several other musicals, including Bloomer Girl, No Strings, Show Boat, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off and Funny Girl.
Born in New York City of Mexican-Argentinian descent, Zapata joined forces with Cuban-born actress, playwright and director Margarita Galban to found the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts in 1973. The organization produces four plays a year that are presented at its 99-seat theater. Productions alternate in English and Spanish, with some shows taken on the road by production companies.
Zapata collected Emmy nominations for best supporting actress in a segment of Medical Center and for Carola on Hollywood TV Theatre.
Vela said he last saw Zapata on Christmas Eve.
"Everyone who worked with her felt she had created something really important and was making our community a better place," he said. "She was emphatic that what we were doing at the foundation was more important than personal recognition."