Carmen Zapata and Luis Avalos, presente

Feb 12, 2014

We lost some very talented folks last month.  Still reeling from the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and while it wasn’t surprising that 94 year old Pete Seeger passed, it is a blow to know that he is no longer with us in body.  He was a bit like a cloud for me.  I didn’t see him, didn’t know him, but it was comforting to know that he was out there, somewhere, making things better.

In the first week of January we lost Carmen Zapata.

As a young adult I watched her on Villa Alegre on PBS and later was aware of her involvement with the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts.  Being an almost totally monolingual English speaker I didn’t understand how meaningful it was to hear works in Spanish.  And to see how life changing it could be sit in a theater and view works presented in two languages.

Photo – George Rose, Los Angeles Times

Years later Ms. Zapata was Grand Marshal for our third Latino Heritage Parade & jamaica (2001).  She wasn’t able to attend; her health was fragile even then.  Wish she had been able to come, she would have had a good time and we would have had a chance to acknowledge a woman who was a pioneer as a working actor, producing director, and co-founder of an acting company.   Oh, and on Villa Alegre she was Mayor.  That was groundbreaking, too.

In January we also lost pioneer, Luís Avalos.  He was an actor, director, and producer.  He served on several boards that were focused on developing opportunities for Latina and Latino actors and producers.  He pushed the door open just a little bit more so that others might get work, too.  In 2000 he founded The Americas Theatre Arts Foundation and served as artistic director.

My first memories of him take me back to that living room in East L.A. – a 19 year old ironing clothes, and watching The Electric Company.  So why was I watching show mostly directed to young elementary aged school kids?  Well, let’s see…the cast included Rita Moreno, Judy Graubart, Morgan Freeman, Hattie Winston, Luis Avalos, with Bill Cosby and Zero Mostel, among others, in recurring roles.  I watched because it was funny.  You laughed so much you didn’t notice you were learning, too.  I suspect the teacher in me enjoyed the incorporation of cool characters who were using media to teach.

One of Mr. Avalos’ characters was Dr. Doolot.  Think Dr. Doolittle meets Groucho meets your Boricua uncle.  Very New York, very Hollywood, very funny. Humor as a tool for learning.

In  the early 90s Mr. Avalos wrote, starred, and produced the musical “Paquito’s Christmas”.   The plot was simple, the music hummable, and the values were clear.  La familia, hard work, and love.  For many it wasn’t really Christmas unless they saw “Paquito’s Christmas”.

Image – Latin Heat Entertainment

 The weather on the day of the funeral mass was cool, crisp and there was just enough wind that the skies were blue and winter clear.

At the mass and the cemetery there was a mix of well-known Latina and Latino performers (younger and older), respected performers who may not be so well known by those who are not involved in show business, former castmembers of Paquito’s Christas, as well as family and friends.

At graveside, the vista was amazing.  The San Gabriels and the Verdugos caught the light in ways we don’t usually get to see.  We were almost at the point where folks are given directions to a gathering/homegoing sort of meal following the funeral, when up stepped the comedian Ernie Gritzewsky.  Ernie G looks like he could have played football in high school.  Big guy.

In an impassioned voice he shared that he had to sing a song for Luis.  That, he like so many others, had felt the benefit of Luis having faith in his performance and that he was stronger for that support.  Ernie told us that he was not a good singer, but he had to sing the song.

He briefly set the context for the song.  Paquito’s dad had promised him a gift that was dear, especially in a house where money was tight.   IF Paquito would get straight “A'”s in school, he would get this gift.  At this point in the play Paquito got the good grades…the same day his dad got a pink slip.  The song was about dreams, hopes and the future.  Wistful is a good word to describe the piece.

Ernie sang the verse of the song, tears flowing down his face.  There was a chorus accompaniment to the song and in the most natural of ways, the young people – former cast members – gradually, one by one, began to softly sing along.  Ernie and the chorus gave the artist, mentor, and producer,  a final farewell performance full of heart.

Here’s to Carmen and to Luís.  Gracias por todo.

Here are some links that you might learn more about these pioneers.

Carmen Zapata

Villa Alegre

Luis Avalos

The Electric Company

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