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DOWNTOWN : Bilingual Arts Group Gets $250,000 Grant

December 18, 1994|BRETT MAHONEY

With the recent award of a major federal grant, the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts theater group hopes to raise the curtain on a bigger house.

Actress Carmen Zapata, co-founder and producing director of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, announced earlier this month that her nonprofit Latino theater group will receive a $250,000 Department of Housing and Urban Development grant as the nucleus of a fund-raising drive.

The group aims to raise $7 million for a 300-seat theater by 1998 in the vicinity of Olvera Street.

"For the past 14 years, our home has been the former Lincoln Heights jail, but thanks to this much-needed grant, it is time for us to 'get out of jail and pass go' into a new facility," said Zapata at a Downtown Los Angeles press conference.

Rep. Esteban Torres (D-La Puente), a strong supporter of the group, was instrumental in securing the grant.

"Fears and suspicions in a community are directly linked to a lack of understanding and a lack of knowledge about one another. BFA, for nearly a quarter of a century, has strived to help bridge that gap, provide that understanding and that knowledge," Torres said.

The group could better achieve its goal in a larger space, he said.

Many who show up to see the group's performances without a ticket have to be turned away because the intimate, 84-seat theater is usually sold out weeks in advance, Zapata said.

The growing interest in their work gratifies Zapata and her colleagues, Margarita Galban and Estella Scarlata, who founded the group in 1973.

Zapata met the two women in the early 1970s when they persuaded her to perform in a Spanish play they were producing.

Although Spanish was her first language, Zapata was reluctant to take the role because she had not used it regularly for years and was afraid she would stumble over the dialogue.

"They told me I was playing a drunk, so people would think I was acting if I tripped over the language," she said.

After a successful collaboration, the three women decided to continue working together. Tired of being ignored by Hollywood because of their Latina surnames, they launched their own theater group to celebrate their culture and language, said Zapata.

First, the group mounted productions wherever they could find cheap, available space. Later, in 1979, they refurbished the former Lincoln Heights jail as their home.

To stay on their financial feet, they applied for as many public and private grants as they could, solicited individual donations and, when forced to, reached into their own earnings from acting.

"We just knew we wanted to present Hispanic theater, and it just grew and grew and took over our lives," Zapata said.

Now, each year the group presents several productions on their own stage and performs at Los Angeles area schools. They serve an annual audience of nearly 200,000 adults and children.

From modern works such as Federico Garcia Lorca's "Yerma" to 15th Century dramas like "La Celestina," the group's stage is host to a trove of Latino and Spanish classics, performed in English and Spanish.

"We are committed to fostering Hispanic talent--writers, directors and actors. ('Untouchables' star) Andy Garcia's first job in Los Angeles was with us," Zapata said.

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