Louis Zapata, first Hispanic elected to Fort Worth council, dies

04/05/2014 7:24 PM

04/05/2014 7:25 PM

Former Mayor Pro Tem Louis Zapata — a trailblazer for Hispanic elected officials — has died.

In 1977, Mr. Zapata became the first Hispanic elected to the City Council, representing the north side. He held the post for 14 years, becoming one of Fort Worth’s longest-serving officials.

“He was a Texas original, a Fort Worth original,” Councilman Sal Espino said. “He broke a barrier in this city.

“He was a very strong and impressive figure who advocated strongly for residents not just on the north side but throughout the city,” he said. “It is a sad day that he is no longer with us.”

Mr. Zapata died late Friday in Fort Worth. He was 79.

On Saturday, he was remembered as a giant in the Latino community, a lovable teddy bear, a devout Catholic and a dedicated public servant.

Born on Oct. 5, 1934, in Fort Worth, Mr. Zapata graduated from Technical High School; took classes in electrical engineering at Arlington State College, now the University of Texas at Arlington; and went on to attend TCU.

He served as a union representative for United Auto Workers at Bell Helicopter and was elected in 1977 as the city’s first Hispanic councilman, serving until 1991.

Through the years, he served on the board of directors for the National League of Cities, was a member of groups including the Mexican American Democrats and the Latino Arts Association, and chaired the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport board.

Former Councilman Jim Lane still remembers the day he met Mr. Zapata in the 1970s.

Lane was in a restaurant in the building where he worked and saw Mr. Zapata walk through the doors.

“I thought that guy right there knew what he was doing,” Lane said. “I thought, ‘I wish I could do what he can do.’ ”

Lane said Mr. Zapata told him that people thought he was elected only by the Hispanic vote, but he reminded them that Oakhurst also played a big role in all his elections.

The two became fast friends and worked together through the years, particularly when Lane was elected to the council.

Lane, who often called Mr. Zapata “the big enchilada,” said the two would go places together and he would greet the crowds.

Then Mr. Zapata would spend about 15 minutes “saying hello” to the crowd in Spanish.

“By the time he finished, they loved me,” Lane said with a chuckle.

‘Community first’

Mr. Zapata will long be known for helping preserve Rose Marine Theater, where an auditorium is named for him, and for working to make sure Fort Worth had a sister city in Mexico.

Just last week, he spoke with former school board member Rose Herrera about the theater. “On Wednesday, he made me promise nothing would happen to the Rose Marine Theater,” Herrera said. “He wanted to make sure it would stay open.

“I said we are working on it, we are working on it,” she said. “Louis was one of a kind. We haven’t had another representative like him. He always put the community first.”

When Mr. Zapata lost his bid for an eighth term in 1991 — after an investigation had found that he and several other council members violated city ethics rules — he said he was “surprised and disappointed.”

“I felt we put out the best message in the 14 years I’ve been here, but some people aren’t listening,” he said as he watched election returns.

On his last day as part of the council, he made a tearful farewell speech to the crowd at City Hall.

“As I leave today, my challenge to you is dream big dreams for Fort Worth,” Mr. Zapata said before beginning to weep.

As the audience rose to give him a standing ovation, he had another thing to say.

“Mayor, I tried not to do that. I’m sorry.”

‘A farewell’

Mr. Zapata’s friends and admirers were just beginning to pay tribute to him Saturday.

“Former Councilman Zapata broke many barriers throughout his career and always advocated for the north side and the defense industry, which benefited Fort Worth as a whole,” said Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio de Leon. “We are thankful for his many civic contributions, and our thoughts and prayers are with the Zapata family.”

The Rev. Stephen Jasso said he spoke with Mr. Zapata on Friday.

“I couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me,” Jasso said. “He wasn’t in despair. It seemed he wanted to say ‘hi.’

“I looked at it as a farewell.”

Jasso said Mr. Zapata will be remembered as a leader, a great friend and a wise man in politics.

“He was very important to the north side and the community,” he said. “He was a man who was a passionate leader, a passionate person. And he was a faithful Catholic.”

Espino, who likened Mr. Zapata to a “big, lovable teddy bear,” called his longtime friend a “very astute political observer.”

Lane emphasized that Mr. Zapata was a role model.

“He wouldn’t run from a fight, and if you were his friend, he would stick with you,” he said. “He was very proud of his Mexican heritage and the progress that was made as far as Fort Worth was concerned.”

Lane added, with a chuckle: “I would suggest the good Lord be careful when Louis gets up there. Because Louis will be in charge.”

Survivors include son Louis Jr.; daughters Mary Helen and Patricia; grandchildren Danny, Melissa, Christi, Kyle and Jessica; and great-granddaughter Ashlyn Johnson.

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