Zapata’s legacy steeped in humility, service to his community

For more than 35 years, former Fort Worth City Councilman Louis J. Zapata was the godfather of Hispanic politics in the city.

No, he was not the mean, bossy Don Corleone type, or one who commanded that his frequent visitors bow down and kiss his ring. Zapata was the opposite of that fictional character, more accurately described as a “gentle giant” or, as Councilman Sal Espino put it, a “big, lovable teddy bear.”

But those descriptions shouldn’t suggest that Zapata was afraid of a fight, because he wasn’t. His fights, however, were reserved for the political arena and were waged on behalf of the people whom he represented for 14 years at City Hall.

In 1977 he became the first Hispanic to be elected to the City Council, and his swearing-in ceremony (37 years ago this month) attracted the largest crowd of Hispanics ever to assemble at City Hall, Carlos E. Cuellar wrote in his book Stories from the Barrio, about the Fort Worth Mexican-American community.

Long after Zapata left the council in 1991, many people seeking public office or other community involvement often made their way to the door of his home or business seeking his advice. And Zapata would give it to them — freely and honestly.

Although proud of his Hispanic heritage, he did not limit his friendship and mentoring to Latinos. This Fort Worth native and north-side resident embraced people of all cultures and served them well, in and outside public office.

Zapata died Friday at age 79. His friends and former colleagues were quick to sing the praises of a man who in addition to serving on the council had been a union leader in the United Autoworkers at Bell Helicopter, chairman of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport board, a board member of the National League of Cities and chairman of the Hispanic Elected Local Officials.

Cuellar says in his book that Zapata was “particularly bright” as a child, skipping a grade a year for four years, and “in 1951 graduated from Technical High School after completing his coursework his junior year.”

In his public service, it was not about showing people how smart he was or in any way presenting himself as being better than anyone else.

On the contrary.

Zapata’s legacy is one steeped in humility. He simply spent his life serving his community and trying his best to help his fellow human beings.

What more could anyone ask for in a public servant?