Emilio Nicolás, who helped make San Antonio one of the centers of Spanish-language media in the U.S., died Saturday in his San Antonio home. He was 88.
Nicolás is credited with pioneering Spanish-language broadcast media and founding a multimedia enterprise that eventually became Spanish-language media giant Univision. The media mogul was hired at Spanish-language TV station KCOR in 1955 and eventually bought the station in 1961 with a group of investors. Overseeing the station as general manager, Nicolás would later rename the station the Spanish International Network, which went on to acquire several additional radio stations and become the Spanish International Communications Corporation, or SICC.
“His contributions go beyond even just Spanish-language media,” said Luís Patiño, his former understudy at Univision San Antonio and now the president and general manager at Univision Los Angeles. “I think his contributions for the Hispanic community, in general, are probably understated in most cases. People need to realize how important it was in the 1950s – when in most places in South Texas you weren’t even allowed to speak Spanish – that he and his partners went out of their way to create the first Spanish radio broadcast station.
“His commitment to give a voice to the voiceless goes well beyond Spanish-language media; it goes well beyond San Antonio. It was a game-changer for the country.”
His colleagues and professional peers recalled Saturday Nicolás’ warmth and familial nature, making every station he worked at feel like a family atmosphere.
His son, Guillermo Nicolás, said that is part and parcel of who his father was. A teary-eyed Guillermo fondly reminisced about coming home from elementary school and spending afternoons with his dad or going to their family ranch in Johnson City, where Nicolás would cook for him and teach him how to tend to the cattle.
“He taught me everything I know,” he said through tears.
Guillermo and his father spent much of the past 12 years working at the Johnson City ranch but also collaborating to build Guillermo’s real estate management and development firm 3N Group, he said.
However, Nicolás spent the last two years of his life bedridden as progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder affecting only about 20,000 Americans, according to the National Institute of Health, slowly took most of his faculties, from his ability to walk to his sight.
“Those last couple of years were very tough,” Guillermo said.
Born in 1930 in Coahuila, Mexico, Nicolás arrived in the United States in 1948 to learn English. He would earn an undergraduate degree in chemistry and biology from St. Mary’s University and a master’s degree from Trinity University. After completing his studies he worked at Texas Biomedical Research Institute, then known as the Southwest Foundation, where he researched the hardening of arteries and was part of a team that worked on the development of the polio vaccine.
Despite his varied accomplishments and professional pursuits, Nicolás was a humble man who shied from the spotlight, Guillermo said. He held eclectic interests, including politics, sports, and the arts.
“I always tell people he could cry at an opera, or he could scream and yell at a soccer match,” Guillermo said. “He was a great renaissance man.”
Patiño does not consider Nicolás the kind of media mogul who sought to enrich himself financially through the advent of Spanish–language media. His core purpose for starting what became Univision was always advocacy for the Latino community, he said.
“[Money was] not why they started those stations,” Patiño said. “The opportunity they saw was literally to give a voice to the voiceless. There was nobody informing [Latinos] in their language of comfort. … [Univision is] the epitome of a purpose-driven company. It was all about informing and empowering even back then.”
Martha Tijerina, who Nicolás convinced to work for his fledgling TV station instead of the Mexican Consulate, said she never could have predicted she’d become part of Spanish broadcast history when she became one of the first Latina hosts of a television program. “En San Antonio,” a live, one-hour current events and lifestyle show, first aired in 1970, creating a format that would be replicated at other stations throughout the country, Tijerina said. All this was sprung from the mind of Nicolás, who Tijerina called ahead of his time.
“To many, he is the pioneer of Spanish TV in the U.S.,” she said. “To me … honestly, he is the maker of what television in Spanish in the U.S. is. It was his vision.”
Formally branded as Univision in the late 1980s, the television enterprise has grown to include 65 TV stations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. It was recognized last year as the No. 1 Spanish network in primetime, averaging 1.4 million viewers during the 8 to 11 p.m. time slot, numbers comparable to English-language networks ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC.
Roland Davila, director of operations at Univision San Antonio, said Nicolás’ imprint on Univision is still felt today. He said today’s Spanish-language broadcasters owe Nicolás a debt of gratitude for pushing Spanish–language media in the U.S. through times when the business and economics of the industry were still unproven. In fact, the radio station that germinated Univision struggled in its early years. But for Nicolás the mission of equipping Latinos with information and civic tools always prevailed.
“His mission was to inform, empower, and entertain – in that order,” Davila said. “That is still the motto we live by today at Univision. He was a pioneer of Spanish TV, but he also cared about the community he was always trying to help.”
Services will be held at 2 p.m. on Oct. 21 at San Fernando Cathedral, 115 W. Main Plaza. Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller will preside over the Mass.
Nicolás is survived by his wife, Irma; his three adult children Guillermo, Emilio Nicolás Jr., and Miriam Relyea; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.