Emilio Nicolás, a pioneering legend in Spanish-language television in the US, dies at 88

Emilio Nicolás (left) poses for a photo with his wife, Irma Alicia Cortéz Nicolás (center) and their son, Guillermo during an award ceremony.
Emilio Nicolás (left) poses for a photo with his wife, Irma Alicia Cortéz Nicolás (center) and their son, Guillermo during an award ceremony. Courtesy Teresa Rodríguez

Mexican Emilio Nicolás Sr., who pioneered Spanish-language television in the United States and helped develop the network that later became Univision, died at his home in San Antonio, Texas. He was 88.

Nicolás died Oct. 12 of progressive supranuclear paralysis, a rare brain disorder that has no cure and causes progressive impairment of balance, walking, speech and other movements.

He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Irma Alicia Cortéz Nicolás, their three children, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

A mass in his honor will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas. Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller will preside at the mass, which will be open to the public and broadcast live on the Univision website in San Antonio, according to Leslie Komet Ausburn, a publicist who represents the family.

Nicolás was born Oct. 27, 1930 in Frontera, Caohuila, Mexico. In 1948, he moved to San Antonio, Texas, to study chemistry, biology and mathematics at the University of St. Mary’s. In 1952, he graduated with a master’s degree from Trinity University.

He worked for a few years at the Southwest Foundation, where he researched arteriosclerosis — a condition that hardens the arteries — and the polio vaccine.

In 1955, his career as a giant in the media took off when he joined a small station called KCOR-TV in San Antonio. In 1961, Nicolás and other investors bought the channel and renamed it KWEX-TV. That Texas center eventually became Spanish International Network, the first interconnected satellite television network in the U.S.

It was then that Nicolás began to transform the industry by offering strictly Spanish content designed to educate and inform Hispanics.

Teresa Rodríguez, who has worked at Univision for more than 30 years, won more than 15 Emmy awards and currently works as a co-host of “Aquí y Ahora”, said Nicolás was one of the first to help the Hispanic community in the U.S., at a time when it was much smaller and had fewer people championing for it.

About 6 million Hispanics lived in the country in 1960. Since, that number has risen to nearly 60 million, according to the Pew Research Center. Nicolás predicted that increase.

“When nobody believed in the Hispanic market in the 60s, this man had an incredible vision,” Rodríguez said. “He was the first to say, ‘Yes, this community deserves to grow. This community deserves to be represented in the media.’”

Nicolás implemented new and revolutionary programming. A segment, for example, solely focused on explaining how social security worked in the U.S. It represented a tremendous risk for the channel because of the seemingly boring topic, but it proved to be a success and helped immigrants navigate the complicated system.

Some programs taught Hispanics about immigration laws and how to vote. Others promoted Hispanic culture, sharing the impact of transcendental figures such as activist César Chávez.

Nicolás’s support for his community was unwavering. So much so that he often rejected advertising if he thought companies were trying to take advantage of Hispanics.

He gradually acquired more radio and television stations until he had 280 affiliates. He baptized that powerful network as the Spanish International Communications Corporation.

In the 70s, the chain nationally broadcast the first mass in Spanish, as well as the FIFA World Cup in Spanish.

Nicolás headed SICC until 1987, when, along with his fellow investors, he decided to sell SIN to Hallmark Greeting Cards for $301.5 million. SIN then became Univision.

A few years after the Hallmark sale, Nicolás helped create Galavisión, which became the third Spanish-language television network in the U.S. Univision partially bought it in 2003.

Luis Patiño, president of Univision in Los Angeles, said that Univision’s mission remains the same as that of Nicolás in the 20th century. The chain continues to openly advocate for the rights of Hispanics, and many of its employees consider themselves activists first and journalists second, like Jorge Ramos.

Patiño said he will always remember Nicolás as his mentor and hero. He first met him around 2010, when he started working at Univision. He and Nicolás grabbed lunch and ended up talking for more than six hours.

“I remember that particular meal with love,” he said. “I kept listening to him as if I were a child in school, learning everything I could from that great master of television and radio.”

Patiño said what he admired most about Nicolás was his humility. Nicolás, according to Patiño, always greeted everyone he encountered with respect and disliked praised. Instead, he stayed behind the cameras.

Guillermo Nicolás, Emilio’s son, said in an interview with Univision in September this year that his father never longed for public recognition. However, Guillermo urged him to share his story anyway.

“It’s something that my dad never cared about, but I always pushed him to do it. I said: ‘You have to go out. You have to say what you did, not for your ego, but for the Latin youth of this country,’” Guillermo said.

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Jimena Tavel es una periodista de nacionalidades hondureña, cubana y costarricense cubriendo noticias generales en el área de Miami. Se dedica a escribir historias que impactan a los Estados Unidos, América Latina y la inmigración entre estos dos lugares. Jimena Tavel is a journalist of Honduran, Cuban and Costa Rican nationalities covering general news in the Miami area. She focuses on writing stories that impact the United States, Latin America and immigration between these two places.