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Irma Nicolas, 88, Spanish Language Media Pioneer, Dies At Home In San Antonio

Irma Alicia Cortez Nicolas, who formed a media empire with her husband Emilio Nicolas, has died, according to a family publicist. She was 88.

Their son, Guillermo Nicolas, also shared the news on Facebook. "My Grand, elegant, kind, loving, generous & fun loving Mother, Irma Cortez Nicolas, passed away quietly this morning in her home," he wrote, "held by her beloved daughter Jana Jaffe. Rest In Peace Mooda!"

Nicolas was born in San Antonio on Sept. 12, 1932.

Her father, Raoul Cortez Sr., founded KCOR-AM in San Antonio in 1946. The station was among the first full-time Spanish-language broadcasters in the U.S. and the first all Spanish-language radio station owned and operated by a Hispanic person. The TV station KCOR-TV launched in 1955 was the first Hispanic-owned Spanish-language TV station in the continental U.S.

KCOR was later renamed KWEX, the forerunner to Univision, which debuted as the fourth major media network in the U.S., following NBC, CBS, and ABC.

Guillermo Nicolas remembered his maternal grandfather was charming, handsome and also determined. "Who opens a Spanish language radio station in ‘46 and then in ‘55 a TV station in a country that speaks predominantly English [and] that has signs that say 'no dogs or Mexicans allowed?' " he asked.

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Lauren Terrazas / Texas Public Radio
Irma Nicolas and her son Guillermo celebrate the beginning of construction at the new TPR headquarters building, which was named for her and her husband Emilio, in February 2019.

In 2012, Irma Nicolas spoke with the Voces Oral History Project at the University of Texas at Austin. She said that her father taught his family to be proud of their Mexican heritage.

Irma Nicolas told Voces of a road trip her family took in the 1940s. When they entered a restaurant in New Braunfels, the proprietors agreed to serve her but not her mother or sister because they had darker skin than she did. They left and found another restaurant in another town, where they received the same treatment.

She remembered that they went all the way to El Paso, enduring discrimination throughout the entire journey. She said it was that kind of treatment that inspired her father to use his businesses to help the Mexican-American community, to educate and inspire them, to give them a voice and to enable them to defend themselves.

“As Mexican Americans, we were discriminated [against]," she explained, "and this is why my father took it very serious about the Spanish radio and television to educate our own people. ... They should defend themselves, and the airwaves are ours.”

Irma Nicolas watched and learned as her father built his company and blazed a new trail for the city's Mexican American community. It was a legacy she would inherit and build upon in subsequent decades.

In a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in 2006, Nicolas recalled her experience working at the station.

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Courtesy of Guillermo Nicolas
Irma Nicolas

“It was my pleasure as a young lady to have worked with my father as His Girl Friday. I loved selling $5 spots on the radio ... to husbands that wanted to serenade their wives and mothers on Mother’s Day.”

| Related: Fronteras: Spanish Language Media In U.S. Owes Existence To Irma & Emilio Nicolas |

She explained to Voces that her father enrolled her and her sister at St. Teresa's Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in San Antonio. She also briefly attended college, where she studied business.

Raoul Cortez also served twice as president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Irma Nicolas added that during her father's membership in LULAC, she and her sister regularly attended Feria de las Flores, or Festival of Flowers, a LULAC sponsored pageant.

In 1945, Irma, then only 13, also attended a related event, the Black and White Ball, where she met a young man named Emilio Nicolas. He asked her to dance, she remembered, and they did, all night long. She said he sang two songs in her ear, "La Vie En Rose" and "La Mer," which, she said, became "their" songs. They married in 1953.

In 1955, Cortez hired Emilio Nicolas at KCOR to produce live programming and supervise the radio and TV news departments. Nicolas had spent years studying biology and chemistry at St. Mary's and Trinity universities, and he later became a researcher.

He knew almost nothing about his father in law's business, and Irma Nicolas remembered her husband was basically starting all over again from the bottom rung. But she said he worked hard and worked his way up.

Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, founder and director of the Voces Oral History Center, said the couple's partnership was key to their success.

“She encouraged him, she promoted him, she pushed him," she explained. "She was the touch of class in every place that he went. She was always at his side and that’s not a small thing.”

Six years later, Cortez sold the station to Nicolas and other investors. KCOR was renamed KWEX.

Throughout the 1960s, Irma and Emilio built the station into an operations center for the Spanish International Network, which later became Univision, and made Spanish language radio and TV programming the norm for today’s audiences.

The family sold its stake in the Spanish International Network in 1987.

Emilio Nicolas died in October 2019, almost exactly a year before his wife. He too was 88.

| Related: Groundbreaking Begins On New TPR Headquarters |

Texas Public Radio named its downtown headquarters building on Commerce Street after the couple.

"Irma Nicolas was an amazing woman," said Joyce Slocum, TPR's CEO and president. "She was a pioneer alongside her husband, Emilio, and the epitome of grace. Walking into a building named for her each day inspires us to emulate her best qualities."

On Sunday, Roberto Yanez, president of Univision Local Media in New York, tweeted that the “Univision family mourned her passing,” calling Nicolas a “Univision founding member.”

In late February 2019, Irma Nicolas was a guest of honor at an event celebrating TPR's new building, the Irma & Emilio Nicolas Media Center. The building is adjacent to the historic Alameda Theater on the west side of downtown San Antonio, at the heart of the community the media power couple spent their lives celebrating.

Guillermo Nicolas remembered that that night "she was excited and giddy and emotional, and that made me feel good. It was wonderful to see my mom do that."

"It was important to me that they leave this earth knowing that they are loved that they're respected and that their name will live on in perpetuity," he added.

Nicolas is survived by Guillermo Nicolas and Emilio Nicolas Jr.; a daughter, Miriam Relyea; plus five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Norma Martinez, Lauren Terrazas, Brian Kirkpatrick and Dan Katz contributed to this report.