San Antonians turned out in force to bid farewell to Tejano legend Emilio at a funeral Mass at historic San Fernando Cathedral.
Emilio H. Navaira III, 53, was laid to rest Monday after suffering a fatal heart attack in New Braunfels on May 16, stunning the Tejano music world where the superstar known simply as Emilio was revered as one of San Antonio’s hometown icons
More than 600 people – family members, friends and fans – filled the cathedral for the funeral Mass. More fans stood outside on Main Plaza to pay their respects and to watch as pallbearers bearing Emilio’s casket proceeded through the plaza and into the cathedral.
Emilio’s death was a shock to family members and to his fan base. Many of those milling outside the cathedral shared stories about the impact the singer had on their lives and the influence he had on Latino pop culture as he arose to national prominence in the ’90s as the Tejano music genre reached its apex.
Following the Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, more than 200 people attended the interment at San Juan Cemetery. Many stood in line for more than one hour to pay their respects to family members.
Raúl “Raulito” Navaira, Emilio’s brother and frequent performance partner, spoke to the crowd after his brother was laid to rest.
“My beautiful brother. I’m going to miss him. But at least I have his music,” he said. “Thank you, all of you, family, friends, fans, who gave him a beautiful life. Gracias a todo el mundo.”
He asked that gifts made in Emilio’s memory be sent to the Christus Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, a cause close to Emilio’s heart.
“I was always a Tejano fan, and I’ve always followed his music, so I wanted to pay my respects,” Tammy Sanchez, a career counselor, said. “He was different. He was from the Southside and he made it.”
Sanchez, who works downtown and waited outside of the cathedral to see the casket carried into the cathedral, remembers listening to Emilio’s song, Juntos, after her own father died eight years ago.
“The songs are constantly playing right now. The lyrics (of Juntos) talk about seeing each other again after someone is gone, and it reminds me of my dad, so I know what his kids are going through,” Sanchez said. “At least (his kids) have the honor of hearing their dad continue on (through music), hearing his voice.”
Archbishop García-Siller recalled Emilio’s life as one filled with music, family and faith.
“We are confused and saddened by his death … and so our hearts turn to God and to each other,” the archbishop said. “He was a man who called the attraction of many to his music.”
Archbishop García-Siller recalled a signature phrase from Emilio’s performances, when he would close the final song by expressing his love for his fans.
“At the end of every concert he would say, ‘Les Amo’ (I love you all) … He was able to say that because he truly did love you all,” the archbishop said. “It was his happiness to bring joy to everyone.”
Emilio is survived by his wife, Maru Navaira; his five children; his mother, Mary H. Navaira; his brother, Raúl Navaira and sister Yvette Navaira. Diego and Emilio IV, two of Emilio’s children, took after their father and are also musicians.
Emilio grew up on the Southside and attended McCollum High School. He began his career as a performer after studying music at Texas State University in San Marcos. He sang lead vocals in the band David Lee Garza Y los Musicales before leaving to become a solo performer at age 27.
Emilio quickly rose to national fame as one of the first performers to sing in both Spanish and English. Marketing and endorsement deals with companies such as Coca-Cola and Miller Lite soon followed.
His audience grew even wider after he released several country music albums in the 1990s. He won a Grammy Award for Best Tejano Album in 2002 for Acuérdate, and a Latin Grammy Award for Best Tejano Album in 2007 for De Nuevo.
Success also brought trouble. Navaira was arrested twice on charges of driving while intoxicated. Then, on March 23, 2008, he crashed his tour bus into freeway barrels in Bellaire while returning from a Houston concert to San Antonio. Navaira, then 45, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19, more than twice the legal limit, and did not have a commercial license to drive a bus. He suffered severe brain injuries and was in a medically-induced coma, while five other musicians in the bus were injured. Two of them sued Navaira for damages.
Navaira survived the incident, literally and professionally, and after a period of recovery went on to release three albums in the next four years.
Ester Alvarado, a 71-year-old grieving fan, said that Emilio and Selena, who were both nationally famous by the early ’90s, were instrumental in the rise of Tejano as a respected genre outside of Texas.
“He left behind a lot of good music,” said longtime fan Maria Anita Monsivaiz. “Not just Tejano, but county music with good stories. His brother wrote (some of) the songs, but he kept Tejano alive. Emilio brought (Tejano) up to the forefront. He and Selena did.”
No muere el mundo sin ti, Emilio, pero lo hace gris.
(The world does not die without you, Emilio, but it does gray.)
— Emilio Navaira (No Es el Fin del Mundo)
Top image: Archbishop Gustavo-García-Siller reads from scripture while surrounded by family members and fans of Emilio. Photo by Scott Ball.