Every year, around the time RodeoHouston rolls along, I ask one question: "Is Tejano music completely dead?" With a lack of new Tejano acts on the horizon, Tejano radio on the airwaves and very little new music from its surviving legends, it's easy to argue that yes, Tejano is no longer with us.
If you're like me, a kid from El Northside (or Southeast Houston, or Pasadena, or The Valley), you were raised on Tejano music. Your memories are filled with countless hours of dancing at quinceañeras and weddings, or going out to your neighborhood bar to drink Miller Lite with Tejano blaring on the house speakers, or gathering in the backyard with family and fajitas, the music, as always, ringing loud and proud.
Go back to those memories for a second. Can you name the song that was playing as you ate that taco? What was the track that gave you the courage to ask your crush to dance? Who was onstage at that Party On the Plaza where you met your future wife or husband?
The answer to those questions will probably be any single found on the long list of hits from a certain San Antonio native, Mr. Emilio Navaira III.
Emilio in many ways was the epitome of what a Tejano man was supposed to be: handsome, fun-loving and proud. With his signature cowboy hat, gold and silver oversize belt buckle, tight Wranglers and shiny boots, Navaira was the man many of us guys wanted to be, and the type of man the ladies wanted to be with.
I was 13 when I received a copy of Emilio's 1992 album Live! on cassette. I must have listened to that on my Sony Walkman about a thousand times! The part on "La Rama Del Mesquite" where you think the song is about to end, but then Emilio flips the tempo and finishes the song in a waltz-like slow dance — to this day that part gives me the chills!
And then there's a track like "Cómo Le Haré?" The song is a literal plea to God, asking for guidance and courage in the face of a rejected love. The title of the song translates into "How Do I Do It?"; a young man is head over heels in love with a lovely young lady who smells good and has soft skin, only to be shot down as "just friends." With the song, Navaira practically invented the term "Friend Zone."
And it wasn't just the rancheras and conjunto songs that we loved. The cumbias Emilio y su Grupo Rio performed were just as popular. From "Eclipse" to "Fixate Mamá," they made us forget our troubles as we danced the night away. On the other hand, we turned to his country hits such as "It's Not the End of the World" or "Even If I Tried" if we really wanted to get all in our feelings.
His life itself was a series of triumphs and tragedies, almost like a country song. A survivor of two major auto accidents, one which was attributed to his own driving while he was intoxicated, Emilio was living on borrowed time. Reports say he had begun to turn his life around and was more health-conscious over the past few years as he continued to tour extensively, playing all across our great state and into Mexico.
He was the King of Tejano Music...El Rey del Rodeo.
Truthfully...he always will be.
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Que En Paz Descanse, El Señor Emilio Navaira.
P.S. Tejano will never die. As long as we still hold onto those memories and listen to our heroes' music, it will always be alive and well.
When he's not roaming around the city in search of tacos and graffiti, Marco points his camera lens toward the vibrant Houston music scene and beyond. You can follow his adventures on Instagram: @MarcoFromHouston.