Ever since actress and singer Naya Rivera was confirmed to have drowned in a tragic accident earlier this week, the Internet and social media has been flooded with tributes—some from her friends and family, but also from millions of people in the LGBTQ+ community who say Rivera’s beloved character on the musical television series Glee, Santana Lopez, was an icon and a beacon of light to them during hard times. And while Santana was indeed always my favorite character on Glee, it cannot be said enough: so much of that is owed to Naya Rivera always making meals out of whatever crumbs were thrown her way.
In the years since Glee’s conclusion, it has been mocked, ridiculed, and had a lot of bullshit tossed at it. And, for the most part, rightfully so: by the time the series had reached its sixth and final season, it had become over-the-top, farcical nonsense that had become practically unwatchable at times. It was a shame, too, because I can fondly remember a time when, during its first few seasons, Glee was one of the best and most beloved series on television, and rightfully so. Even though Ryan Murphy’s brainchild was always in a bizarre league of its own artistically, blurring the lines between musical, dramedy, and teen drama like never before, its representation and portrayal of LGBTQ youth was important, and never short of revolutionary. While the series’ legacy might now be blurred by the creative mess it became in its later seasons, there are some elements of Glee that still deserve our respect, Naya Rivera as Santana Lopez being one of them.
I had just started high school when Glee was reaching its peak creatively, and it was something that everyone who loved musicals and pop music—so, girls and effeminate boys—was watching and talking about. The series first came to prominence on the LGBTQ front with Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), a character with a distinct feminine voice who was questioning his sexuality. But alas, Kurt lived in what queer scholars might call a glass closet: one where everyone else can tell and knows that the person is gay, so when they finally come out, it’s of no real surprise to anyone.
Not to say that Kurt’s storylines of coming out, being bullied, and ultimately finding love with Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss) weren’t necessary and important, but his story did start to feel a bit like an afterschool special. Cut back to me, who was being bullied at the same time as Kurt and being called gay before I could figure it out for myself. As much as I never really saw myself in Kurt, he was all I had. So I took all of his experiences at face value for what the real world was like, thinking that this was the only path that a gay person could ever follow. Needless to say, there was a lot of suffering in Kurt’s story, and I couldn’t perceive of a world or a story where a queer person wouldn’t have to suffer. Enter Santana.
Santana Lopez wasn’t as much of a scene stealer in Glee’s first season, but rather a mean-girl cheerleader who sometimes had to be downright cruel with her signature insults, in an attempt to humanize and have us sympathize with Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron)—who was never all that compelling to begin with. (Rivera’s portrayal of the character was so mean, in fact, that after filming this legendary scene from season six, rumor has it the actress made Chris Colfer cry and had to profusely apologize afterward.)
By season two, Santana slowly began to prove her worth as someone to pay attention to, especially when she realizes that she’s in love with her best friend Brittany (Heather Morris). “What I’ve realized, is why I’m such a bitch all the time,” she tells her. “I’m a bitch because I’m angry. I’m angry because I have all of these feelings, feelings for you, that I’m afraid of dealing with because I’m afraid of dealing with the consequences. I’m afraid of the talks, and the looks… I mean, you know what happened to Kurt at this school.” And just like that, Santana was on track to become one of television’s first, and certainly most visible, Latina lesbians.
Santana’s coming out storyline meant so much to me at the time, who failed to see himself in Kurt Hummel’s shoes and was depressed at the thought that this was the only available route for queer people in this world. Not to say Santana’s story didn’t also include suffering—oh my, because it did, especially when she tells her conservative grandmother that she loves girls the way she’s supposed to feel about boys, and Grandma infamously disowns her—but Rivera infused the character with an energy that was so distinctively queer, it’s no wonder she became an icon to both lesbians and gay men.
She was sassy and she was a bitch, often to the point of downright cruelty, because she was so angry at the world. Even the most complacent, closet-dwelling gay people can understand that. Santana had such a complex struggle with sexuality, one that had probably never been explored this deeply. Her character arc was less about her being obviously queer and more about overcoming her own self-hatred and internalized homophobia—elements that Kurt’s storylines distinctly lacked. Rivera portrayed Santana with such angst and emotion that you couldn’t help but fall in love with both of them, actress and character. Her suffering was different, because we knew that Santana was strong enough to fight through it. You routed for her because you knew, somehow, she was going to come out standing strong on the other side. And maybe we would, too.
Possibly the best moment in Santana’s coming out story came in season three, when she performs Adele’s “Someone Like You” in a medley right after Finn (Cory Monteith) viciously outs her. “Don’t forget me, I beg,” she howls with such emotion, because we know exactly who she’s singing to. (Finn makes it up to her by serenading her with a slow ballad version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and if that scene still doesn’t make you bawl like a baby almost a decade later, I’m not really sure what you’re doing here.) But the actress and character’s best performance would come in season four, when Santana realizes that it’s time for her to spread her wings and fly. She belts out “Girl on Fire” as she says goodbye to the weight of her high school years, moving to New York City for a fresh start. “Everybody stares as she goes by, ‘cause they can see the flame that’s in her eyes,” she sings, finally beginning to feel comfortable in her own skin. I still listen to Rivera’s version of the song regularly, hoping to embody and emulate the same bravery and courage.
Outside of Glee, Rivera became a trusted ally for the LGBTQ+ community, dedicating time and money to GLAAD and The Trevor Project, among other charities and organizations. She also almost had a career as a recording artist, signing with Columbia Records in 2011 and releasing one single before ultimately being dropped by the label. In 2017, Rivera published a memoir, Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up, in which she imparted some of her wisdom surrounding being a child star, feeling inadequate in the spotlight, and the love and support she came to find with Glee. “I don’t trust people who claim to like everyone, because, really, how is that possible? If that is true, then you must not have any standards,” she wrote. “If you care about your life, then there are going to be certain people you don’t want in it.” One thing is for sure: Naya Rivera and Santana Lopez are two people I will forever cherish for being in my life, even if for just a short while.
RIP Naya. Thank you for everything.