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Remembering Naya Rivera, who shone as Glee’s queer Afro-Latinx star

Known as ‘sweet Naya’ to those closest to her, the Glee actress gave a generation withering one-liners, hope, and much-needed representation

In Glee’s sixth episode of its third season, and with the 300th musical performance of the teen drama series, Santana Lopez finds herself faced with being outed. Santana (Naya Rivera), a cheerleader at McKinley High School who has yet to come out to her family, is in a relationship with fellow cheerleader Brittany (Heather Morris). Her relationship looks soon to be school gossip, after fellow Glee club member Finn (the late Cory Monteith) stokes the rumours accidentally. It leads to one of Rivera’s – and Glee as a whole’s – most powerful performances, a mashup of Adele’s “Rumour Has It/Someone Like You”. Her honeyed voice, as the songs climax, is bolstered by her rising anger levels. She belts out the defiant lyrics with smouldering rage. The passion and hurt is palpable: “Don’t forget me, I beg”. With one big finish and a swift move, she comes off the stage to slap Finn across the face.

The scene is a testament to Rivera’s presence, power, and sheer talent. While Santana Lopez originally started her journey on Ryan Murphy’s hit TV series as a minor character, Rivera helped to build one of mainstream television’s most iconic Afro-Latina LGBTQ+ roles, with nuance, ferocity, and withering one-liners. The show was at its core about busting teen TV stereotypes, and Rivera led this charge.

She became a fast fan-favourite, and a show regular among the New Directions glee club. Her relationship to Brittany, was nicknamed ‘Brittana’ by dedicated fans. Across the seasons, Santana evolved from the caustic cheerleader to become much more than a high school trope because of Rivera’s talent and depth – she finds an important voice in the club, becomes proud of her sexuality, weds her best friend, and pursues her dreams in New York after high school. In the fifth season, amid Finn’s sudden tragic death, she gives an electric, emotional performance of “If I Die Young”. With a subsequent breakdown, where she sheds her acerbic wit she uses to protect herself to truly begin grieving for Finn, we see the complicated knots of grief, defiance, and self-preservation Rivera nailed so well.

“A Black Latina playing an Afro-Latinx on screen allowed many of us to see ourselves in Santana. This meant everything, especially when you take into account Hollywood’s poor track record in Afro-Latinx representation, even more so queer ones”

Last week, the world began grieving for Naya Rivera, who tragically died at just 33. While most fans will remember her as Santana, as a child actor, Rivera landed her first role on The Royal Family. She had roles on popular shows like Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Bernie Mac Show. It was Santana though that would transform Rivera’s life, as well as millions of others around the world.

Rivera spoke openly about the fighting she had to do to make Santana a nuanced character, pushing the show execs and producers to take a lesbian relationship plot seriously in ways it hadn’t been before. Rivera was also a defining moment for Latinx representation, specifically Afro-Latinxs. A Black Latina playing an Afro-Latinx on screen allowed many of us to see ourselves in Santana. This meant everything, especially when you take into account Hollywood’s poor track record in Afro-Latinx representation, even more so queer ones. Her heritage and family dynamics are vital to character development, and in the third season, it’s combined with her stellar, steely persona, calling out teacher Mr Schuester for cultural appropriation when he dons a matador costume.

Rivera truly shone out in performances like “Landslide”, sharing her feelings for Brittany so tenderly despite her usually steely veneer; in the charismatic solo “Valerie”, which set her up as a real vocal threat. Her power and personality explodes in the scene-stealing “Rain On My Parade” and “Girl on Fire”. Though she didn’t identify as LGBTQ+ herself, Rivera knew the space she was making for queer women’s stories and experiences. When Glee began airing, representation in teen TV for more marginalised queer voices was still pretty scarce. In episode seven of season three, “I Kissed a Girl”, Santana decides to come out to her strict Latina grandmother. That scene traverses the religious and conservative views that have pervaded the older Latinx community, and will have struck a chord with many. Her abuela rejects her, saying she cannot accept Santana’s sin. To push past it, Santana sings K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving”. It’s both empowering and heartbreaking. Through to the sixth season, we see Santana and her abuela struggling to come to a meeting ground of acceptance. By the time the Brittana wedding takes place, her abuela comes to accept and attend. At this moment too, her storyline reflects the LGBTQ+ community’s real-life struggles – the wedding comes months before the 2015 Supreme Court which made gay marriage legal in all 50 states.

“The show’s acceptance of all types of characters who lived all types of lifestyles made kids in real life feel more accepted,” Rivera wrote in her book, Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up. “For a lot of people, I think Glee was the first show that made it possible for them to turn on the TV and see someone who looked like them or who was dealing with the same kinds of issues they were dealing with.”

Naya Rivera was truly special, and this all makes her loss that much more unbearable. “Naya was an amazing talent, but was an even greater person, mother, daughter and sister,” her family said in a statement following confirmation of her death. “Heaven gained our sassy angel.”

I was one of the few fortunate enough press to have interacted with Naya Rivera. Throughout my career, I had the opportunity to interview and talk to Rivera numerous times. One of the talks I remember most vividly was after I had interviewed her in May 2016 about her book. I could hear her son in the background over the phone, and her dog, for which she apologised jovially for. We talked about motherhood, and there was this beautiful excitement in her voice when she was telling me about Josey’s latest milestone, his first birthday.

Naya and I built an incredible repertoire, both professionally and personally. There’s a reason people that know her refer to her as ‘Sweet Naya’, and my years getting to know her allowed me to see that for myself. Despite all her Hollywood success, including her most recent role as Collette Jones in Step Up: High Water, seeing Naya become the incredible mother she was, was by far one of my favourite moments. Every photo, every video she shared with Josey, was pure joy and love.

Many people who felt comforted by Rivera’s sheer presence in the world and her dedication to her craft will feel a little bit emptier. In some of her final words as noted in an Instagram caption, remember, “no matter the year, circumstance, or strifes everyday you're alive is a blessing. Make the most of today and every day you are given. Tomorrow is not promised.”