Remembering Naya Rivera's iconic breakout role as Santana Lopez on Glee
Graphic Design by Jenni Holtz
“As a mixed race, queer woman...”
Much to my dismay I often lead with this statement in my writing, my cover letters, at the start of dialogues I lead. I lead with these identity markers because even in 2020, I so rarely see myself reflected in theater, television or movies.
Also, much to my dismay, I can say that the first time I saw a semblance of myself was on Glee.
Glee could never be done in 2020. Looking at our favorite show choir with what we know about tokenization, stereotypes, representation and all around creepy behavior (I'm looking at you Will Schuester!) Glee wouldn’t fly. But as a 12 year old, closeted queer woman, Santana Lopez was the first lesbian woman of color I saw on TV.
There’s much to be said about Santana’s presence in Glee. She was the token fiery, over-sexualized Latina from Lima Heights Adjacent, or “the wrong side of the tracks” in the Glee universe.
Although Naya Rivera did not identify publicly as a lesbian, Santana is out proudly, as a lesbian by Season 3. Her arch is one that coincides with my individual experience as I came to terms with my sexuality:
Her sexual promiscuity with men who she doesn’t seem to emotionally care for.
Her rare, compassionate and committed friendship with her female best friend, Brittany S. Pierce.
Her anger as she comes to terms with her identity expressed in irrational and hurtful ways (that often resulted in the most snappy one liners & comedic timing I have ever seen.)
Her fear of coming out of the closet, although those around her have their suspicions.
The intersection of her lesbian identity within the norms of her culture, mine being a mixed race, Chinese American identity and hers being a Mexican American identity.
Her allyship with other queer characters in the closet, specifically Korofsky, a homophobic bully who pretends to date Santana & later attempts suicide as he comes to terms with being gay.
Her complicated relationship to the characters that are out in the series, specifically cis-gay men who are so often the face of gay representation in the glee club and beyond.
The ways in which she was consistently overshadowed by her white counterparts, on screen and off. Santana’s competitive relationship to the character of Rachel Berry often mirrored the ways in which Naya Rivera & actress Lea Michelle were compared in the media. While the two arguably measured up to one another in talent, Rachel/Lea was still the protagonist, and I have to wonder if race played a part in that.
On the evening Naya Rivera was pronounced dead, I read her memoir Sorry Not Sorry from front to back. I had initially ignored this book upon its publication. It came out far past my days as a Gleek and was marketed as a trashy tell-all. I was wrong.
Her memoir ended up being inspiring and chilling, knowing what we know about her fate. Naya tells a first hand account of a mixed-race child actor, turned economically unstable teen turned household name and role model among QWOC teens.
Santana still resonates with me. I see myself in her character as a complicated, queer young adult. I see her wit and her “call-it-as-I-see-it” mentality in myself. More importantly, I resonate with Naya today as much as I resonated with Santana 10 years ago. I see myself in Naya as a mixed race professional in the performing arts. I see myself in Naya’s work ethic & transparency in telling her story.
Naya Rivera would not have played Santana in 2020. But I believe that because of her portrayal, the door is open for this generation’s queer Latinx & mixed-race triple threats ready for the job.
Today I remember Naya Rivera as I listen to her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” & write this tribute. After I finish this draft, I’ll take a break and watch clips of some of her most epic moments (my favorites featured below). As I continue to work in a field of performing arts & entertainment, I remember that I would not be me if not for Glee.
Rest In Peace, Naya.
You can find my favorite Santana Lopez moments below: