A report by Alicia Ramírez for The Oprah Magazine.
Everyone knew not to call me when Glee was on. The Fox series started in 2009 when I was a sophomore in high school in Puerto Rico, and ended when I was a senior in college. The show premiered the same summer I discovered Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, and his newfound popularity on the island sparked some curiosity about theater, but the theater scene was scarce. While Glee wasn’t musical theater, it satisfied my interest with covers of songs like “Defying Gravity” from Wicked and “Sweet Transvestite” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I grew up with the kids on the show, who were with me from my high school days in Puerto Rico to my Pennsylvania college. When Glee was on, I would retreat to my room for the show’s duration and chat with my best friend during commercial breaks. At college, my room became the dorm’s common room when the show aired, complete with commentary from my floormates.
The series became known as the enjoyable musical comedy for kids who were really into show choir, but from the first episode, Glee reflected the realities for the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, and people with disabilities—all in a conservative town, and on primetime TV. But there was always one character in particular who grabbed my attention: Santana Lopez.
Naya Rivera was recently declared dead on July 13, her body found after she drowned in a lake while swimming with her son. Gone too soon at 33, she will best be remembered for her portrayal of Glee cheerleader Santana, the background villain who became a pivotal member of the New Directions show choir. Santana often seemed too cool for whatever was happening, but beneath her meanness was a confused young girl falling in love with her best friend—and afraid of the consequences.
“I look hot and smart. I feel like Michelle Obama.” “I’m the hottest piece of action in this school, and here I am, on Valentine’s and single.” These were two typical quotes from Santana talking about herself, a personality who oozed confidence and used it as a tool for survival.
Rivera’s portrayal of one of the most complex characters in the series came complete with grit, vulnerability, and vocals. She continually dazzled viewers with covers of songs by powerhouse singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele, even though she once told Out that her character initially didn’t have any lines.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, I rarely saw myself represented on TV. Televisa, the premier Mexican telenovela network, rolled out shows that relied on Eurocentric standards of beauty, and I never questioned them; after all, no one I knew did. Disney’s Gotta Kick It Up! starring America Ferrera and Camille Guaty gave me some hope as it established a precedent different from Lizzie McGuire and Kim Possible. Taina did the same for Nickelodeon in 2001, but growing up, I noticed that not much progress had been made since.
While there’s no denying that the series made some missteps over the years, Glee’s influence is major; at its best, it gave impressionable young people a reason to love being different. I rejoiced when I first tuned in and saw a name that sounded like many in Puerto Rico, portrayed by an actress of Puerto Rican descent.
Rivera’s casting was loaded with implications initially for the Latinx community and eventually, the LGBTQ+ community, that I wouldn’t have the vocabulary to adequately articulate until college. Not only was she an Afro-Latina actress on primetime network television, but she was also playing one of the most visible Latinx lesbians on primetime TV. And the scene where Santana comes out to her grandmother in season three was significant for many members of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly for Latinxs who grew up in strictly religious households, like Santana.
When I went to college on a scholarship, it was the first time in my life that, as a white-passing Latinx, I found myself actively having to challenge the default of whiteness and understand that I could experience racism just as much as I could benefit from it. Internalized racism isn’t something widely discussed by many Puerto Rican families, mine included. I was simply told I was Puerto Rican, and there was nothing else to it. But suddenly, I had the power to challenge the norm of who was expected in predominantly white spaces.
This is when I learned that the character of Santana had even more of an impact on me than I’d realized—and what today makes Naya Rivera’s death feel even more poignant. Her mere existence on the small screen confirmed that Latinxs like me can make our own way, even when it seemed difficult.
In an interview with Latina in 2013, the actress admitted that her ethnicity “held her back” when she was younger in the industry: “Casting directors didn’t understand what I was. I wasn’t Black enough, or Latina enough—I kind of fell through the cracks.” This sentiment is something all too common amongst many Latinxs. Still, we can agree that Rivera was an example that “Latin women are go-getters by nature,” as she told Cosmopolitan for Latinas.
When I learned that Rivera had passed away, I had flashbacks so some of my favorite moments from the series.
Rivera’s character first embraced her Latinidad through song in the third season. While some people may argue that West Side Story only shows Latino stereotypes, Rivera’s performance of “America” and “A Boy Like That” were some of her best in the series. (Later, in 2018, she even auditioned for the Steven Spielberg film in real life, via Instagram.) In the Glee episode titled “The Spanish Teacher,” Rivera not only captivated viewers with a performance of “La Isla Bonita” featuring Ricky Martin, but her character Santana confronted Mr. Schuester after he perpetuated the harmful stereotype that all expressions of Latinidad fell under the Mexican heritage umbrella.
And then there was the pivotal moment in the show’s fifth season, when Santana auditions to be Rachel Berry’s understudy in Funny Girl by singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” She demands the audience’s attention, unapologetically taking up room in a Broadway theater—a predominantly white space. She wasn’t reckless when she showed up to the venue unannounced; she was bold and assertive and proved everyone wrong. Her jazzy alto proved she had more range than anyone ever expected, even though “Don’t Rain on My Parade” had been Rachel’s signature song up until that point.
That scene alone taught me that as a Latina, I do not need anyone’s permission to make or partake in work that reflects my people. It also pushed me to think about what borders we can expand, and what other ways we can make room for representation, both on and off the television. We are perfectly equipped to create a world in which we can thrive, one song at a time.