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A Tribute to a Trailblazer: Naya Rivera

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

By Giulia Becker Miller

Image via Glee

Naya Rivera’s recent passing has struck a nerve in the hearts of many fans, who knew her performances to be more than entertainment. Her artistry expressed appreciation, activism, authenticity, and far more. Rivera’s arguably most beloved character, Santana from Glee, has been revisited in the wake of the recent tragic news.

A number of articles have highlighted the importance of Naya Rivera’s portrayal of Santana to the LGBT+ community—“a fierce talent and a trailblazer for LGBTQ+ representation,” “Legacy as an LGBTQ TV Trailblazer: 'Meant So Much to So Many Queer Women',” etc. These articles exemplify the importance of Naya Rivera’s portrayal of Santana as a queer woman. In the same respect, the intersectionality that Naya Rivera herself embraced, is unknown to many.

Artistic design of Naya Rivera’s headshot by Giulia Becker Miller

In an interview with Latina Magazine, Rivera described what it was like to “[be] an icon to the LGBT community.” She stated, “There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them. I love supporting this cause.” Naya Rivera as Santana Lopez was one of the first queer Latinx characters portrayed on mainstream television in the United States. Not only was Rivera a trailblazer for the LGBT+ community; she was a trailblazer for Latinx women — specifically, queer Latinx women.

Naya Rivera’s performance as Santana on the show Glee reminded many Latinx women of the regular disenfranchisement and injustice they face on a regular basis: the villinization, appropriation, and sexualization. Rivera, as an Afro-Latinx woman herself, faced discrimination as a child actor: “It used to hold me back when I was younger. Casting directors didn’t understand what I was. I wasn’t black enough, or Latina enough—I kind of fell through the cracks.” Hollywood has continuously failed to embrace intersectionality as a strength. Naya Rivera challenged the status quo of one-size-fits-all “Latina.”

The discontent related to race and ethnicity that Naya Rivera experienced in reaction to normalized Hollywood discrimination, was channeled into her performance as Santana in Glee. As Santana, she exposed culture appropriation in her high school, proudly exemplified her heritage but refused to let it define her, and denied to be pushed around or lessened by those in her life.

According to a study conducted by the National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services titled The State of Hispanic Girls, young Latinx women topped the charts in rates of teen pregnancy, suicide attempts, school drop-outs, and substance abuse. Additionally, “close to one out of every three Hispanic female high school students has seriously considered suicide.” These are the statistics representing the character that Naya Rivera was portraying as Santana; furthermore, they are the statistics representing the existence that Naya Rivera was living.

Both as Santana and in her life off-screen, Rivera worked to challenge those statistics and offer a different representation of Latinx women, one that went beyond numerical values. This meant the world to many Latinx women, inspiring them to follow in her footsteps—to challenge a world that accepted, normalized, and often encouraged the misrepresentation and deprivation of Latinx women on the streets and on television. As Santana, she took on the problem of misrepresentation even further by portraying, not only a strong Latinx woman but a strong queer Latinx woman.

The Latinx community’s relationship with homosexuality has proven rocky. According to a 2007 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, more than ⅔ of Latinx people identify as Roman Catholic. While recent years have suggested a more accepting sentiment towards the queer community from Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church, the long-held beliefs and prejudices towards the LGBT+ community have continued to seep through during family conversations at dinner tables and church community gatherings.

The Human Rights Campaign reports that “The Catholic Church's position on homosexuality is based on a distinction between being lesbian or gay and acting on it, accepting the former while at the same time considering the latter to be wrong and sinful.” In more general terms, with respect to homosexuality, the Catholic Church accepts/tolerates it, but does not support it. On Glee, Santana faced this judgment from her abuela almost word for word.

In Season 3, Episode 7, Santana comes out to her abuela and her reaction represents a similar, close to exact sentiment, of the Roman Catholic Latinx community: “Everyone has secrets… They’re called secrets for a reason…Verguenza. The sin isn’t in the thing, it's in the scandal when people talk about it aloud.” This sentiment is a reality that a number of Latinx people face regularly from family members and close friends, a lack of support from those they often need the most.

Naya Rivera’s portrayal of Santana in reaction to these hardships surpassed expectations. Rivera expressed the pain that Santana felt in reaction to her abuela's judgment with respect. There was utmost consideration of the delicacy of the topic at hand; Rivera’s performance seemed to suggest her recognition of the pain that the LGBT+ community faced regularly, while simultaneously understanding her own privilege as a straight woman.

During an interview with members of the Glee cast/crew at PaleyFest, Rivera reflected on the reaction of fans to Santana and Brittany’s relationship and their performance of “Landslide:” “One girl told me she was thinking about committing suicide… I never thought that it would be that serious for some people and it is. A lot of people said that that scene gave them the courage to come out… I think that [LGBT+ representation] is something that’s very important. I hope that we handled it responsibly. Which I think that we did. I have been more than honored to play this character.”

In one short answer, Naya Rivera recognized her previous ignorance of the harsh realities many in the LGBT+ community faced, consequently recognizing her privilege as a straight woman. She used her platform to then uplift awareness to a challenge facing many LGBT+ members: suicide. Furthermore, Naya Rivera stated proudly that she was honored to perform as a queer Latinx woman.

Media today still fails to make intersectionality and diversity a priority on set, backstage, and on-screen. Latinx representation seems to continuously be a back-burner issue in Hollywood. Queer Latinx representation is further ignored, scant, and hardly seen unless looked for intently. This lack of representation highlights the weight of the responsibility Naya Rivera may have been facing, performing such an important role in the eyes of so many. In her interview with Latina Magazine, she stated that she felt honored to perform as Santana; she simultaneously recognized that “it’s a big responsibility, and sometimes it’s a lot of pressure on me.”

Despite the pressure that Naya Rivera was facing as an Afro-Latinx actress, as a performer of a strong queer character, as a mother, as a friend, and as a human, she still managed to inspire many who related to her and the characters she portrayed to be better versions of themselves.

Naya Rivera performed as an actress who existed not only to entertain but to teach, encourage, support, and love the communities she was representing. Rivera’s life was far more than her performance career and her performance as Santana. She had characteristics, beliefs, a life that many of her fans or even close family members may never truly know. Yet, there is a constant and inarguable reality to her life: she was a driving force, a glow of hope and compassion where there was only darkness. Naya Rivera inspired many of us “to be bigger than the world was ever going to give us permission to be… to not just exist because we are worth so much more than that.”

Written by writer Giulia Becker Miller

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