Through Glee’s many faults and offensive blunders over its six-season run, Naya Rivera’s Santana was always one of its best parts. As Ryan Murphy said on a Paley Center panel in 2012, the best thing about the show was that fans could see themselves in characters they couldn’t really find anywhere else. Santana—an Afro-Latina lesbian played by the late Naya Rivera—was the first of her kind on a mainstream television series. Her character kept expanding, growing, and developing as a (now) series regular, and it created a role that, for many queer Latinas, was both a comfort and empowering thing to watch.
There are many stereotypes about Latinas portrayed on TV or in the media. That we’re “spicy” or full of attitude, for example, or that we’ll tear your head off if you even just think about disrespecting us in some way. While Santana had her aggressive “Lima Heights Adjacent” moments, she was also very complex. You know, like any regular human being, but more so than a lot of characters on TV. While part of that is due to the writing, there is absolutely no denying that Rivera made that role what it is.
Santana Lopez first started on Glee as a minor character but by the end of the first season, she was giving some great one-liners and comebacks. That only grew from thereon and, eventually, her and Brittany’s (Heather Morris) relationship became a significant part of her personal arc.
Like any high school romance, Brittana was messy and tugged at fans’ emotions just as much as they pulled at Rivera’s. She was a strong supporter of the ship and would use social media to try to help fans weather through the storms the couple saw.
While it premiered on Fox—which isn’t primarily aimed at teens—the show was, and a lot of LGBTQ teens clung on to feel a form of acceptance or glee in a world that dampened that often, and Rivera was conscious of that.
“Honestly, on a deeper level, to the girls that are going through that and it’s not so comical in their world, in their everyday lives, they kind of looked up to us, in a sense,” Rivera told After Ellen in 2011. “That’s kind of my reason for hoping they continue the [Brittana] storyline.”
With her passing, the immense presence she had in queer women and girls’ lives, specifically, was heard. And it wasn’t just a murmur; it was a whole mountain of shouts. Santana was very in-your-face sometimes; she could be crass and give epic takedowns, but she also could be sensitive and vulnerable, too.
Looking back, one of the most touching scenes Rivera ever gave fans was when Santana came out to her abuelita. Not only is it emotional, but she perfectly describes the terror and draining parts of coming out. Santana recalls wanting to suppress her sexuality and feeling so ashamed that she wanted to “keep it locked inside.” By doing so, she perfectly captured the anger and exhaustion that that moment can cause.
While Santana’s story has many moments that queer Latinx can relate to, this scene is probably the one that always sticks out the most. In 2018, NBC News reported that Latinx millennials are the “least likely millennials to identify as heterosexual.” That’s just a roundabout way of saying that 22% of Latinx millennials identified as part of the LGBTQ community. Furthermore, 61% of Latinx also reported: “‘a lot’ of discrimination against lesbians and gays in their racial community.” That juxtaposition is why so many queer Latinx hurt, and why so many credit Rivera’s Santana for helping them come to terms with their sexuality. Essentially, Santana was their saving grace—a realistic guiding light for queer Latinx.
When you look at queer Latinx roles that came after Santana, there is no denying her role in furthering queer Latinx representation. Before Rivera’s part, there was Enrique “Rickie” Vasquez in My So-Called Life, played by Wilson Cruz. He was the first gay Latino on TV, ever, which was amazing. But it’s safe to say Santana’s arc was fully-formed in a way that Rickie’s never got to be.
A couple of series that show teens coming to terms with their sexuality and coming out in a Latinx household include Love, Victor, and One Day at a Time. In One Day at a Time, Elena comes out to a pretty accepting family, with the exception of her father. When Elena’s cousin Pilar came out, their family turned a blind eye instead of facing their negative biases against the LGBTQ community.
With Rivera’s Santana, the truth of losing a cherished family member because she’s gay was just that: a harsh reality.
Many queer women saw themselves in Santana. They could find joy in her story, which mirrored theirs in a way that the media didn’t often show in the early 2010s (and, quite frankly, is only just getting better at). But for queer Latinas, Santana figuratively held their hands through some of the most grueling parts of life as gay women in a conservative community. A gift many of us can’t thank Naya Rivera enough for.