What Naya Rivera and her character of Santana Lopez Meant to Me

I used to be obsessed with Glee, together with my sister. I remember that we started watching it when it was already on air, but we quickly caught up, watching it in my sister’s little room. I remember distinctively that one moment when we were binging on Glee while my aunt was visiting my mom. They were drinking wine or something, having a good time, so I and my sister, of course, used this time to watch as many episodes as we possibly could.

I think I was in middle school then and knew nothing about my sexuality. But as the show progressed and I applied to go to high school with a special journalistic background, I felt closer and closer to Santana Lopez, the character played by Naya Rivera. Her role was the first LGBTQ+ female character I got to see on television at that time and it meant the world to me. I was obsessing over her and Britanny (Heather Morris), going from friends to girlfriends, to fiancees, to wives. My favorite episode of Glee is Rumours, where Santana sings Songbird and dedicates it to Brittany: For you, there’ll be no crying/For you, the sun will be shining/’Cause I feel that when I’m with you/It’s all right, I know it’s right.

This song is one of my favorite songs by Fleetwood Mac. Together with Naya’s beautiful voice — it was magic for me. Seeing her pouring her heart out in front of Britanny will remain one of my most cherished Naya moments. And there were many others — when she sang Valerie, or where she came out to her grandma who told her to leave her house. Even then, when I still didn’t understand my sexuality, I was so heartbroken by this scene.

When it comes to Santana’s sexuality, another moment I think about now is a group’s version of Born This Way. In this particular episode, the glee club wore the shirts with their one flaw written across it. I could notice and comprehend Santana’s struggle with choosing to wear the shirt saying that she’s attracted to women. In the end, she wore the shirt that said Lebanese and didn’t participate in group singing. At the end of the performance, the camera zooms on Santana who’s looking at her shirt, a gloomy expression on her face. I could relate to her because I couldn’t deal with my sexuality either. I didn’t know how to tell my family, siblings, or friends that I’m gay. But Naya and her Santana helped me more than I thought before. Now that I think of it, she really was the first LGBTQ+ female character that I admired.

The death of Corey Monteith was emotional to me as well and I cried throughout the whole Glee tribute episode. But it didn’t shake me as much as Naya’s. It’s simply because of the fact that Santana was the first to influence my sexuality and future. Long before I found The L Word, there was this mean cheerleader whose character development was one of the greatest ones I’ve seen on television. I also remember having her and 2Cellos’ cover of Supermassive Black Hole on my old MP4, and I was blasting it on repeat on some days. I’d recommend that you listen to it, there is something very powerful in Naya’s voice in that song.

I have to be honest, I didn’t catch the last episodes of the series. My life started, I graduated from my University, I met my wife, and moved to the United States. I didn’t think much of Naya then. I saw Glee on Netflix but never had a chance to catch up. Only a few weeks ago, we were catching up on RuPaul’s Drag Race, where Naya popped up as a guest. She was talking about her book (Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up) and judging queens alongside RuPaul. I was so incredibly happy to see her on-screen. I began to tell my wife all about the character of Santana Lopez, Glee, and the actress herself. It was only a few weeks after us watching that particular episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race when I saw the morning news in which they announced that Naya is missing and her son, Josey, was found alone on the boat in a live vest. My heart broke but I was very hopeful. I was surprised that this sad news touched me so much. I didn’t know why. I was following the news throughout the whole search, begging for her to be found.

But, it turned out that she passed. I couldn’t believe that she saved her son with the remnants of her strength that she possessed. That, however, wasn’t enough for her to save herself. My heart broke. And believe me, when I say, that didn’t ever happen before, not with any actor or actress before. I like to think that it’s because Santana had such an impact on my teenage years. I remember watching those fan videos of her and Brittany on YouTube. It was truly my thing.

I don’t really care what you believe in — I thoroughly believe it was Corey who helped them find her, on the anniversary of his death. He was somewhere where we don't really know, guiding searchers to find Naya and put her to rest.

I couldn’t and I still can’t focus on anything else this week other than thinking about her, her son, and her legacy. She really did help all those young girls who didn’t know who they are, but thanks to Santana, they found themselves. I was one of them. It’s very hard for me to imagine a little Josey right now. I truly hope that him and her family, and friends mourn peacefully.

And I will always remember Naya Rivera and the impact she had on me.

She resides in Los Angeles and is a film/television critic. Bylines: First Showing, Awards Watch, Nerdist, The Mary Sue, In Their Own League, Film Inquiry, etc.

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