Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Don’t Forget Me, I Beg: Naya Rivera’s Remarkable Legacy

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How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?

Seasons of Love (Jonathan Larson)

So goes the Rent song that Glee covered on two separate occasions: once for an unreleased season 3 ensemble and again for “The Quarterback” episode, in memory of the late Cory Monteith. Seven years to the day after Monteith died, co-star Naya Rivera’s body was found at Lake Piru. It has been six months since and countless tributes have been circling around in remembrance of RiveraFrom her Glee co-stars to fans from around the world, people have been praising Naya Rivera for both who she was as a person and what she stood for through her work. Today, on what would be her 34th birthday, I invite you to attempt the impossible with me and measure the life and legacy of a woman.

Naya Rivera first entered the public eye as a child actor in the 1990s, appearing in sitcoms like The Royal FamilyThe Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Family Matters. She continued acting through her teenage years and adulthood, with her most recent project being Step Up: High Water. It’d be remiss not to acknowledge her three-decade-long work as an actor, but it would also be disingenuous to pretend that her role as Santana Lopez on the Fox musical phenomenon Glee isn’t what she’s most known for and will be remembered by. Between 2009 and 2015, Rivera graced the screens of millions as the sassy cheerleader with hidden depth and a talent that was just waiting to shine beyond the limited spot she was first granted. It’s a role that stands above all others, and what a legacy it is Rivera has left behind by having played a character such as Santana.

What can you say about Santana Lopez that hasn’t already been repeated ad nauseam? Often lauded as the show’s most complex and entertaining character, Santana has been a central point of discussion when it comes to Glee. She started out as a shallow mean girl and, while she kept her signature snark throughout the show, Santana also went though enormous development. Much of that development focused on her struggle with her sexuality and she eventually came out as a lesbian. Under all the witty comebacks and schemes was a teenage girl in love with her best friend and terrified of the repercussions of that very love. Through Santana’s vulnerability, Naya Rivera broke the hearts of millions as viewers followed her anguish, only for her to build them up again with an iconic and hilarious line.

One-note bully to breakout star

What’s truly fascinating about this character is that, in many ways, it was largely up to Rivera that Santana became as iconic as she was by the end and continues to be, long after the show’s finale. When Rivera was first auditioned, she might as well have been cast as “Cheerleader No. 2″. She could have easily faded into the background and went largely unnoticed, but from the very beginning, Rivera worked hard for the opposite. It started with the expertly delivered one-liners and blink-and-you-miss-it moments between Santana and Brittany (Heather Morris), but Rivera’s character soon became a fan-favorite and, by the second half of the first season, started to have more to do in the story.

Glee is an ensemble where everyone gets a little something, but it’s also a show where there’s a very clear preference towards the initial leads and it’s a tough fight to get one’s own day in the limelight. Santana going from the head cheerleader’s mere sidekick to a pivotal player in the larger story, to getting to tell her own story is nothing short of an amazing feat. It had everything to do with the energy Rivera brought to the character, from making every single snappy line count to giving Santana a sympathetic side that wasn’t part of the early characterization.

It wasn’t just via her acting that Naya Rivera lifted her character from the sidelines. With a series so heavy on musical numbers, it was just as crucial that the actors were fully-fledged performers, and Rivera was a true triple threat. Sure, she never missed a beat and her comedic timing rivaled the likes of Jane Lynch. Sure, she could make us feel for Santana even when she was being the antagonistic bully, but that wasn’t the only way to sell the character. Rivera was also a talented singer and dancer and once she had the opportunity to show that off, she never looked back. Some of Glee‘s most memorable performances are forever linked to her name, such as the vibrant “Valerie” or the game-changing “Landslide.” Rivera didn’t get to record in the studio until the fifteenth episode; she ended the show as the fifth most featured voice overall.

Maybe that’s why so many odes have been sung about Santana Lopez, both before and after Rivera’s sudden passing. The transcendence of the character is fascinating in and of itself, but it’s only in the kind of story that was told through Santana that we start understanding the significance. It’s been highlighted over and over again — and rightly so because it needs to be said — that Rivera brought us a mixed-race Afro-Latina lesbian. The importance of Santana’s journey truly cannot be overstated, nor can the fact that Rivera was actively trying to make it happen.

Glee Brittany Santana Brittana
Brittany (Morris) and Santana (Rivera) in 6×08 “A Wedding”

Naya Rivera, a true ally

From as early as the summer of 2010, back when the relationship between Santana and Brittany was nothing but a throwaway joke, Rivera embraced the potential that fans saw. She expressed her support time and time again and didn’t disrespect or took the community that stood behind her for granted. Sure, this was an example of an actor wanting their character to get the bigger part, to have a story to tell. But let’s not forget that this story could have been anything and Santana could have gone down a much different road. What the audience eventually got was in huge part thanks to Rivera’s encouragement of the lesbian storyline and refusal to make it anything less than serious, beautiful, and heartfelt.

It started off as this funny thing, like “Oh yeah, she just randomly hooks up with her friend Brittany.” But I kind of was encouraging them to make it more serious and not play around with it because there are people out there that it’s not a joke to, it’s their real lives.

Naya Rivera, Access Hollywood interview 2011

The cultural context around representation is changing more swiftly than we may realize, so it really is strange to think back to how different things were in 2011 when Santana’s coming out story truly kicked off. Glee was one of the first big examples of a queer relationship happening because the fans latched onto it and wanted it to happen. And while Naya Rivera wasn’t the first-ever ally to play a queer woman and openly talk about how much it mattered, her continuous support certainly made a difference. Straight actors playing queer characters can be tricky and if Glee was on air today, Santana might be played by a queer woman. But back then, Rivera playing her the way she did and ceaselessly supporting what the character stood for was more than anyone could ask for. Throughout the run of Glee and beyond, she displayed such gratitude and care towards the character she was playing and the community she was representing.

The intricacies of Lopez

The character of Santana didn’t work just because her lesbian storyline was embraced by cast, crew, and audience. What Rivera proved through her role is that fans want complicated and multi-dimensional characters. There are certain tropes Santana fell into and a conversation around how she was often the “spicy” and hypersexualised Latina is one for another day. Overall, though, Rivera made sure that Santana always felt so real, even in the context of the satirical nature of the series and the increasingly more ridiculous plot points.

Glee, like many other Ryan Murphy productions, was obsessed with the idea of the underdog, and Santana was decidedly an antithesis of that: a top dog and antagonist from the very beginning. Much like frenemy Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron), she was offered little sympathy from the narrative and the viewer was rarely invited to see beyond the surface level bitchiness. Santana was a bully and a slutty cheerleader, someone there solely to cause chaos in the lives of the central characters — or so we were told.

As soon as Rivera was given more to work with in season 2, she made the most of it and made sure there was a soul behind this mean girl. The vulnerability Rivera imbued Santana with elevated her to a new level and made us root for her. Did this mean she lost her edge? Absolutely not. It only meant that Santana could now go from a hilarious and expertly delivered jab to making our hearts ache for her. She was often in the wrong, slipping back into that antagonistic role on occasion, but that was all part of her allure.

It was a sort of duality that Santana embodied, one that made her feel so complete. She was loud and ambitious with cruel streaks that were balanced with scenes of her relentless devotion to her friends. Most of all, Santana proved she was a softie with the way she melted around Brittany. It was a delicate balance, considering how much Glee put its characters through, but Rivera stayed consistent in how she nailed every single Santana scene. Until the very end, Santana remained a deeply, deeply flawed character who often lashed out but learned to be better, to try and do better, while also unapologetically being herself. She didn’t need to be perfect or even particularly nice and she certainly did not ask for permission to be as loud and as unabashedly herself as she was.

In fact, it’s in how shamelessly complicated and flawed Santana was that we find yet another key to her status as an enduring character. In one of its more sober moments in an era that’s otherwise regarded as post-fall from graceGlee managed to be surprisingly profound. In season 6, it gave us a bitter reunion between Santana and her grandmother, who had disowned her three seasons prior. As Santana defends her engagement to Brittany, she stands up to her grandmother.

You taught me to be a strong Latina woman. To be bigger than the world was ever gonna give me permission to be. And I have.

Santana Lopez, 6×06: What the World Needs Now (Michael Hitchcock)

And she has indeed. In the end, that’s exactly what Santana’s story was and it is exactly what Naya Rivera enabled it to be. She was bigger and louder and brighter than anyone could have predicted when she was cast to be just a pretty face, a background cheerleader there to be bitchy. By portraying Santana as the messy, ferocious, and hilarious woman she proudly was, Rivera also encouraged all those who saw a piece of themselves reflected on TV to be bigger than the world previously gave them permission to be.

Thank you for enriching our lives

Naya Rivera had an impact on an incalculable amount of lives. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions? We’ll never know. A claim like that should be substantiated but this falls into the same problem as measuring the life of a person. How do you measure the influence someone had? We could look at Glee ratings or track hashtags, see how many articles like this one have been written about Rivera’s work and importance. The truth is, this isn’t something we can ever truly, tangibly measure. Rather, it’s something that needs to be stressed again and again to be understood, even now that Rivera’s gone — especially now that she’s gone.

The best thing to do with her legacy is to honor it. Like Pose co-creator Steven Canals said, all that’s left is to pay everything Rivera has done forward, in whatever way we can. This can mean things like the fundraiser co-stars and friends organized for LA-based Alexandria House. This can mean being vocal about the kind of representation, the kind of stories we as audiences want to see on television and beyond. If the story of how Santana Lopez went from the background to being groundbreaking proves anything, it’s that voicing these desires matter. Not just from viewers, but from actors and creators standing behind those voices and showing support. That’s what Rivera did and she helped create one of the most iconic faces of a generation as a result.

How about love? — So goes the Rent song “Seasons of Love” as a way of answering: how do you measure the life of a person? It’s just as intangible as trying to measure the impact Naya Rivera had through her work, but perhaps as good of an answer as we’ll get. Love. The love her friends and family exude whenever they talk about her. The love she very openly and proudly had for her son. The love fans felt towards Rivera and the characters she helped bring to life. The love Santana was allowed to feel for Brittany, the love that wasn’t a joke but one that reflected the loves of real people and represented so caringly through Naya Rivera.

We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life.

Naya Rivera, Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community
Naya Rivera GLAAD 2012

Images courtesy of GLAAD and Fox.

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