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In the two months since Naya Rivera’s passing in early July 2020, the world is still reeling and mourning this tragic loss. The actress passed away from an accidental drowning after spending the day with her four-year-old son on Lake Piru in southern Los Angeles. While this loss is heartbreaking for many (as a long-time fan, myself included), Naya Rivera’s legacy throughout her career – the representation she brought to the big screen, her advocacy for various groups such as LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter, speaking out about mental health issues, and even her journey through motherhood – is one for the ages. 


LGBTQ+ Latinx Representation

One of the most notable aspects of her career is the groundbreaking change Rivera brought to the television world through her portrayal of Santana Lopez on the hit FOX series, 'Glee'. Santana is introduced as a minor antagonist at the beginning of the series, whose role grows throughout the first season. Santana is initially an antagonistic cheerleader who takes pride in her sarcastic attitude and enthusiasm to stir up drama. However, Naya’s character developed in season two as the show delves into the roots behind Santana’s antagonistic personality and aggressiveness in relationships. It was revealed that her sarcastic and sometimes cruel attitude is attributed to her struggle with her sexuality, after realizing she’s developed feelings for her best friend, Brittany S. Pierce (Heather Morris). Rivera brought a stellar performance of both vulnerability and steely defensiveness that hit home with audiences and left LGBTQ+ people around the world inspired and courageous. With the precision, dedication, and humanity Rivera brought to this role, she transformed the one-dimensional antagonist that once was Santana Lopez into the revolutionary character she is known as today. In addition to her character’s exploration of her sexuality, Rivera’s representation as a Latina woman also gave validity to many people of color, who were seeing themselves represented on TV for the first time. The integral role that Rivera portrayed paved the path to the LGBTQ+ and Latina representation we see on television today.

Further Activism

Rivera was ahead of her time for speaking up on certain issues. Around 2011, she was partnering with GLAAD and working with different projects surrounding her heritage. Contrastingly to other stars in the field, Naya didn’t care if she faced backlash, and just wanted to make sure she spoke out about topics that mattered to her.

In a love letter to the LGBTQ+ community written in 2017 for Billboard, Rivera stated “I have been so incredibly fortunate to portray a character on television that has meant so much to so many within the LGBTQ community. Off-screen, I am a woman who stands in support of equal rights for all. It has been one of the great blessings in my life to receive such love and touching stories as a result of my portrayal of Santana Lopez in 'Glee'."

Speaking Out About Mental Health & Other Personal Struggles

In addition to all of these, in her memoir 'Sorry Not Sorry', Rivera candidly opened up about many personal issues, sharing her struggle with anorexia and opening up about her abortion. Rivera told People at the time, “It’s not something a lot of people talk about, but I think they should. I know some people might read it and say, ‘What the Hell?’ But I hope someone out there gets something out of it.” – a main point of her work was in hopes of letting other people know that they’re not alone in their life struggles.


Despite all of the amazing work Rivera did in the spotlight, her greatest accomplishment was becoming a mother to her now four year old son, Josey. After giving birth to her son, she took a step back from the industry and wanted to focus more on raising Josey, stating in her book, that “Josey is my greatest success, and I will never do any better than him”. 

After swimming out on Lake Piru, the late actress saved her son and mustered just enough energy to lift him back onto the boat to safety, but not enough to save herself – dying as a mother and hero. While the world continues to mourn this loss, the impact she has had on the world will remain felt for years to come.

Samira Sayan

U Mass Amherst '23

Samira is the Pinterest Coordinator and a senior honors student at UMass Amherst, majoring in marketing and communications. Some of her passions are pop culture, music, traveling, and spin classes. Feel free to follow her on Instagram @samira.sayan.
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