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Upon hearing the news my heart fell out of it’s chamber. I struggled to understand how someone with so much love and dedication to her art and her family could be taken from this world so young. I quickly realized, however, that my grief was not alone.

Naya Marie Rivera, who played feisty and outspoken cheerleader Santana Lopez on Glee, tragically passed away on the 8th of July 2020 after a fatal accident while boating on Lake Piru, California. She spent her final moments swimming in the lake with her son, four-year-old Josey. It is alleged that she mustered enough strength to push him back onto the boat to save his life, but that she herself heartbreakingly succumbed to the elements and drowned. Her body was found five days later on the 13th of July 2020. She was only 33 years old.

Glee stars and fans alike heavily mourned her untimely passing. As an avid Glee fan since its premiere in 2009, I shared in the grief. To make things even more poignant, her body was found on the eighth anniversary of fellow Glee co-star Cory Monteith’s suicide by drug overdose. Glee fans on social media, in an attempt to make peace with their heartache, wrote about how Finn (Monteith’s character) would protect and care for Santana wherever they found each other again.

All eyes turned to the Glee stars to release statements on public platforms about their grief. Most people focused on Heather Morris in particular who played Brittany S. Pierce on the show, Santana’s high school girlfriend and wife. After dealing with her overwhelming grief and loss offline, Morris shared an emotional Instagram video tribute to Rivera. She reflected on the legacy of Rivera’s character as one of television’s first Latina lesbians. In Glee we see Santana explore her sexuality with plenty of snark and snappy comebacks until she breaks down her walls and accepts herself, her sexuality, and her true love for Brittany. The relationship between Brittany and Santana (fondly known as ‘Brittana’) grew into a steady fandom in the Glee community. Morris paid tribute to this in her video saying that it was the fans’ unconditional acceptance for ‘Brittana’ that allowed the relationship to grow the way it did:

“I don’t need to explain what the importance of Santana and Brittany’s relationship was to all of you who are watching, because most of you felt like it was your gateway into your current life. Most of you felt like it was an inspiration to become your best self… I want you to know that that was never lost on me. It was never lost on Naya. We both knew how special that was. I think she knew a little bit more than I did…” – Heather Morris

Rivera has been heralded for her representation in the intersection of the Latina and LGBTQIA+ community. Jill Gutowitz reflected on Twitter that Santana “awakened a generation repressed”. Rivera even wrote a letter to the LGBTQIA+ community saying, “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.”

Amber Riley, who played Mercedes Jones on Glee, was Rivera’s co-star and close friend. They performed groundbreaking duets together on the show such as ‘River Deep, Mountain High‘ and ‘The Boy is Mine‘. Riley took to Jimmy Kimmel Live to perform a musical tribute to Rivera. It was filmed in black and white and featured photographs from throughout Rivera’s short life. Riley also joined the cast of Glee who gathered around Lake Piru to pray for Rivera’s safety while she was still declared a missing person. 

Rivera will be remembered as the fierce cheerleader on Glee who took no prisoners, but also as a proud Latina woman and activist for Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA+ rights. According to her friends and family, she will first and foremost be remembered as a strong and devoted mother to her son Josey. She spent her final precious moments on Earth making sure that he was safe. Her love saved his life. Ultimately, both Naya Rivera and Santana Lopez teach us that nothing matters more than giving all your love to those your heart holds close.

Rest in peace, Naya Rivera.

Sarah-Kate is a student at the University of Cape Town currently completing her Honours degree in Psychology. She is also the Co-Senior Editor of Her Campus UCT 2020 and actress in short film Dear Romilly. Her interests include baking, writing, yoga, empowering women, and educating the world on mental illnesses through her blog (sarahkatesays.blogspot.com).
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