August 13, 2020 at 12:08 pm PDT | by Roman Navarrette
My “Gay” Love Letter to Santana Lopez

Naya Rivera.

Today marks one month since Naya Rivera’s body was found in Lake Piru, in Ventura County. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning. Rivera’s 4-year old son was found on the boat unharmed.

Rivera rose to fame on the very popular television series Glee where her character served as a beacon of hope for many young LGBTQ+ Latinos growing up and even more entering adulthood. Prior to everyone meeting and falling in love with Santana Lopez (Rivera’s Glee onscreen character) Gay Latinos didn’t really have too many role models on television as it had been decades since Wilson Cruz had captivated us on My So-Called Life.

For LGBTQ+ Latinos seeing ourselves on screen is a treat. Today, we have shows like FX’s Pose and Hulu’s Love, Victor to help us feel like we are included and invited to the party. Even cancelled shows with LGBTQ+ representation give us some sort of validation, such as Vida or Baker and the Beauty. But remember – Santana Lopez came into our lives back in 2009. She was a rarity at the time and a true badass.

If you were a fan of Glee, it didn’t take much to fall in love with her. Attractive. Feisty. Fearless. She was a Latina, 100 percent, and with that came great vulnerability, never better exemplified than the episode where she came out to her Abuelita. We have all been there. A Grandparent, a Mother or Father who has that “cultura” engrained in them. The scene was rough and didn’t have a happy ending but Rivera it played true to what our culture consists of and pushed back on her Grandmother, explaining that she was still the same person. Sometimes the “orgullo” of our loved ones in the Latino community can make for a bitter coming out story, that takes time to overcome.

Another memorable episode (catch them all on Netflix now) features a musical number with Rivera and Gay icon guest star, Ricky Martin. The scene ignited through social media channels and still has many memes circulating till this day. This was almost too much for Gay Latino Twitter too handle as Santana expressed in the scene, explaining their context and connection together, “El es Caliente. Soy Caliente.” Enough said, Mr. Schuster.

Upon her disappearance and notification of her death, social media grew a frenzy. Glee cast members expressed sentiments that all seemed to say the same thing – She was a rare talent and the real “heart and soul of the show”. Rivera was a cast member that they connected to unlike any other. It’s true – she had chops. She had that “it” factor and was destined for so much more.

A former Fox employee, I was lucky enough to meet and interact with her about 3-4 times. Coming from the “inside”, we always heard one thing – some of the Glee “kids” could really sing and others, well, let’s say, needed a little work and more rehearsal time, as it were.
Naya fell in the former category. Her talent was obvious. She could act and sing and this girl was going places.

Being a Latino, working in the industry is rare itself, and when there was a show on the Fox slate that had a Latina in the cast, I quickly brainstormed on ways to engage with the Latino audience. Jessica Alba/Dark Angel. Marisol Nichols/24. Monica Raymund/Lie to Me. Time after time, I tried internally, but to no avail. Something always prevented me from activating compelling promotions and it had nothing to do with these ladies, as I am sure they never even knew I was trying to work on executions around them. In the business you learn fast that there are many layers that are beyond your control.

My goal never diminished. I wanted to work on reaching the Hispanic consumers. But it was easier said than done and it would eventually take 2 leading ladies to help me change that – Jennifer Lopez for American Idol and Naya Rivera for Glee. Bullseye. Both got what I was trying to do at the time, and both were easy to work with when it came to me trying to execute Hispanic marketing initiatives. They just understood, and marketing was changing in 2010 – Punto. Period.

What I enjoyed about Naya was that she was so not “Hollywood”, whenever I was around her. It seemed like she knew eyes were on her, but you could tell she didn’t feel she deserved it and she never got caught up in the machine of it all.

This article took me a month to be able to sit down and write it. I wasn’t ready. I had seen all the social media heart breaking tributes to her from her Glee family and the photo of them holding hands looking at the lake in unity. I had seen Latina actresses such as Lisa Vidal and Roselyn Sanchez pay respects to one of their own, exemplifying the sisterhood I see more and more in the industry.

And most of all I saw the dozens and dozens of posts every single day from other LGBTQ+ Latinos on my social pages, each one explaining how Naya Rivera’s portrayal of Santana Lopez changed all of their lives. I am proud to say that she helped me break through my own professional barriers with Latinx focused marketing and media partnerships for a major network and a hit show, 10 years ago.

A life cut short, I stand with the LGBTQ+ community and send this love letter to Naya Rivera. We are forever indebted to you and your gift of Glee’s Santana Lopez.

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