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Santana began ‘Glee’ as a typical mean girl – Naya Rivera made her so much more

UPDATED: Sat., July 18, 2020

By Sonia Rao The Washington Post

Santana Lopez never went down without a fight.

Shortly before co-leading a thunderous mashup of Adele’s hits “Someone Like You” and “Rumour Has It” – one of the most memorable musical performances in “Glee” history and its 300th overall – Santana (Naya Rivera) discovers she will soon be outed as a lesbian because of a classmate overhearing another peer, Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith), comment on her sexuality.

She strides onstage nonetheless, her initial shock transforming into fury as she sings about feeling wounded and, in turn, overcoming heartbreak. At the number’s close, she walks up to Finn and slaps him across the face.

Two seasons later, after Monteith’s real-life death, his fictional peers reconvene at the high school to pay tribute. After learning principal Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) ordered a group of cheerleaders to take down a memorial at Finn’s old locker, Santana storms into Sue’s office to tell off the former coach and glee club rival for how she mistreated Finn and to demand they be allowed to grieve him.

Santana never hesitated to defend herself, but, as her struggles eroded the walls she built up, came to fight just as fiercely for others – even those who wronged her in the past. “Glee” celebrated the bonds formed between the unlikely group of misfits, asserting that they were just meant to stand out.

Rivera shared this quality; she didn’t start off as a series regular but was quickly bumped up because of her ability to command her every scene with raw emotion and, as countless highlight reels capture, natural charisma.

The actress’s death, confirmed Monday, is the latest tragedy to afflict a young cast that has multiple times been forced to mourn one of its own. With the harrowing search for Rivera in a California lake finished, the public’s gaze turns to the legacy she leaves, much of it derived from what she brought to “Glee.”

The Fox series, which premiered in 2009, earned accolades for its diverse cast and, in some cases, more so than others, its inclusive storytelling. Santana was one of its success stories, a caustic cheerleader who joins the New Directions group as a spy for Sue but comes to appreciate the camaraderie.

She embraces the glee club as a means of working through her conflicted feelings for Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris), her best friend and fellow Cheerio (whom she ends up marrying).

For many young fans of “Glee,” Santana served as a role model not in the traditional sense – her wit, while admirably sharp, was often weaponized – but because her on-screen exploration of identity validated their own. She describes herself as a closeted lesbian in the second season, which features her gentle rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird,” an expression of love for Brittany.

In the third season, after she comes out to her abuela and is brutally rejected, Santana sings K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving” because it gives her the strength to push through. The character inspired countless queer viewers as one of the most prominent Afro-Latina lesbians to appear on television, as singer-actress Demi Lovato, who was still closeted when she played Santana’s girlfriend in the fifth season, noted on Instagram.

None of this would have been possible without Rivera. “Glee” creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan wrote in a joint statement Tuesday that the actress brought “humor and humanity” to Santana’s love for Brittany, which Rivera ensured “was expressed with dignity, strength and with pure intentions.”

They added that she had “the rare combination of humility and endless confidence in her talent,” which, as multiple Emmy contender guides suggested after the third season, ranked among the show’s best.

Rivera’s versatility as an actress matched that of her robust voice, which she lent to Fleetwood Mac covers as easily as she did a cello-backed cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and multiple Amy Winehouse hits, including the sultry “Back to Black” and upbeat “Valerie.”

She and co-star Amber Riley, who played Mercedes Jones, made a powerhouse duo and frequently joined forces for performances such as the Adele mashup and, among others, Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.”

This week, Riley called Rivera “my favorite duet partner.”

“Glee” attracted an intense fandom, chiefly among its younger viewers, that could sometimes do its stars a disservice. Shortly after Monteith’s death, Chris Colfer, who played Kurt Hummel, mentioned how difficult it was “to mourn someone with the world.”

But more than a decade after the series premiered, those fans now look back at “Glee” through a different lens. Those who grew up alongside the characters might reflect on how story lines like Santana’s helped them cope with or understand their own struggles.

Watching Rivera perform the Adele mashup, it’s clear how much of her heart she poured into the role, how the chorus of “Someone Like You” channels seasons of emotional turmoil and, ultimately, personal growth. She blinks back tears, begging not to be forgotten. And she certainly won’t be.

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