It is the news that we were expecting but dreading: after five days of searching, the body of actress and activist Naya Rivera has been found. She is the third ‘Glee’ cast-member to die in her thirties, following Cory Monteith’s overdose and Mark Salling’s suicide.
Rivera rented a boat with her four-year-old son, Josey, but hours later, Josey was found alone. Josey told authorities that after going swimming, his mother helped him on to the boat before disappearing beneath the water.
Lake Piru is known for its sudden whirlpools and undercurrents that not even somebody like Naya, a good swimmer who called Piru her “sanctuary”, could survive. It appears that Rivera had the chance to save herself or her son, and she of course chose to save her son. She sacrificed herself so that her child could live. She died a hero.
Rivera was a part of many of our childhoods. After starring as a child actress in shows such as ‘The Royal Family’, she had her breakthrough role as the icy Santana Lopez in Glee, a supporting character who was soon upgraded to a series regular due to her popularity with fans. She received numerous awards and nominations and critical acclaim for this role.
Santana is a teenage Latina coming to terms with her sexuality. Countless people were inspired by Rivera’s portrayal of Santana, and many have claimed that she “saved” them.
Rivera herself never labelled her sexuality, but she dedicated much of her life to fighting for the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalised groups. I only ever watched a bit of Glee, but I loved Santana. Her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Songbird’ is one of the best covers I have ever heard. I love Fleetwood Mac, but I had never heard this song before. Rivera brought a vulnerability to it that was not as present in the original. In the show, she sang it to the girl she was in love with. Her performance was raw, emotional and cathartic.
Her best performance on Glee was arguably her cover of The Band Perry’s ‘If I Die Young,’ which she sang as a tribute for the late Cory Monteith (whose character, Finn, was killed off after his death). It is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes I have ever seen, in part because it was not just acting: Santana was mourning Finn, whilst Naya was mourning Cory.
The lyrics of the song are particularly chilling, with Rivera singing about dying young and asking people to ‘sink me in the river’. What’s more, Rivera’s body was found on the seventh anniversary of Monteith’s death. We can hope that the two of them, who were extremely close, have been reunited in another life, with Rivera watching her son grow into the beautiful young man she was raising him to be.
I also saw Rivera as Blanca in the criminally underrated Devious Maids, a show about Latina maids from the creator of Desperate Housewives. Whilst the show sounds like stereotypical tosh, it masterfully played with conventions and oozed Latina power. Rivera only starred in one season, and her character had an untimely death, but she was one of the most memorable characters of the series, simply because of Rivera’s brilliant portrayal.
She went on to star in the TV series Step Up, based on the ‘Step Up’ film series, where she sang a beautiful cover of ‘Amazing Grace’. The lyric ‘I once was lost, but now I am found’ is given a new meaning: at least now, her family have some closure and can grieve properly.
Rivera was incredibly beautiful, talented and kind-hearted, and she should have been gracing our screens for decades to come, the triple-threat that she was. She should have gone on to star in blockbusters and finally release an album. She should have watched her adorable son grow into a smart young man.
But we cannot dwell on what could have been. Instead, let’s celebrate the incredible life that she lived. Let’s think about how many souls she saved with her portrayal of a lesbian Latina and her championing of LGBTQIA+ rights. Let us watch her performance of Madonna’s ‘La Isla Bonita’ with the incredible Ricky Martin, a fellow Puerto Rican who she dreamed of working with. Let us pray for her family and her son. Let Josey know that his mother is a legend, and she was loved.
In ‘If I Die Young,’ Naya sang: ‘What I never did is done’. They say it’s not as hard to die when you know that you have lived, and whilst Naya had so much living and loving left in her – oh, how she lived.
Que en paz descanse, buerica. Te quiero.