Naya Rivera Death Tribute Reactions

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Naya Rivera Death Tribute Reactions

On Monday, Naya Rivera’s body was recovered from Lake Piru in California where she’d gone missing during a boat trip with her four-year-old son on July 8. This confirmed the news that fans, friends, and family had been dreading to hear for four days while authorities searched for the 33-year-old actress.

As Santana Lopez on Glee, Rivera started as featured cast member, ultimately making her way to series regular and co-lead by the end of the series’ run. That is due in large part to the way that Rivera shined on screen. She scalded scene partners with incredible, long-winded barbs. But more importantly, the way she encapsulated Santana Lopez and catapulted her into the limelight proved that there was space for a character who looked and operated in the way Rivera conceived Santana. For those who felt they knew her so intimately from afar, Rivera was a Latinx actress who brought a badass lesbian character to life in a time when there wasn’t a ton of LGBTQ representation on television.

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We have these figures in our lives that feel so real and tangible, even though they’re ultimately strangers. Finding comfort in death can feel fruitless, but when compounded with the fact that Rivera was young and talented and promising—death feels all the more cruel. For those who felt seen by Rivera’s work, it’s a peculiar type of grief to lose an actress whom we knew best for the character she played rather than the human in the costume.

I watched most of Glee in college. I came out about a year before Naya Rivera’s character came out, early in my senior year in 2011. I remember wishing I could muster up the fuck-it-all attitude Rivera’s Santana Lopez exuded while wading through McKinley High School’s general population. I remember feeling deeply in tune with the way Santana communicated her sadness in private. And though Rivera never disclosed her real-life sexuality, her portrayal of that sadness—specifically in the confines of Latinx culture—felt special.

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In the four days or so since her disappearance, the posts that highlight Rivera’s influence as Santana are the ones that reverberate most painfully. In specific circles, Rivera represented something fantastical, even if it was through the lens of a fictional character. And though Glee ended five years before Rivera’s death, its fanbase echoes loudly in corners of the internet, trying to reconcile a massive loss that the rest of the world doesn’t quite understand the same way. It’s like a secret, in a way. To watch Glee and to see yourself on screen was a triumph. It represented something rare and foreign to so many. Some actresses get to create incredible characters; Rivera created one that defined the seminal moment in an immeasurable number of lives.

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Those pockets of Glee fans will come together and mourn online on Reddit pages and through fan accounts that not only exist, but thrive half a decade later. They’ll share videos and moments from Ryan Murphy’s genre-defining series, and Rivera’s legacy will persist. Because as heartbreaking as Rivera’s death and the details surrounding it are, the truth is that Rivera’s legacy will outlive the horrific details of her death.

There’s a comfort in knowing that someone gone too soon was able to create something so impactful. In such a short time, Rivera managed to shape a landscape and be part of measurable change. She created Santana Lopez, a character steeped in enough attitude and confidence and vulnerability that legions of fans can carry her along with them for years to come.

Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.

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