Glee’s Santana Lopez Elevated Queer Latina Representation in TV

Photo: FOX Image Collection via Getty Images.
Mean cheerleaders have long been staples of teen entertainment. In Glee, it was the self-proclaimed "straight-up bitch” Santana Lopez, played by the late Puerto Rican-African American actor Naya Rivera. Initially a rival of William McKinley High School's glee club, Santana eventually became a member of crooning New Directions. She was a fan favorite for many reasons—the girl was hilarious and had the voice of an angel—but it was her coming-out arc that made the character historic.
At a time when queer Latinas of any age were few and far between in television, Rivera’s portrayal of Santana didn’t just make lesbian girls of color visible; it represented young queer Latinas as joyful, talented, fun, and loved. The Fox musical comedy-drama showed Santana grappling with her sexual identity (remember in season 2 when she insisted that she and Brittany were nothing more than friends with benefits?) and then embracing it wholly. Viewers followed Santana throughout her journey of self-discovery. We witnessed as she was publicly outed, came out to her family, searched for her place in the world, and married her high school sweetheart.
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"I really appreciated seeing her on TV,” Mia, a 26-year-old bisexual Cuban-American fan of the series, tells Refinery29 Somos. “There just hadn’t historically been that many Latine characters, let alone queer ones, [so it] was a really positive thing."
According to Mary Beltrán, associate professor of Latinx media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, before Rivera’s role as Santana in the early 2010s, queer Latinas on the screen were often given peripheral storylines that culminated in violence or death. "To a degree, it was an image of queer Latine folks as always in crisis," Beltrán tells Refinery29 Somos. In the 1998 Showtime sitcom Rude Awakening, non-Latinx actor Rain Pryor briefly played Jackie Garcia, a lesbian struggling with a drug addiction. Similarly tragic, ER’s groundbreaking relationship between firefighter Lt. Sandy Lopez, played by Lisa Vidal, and Dr. Kerry Weaver, played by Laura Innes, concluded with Lopez’s death shortly after the birth of their son. This departure represented the end of a historic lesbian TV couple and the loss of one of the few queer Latinas on primetime television to the "bury your gays" trope.

Rivera’s portrayal of Santana didn’t just make lesbian girls of color visible; it represented young queer Latinas as joyful, talented, fun, and loved.

Moreover, the few characters that existed pre-Santana were often openly queer adults, leaving audiences guessing about their stories of identity formation. For instance, the medical drama Nip/Tuck featured out-lesbian Dr. Elizabeth "Liz" Cruz (Roma Maffia) throughout its eight seasons. Similar memorable Latina lesbian characters are The L Word’s Carmen de la Pica Morales (Sarah Shahi) and Grey's Anatomy’s surgeon Dr. Calliope "Callie" Torres (Sara Ramirez). One of the longest-running queer characters on television, Callie was an out and proud bisexual woman who shook up primetime television in the best way. Still, her journey to self-acceptance did not portray the realities of many queer Latinas, particularly teen girls.
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Many lesbian and bisexual Latina youth were first able to see themselves through Degrassi: The Next Generation's Alex Nuñez, portrayed by non-Latinx actor Deanna Casaluce, who came out in 2005. Like Santana, Alex was a "bad girl" who frequently bullied her classmates and lashed out, partly due to her inner struggles with her sexuality. However, Alex did not have her sapphic happily ever after. Upon splitting up with her longtime love Paige (Lauren Collins), she disappeared from the program—another Latina lesbian ghost of the entertainment industry.
For many queer girls of colour, Santana was the first time we got to see ourselves represented without our identities tied solely to trauma and strife. But this doesn’t mean Santana's journey to self-acceptance was easy. After witnessing gay classmate Kurt Hummel being bullied for years because of his sexual orientation, she stayed closeted throughout season two. Her coming-out experience in season 3 was turbulent. She was the only queer character on Glee that was forcibly, and very publicly, outed. As a result, she had to share her sexual identity with her parents, who accepted her, and her grandmother, who disowned her in a heartbreaking scene that made a lasting impression on many viewers.
"Having her be the only queer character really face any resistance or pushback from her family really set me back on my journey,” Mia says. “In the moment, watching the episode of her coming out to her abuela and being rejected really scared me because I've always been really close to my grandparents. I'm still not out as bi to most of my family."
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Santana was a breath of fresh air [who] really broke ground in depicting a queer Latina character as ordinary—and as interesting and part of the narrative for a great many other reasons than simply because of her sexual orientation.

While Santana did not speak with her grandmother until the final season, when she married Brittany, this tattered relationship did not deter her from living a joyful, successful, and loving life—and that never-before-seen portrayal of lesbian Latina teen delight paved the way for wider LGBTQ Latinx representation. As both queer and Latinx representation saw a spike in the 2010s and 2020s, Latina queer characters started appearing more and more on our TV screens. Hit series like Jane the Virgin, Gentefied, One Day at a Time, Never Have I Ever, and The Baker and the Beauty, to name a few, include gay, lesbian, and bisexual Latinx characters. After Santana, many of these characters were also allowed to be bold and confident in their identities. Characters like Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Valencia Perez (Gabrielle Ruiz) from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Mel Vera (Melonie Diaz) and Joséfina Reyes (Mareya Salazar) in the Charmed reboot live fulfilling lives, even when their identities are criticized by their families or society.
But Santana was one of the first narratives of a young, joyful, carefree, queer Latina we had on television, allowing many of us to know we don’t have to choose between parts of ourselves and that we aren’t fated to suffer. As Beltrán says, “Santana was a breath of fresh air [who] really broke ground in depicting a queer Latina character as ordinary—and as interesting and part of the narrative for a great many other reasons than simply because of her sexual orientation.”
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