“Él es caliente. Soy caliente,” Naya Rivera’s Santana Lopez explains late in Glee’s third season episode “The Spanish Teacher.” The “él” Santana is talking about is queer icon Ricky Martin, who is playing the installment’s titular Spanish teacher, David Martinez. David and Santana have just finished a rousing performance of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita,” masterfully turning what was initially a “Latin-inspired” song from a white pop star into a number by Latin people.
“Hey, wasn’t that number fantastic and truly authentic,” she continues, her word dripping with pointed pride. Santana’s painfully out of touch white Spanish teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), preparing to do an insensitive-at-best mariachi take on “A Little Less Conversation," stares back at Santana, stung.
It’s a moment that captures so much of what makes Santana and her late portrayer Naya Rivera, who had both Black and Puerto Rican heritage and died earlier this month at 33 in a freak boating accident, so special. Santana — who spends the first three seasons of Glee exploring her identity as a queer woman — brought out the best queer narratives in Glee during its six season run. At times those messages were overt (like her all-time great love story with Brittany S. Pierce); other times more subtle (like Santana performing with out and proud gay Latinx superstar Ricky Martin). Rivera’s performance is still all the more powerful because Santana isn’t merely an unapologetic Latina — itself a painful rarity on-screen, particularly when Glee aired on FOX from 2009 to 2015 — but she is unapologetically Afro-Latina.
When we first meet Santana she is written infuriatingly too close to the feisty Latina trope. The McKinley High cheerleader plays second fiddle to the white girl at the top of the Cheerios pyramid, Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron). While Quinn is central to the storyline as a member of the core Quinn-Finn (Cory Monteith)-Rachel (Lea Michele) love triangle, we initially only hear from Santana when the Ryan Murphy musical requires one of her now-signature devastating barbs. In fact, in Santana’s introductory episode, second Glee installment “Showmance,” she has no proper dialogue lines. Santana sings backup for Quinn, silently high fives Brittany (Heather Morris) over someone else’s devious plot, and is humped by Puck (the late, disgraced Mark Salling) to the point where a balloon between them explodes.
The spotlight finally starts to turn towards Santana in season 2 when her romance with Brittany becomes explicit text (though their off-screen hookups are hinted at repeatedly in season 1). Santana’s internal world and Glee itself evolve for the much-needed better because of this relationship. At this early stage, Santana is both desperately, obviously in love with Brittany and terrified of shedding the safety of her former heterosexual identity. This tension leads to three series-best performances from Santana in season 2 alone. There’s the barely concealed sexual chemistry of Santana and Brittany’s “Me Against the Music” duet, the weepy pathos of their “Landslide” rendition with Gwyneth Paltrow, and the one that is rightly making the continuous Twitter rounds: Santana’s solo pean of devotion, “Songbird,” allowing herself a moment of radical vulnerability.
Almost all of these scenes are the alleged B-plots to “bigger” Glee storylines including Rachel, Finn, and Will. Yet, everything outside of Santana and Brittany’s orbit is dim in comparison. One of the smartest tricks of the drama of Santana and Brittany is that none of their panic comes from being in an interracial relationship.
Glee never shies away from Santana’s identity as an Afro-Latina, although the phrase itself wasn’t used (the term wasn’t consistently searched on Google until 2013). “Spanish Teacher” is unsurprisingly one of Satana’s best moments of Latinx pride. Not only do we see her use the aforementioned “Bonita” performance to subtly take a dig at Will, a Spanish teacher, for perpetuating dangerously uninformed stereotypes about Latinidad, she also confronts him directly for his mockery of Latinx culture. Will is so shamed by his behaviour he becomes a history teacher.
Still, it’s fellow third season episode “I Kissed A Girl” that seems to have affected the most viewers. While many series paint entire Latinx families to be homophobic due to their Catholic roots, Glee manages to be far more nuanced with Santana’s story. After Santana is outed as a queer girl, her parents are immediately supportive. Over the series, we see her mom Mirabel (Latina pop great Gloria Estefan) back her daughter’s dreams, including her decision to marry Brittany (giving us a queer wedding that aired over three months before the federal legalization of gay marriage). It is Santana’s abuela (Jane the Virgin grandma Ivonne Coll) who rejects her granddaughter in “Girl,” saying she would have preferred to see Santana silently live with secret “shame” of who she is. Despite the heartbreak, Santana holds onto Brittany and ends the episode with a hopeful performance of “Constant Craving” by lesbian singer K.D. Lang.
Multiple Latinx fans have recently tweeted about how Santana’s “Girl” journey helped them through their own fears about familial homophobia. “‘I love girls. The way that I'm supposed to feel about boys,’” started one fan, quoting Santana’s coming out speech. “With no exaggeration, hearing Naya Rivera say that as Santana Lopez changed my life. Especially given the fact that it's said to her abuela, and I also come from a religious Latinx family.”
“Fact was Naya Rivera fought for Santana with her coming out story, the one with her abuela. Those scenes change people['s] lives, mine included,” said another.
Rivera’s Ryan Murphyverse colleagues also applauded her contributions to the culture. As Rivera’s on-screen Glee girlfriend Demi Lovato tweeted, “I’ll forever cherish the opportunity to play your girlfriend on Glee. The character you played was groundbreaking for tons of closeted (at the time) queer girls like me, and your ambition and accomplishments were inspiring to Latina women all over the world.” Pose creator Steven Canals, a Puerto Rican Afro-Latinx himself, noted just how unique Rivera was on television during Glee’s run, tweeting, “I'll never be able to articulate the importance of seeing Naya, a Black Puerto Rican, portraying a queer Afro-Latina on primetime TV. I'm heartbroken over all the stories that will remain untold.”
Canals has a point. Afro-Latinx actresses and characters are rarely given the chance to thrive on television even today (although his Pose, led by Afro-Latinx performer Mj Rodriguez, has broken countless barriers since its 2018 debut). USA just cancelled Rosario Dawson’s Briarpatch after one season; earlier this year, the network also cancelled Herizen Guardiola’s Dare Me after its freshman season. On My Block’s Monse Finnie (Sierra Capri) must share her story with three other boys.
Representation is even more limited when it comes to queer Latinx heroines. Over the last fifteen years, television has settled on one extremely restrictive vision. See: Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Rosa Diaz (real-life bisexual actress Stephanie Beatriz), One Day at a Time’s Elena Alvarez (Isabella Gomez), Vida’s Emma (Mishel Prada), and even Grey’s Anatomy’s Callie Torres (Sara Ramírez). They are all fairer-skinned Latinx women with loose dark wavy hair. Most are svelte and have the kinds of personalities that seem “difficult” but are actually hiding hearts of gold. Santana looks nothing like these women. She acts like them even less.
For that — and so much more — we will always love her.