On Halloween in 2011, I went out in public for the first time as a girl, and a few days later I told my very first friend that I was trans. And while I was trying to figure out who to tell next, less than two weeks later, Glee aired its episode “Mash Off.”
In the episode, Santana Lopez, a mean Latina girl played by Afro-Latina and Puerto Rican actor Naya Rivera, is outed as a lesbian in a local political ad and immediately cries out, “I haven’t even told my parents yet.” And at that moment, I froze. As a Latina, a closeted trans woman, and a lesbian, I was seeing my biggest fear happen to the one character I most related to on all of television.
When her character is at her lowest and most vulnerable in the episode, Santana, alongside Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley), puts on the best performance in the history of Glee — an absolutely devastating mashup of “Rumor Has It” and “Someone Like You.”
Throughout the entire song, Rivera’s face is on the brink of sometimes tears, sometimes a scream, and sometimes both. She's singing Adele, but she’s not full of white woman sadness; she’s singing from a place of primal rage and existential fear. Santana's not afraid of losing her boyfriend, like Adele, rather she’s about to lose everything.
Every time the choreography brings Santana and Brittany close to each other, Rivera’s glance lingers on her then-secret girlfriend, and every note Santana sings looks like she’s singing to save her life. At the end of the song, she goes up to the straight white boy who outed her and she slaps him across the face. She was strong, and she was resilient, and she was a survivor.
She, I quickly realized, was me.
Honestly, I had always thought that if people ever found out my secret I would literally die. I didn’t have any other plan to deal with being outed than that. Santana showed me that I could not just survive it, but actually thrive. Because through this character, Rivera showed me that there were other options.
Even before I was out, I had never seen a character on television who was as similar to me as Santana Lopez. I felt her fear of rejection deep in my Mexican bones. Just like her I pushed people away before they could push me, and I was afraid to be myself even around my own friends. I was afraid my Catholic family wouldn’t understand or accept me.
"I felt her fear of rejection deep in my Mexican bones."
And I watched her come out to her abuela, which gave me the confidence I needed to come out to mine.
Being a queer Latina is as tough as uncooked tripe, and even tougher in a place like Ohio (where Santana lived) or Idaho (where I lived). But Santana always made sure her voice was heard and that she was seen. She gave queer Latinas an example of how to stand up for ourselves. She gave us instructions on how to fight back against all the bullshit we face from white people, from straight people, from religious people, from our families, from our schools, and from our friends.
She rose above all the bullshit and showed us that we could too. And her story didn’t stop there.
Over the six seasons of the groundbreaking series, Santana went on to graduate from high school, move to New York City, date another character played by Demi Lovato, and eventually marry the girl of her dreams — all with her family and friends by eventually by side. What’s even more amazing is that the character was originally written as a two-dimensional stereotype of a Latina. But after a Season 1 “joke” about how she was sleeping with another cheerleader (her eventual wife, Brittany), fans latched onto the character and basically demanded she get more screentime and character growth. That was because of Rivera.
Rivera put her entire soul into this show, and she did it as an Afro-Latina in an industry where most Latinx characters are white or light-skinned, and many are still played by white or non-Latinx actors. And when nearly all Latinx representation is as white as I am, Rivera was a refreshing and exciting change of pace.
The character, and specifically Rivera’s performance in the role, pushed representation forward for queer women of color more than almost anyone else at that point. The only other queer Latina we had onscreen back then was Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) on Grey’s Anatomy. People in middle America would tune into Glee and root for a brown lesbian. They had never done that before. And it was Rivera who helped break the ground that shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, One Day at a Time, The L Word: Generation Q, Vida, The Bold Type, and Pose are now walking, running, and dancing on.
A few years after I finally came all the way out, I rewatched Glee, this time with my mom.
When we got to “Mash Off,” I started crying so hard that I had to leave the room. My mom had lived in another state when the episode first was on, and it felt like she was finally getting to see the kind of fear and vulnerability that I had while beginning my own process. And in that moment, Rivera changed my life again by showing my mom the parts of me that I was afraid to show her.
Because that episode is what immediately brought us closer together than ever — helping heal our relationship.
It’s no coincidence that my coming out happened at the same time as Santana was coming out on Glee. Without Rivera, I would not have been able to be myself. I’m far from the only queer woman or Latinx to say that as we now see with the outpouring of love across the internet since her death was confirmed. And to this day, I still watch clips of her singing on Glee often, and I spoke about Rivera to friends at least once a week even before her tragic death.
And I will continue to do so, especially now, as we all continue to grapple with her passing. Rivera will always be the person who first showed me that even if the world tries to only see you as a two-dimensional character, you are more than that.
So much more.