Summary

Looking back at the Life and Legacy of Naya Rivera

Naya Rivera will be one of the most remembered actresses of all time not just for the roles she portrayed but also for her tireless charitable work in America.

It is nearing one year now since the tragic passing of American actress, singer, and model Naya Rivera. Her sudden passing was a shock to many, from her family, fans, and the industry to the many people who saw her as a beacon of representation and a pioneer for nuanced stories that depict LGBT+ characters and people of color in television. 

Naya Rivera received critical acclaim and many awards over the years of her prolific career, in both acting and singing. Most notable was her role as Santana Lopez, the teenage Latina LGBT Cheerleader, on the Fox Television series “Glee”. In this role, she received acclaim from critics and viewers, as well as various awards such as a SAG award and many ALMA awards.

In honor of her, let’s look back at the life, career, and legacy of this amazing woman, her contributions to the entertainment industry, and her legacy of charity and speaking up for those without a voice.

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Naya Rivera’s Personal Life

Born in January of 1987 in the small town of Valencia, Naya was born to the property broker, Yolanda Previtire, and a white-collar executive, George Rivera. Her parents divorced in 1996 and her mother Yolanda married Charles Previtire who Naya was very close to when growing up. She was raised and lived most of her youthful life in the streets of Valencia.

Naya Rivera was the eldest child in the family. Both of her siblings ended up making names for themselves in other fields. Her brother, Mychal Rivera, joined the NFL as a tight end for the Oakland Raiders while her sister, Nickayla Rivera, decided to pursue a career as a runway model. 

An important part of her advocacies later in life was her heritage, as she became a pioneering voice for Afro-Latino representation in media. She was of African American, Puerto Rican, and German descent.  In her memoirs, she also mentioned she was a lifelong Christian and that she would particularly find comfort in it during the stressful times she faced in her career. 

From the very beginning when she got into music, Naya Rivera found solace in Michael Jackson’s songs and became a huge fan instantly. She managed to become friends with a relative of the “Earth Song” singer’s nieces when they visited Neverland Ranch as both were child actresses going through an audition circuit. She also managed to meet Tupac Shakur, better known for his stage name 2Pac, when they were both kids. It is said that the rapper was a fan of Naya Rivera’s early works and was the first one to approach her when he saw Naya Rivera with her family at Los Angeles International Airport.

Education and Schooling

Naya attended high school at Valencia High School and graduated in 2005. Perhaps as a bit of foreshadowing to her future performances in the cast of “Glee”, Naya was encouraged by her mother to join the school choir in her first semester but drama ensued when she felt that her classmate, Nazanin Mandi was always stealing her thunder.

Feeling overshadowed, Naya Rivera decided to challenge Mandi to a “sing-off” where the winner would get the solo performance in the choir. Mandi declined this challenge which pushed Naya to decide to leave the choir. Later on, in high school, she expressed that she wanted to become a cheerleader at the school, however, due to financial troubles the family was unable to fulfill her dreams (she would later get to be a cheerleader on “Glee” though). Instead, Naya Rivera ended up spending her free time in between auditions and practice trying to further her career in the industry. 

Naya always mentioned that her time in high school was “terrible”, saying it was partly because of her focus on her career and partly because of the many negative aspects of high school that we all experience. She particularly experienced racism in high school making it one of the reasons to get up and leave. Although not the greatest of times, she soon drew much inspiration from this time in her life for her future role as Santana on “Glee”, even getting to fulfill her high school dream of being a cheerleader.

Battling with Anorexia

During this time in her early teenage years, Naya Rivera was suffering from anorexia, which she only opened up about in her adulthood. In the memoir entitled “Sorry not Sorry”, she discussed in detail about her battles with an eating disorder which was further worsened by her OCD for food.

While in school she was surrounded by other teen girls, most of whom were constantly dieting in an effort to lose weight. This no doubt partially fueled her own anorexia making it a difficult time in her life. Naya Rivera’s parents were in the prelude to their future divorce, she wasn’t getting as many acting gigs, and life was generally getting more uncertain. This, she said, gave her some control. 

At some point in her sophomore year of high school, she noticed she was shaking because of hunger but still resisted the urge to eat. It was at that time that Naya decided to tell her parents about her problem. She approached her mother and told her that she thinks she might be anorexic, but back in those days this was uncommon thus they didn’t really understand. She even writes in her memoir that when she told her mother who was quick enough to reply “Naya, this is some white-people shit”. 

The real change happened after she passed out in gym class and was brought to a hospital. Afterward, her father started taking her to a psychiatrist to try and work out her eating disorder. In her memoirs, Naya Rivera says that she thinks it wasn’t the psychiatrist that did the most to help her get past her anorexia, but the new friends that she started hanging around after the incident.

Career

Early Career

Naya Rivera began her career in the industry as a child actress and model. At only 9 months old she was signed on to the same talent agency that represented her mother, who decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in modeling. Her first gigs were in national television commercials when she was still a baby, appearing on KMart commercials and various other advertisements.  

Her first significant role didn’t come until she was four years old when she was cast as Hillary Winston on the sitcom “The Royal Family” which aired on CBS in 1991. Because of her young age, she could not yet read lines from the scripts they had on set, so she learned her lines by reciting them with the staff on set and would memorize them for scenes that way. The show was short-lived as although it was doing well with ratings, they had to cancel it with the sudden death of the actor and stand-up comedian Red Foxx, who fell on set after suffering a heart attack. 

Naya Rivera would move on from the show, but for her performance on the sitcom she went on to received a nomination for the Young Artist Award at only age five. After this, her acting career took off almost instantly but she mostly had supporting roles in various sitcoms from 1992 to 2002. This was the golden age of “black sitcoms” which were sitcoms that featured mostly black characters, trying to appeal to and represent black people in the United States. Her big breakthrough happened when she was cast in Fox Television’s hit Musical comedy “Glee”.

Naya Rivera’s Role in Glee

Naya Rivera was cast as the cheerleader Santana Lopez of “Glee” in 2009. She saw the role as an opportunity to pursue her passions of singing, dancing, and acting, while working on the same project, and immediately auditioned for a chance at a role. It also helped that she was already a fan of Ryan Murphy, co-creator of Glee, and his previous work on the show Nip/Tuck.

The television series “Glee” aired on Fox Television from 2009 to 2015, and was a mix of comedy, drama, and musicals focusing on the Glee club of the fictional William McKinley High School. 

Naya Rivera took a lot of inspiration in her performance of the character from her experiences in high school. To get some inspiration for her acting auditions, Rivera watched various high school films such as “Mean Girls” which helped her in honing that “bitchy” attitude. This helped her to internalize the role and bring out the nuances of her character. The character of Santana Lopez, as this mean girl with a headstrong and sometimes bitchy attitude started to come out in the final nine episodes of the first season. 

After her stellar performance on the show’s first season, it was assured that she would be reprising her role in the coming seasons, getting a regular spot on the cast. Naya Rivera also worked as a nanny while starring in the first three episodes of the show because she was not yet sure if the network would have her on again for further tapings. Co-creator Ryan Murphy was taken back by her performance and managed to convince the network to hire a young and talented actress.

By the time the second season started filming, Naya Rivera was promoted to being a series regular. In the fifth episode of season two, “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” she was given her first solo and would have several more throughout the rest of season two. It was also during this season that one of the most significant events in the series happened when her character came out as a lesbian. This radically changed her character’s role in the succeeding episodes and the rest of the series. 

Successfully getting more screen time than previously before, Rivera got the much-needed promotion that she always desired because of how the fans started relating to her character. Rivera made a career breakthrough by getting a solo role in “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”. Rivera’s character role changed almost instantly during the second season when she shocked her fans as Santana came out of the closet. 

Naya pushed for the development of her on-screen character into something more complex and meaningful. Trying to take the sexuality of her on-screen character seriously, she portrayed Santana Lopez as a lesbian girl that was struggling to come to terms with herself and her sexuality, having a hard time coming out of the closet and her feelings towards her best friend. She was praised for her performance and her character was seen as a triumph in representation in the media for the LGBT community. 

In 2012, many critics believed that Naya was truly talented and listed her as an actress that should receive a nomination just before the Emmys was due. She was then approached by a prestigious organization by the name of the Television Academy host the “Countdown to the Emmys” which was then watched by more than 24 million people. 

Naya Rivera submitted her entry for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series too. By the end of 2011, Naya and her character were featured on several “Best Of” lists. This includes the list of HitFix’s 25 Breakout Stars of the year. 

Naya Rivera performed in a primary role on Glee in the fourth to fifth seasons. This was over the years 2012 to 2014. During this time, playing her role on Glee, she also worked on other outside projects. Despite all the positive reception and attention to Rivera, she never received any Emmy nominations throughout her career. 

This was considered as a sub by many media outliers and the news publication Daily Beast asserted that she and other actors/actresses were overshadowed by the academy because of the nature of their characters and how young they were. In recent years, further criticism has been leveled at the Academy for not representing Latin talents and other minorities properly.

Music Career

Naya Rivera was signed on to Columbia records in 2011 as a solo music artist. In the same year, she received her first ALMA award as the year’s “Favorite Female Music Artist”. The ALMA awards for those unfamiliar, are the “American Latino Media Arts Award” abbreviated as ALMA. The next year she would win two more awards for a leading role in a Comedy, and the best female musician for her role in Glee. Her notable acting and singing performances on the show gained her a significant amount of critical praise in Glee season two and three, which is a big reason for her gaining awards and attention. 

Naya Rivera was supposed to produce a solo album at Columbia records but never ended up doing so. In 2013, she released her debut single with the title “Sorry” featuring the rising hip hop artist Big Sean. The song, in her own words, had more soul than her famous renditions of songs on Glee, which were mostly soft ballads. It quickly surpassed many songs on the billboard list making its way in the top 40 songs on Billboard and iTunes.

Rivera was signed to Columbia Records as a solo musical artist in 2011 and despite never releasing a studio album, she released a single “Sorry”, in 2013. She won two ALMA Awards as a music artist. Plans for her solo album for Columbia Records were put on the backburner for a long time because of lots of other projects she was working on.

Public Perception

Over Naya Rivera’s long career she has appeared in many publications and magazines. She featured on the covers of Cosmopolitan, FHM, Complex, and many other prestigious print media companies. She was also the center of attention by being very highly ranked in “most attractive lists” in many magazines. 

From 2010 to 2012 she made it into Maxim magazines’ Hot 100 list. Further, she was chosen by the Spanish-language publication, People en Español, for their magazines’ 50 Most Beautiful list. FHM magazine also had her in their number 39 of their 100 Sexiest Women list for that year.

Advocacies

Naya Rivera supported many charitable organizations over the years of her life. The advocacies that she focused on primarily sought to further the rights and lives of immigrants who came to the country in hopes of a better life and the LGBT+ community, both historically marginalized groups. 

Some of the organizations that she devoted time and resources to include: 

  • GLAAD – an acronym for “Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation”, an American NGO founded as a protest against defamatory coverage of LGBT people.
  • Stand Up to Cancer – a charitable program that seeks funds for cancer research. Run by the Entertainment Industry Foundation. 
  • The Trevor Project – Is an NGO that focuses on suicide prevention efforts, particularly among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer youth.
  • The Elephant Project – A group that sells stuffed animals to acquire funds to help end the poaching crisis, and help elephant sanctuaries. 
  • I am an Immigrant – A movement to empower immigrants in the US to share stories and encourage action to demonstrate that immigration is good for American communities.
  • Alliance of Moms – Is a group of philanthropists who work to support pregnant and parent teens in the Los Angeles foster care system.

Naya Rivera expressed that she believed it was essential to provide to the community in whatever way or form and help people that are marginalized or in really tough situations. Naya Rivera’s publicist when she performed on Glee said that she was using her platform and position for good, speaking in favor of equal rights not just for people of color but also the LGBT people, and anti-bullying. Always looking to use her role to speak about sensitive issues and topics, Naya Rivera was an inspiration to many young and struggling individuals. 

Because she was best known for her lesbian character Santana, Naya Rivera was also a big champion for LGBT+ rights outside of her career. She hosted the 2011 GLAAD Media Awards in San Francisco. The next year she was brought back again to host the event together with her fellow colleague Cory Monteith as her co-host. 

In the 2017 Pride month, Billboard invited her to write a piece dedicated to the community. In this time she composed a message where she thanked her fans for accepting her character as Santana and reaffirming her continued dedication to the LGBTQ Community. 

Naya Rivera did a lot of volunteer work in LA, particularly across homeless shelters and food banks. Naya Rivera’s favorite charitable organization in the area was the Alexandria House in Los Angeles. It was a shelter that solely focused on the care of women where she helped and raised money for the needy.

Upon her passing in 2020, the donation campaign that she had previously created for the Alexandria house received a large stream of new donations dedicated to the memory of her charitable work and advocacies that she did in her life. 

As a member of the Afro-Latino community, Naya Rivera also expressed her support for the BLM movement. She attended a BLM protest commemorating Breonna Taylor’s birthday, a black woman who was killed by police officers in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky.

Death of Naya Rivera

Naya Rivera passed away on the 8th of July 2020 at Lake Piru, in the Los Padres National Forest near her hometown of Santa Clarita, California.

Incident

Naya Rivera was very close to her som, Josey Rivera, and always made the effort to go on picnics and hangouts. In 2020, she decided to take a spontaneous trip with her son to spend some quality time together so they went out on a recreational trip on Wednesday to Lake Piru in Los Padres National Forest, renting a pontoon boat to take onto the water. Out on the lake, the mother and child went for a swim not knowing that it would be Naya’s last swim.

Josey Rivera was found by rescuers sleeping on their rented pontoon boat drifting on the lake after the boat was overdue to be returned to the rental place. Josey told rescuers that he and his mother had gone for a swim in the lake, but she could not get to safety saying she disappeared under the water after helping him get back onto the boat. On the boat, they found two life jackets, one of which was worn by Naya’s son. 

According to Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub when asked about the incident with Naya Rivera, the sheriff reported that she was brave and used her final strengths to push her son on the boat to safety before disappearing away. 

When the disappearance occurred, the search to find Naya Rivera began at 4:00 PM Pacific Time, a couple of hours after the two had rented the boat and left the docks. Naya’s son Josey was located by authorities at around 5:00 PM. After her son was found alone on the boat, the authorities quickly declared the 33-year-old actress a missing person. The next day after unfortunately failing to locate her, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office declared that she was presumed dead and their efforts would shift to the recovery of her remains. 

On the 11th and 12th of July, Naya Rivera’s parents, other family members, and relatives came down to the lake to join in the rescue team and assist in the effort to find her. After a six-day search around the Lake Piru area, her body was seen adrift in the northeastern portion of the lake on Monday. A diving team was the one to find her in the morning of July 13 when they had resumed their search for the body. Naya Rivera’s body was moved to the Ventura County Coroner’s Office where her identity was confirmed through dental records. 

Naya Rivera’s death certificate, filed in Ventura County, confirmed that her cause of death was “drowning” and states that she died within a matter of “minutes”. The County Sheriff gave the conclusion that Naya and Josey likely were caught up in a strong current in the lake and had a hard time getting back onto their rented boat.

Funeral

Naya Rivera was buried on the 24th of July 2020 at the Forest Lawn which is a large Memorial Park known for being the final resting place for many in the entertainment industry. The funeral service in Hollywood Hills was held privately with only about 25 people in attendance. This included her family and close friends as well as several of her colleagues from the show Glee.

Public Reaction

Upon hearing of her disappearance and later news of her passing, legions of her fans posted messages in support of her family and tributes to her after it was announced that she had died. Naya Rivera’s family expressed their thanks for the thoughts and prayers and the love they had received from the fans in such grieving times.

Naya Rivera’s then-boyfriend expressed on Instagram the day she was found his grief of losing her but giving their focus on her great love for her son. After Naya’s funeral, her ex-husband Dorsey went on to make a public statement, posting on Instagram saying it is still hard to believe that she was gone, but that their son Josey makes coping with the loss somewhat easier. Under the sign at lake Piru, where Naya Rivera passed away, a memorial dedicated to her was built, and swimming in the lake became prohibited for a while.

An outpour of support from the entertainment, music, and television industry came in the wake of her death. Her colleagues from the show, as well as the creators of the show, paid tribute and agreed to collect money for her son to go to college. On August 27th of that year, the actress and singer Amber Riley had a tribute performance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. It was also noted by the media that the day that Naya Rivera’s body surfaced coincided with the anniversary of her fellow colleague Cory Monteith’s death. This caused the tribute song sung by her in his honor to rack millions of views once again from the public.

Naya Rivera’s Legacy

Naya Rivera soon became one of the most prolific and earliest examples of representation of queer Latina, particularly from the Afro-Latino community on television. She is remembered now as a beacon of hope for the LGBT community as she championed their voices on popular media. There have been scholarly works that were written talking about Naya Rivera’s lifetime and how she spread influence through her roles and experience while working in the entertainment industry. Her performances and voice worked to push away stereotypical portrayals and stories on television about sexuality and race. 

Within the entertainment industry, various tributes were given in honor of Naya Rivera’s life and legacy. For example, NBC wrote on how she gave courage to people of color and different sexual orientations through her roles. 

Naya Rivera was groundbreaking in her portrayal, paving the way for positive change in representation in popular media by being a beacon for solidarity and visibility for the Afro-Latino and LGBTQ community and bringing them into the limelight. 

She may be gone now, but the impact she made will last forever. Many new generations of talents from the Afto-Latino and LGBTQ+ community will be able to push the envelope further on Television and in Hollywood. Naya laid the groundwork to create a more open and accepting environment in the industry for diverse roles and showed everyone that they were stories worth telling and that the public wanted to see.

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