The late actress was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park on July 24, 2020. Her death certificate reported that her cause of death was drowning within a “matter of minutes.” She was spending the day with her four-year-old son, Josey, whom Rivera boosted onto the three-hour rental boat in Lake Piru just moments before she drowned on July 8, 2020.
While we can dwell on the tragic loss of Rivera, let us instead focus on what we can learn from Rivera’s past, and envision new possibilities for her legacy in our futures.
Modeling and acting from a young age
Many recognize Rivera from her recurring-turned-series-regular, sassy character, Santana Lopez from Fox’s hit, Glee, which ran from 2009 until 2015. She started her roots in modeling and the era of Black sitcoms in the 90s, from The Royal Family to Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Family Matters to Sister, Sister to Smart Guy, starring her childhood crush, Taj Mowry.
Rivera had a brief hiatus to enroll in public school, but having been trained to be a young adult and breadwinner as a child, it was hard for her to adapt to people her age, atop her internal family tension and financial troubles. After all, “[w]ho wants to peak as a kid, as a teenager, or even in their early twenties. Then it’s all downhill for the next six decades.” When she grew out of the “Shirley Temple” syndrome, roles became few and far between, especially as less shows produced by and marketed for Black and Latinx people were broadcasted.
It wasn’t until 2008 when her mom encouraged her, to take every acting opportunity that came her way. Just as she was about to give up, Rivera realized she had potential for screenwriting. Santana Lopez as we know her arose out of “God…shutting some doors…so I’d pay attention to the ones that were open.” She was not initially enthused until she learned that Ryan Murphy was the creative captain behind Nip/Tuck, a favorite show of hers. The rest is history.
Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up
On writing the book, released in 2016, Rivera confessed that she did not want to publish “a trashy tell-all that talked a whole bunch of shit” that others expected from her. To that, she said, “I’ll write that book when I am eighty-five and just don’t give a fuck anymore.” Sadly, the world will not be blessed with that chisme.
This book is worth a read, so please pick up a copy at a local Latinx- or Black-owned bookstore before considering buying one from Barnes & Noble or Amazon. What the reader comes to find is that she was not too different from her character, Santana on Glee, strong-minded and competitive, though not as mean-spirited.
One can also delve into her unique experience as a mixed-race Afro-Latina and child actor, which had ramifications on her self-esteem and social interactions when she grew out of the “cute” childhood stage (e.g. anorexia, debt, sex, work). She ends each chapter with some of her regrets (sorry) and no-fuck victories (not sorry). “Keep it moving,” as she’d say.
Just weeks before her passing, on June 5, 2020, what would have been the late Breonna Taylor’s 27th birthday, Rivera had just attended a Black Lives Matter protest.
However, even before that, she had already been quite the philanthropist. Between 2019 and even her passing, she had not only dedicated her money, but also her service to Alexandria House, a women and children’s shelter in Los Angeles. The GoFundMe page for the shelter posthumously boosted in donations. Additionally, she directed the three-minute “Love, America” dedicated to undocumented people residing in the U.S. #ToImmigrantsWithLove #IAmAnImmigrant
Lest we forget her close cooperation with organizations that support the LGBTQ+ community, like GLAAD, HRT, and the Trevor Project. In fact, she hosted the GLAAD Media awards in 2011 and 2012, performing with her late Glee costar, Corey Monteith during the later year.
Relationships, and Impact on the representation of interracial and (Latinx) lesbian communities
What will most be remembered is her effect on people in the real world. Yes, by her service to the community, but also by her character, Santana’s, representation as a lesbian Latina in an interracial relationship with her fellow cheerleader, Brittany Pierce, played by Heather Morris, who was a friend to Rivera both on-screen and off.
In the season 3 episode, “I Kissed a Girl,” Santana comes out to her grandmother, who disowns her even though her parents were completely welcoming. Despite her notable insulting one-liners and mean-girl persona, Santana was a fully materialized, three-dimensional character, which Latinx and Black actors rarely portray these days, making it all the more undeniable for audiences, regardless of sexual orientation, to express their sentiment during this episode. Or the episode when she and her abuela rekindled. Or the episode when she and Brittany got married.
Here is a list of tributes to the late actress, exemplifying her true impact, professionalism, and memory on those of whom she worked closely.
But of course, she also had a family: a younger brother (football player, Mychal Rivera) and sister (Nickayla), best friend (Madison) since second grade who did not change when Rivera gained more exposure, stepfather, mother whom she’d call at least three times a day and who encouraged Rivera to give her career in acting six more months (which worked as it resulted in her successful audition for a certain gleeful show), and father who was integral when it came to adulting and debt management based on his various odd jobs and debt.
Josey Dorsey was born on September 17, 2015. He is, above all, Rivera’s biggest self-proclaimed accomplishment. The day before he and his mom rented a boat in Lake Piru in Ventura County, she tweeted “just the two of us.”
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Rivera revealed in her book that she actually had an abortion with her ex-husband, Ryan Dorsey, in 2010, after the two had dated for a while. With her mother beside her, she endured “the most traumatic thing in my life,” knowing that many women do not have anyone to support them. She describes the guilt of calling out of work for the procedure and the experience of going to work the next day, hoping blood did not stream down her cheerleader outfit. Rivera had broken up with Dorsey, due to her increasingly rigid schedule and blossoming career on Glee, before getting back together with him and ultimately being ready to have a baby.
Rivera’s fellow Glee colleagues, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuck, and Ian Brennan, announced their intention to establish a college fund for her son.
Her musical chops
Furthermore, her voice will live for eternity by listening and/or watching Rivera perform with the cast of Glee, or the occasional solo.
Watch the second half of Heather Morris’ dance to Rivera’s unreleased song, “Radio Silence.”
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I want to share something very personal with you all… Grieving looks very differently on everyone…but one things for certain: I’ve felt it’s hard to feel joy or keep busy when mourning without thinking that you’re not honoring that person or you’re forgetting about them. But @hubbell_woodshop reminded me that honoring someone can mean you’re enjoying your life FOR them… I made it to 1M followers in these last few weeks and at first I was resentful because I gained them from a tragedy, but after giving it a breath.. I realized you all have just surrounded me with love and support. That I just see you angels wrapping your wings around me 🙏🏻 So I’m celebrating 1Million today in a tribute to @nayarivera with her music and her voice that will forever be my favorite
Cover Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox