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Finding Solace in Latinx Trailblazers after Naya Rivera’s Tragic Death

Some Groundbreaking Stars to Inspire Us

Naya Rivera
Making Sense of the Tragic Death of Naya Rivera

News of the untimely death of Naya Rivera, the talented, African American, and Puerto Rican singer and actress, shook the entertainment world this week. The details of the tragedy have only made the pill bitterer—she used the last of her strength to save her four-year-old son, Josey, only to succumb to the waters of Lake Piru in Santa Clarita, California. The story was particularly sorrowful for Latinx people everywhere—used to being seldom represented in mainstream entertainment even in 2020, and having to experience the heartbreak of losing one of our own so suddenly.

Communities of color everywhere, though, have proven themselves resilient in the face of adversity. Grief, if anything, is part of our blood and culture. The solemn occasion made me feel thankful for Naya, the work she did in front of and behind the camera. It brought me conflicted joy to remember the work she did on behalf of troubled LGBTQ youth with the Trevor Project, her dedication to GLAAD, and other progressive charities. She was perhaps most famous for playing Santana Lopez, a lesbian cheerleader in the hit show “Glee.” But her life inspired beyond just her boundless artistic talent. Like so many admired Latinx stars, she led by example off-screen as well—a burden that many entertainers of color willingly embrace as it is almost always expected of them.

And the sadness made me thankful for others who came before Naya as well. Though a comprehensive list is impossible—I hope you have many others to add to it in the comments section of this piece—a few, mostly random but important names quickly popped into my head almost as a stream of tears slash consciousness as we remain grateful for those who have so ably represented our patchwork quilt of a community.

Image from the movie "Selena" 1997
© “Selena” 1997 Esparza / Katz Productions − All right reserved.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my mind wandered first of all to Selena Quintanilla, the Chicana singer who inspired millions with her angelic singing until her own, way-too-early death in 1994. Not only did Selena arguably redefine Latin music—she brought it to the forefront for white audiences. And when she was not busy scaling the mountainous odds stacked against a Latina singer, Selena was actively involved in organizations aimed at keeping Latinx kids in school, among other philanthropic activities. (She was, of course, portrayed by Jennifer Lopez, the Puerto Rican singer, and actress in the film—a Latina trailblazer that needs no introduction).

Lupe Ontiveros
Actress Lupe Ontiveros was known for her roles in the film Selena and the television series Desperate Housewives.

As my associational chain continued, I remembered next Lupe Ontiveros, the Mexican-American actress most famous for playing Selena’s killer in the hit Warner Bros. film “Selena.” But Lupe was only a criminal for Hollywood. In real life, she had been a social worker for nearly 20 years, working to promote advanced educations for Latinx people and to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s. Lupe died relatively young herself, in 2012, reminding me for a third time in a row of the cruel irony at times of a Telenovela-like story arch for these Latina heroines.

I sought light out of this bittersweet tunnel and conjured up the image of Roy Haylock, better known to most of us as Bianca del Rio. Bianca, of Cuban and Honduran descent, rose to prominence when she won the sixth season of RuPaul’s drag race. But she was well-known to us New York City dwellers—or at least to those of us who frequent(ed) gay bars and drag shows in the 2000s. Bianca stood out for her talent in a profession that was made up then predominantly of white and African-American talent. Bianca is not only hilarious and inspirational to

gettyimages 585348823 e1501734903444
Dolores del Rio was the first woman to serve on the Cannes jury

gay nightlife mainstays, but has also donated a significant portion of her talent to fundraisers dedicated to international LGBTQ causes.

If one ever had a chance to interview Bianca, the obvious question would be about the inspiration for her stage name. One would want to think that perhaps it comes from Dolores del Rio, the Mexican actress who arguably became the first Latina crossover star in Hollywood, way back in the 1920s and 30s. Ms. Del Rio, at times called the “Mexican Greta Garbo,” was typecast in many films (the list of which is too long to adequately cover here).

That did not stop her from starring alongside the likes of Elvis Presley (“Flaming Star“), or to work with directors like John Ford (“Cheyenne Autumn” 1964). Her talent, though, was as boundless as her groundbreaking work on behalf of Latinx communities everywhere. She worked to protect the arts, impoverished children, and Mexican culture in the United States. In 1957, she became the first woman to serve on the Cannes jury. That’s a pretty good inspiration for a drag show if my theory is correct anyway.

To be fair to their male counterparts, there are plenty of inspiring Latinx men whose inspiring work eulogizes Naya. Speaking of LGBTQ stars, it is impossible not to conjure Ricky Martin, an international megastar who is still, to my mind, one of the most famous openly gay heartthrobs. Of course, we have Elton and Freddie. But Ricky was a soap opera star in Latin America and a sex symbol across the globe when he had the courage to come out. Few white leading men in Hollywood (think of the caliber of George Clooney or Tom Cruise) have dared that feat. And Ricky’s philanthropic work is as legion as his discography, including his own foundation and extensive work with immigrant-focused international organizations.

By now one feels at least a sense of solace, of hope that the work of Naya and her brethren has been important, life-altering, and made us proud. One can continue. Raul Julia, a Puerto Rican actor with a long list of film and theater credits to his name—including under the helm of some of his time’s most legendary names like Sidney Lumet and Francis Ford Coppola. Jose Ferrer, the Puerto Rican actor considered the first Latinx person to win an Oscar (“Cyrano de Bergerac in 1950). Rita Moreno—another one that needs no introduction (“West Side Story“).

But I would be remiss to let this column of luminaries go by without acknowledging the man of the moment, the man who arguably helped inspire an entirely new generation of entertainers of color with his immeasurable talent. I am referring to Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose blockbuster show “Hamilton propelled him to superstardom but whose talent had been on display to Latinx and white audiences since “In the Heightsand before. Lin-Manuel is an unapologetic political activist, most notably against gun violence.

Image from the movie "Hamilton" 2020
© “Hamilton” 2020 Walt Disney Pictures − All right reserved.

His “Hamilton” show has been so successful and inspirational to our culture that I was amused to find it referenced in two landmark decisions by the United States Supreme Court this past term—including one on the Electoral College and another on the power of the New York County District Attorney to subpoena the President’s tax returns.

It is, indeed, Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton that reminds us that for as much sorrow as there is in tragedy, in the loss of an inspirational figure, the old saying “gone but not forgotten” does significant work. It applies, surely, to trailblazers who have come before Naya Rivera and to the departed actress herself. They were young and dreamt of glory, and now history has its eye on them—and on you, to remember and honor their legacies.

Share your thoughts about Naya Rivera, her career and death, and other Latinx trailblazers who have inspired you, in the comments

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Written by J Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam is a New York-based film critic and journalist. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and an inaugural member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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