Naya Rivera, the veteran actress and singer who was best known for her role as the straight-shooting Santana Lopez in Glee, has died. The Ventura County sheriff’s department declared Rivera missing on the late evening of July 8 after her 4-year-old son, Josey, was discovered alone on a boat on Lake Piru. Authorities announced today that Rivera’s body was recovered from the lake this morning after a days-long search. She was 33 years old.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub shared Josey told the VCSD: “We know from speaking with her son, that he and Naya swam in the lake together at some point during their journey. It was during that time that her son described being helped into the boat by Naya, who boosted him onto the deck from behind. He told investigators that he looked back and saw her disappear under the surface of the water.” Ayub added that “there are a lot of currents on the lake that appear particularly in the afternoon. The idea perhaps being that the boat started drifting, it was unanchored, and that she mustered enough energy to get her son back onto the boat, but not enough to save herself.”
Born in Santa Clarita, Calif., Rivera began acting and modeling when she was baby, appearing in commercials and print. Her first significant job came at the age of 4, when she appeared as Hillary Winston in the CBS Sitcom The Royal Family. Though the show was short-lived, Rivera received a Young Artist Award nomination for her performance. Over the next decade, she became an instantly recognizable face thanks to a deluge of a guest appearances on network staples like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Smart Guy, and many, many others. She also appeared in The Bernie Mac Show in 2002, which led to a 10-episode guest run in its final season. While acting, she continued to work hard in various everyday jobs such as telemarketing and retail just to keep her dream of performing alive.
That perseverance would ultimately lead to her biggest role: In 2009, Rivera landed a part in the hit musical comedy Glee as cheerleader and headstrong performer Santana Lopez. “I didn’t know anything about it when I started off,” Rivera said in a 2015 oral history for Out Magazine. “I knew that I had to sing. So I had to drive to go buy sheet music and pick out a song to sing, but other than that I didn’t know anything. Santana didn’t have any lines in the pilot, so I had to read Mercedes lines... I auditioned twice and booked the gig.” Over the first season, Santana would prove to be an increasingly necessary (and often chaotic) presence in the story of a ragtag high school glee club, which led to Rivera’s promotion to series regular. Furthermore, her performance on the phenomenon solidified Rivera’s status as a multi-hyphenate, showcasing not only impeccable singing chops, but her range as an actress. Santana was not only an occasional troublemaker, but an evolving figure with an emotionally rich story of personal growth.
Alongside fellow glee club member Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris), Santana also stood as a symbol of progress in LGBTQ+ representation in television. During a time when young queer women of color didn’t have much visibility on network TV, Rivera played a fleshed-out lesbian teen struggling and later coming peaceful terms with both her feelings towards her best female friend and her identity. The pair gained a groundswell of early fan support, which Rivera has always noted as the catalyst for the couple’s overall success and longevity. “[The fans] should take credit for that,” Rivera said in 2011. “Who knows if the writers would have taken that relationship so seriously if there hadn’t been such an outpouring for them to get together.”
In 2014, Rivera nabbed her first feature film role in At The Devil’s Door, a thriller that made the festival rounds after its South By Southwest debut. She would later appear in a recurring capacity on Lifetime’s hit drama Devious Maids as well as YouTube Red’s Step Up: High Water, where she played school administrator Collette Jones. In May, the webseries announced that it would be moving to Starz and continuing its professional relationship with Rivera.
Aside from acting and singing, Rivera was an author, a doting mother, and a philanthropist. She dedicated time to a number of charities, including GLAAD, Stand Up to Cancer, and the The Trevor Project. She is survived by her parents, her siblings, and her young son, Josey.