In the grand tradition of Wilhelmina Slater before her and Prudence Night after her, Santana Lopez was an Alpha Bitch of the highest order, one who made space for other Black women who viscerally rejected the mandate to be nice. Portrayed with zeal by the late Naya Rivera, Santana’s impact on Glee was most strongly felt in her longstanding relationship with her girlfriend and eventual wife Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris). But Santana was also known for her cutting barbs and direct language — and, let’s be real, straight-up bullying — which were eventually revealed to be a symptom of her anger and confusion around her sexuality.
What made Santana so much fun to watch despite her constant cruelty was that Rivera worked hard to make her dynamic. Santana evolved from a side character who was secretly making out with her best friend to an integral part of Glee’s positive queer legacy. Santana rejected the humbling so many Black female characters are subjected to, and she viciously cut down anyone who attempted it. Unlike fellow New Directions alum Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley), who was frequently saddled with the brunt of other characters’ feelings, Santana rejected that work, often even at times when it would have been kinder to take it on. She had highs and lows, and was terrible and wonderful all at once, usually depending on her mood that day.
But as unkind as she so often was, Santana’s devil-may-care approach to civility kept the other characters honest. Her role in the group dynamics was to bring the New Directions — a group of incurable dreamers — back down to Earth. She held them accountable to their own nonsense and called them out on their missteps. In the season three episode “The Spanish Teacher,” Santana takes Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) to task for the offensive stereotypes he’s been perpetuating to his students. When she asks him, sincerely, if he’s at all invested in getting things right, Mr. Schue realizes she’s right about his latent racism and passes the baton to night-school teacher David Martinez (Ricky Martin), for whom teaching Spanish is a culmination of his family’s American dream. There, Santana acted as a necessary check on Mr. Shue’s (frankly concerning) disregard for any kind of cultural sensitivity. Gently gaslighting him through the entire episode — as was her wont — Santana repeatedly called attention to the reductive tropes of Latinx identity Mr. Shue presented as an education. As a Latina student with a true stake in the damage he was doing, Santana spoke up when many students facing that kind of casual racism from an authority figure would have shied away from conflict.
But Santana Lopez didn’t shy away from conflict. Close to the end of the series’ run and right after Kurt (Chris Colfer) interrupts her marriage proposal to Brittany — suggesting they are too young to marry after his own failed engagement — Santana stops him in the hallways of their old high school and unleashes a litany of abuse so specific and brutal in its hurtfulness that you are physically compelled to laugh. In another universe, Santana might have found success as a stand-up comedian. Her observational skills were precise and deadly. Her memory for other people’s shame was unending, and she was more than happy to weaponize it as needed. Her insults weren’t just hurtful, they were genuinely creative. Santana generated, maintained, and continually updated an entire universe of self-referential slights that she kept at the ready. Her venom was a talent.
And hoo boy, Santana could be cruel! There’s no denying that with the benefit of hindsight, a lot of her insults wouldn’t pass muster today. But for all her body-shaming, slut-shaming, and occasionally racist critique, she was an expert at rooting out insecurities and forcing them into the harsh light of day. It made her vicious and effective, but it also made her an incredible ally to her friends.
Many of Santana’s best and bitchiest moments happened in defense of the people she loved. The list of ways she used her singular ability to decimate her loved ones’ enemies is endless. She stepped in to protect Kurt and Blaine (Darren Criss) from perpetual bully Karofsky (Max Adler) by threatening him with razor blades. She warned Rachel’s (Lea Michele) sketchy NYADA boyfriend to stay away with a Paula Abdul song when she sensed he had been lying to her. She challenged the future fastest man alive (Grant Gustin) to a Michael Jackson cello duel when he injured Blaine with a slushie spiked with rock salt. And she blackmailed the closeted Karofsky into being her beard to cease his relentless bullying. Merciless as she was to them on their own turf, Santana never let outside threats to the group go unanswered.
Importantly, Santana did have a soft and vulnerable side. Over the course of the show, she repeatedly showed that she was perfectly capable of tenderness — she simply reserved that side of herself for the few people she felt comfortable being exposed to. Most often, that person was Brittany, but it was also apparent when she tried to come out to her grandmother, only to be rejected. Santana’s capacity for tenderness was an important detail because it meant that she staunchly refused to carry an emotional load for anyone other than the people she felt were deserving of it. She never wasted her niceties on people who were always going to assume the worst anyway. It made her redeemable and someone you could root for despite her many conflicts.
Even so, her most memorable performances happened when she was expressing her devotion to and love for the people that she cared about most. Santana’s renditions of both “Landslide” and “Songbird” were perfect encapsulations of the genuine depth of her feelings for the love of her life, and “Mine” was an equally impassioned acknowledgment that their relationship had reached its natural end, despite the love they felt for each other. Her performance of the “Rumor Has It/Someone Like You” mash-up — an example of the show at its very best — was a beautiful portrayal of the internal turmoil of being outed before she had come to terms with her own feelings. And her breakdown during “If I Die Young” — a tribute to deceased friend Finn Hudson in the wake of the death of actor Corey Monteith — made it clear that even to the students she was most unkind to, there had always been an undercurrent of deep affection and love.
If there ever was a moment that encapsulated Santana Lopez at her best, it happened in Glee’s fifth season. Called in to coax Rachel out of her performance anxiety before her big Broadway debut, Santana lightly chides her frenemy for ever believing she could fail at the thing she was best at. “You suck at so many things, but not at this. […] I can’t stand you 90 percent of the time, but even I know that if you drag your flat little ass out on that stage tonight you’re gonna murder that crowd.” Santana Lopez was acid with just enough sugar to make the risk worth it, and she wouldn’t have been possible without Naya Rivera.