I woke up on Thursday morning to #FindNaya trending. After digging a little bit, I discovered Naya Rivera had gone missing and is now presumed dead. Her four-year-old son, Josey Dorsey, was found all alone on an unanchored pontoon boat the two had rented to sail in Lake Piru of Ventura County in Southern California.

Late afternoon on July 8, 2020, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office tweeted that they were searching for a “possible drowning victim at Lake Piru.” Just a few hours later, once the sun had set, the department reported the identification of this missing person as renowned actor, Naya Rivera. It was at this time that the search and rescue operation was halted due to visibility issues, postponed until “first light,” when the efforts transitioned into a recovery mission.

Fans, including myself, have been following this situation anxiously. #PrayforNaya and #NayaRivera were trending for a short while on Twitter. As I scrolled through the hashtag, I was aghast at how Rivera’s life was being portrayed.

Rather than keeping the focus on finding her and the circumstances surrounding her disappearance, the media and other followers of Rivera’s career are saddling her with what is callously dubbed as the “Glee Curse” and scrutinizing the negative aspects of her past.

Rivera is most famous for her role as Santana Lopez on the popular show, Glee. On it, she played a queer Latina character who has become beloved for the marginalized populations Santana represents so strongly and surely. Santana Lopez is an iconic character, and Rivera has been praised for her performance and vocal talent on Glee. But the audience’s inability to separate Rivera from her fictional television character has resulted in pure disrespect to the actual human being that Naya Rivera is. Even in these troubling times, people are referring to Rivera as “Santana” rather than calling her Naya.

It is a wonderful thing to recognize the valuable additions Rivera has made to the entertainment industry and by extension, society, as a woman of color, but to attach her only to this show dehumanizes her. It erases Naya and all that she is. It is not Santana who is missing, but Naya. It is not Santana’s little boy who is wondering where his mother is, but Naya’s.

Supposed fans of Rivera are also unironically posting clips of a (beautiful and touching) scene, in which she, as Santana, covered the song, “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry. People are treating this as if it is some sort of tribute to her that is perfectly fitting for the (tragic) situation at hand. The song’s lyrics read, “If I die young, bury me in satin, lay me down on a bed of roses, sink me in the river at dawn, send me away with the words of a love song…” Rivera has yet to be declared dead, but more than anything, posting this cover is outrageously insensitive and inappropriate. It dilutes the fear, anguish, and heartache of the possible death of a real (as in, not fictional) woman.

This is a sinister romanticization of an utter tragedy.

The media has been taking it a step farther with the narrative of the so-called “Glee Curse,” which is an insult to everyone involved with the show. The epithet comes from several cast members implicated in some sort of adversity or scandal. This kind of naming takes away from the individual cases, all of which are very different and difficult, and lumps them all into a category that makes light of the events. Cory Monteith struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction and fatally overdosed; Mark Salling was a pedophile who hanged himself to avoid the consequences of owning up to his despicable actions; Lea Michele has been called out for racism and bullying other co-workers. Each situation is independently troubling, including Rivera’s – they did not happen because all of these actors were cast members of the same show. The “Glee Curse” is not a thing, and we need to stop making it a thing.

Furthermore, the media has repeatedly referred to Rivera as Big Sean’s ex-fiancée. Rivera’s existence is not tied to the men she interacted with in her past. Nor is her existence tied to Lea Michele, whom Rivera had a rivalry with that is now being recalled for clout. A woman’s life may have been lost, and the media chooses to focus on the mistakes she’s made. Hours after Rivera was presumed dead, news outlets went so far as to feature her mugshot and photos of her in court, detailing the darker aspects of Rivera’s past. The Sun published an article painting her eating disorder and battle with depression as sordid affairs.

Here’s the bottom line: Naya Rivera is a person. She is a human being, and she is a mother, daughter, sister, and friend, before she is an actress or (an imperfect, maybe) role model. She is a woman of color who resides in the white-dominated space that is Hollywood and has experienced major success with her career. She is largely admired and loved and revered for being who she is and what she has accomplished.

Is this vilifying of a celebrity WOC who has been involved in a tragic accident surprising? No. But this will never cease to be disappointing.

Let’s instead talk about what is actually happening. Let’s talk about how Lake Piru is dangerous and has a history of drownings. Between 1994 and 2000, seven people drowned in the lake, and local residents avoid the area because of its conditions. The lake is as deep as 160 feet in some parts with massive amounts of debris at the bottom; the lake is notorious for its whirlpools and strong winds. There is now a petition urging city officials to post warning signs for swimmers, something locals have been asking the city to do for years.

Fans are also speculating about the suspicious circumstances of Rivera’s disappearance. Her son was found asleep wearing his life jacket, but another adult-size life jacket was sitting in the boat, so clearly Rivera was not wearing her life jacket. Video footage of the rental area shows Rivera and her son parking their car and walking across the parking lot to get to the boats. There was nobody else with them. Her son who was found asleep by another boater three hours after he and Rivera had set sail simply stated his mother went swimming and never came back. However, turning to conspiracy theories is not the right way to deal with this. No matter what happened, the fact remains Naya Rivera is missing and must be found. That should be the only focus. The camera footage of Rivera renting the pontoon boat and the 911 call made by a worker when Rivera and her son did not return after their three-hour rental period have been released by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.

Stopping the search overnight has been criticized heavily; fans say if Rivera had been white, they’d never stop the search just because the sun had set. The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office is now being assisted by the Tulare County Sheriff, LA County Sheriff’s Department, and the US Coast Guard and using sonar equipment and dogs to locate Rivera. However, they lost hours by stopping the search through the night. It is as if they just gave up and are now waiting for her body to float to the surface of the water.

I am shaken by this news. Just a week ago, Rivera posted an Instagram photo with the caption, “no matter the year, circumstance, or strifes everyday you’re alive is a blessing. make the most of today and every day you are given. tomorrow is not promised.” I am haunted by this post.

Life is precious and fragile. It is fleeting. This unfortunate accident is sudden and unexpected, as life always is. I imagine Naya and her son enjoying the sun, enjoying the presence of each other and the ebb and flow of the water beneath them… only for it to end in this way. #FindNaya.

UPDATE: on July 13, Naya’s body was found in Lake Piru. The Sheriff suggests the waters were really rough that day and she was able to save her son Josey before the current drowned her. RIP Naya Rivera.

Her last tweet broke our hearts. We are with her family and friends in these troubling times.

  • Dola Haque is a Master of Arts student in English at Northeastern University. Her research includes rhetorics of immigration and race, global feminisms, and narratives and storytelling. Language is her obsession. She is an aspiring novelist and public scholar who hopes to crush the hetero-normative patriarchy while unapologetically finding ways to be joyful and singing her way through life.