I was born in the Philippines, and when I was 4 years old, my family and I moved to Texas. The decision to immigrate came mostly from my mom, who wanted a better life for our family, a future for me, and later, my two younger sisters. I got into acting when I started theatre in middle school. But I loved film and TV so, of course, I dreamt about going to Hollywood. Luckily for me, we ended up moving to California during high school because my dad’s best friend lived here, and a new environment was appealing. Both my parents are Registered Nurses and so, of course, they wanted me to be a nurse. Even though they didn’t initially support my acting career, I absolutely believe that God, the universe, and my purpose led me to Hollywood to create change in our society through storytelling.
When I was living in El Paso, the majority of people there were White — in school, I was one of two Asian faces. Most of my friends were White, and subconsciously, I realized I didn’t look like them and I wanted so desperately to be like them - to be White. A big part of this perception resulted from the media, where as a kid, when I watched movies and TV or played video games, all I would see were White faces. This idea of wanting to become just like “them” became rooted in me. One major belief that became instilled in me was this notion that my tan dark skin was not beautifully pleasing. My mother would always yell for me to not play outside for too long or “You’ll get dark!” But I’ve had to unlearn that as I grew older and worked on loving myself as I am. Our brown skin is beautiful. Don’t hide it. Take pride in it. Let it glow. I fully believe the morena skin is the most beautiful — it’s golden — so I’m very proud of it now.
In terms of the media, I remember watching this Filipino soap opera, which often tend to be very overly dramatic and cheesy, and I somehow started comparing it to American TV shows. I began thinking about how American shows are better, and it was a moment when I just felt ashamed of Filipino culture, of being Filipino. It wasn’t until much later, when I was a young adult, that I wanted to rediscover myself and learn more about myself, my sexuality and where I come from. I remember realizing how much I did not know about my family’s history and my Filipino roots, and how I hadn’t been back to the Philippines in a long time. So moving to LA was also significant for me because I was suddenly part of a bigger Filipino-American creative community.
As for my education, it upsets me when I think about how there was barely any mention of Filipino history at my high school. There was American history and European history classes, but that was basically it. Even when I was in college, I didn’t take any Asian American history classes either, though I really wish I did. I think the schools I went to just didn’t have classes that centered on Asian American — more specifically Filipino-American — history, and so it has been up to me to educate myself on our history. Aside from Google, I started going to more community gatherings like the ones hosted by FilAm Creative. They have panels and workshops to help bring the community together, and it is an open space where I can have conversations with other Filipino-Americans and talk about our experiences, share resources, and ask questions.
My work is also inspired by the fact that people do not know that Filipinos are the second largest immigrant group in the United States. The media tends to overshadow Southeast Asian communities — when people think of “Asians,” they tend to just think East Asians. Of course it is great to highlight other Asians in the media, but then I think, how is it that we Filipinos, the second largest immigration group, have so little representation? I feel like it is my responsibility, being in the industry and in the media, to show people my culture in everything I create.
I did not have many Asian American media role models as I was growing up, a fact that fuels so much of that drive within me to fill this gap. I remember how in my first year of college, I was studying to be a nursing student but knew deep down that it wasn’t the path for me. At the end of that semester, I told my mom that I was going to apply to film school. When I was pursuing acting professionally, all of the female Asian American roles were flat and stereotypical; I was frustrated on why I wasn't able to go out for the more three-dimensional and nuanced leading roles. But then I realized that no one was writing characters and stories for people like me. So I took a screenwriting class in college, relishing the opportunity to write stories and to create these complex characters that Asian American women would love to play. I want to be part of changing the media landscape, because I know that I can’t wait around for the system to change. Don't wait for things to change. Be the one to change it. Be a risk taker.
So I co-founded Empowerhouse, a digital media company officially launching later this year. It is part production company and part community-building. I want to create films and TV and continue my work as a storyteller, and what I love most about these mediums is that they help bring people together. We want to be able to have workshops and events where people can come and learn from each other and work together to create stories. For example, at the moment we have this small, exclusive creative writers group that is composed of only female Asian Americans, and we meet once a month to share about the projects we are working on, and ultimately work to center these stories in the media.
When I came out as bisexual to myself, I struggled a lot with trying to reconcile my faith and my sexuality. And it was hard coming out to my family because I didn’t know how they were going to take it. When I was in film school, I was in a writing class for TV and drama pilots. My instructor really pushed us to find our voices and write stories that represent who we are not just as writers, but also as artists. At that time, I was just coming to terms with my sexuality and who I am, and I wrote “Bicultural” based loosely on my own experience.
The reception to Bicultural has been really amazing, and I am so grateful. It has been such a good experience traveling around to different festivals for “Bicultural.” I get the opportunity to meet and talk to folks and see how our film about a Filipino-American woman can resonate with people of all different ages and backgrounds. I have gotten so much feedback from folks about how powerful it was for them to see a Filipino-American or see a queer person of color being represented on screen and having this authentic story. As long as my stories can instill some sort of hope, courage, or strength to other people, it makes all the hard work worth it.
**Bicultural is currently streaming on Revry, a queer owned and operated streaming platform.
Mental health is definitely a topic that isn’t talked about enough. There have been several times when my Asian American friends would ask me about mental health, like what are the first steps in seeking mental health support, or how to find a therapist. These are the same questions I had when I was diagnosed a little over a year ago. Bipolar Disorder involves episodes of hypomania and depression; those with Bipolar I experience more episodes of hypomania, while those with Bipolar II experience more episodes of depression.
Growing up, I always had these cycles of ups and downs and bouts of hypomania, but I always attributed the crazy mood swings to PMS or teen angst. But two years ago when I was going through a deep depression, I was having suicidal thoughts. This, along with the fact that I am now in my 20s, made me decide that I needed to see someone. I went to my primary care doctor who recommended that I find a therapist for my anxiety and depression, and that’s when I turned to Google for help. I had to learn so much on my own, and it was scary going around and talking to different therapists and trying to find the right one for me and then finding a psychiatrist and getting diagnosed. Through this journey, I also learned just how little information there is out there for Asian Americans and mental health. I hope to address this gap through my mental health advocacy because not only are there so few resources, there is also just so much stigma about mental health in our community. When I told my family about my diagnosis, they didn’t recognize it at all, arguing that mental illness isn’t real. But they reacted that way because they didn’t have the resources to understand.
I think that mental health advocacy has to start in the home. If we can get our families to start talking about it, we can start the process of destigmatizing mental illness in the home and ultimately in the community. Besides the language and cultural barriers we have to deal with, there are also generational ones. I’m not as fluent in Tagalog as I used to be, and I remember struggling to find the most basic words to explain to my grandmother what was going on with me. I also remember when I was looking for a therapist, I wanted someone who was a woman, and hopefully an Asian American woman. However, I also remember doubting whether that was a good idea or not because I was worried that maybe this Asian American would be more traditional and would judge me. These were some of the very real debates going on in my head at the time.
In my own life, I try to incorporate self-care practices whenever I can. For example, I always try to start the day off right — getting up early and carving out even just a few minutes to write down three things that I am grateful for. This helps set a positive mentality and tone for the rest of the day. And music is huge for me. Music is daily therapy for me - I have music playing almost constantly, especially when I’m anxious.
In terms of mental health resources, here are a few that were useful to me:
Asian American Psychological Association
30 Days Of Self Care: Your Guide
The Ultimate Self-Care Guide: How to Take Better Care of Yourself
Apps: Headspace, Ootify, CBT Thought Record Diary, Daylio
Instagram pages: @officialsadghostclub, @sadgirlsclub, @hopefortheday, @trevorproject, @itgetsbetter
Furthermore, Empowerhouse is actually creating a digital self-care guide that we will be releasing at the end of May!
I am currently working on a few different projects, almost all of which will focus on mental health. Mental health is so stigmatized in our society and in the media, and the only way to remove that stigma is to talk about it directly. For me, the best way to kickstart these critical conversations is through storytelling.
My priority this year is working with my co-founder of Empowerhouse to create CRAZY, a web series about mental health. It’s a dramedy about these two frenemies and their journeys navigating their mental illnesses.
I am also writing a feature film, which I’m very excited about — it’s very me as an artist. The story is in a similar vein as Bicultural in tone and style, but this story explores the ways mental illness directly and indirectly affects our various human relationships. I’m going to write, direct, and also star in it; right now, currently looking for investors.
My one-hour sci-fi TV drama pilot was selected for the second round of the 2019 Sundance Episodic Lab so that’s exciting!
On the acting side, I’ll be starring in a recurring role in BET’s new series, Games People Play. It’s on Tuesdays at 9/8c! I’ll also be co-starring in an episode of Netflix’s Atypical Season 3 coming soon!
Recent articles about Rachel:
Rachel Leyco Bridges the Diversity Gap in Her Latest Short Film
Actors & Filmmakers Talk Hollywood Whitewashing
Short Film Empowers Bystanders to Prevent Sexual Assault
I Fell: A Short Film Celebrating National Coming Out Day
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Your People | Rachel Leyco