Fil-Am media ‘game changers’ share stories from their careers, inspire young Fil-Am creatives to follow their passion

As Filipino-American History Month comes to a close, the office of Los Angeles Councilmember Gil Cedillo on Thursday, October 25 hosted a special panel event called “Filipino American Game Changers” featuring singer/songwriter AJ Rafael, television personality and actor Giselle “G” Tongi, radio personality PJ Butta and Ricky Nierva, who was an art director and production designer for many Pixar movies. The conversation was moderated by media personality Karmina Landicho. AJPress photo by Klarize Medenilla

When Ricky Nierva was a young boy, he loved to draw. Inspired by the cartoons he would rush home to watch as a kid, he would draw pictures on his bedpost, around his room and the walls of his home.

His mother, instead of forbidding him to draw altogether, came home one day with stacks of paper and asked him to express his creativity on paper.

“I will never forget that. My parents, instead of getting angry at me for destroying the house, they allowed me to express myself and were really supportive of me,” Nierva said. “But I never knew that it could actually be a job.”

Nevertheless, he decided to pursue fine arts, eventually landing a job at Pixar Animation Studio in 1997. He started as a visual development artist and did storyboarding for “Toy Story 2” in 1999 and then shortly after became the lead character designer for “Monsters, Inc.” (2001).

For two decades, Nierva has worked as character art director and production designer for many of Pixar’s beloved Disney films, including the award-winning films “Finding Nemo” and “Up.” Now he’s left Pixar after 20 years to start a new company.

“It was this thing where it really was my passion. Nobody told me to do it, and so I kept trying to keep that passion alive,” Nierva said. “So now, I get to do the thing that nobody told me to do because I had such a supportive family who encouraged me to do what I love.”

As Filipino-American History Month comes to a close, the office of Los Angeles Councilmember Gil Cedillo hosted a special panel event called “Filipino American Game Changers” to inspire “a new generation of media talent” within the Filipino-American community.

Nearly a hundred Filipino-Americans gathered at the city council chambers at LA City Hall on the night of Thursday, Oct. 25 to listen to and take heed of the advice from a panel of seasoned players in music, film, radio and television.  

Notably, many of the audience members were young Filipino-American college students hailing from Cal State Northridge (CSUN), UCLA and Pasadena City College who have strong interest in pursuing careers in media.

On the dais were singer/songwriter AJ Rafael, television personality and actor Giselle “G” Tongi, radio personality PJ Butta and Nierva who all shared their stories of ambition, failure, getting over failure and using their inherent talents to succeed and provide a voice for the Filipino-American community.

In his early YouTube videos, Rafael would only film himself off the to the side and faced away from the camera, but as he started to gain more subscribers and listeners, he began to put a face to his videos, a crucial moment in the 29-year-old’s music career.

“I was, like, literally hiding away from the camera, but then I realized how important it is for people of color, especially young Filipinos, to see themselves represented,” Rafael said. “That confidence is key because you never know who’s going to look up to you and is going to see you as a sign that tells them, ‘Hey, if they can do it, I can do it, too.’”

All panelists agreed that a cohesive community is crucial for younger Fil-Ams to kick start their careers. Both Tongi and Butta said that one of the most important moments for them was discovering their community, and Tongi said that it’s important to have mentors to help guide you along the way.

But you can’t just wait for it.

“You just have to get over it, the fear,” Tongi told a young member of the audience who asked how to deal with fear. “You have to work on recognizing your worth, because, guess what? You are enough, but you have to find that confidence in yourself and ask for what you want.”

Butta mirrored that sentiment and added, “You also can’t be afraid to fail. Every single one of us up here has had some kind of failure, but failure is how you learn. You are going to fail, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end for you.”

Building off the momentum of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the increasing popularity of the Korean-Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience,” and rapper/actress Awkwafina’s historical hosting of Saturday Night Live earlier this month, Asian representation in mainstream Western entertainment seems to be experiencing an upward march.

The industry-wide reckoning of the lack of diversity in music, film, tv and other media avenues has been called into question for the last few years, and with studios looking to be on the right side of history, are slowly conforming to people’s demands for more and better representation of Asians.

Ryan Duenas, a 20-year-old student of CSUN, is currently majoring in finance, but has aspirations in the music industry. Showing videos from his phone of him singing with a guitar, his music style seems directly inspired by the Filipino YouTube stars of the early aughts.

“I actually grew up listening [to] and watching AJ [Rafael]’s music and it was really inspiring to see someone who looked like me get that many views and become pretty famous,” Duenas told the Asian Journal. The Arcadia-native said that his family isn’t “super supportive” of his wanting to become a musician, but he said that he has enough “love for the music” to pursue his passion.

“I agree with what a lot of the panelists said to day, and I resonate with that feeling of not necessarily being supported by my family,” Duenas lamented. “Most of my cousins are doing things like medicine, accounting and all these jobs that guarantee financial security, but I’m more concerned about what makes me happy. I don’t want my career to feel like a job, you know? I want to feel happy and proud of what I do, and that’s singing and writing songs.”

When asked why he was so drawn to singing, Duenas said, “I really don’t know. I just picked up a guitar and knew that’s what I wanted to do. And there’s nothing else that gives that same feeling.”

Klarize Medenilla

Klarize Medenilla is a staff writer and reporter for the Asian Journal. You can reach her at

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