The beachcomber—full interview
(585) sits down with Leticia Astacio
J: If there were a Wikipedia page for you, what would the first line be?
L: That is a hilarious question. I don’t know! It would be something insane, like “Fearless Revolutionary Leader.” It would probably be very different than anything anyone else would think of me.
J: Okay, so you’d go weird with it?
L: Yeah, I make everything a joke. I try to find humor in every situation. But it would definitely include the fact that I’m a parent. I’m a mother. Because that’s, like, the one thing that I've accomplished in my life that I’m proud of. But the rest would probably be a joke.
J: I love the short hair! Where do you go?
L: Thank you! You know, I randomly just wander into barber shops. It’s funny—people have found out so much about me as a human now. And I think they’re all very surprised. What happens is, I wake up one day, and being this creature of habit and planning I am, I think, “I want to be bald-headed today. Right now, immediately, I don’t want any more hair.” So I put a call out to Facebook, like “Who wants to cut my hair right now?” And whoever responds, I say “I’m coming to your shop, and afterwards I’ll promo you, I’ll put my haircut up and it’ll give you business,” and they say “come on.”
J: Well, it helps to have a huge following of people who love you and want to give you suggestions.
L: People are super super sweet and kind to me here. I appreciate it a ton. And people do accomodate my foolishness! You know, it’s funny because people are like “Oh, because you’re a judge,” no, people have accommodated my foolishness my whole life. And that’s how I’ve kind of grown up like that, you know? If I’m supposed to have a haircut, the universe will align in order for that to occur. And if not, it’s just not in the cards. And people are like, “Yeah, we know that’s just how you are.”
J: How was your trip to Thailand?
L: Oh my God, it was everything I needed when I went. Because, you know, I was here. And there were constant stories, and constant charges, and ultimately they were all being dismissed, but they wouldn’t stop happening. So it was my birthday, and I said to my sister, you know, I read Eat Pray Love a million times post-divorce, and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m having a total eat pray love moment, I’m done with court, there’s nothing I can do in Rochester, I’m not going to work, why don’t I go to Thailand? And just kind of fill my cup and meditate,” and my sister is just like “Yes, that’s an amazing idea.” And I mean, it was everything I expected it to be. It was great. You can live with monks, I literally did live with monks. I took on the precepts to act as a nun. I meditated with them every day, I ate one time a day, I slept on the floor…it was really really really really cool.
J: Did you actually seek out a monastery?
L: They call them wats, I went to a wat, and you can live in the wat for free—they have just temples laying around you can go stay in. And you don’t have to, but you can choose to live like them. So i lived in a wat, and there are a lot of vows. One of them was that I would only wear white, for example. So you can see in the photos, when I’m in Thailand on Instagram I’m in all white. You only eat one time a day, you wake up at three in the morning, and you meditate until around five in the morning, and then you go off to yourself and do whatever. The funny thing is though, you don’t really leave the monk’s… the Wat is in its own secluded area, so you don’t leave. So when I say you do whatever, you either clean up and do a service to the Wat, or you go somewhere by yourself and you meditate. So you spend your whole day primarily meditating, then around noon you eat lunch, then you meditate and you chant, then around 8 you meditate and you chant, and then go to bed. And do it again the next day. It was the coolest experience ever, and you do, literally, live right with them and eat with them and worship with them. And they’re very welcoming, you know, they want everyone to find enlightenment, so they’re like “Yeah, come!” And you can give a donation, but it’s free to stay there. It’s free to eat. It’s the coolest experience ever.
When I got to Thailand, I didn’t have any plan. Outside of, get the Hell out of Rochester. I thought, “I keep getting arrested and getting in trouble, and even if it goes away I don’t need that.” I was in Thailand when I found the retreat. I had heard about it, but I hadn’t researched it ahead of time, so I thought this was a novel, cool concept I stumbled upon. But apparently people knew about it already, and I could have done it here.
J: Okay, cool. So now, I saw yesterday you’re officially in the running for city council.
L: I thought I was already, but I am now officially in the running for the second time, so that’s exciting.
J: Does that feel like a really organic next step for you, or do you see it as a career shift that you’re taking very deliberately?
L: Ummm, I don’t think it’s a career shift. My career is law. And I’m still a lawyer, and by running for city council I don’t intend to abandon being an attorney at all. And having my private practice. So I don't think it’s a career shift. It was funny because I was talking to my sister about it and I was like, “You know it’s kind of logical that if city council is the legislative branch of the city… that a lawyer would be in a role as a city councilperson.” I don’t know that they’ve had lawyers previously, but I thought that made sense. It’s also kind of cool because I absolutely loved being a judge, but one of the bittersweet moments for me was closing my practice. Um, I remember, and my dad was there, he’s so funny. I remember going to my office and packing up, and some of the stuff I left and a lot of the stuff I donated to not for profits, but packing up and closing my door that I had gotten my name inscribed on, you know, it said “Law Office of Leticia Astacio,” and closing the door and tearing up. And my dad being like “Shut the hell up, what’s wrong with you? You’re a judge! Blah blah blah,” and I’m like, Papi, this was always my dream. Not knocking the experience, but my dream was not always to become a judge. I didn’t foresee that. My dream was to have my own practice. So when I did, and I had my office, and I had my little door I was kind of a big deal! And closing that… it was exciting to go be a judge, but it was like, this is mine. I’m walking away from something that’s mine. So it’s really cool that city council is not as much of a derailment in my career, as much as when I was a judge I literally had to retire from law. And I would sit there and complain to my law clerks, you know, “I never get trials.” I don’t have to walk away from those things that I love, I enjoy being on trial. I’ma trial attorney, so that was something I had to give up. Whereas now, this doesn’t change that as much.
J: So if anything, becoming a judge was a step away from your natural course.
L: Yeah, I mean you’re still doing the alw and you’re still applying the law, but in my court we really didn’t have trials. People typically pled or charges were resolved prior to a trial in some other way. And so, we definitely felt, it felt more like shuffling cases and almost like litigating them. In my particular court. Which is a good thing for defendants. You know, if people can get a disposition and they don’t have to take a risk with a trial that’s a great thing. But when you have to practice law, it’s like “where’s the law part in this?”
J: What do you see as the most promising industry or cultural scene in the city right now? That’s a really loaded question, I know.
L: That’s a super loaded question! I think it depends on your background. Like, for example, right now in Rochester, with a good amount of gentrification going on, I see a super trendy high-fashion, high-speed nightlife. RIght? The restaurant scene, and club scene, is huge. But, there’s a segment of the population that is experiencing the exact opposite. So while we see a huge resurgence of clubs downtown, we also see a group of promoters that, and it’s been all over the news lately, that every time they try to have a party at a venue that venue has a liquor license taken, or it gets closed down. So there are a lot of people who live in the inner city, particularly minorities, who are complaining that there’s nowhere for them to go. There’s nothing for them to do. And then on the flip side you see all these trendy, hip, cool restaurants popping up all over the place. So it’s a weird thing. We’ve got the thriving downtown scene for the new groups of people coming into Rochester, and then on the flipside we’ve got a lot of culturally relevant marketplaces popping up. You see a lot of black-owned business seminars. So both areas are developing, just in very different ways. And it would be nice if, in Rochester particularly because even though we tend to be a bit segregated, we are really diverse. It would be nice if we could bridge that gap and have those opportunities available for all groups of people.
J: I actually read recently that Rochester’s one of the most segregated communities in the country.
L: Yeah. I’ve lived here forever, so I kind of I think was a little unaware of that, and then I went to a suburban school, so it was kind of super thrust in my face, you know, that it was very different. I didn’t realize until I went to college, I think, that depending on your background that’s different. So when I went to college, right, I had my entire life grown up with non-people of color. I had been around Italians, and Jewish people, and all different types of white people my whole life. But when I went to college I met a lot of people who had never been around black people. And it was so weird to me, I remember one, it was the craziest conversation ever. It was a compliment, and we were friends so we were able to have this conversation, and he goes “I’ve never met a black person, and I thought everyone was like the girls from Boyz n the Hood. And you’re really smart and you’re not like that at all.” And I remember at first being a little offended, and then backing up and thinking “That’s the only representation you’ve ever had of what a person of color was like, and that’s what you thought, and I’m glad we have a relationship where you could say that to me so we could move past that.” I think it’s hard for people to understand that, because if you grow up in a segregated environment, even if you live in a place where there’s not a lot of white people, you’re still exposed to them through television and books and other mechanisms, where sometimes people of color are portrayed in a very negative light and nobody gets to see them in a different light, you know? Until a long time has passed. So it’s a little sad, even when you look at what I call gentrification in this city, there are pockets where it feels like it’s okay… and again, you can see segregation very very clearly. Like, this is a safe street, this is a street we don’t go on yet. I was optimistic because I know there are tax credits, and the studies are very clear that if you want to get rid of poverty, what you need to do is break up large concentrations of poverty. So there are tax credits that say if you put low income people with high income people, we all balance out, we meet people in different income brackets, and we expand our horizons, and so I hope that that’s where we’re going. I don’t know if that’s exactly what I’m seeing from the new restaurants and the new bars, but I hope that’s where we’re going. Because there’s some templates for how to change the problems that we’re encountering, and I hope that’s the goal. To change them, to solve these problems.
J: Do you want to talk about your city council race?
L: I’m still happy to talk about it. I mean, it’s what I’m about. There are definitely inequalities that people see and people experience, and if you’re not experiencing them then it’s easy to say they don’t exist. Because they don’t exist to you. And it’s not an intentional slight, you’re not trying to degrade or pretend someone’s experience doesn't exist, it just doesn’t happen to you, so you don’t know it. But that’s what I’ve been interested in in local politics. I think there’s a good number of people here who do want to change, I think we have a lot of resources here in Rochester and people want it to be better here, they just don’t know how to go about making that happen.
J: One thing I always like to talk to people about is their opinions on kind of the public transportation debate that we have. Where do you stand on that, because obviously it would be great to see something like a light rail, or a subway coming back, but do you think our population growth is supporting that, or…
L: I think that eventually it will. I think right now it’s really hard, because New York State has people leaving in droves, and really high taxes, and we have, I think that they’re kind of positioning Rochester to be like this new silicon valley, when they're saying this tech stuff might start here. And if we have a bunch of tech stuff, then absolutely. Because you get tech stuff, you get young people, you get innovators who want to be downtown, but maybe they’re introverted and they’re strange, they don’t want to live downtown, I think definitely. Right now I think it would be better to build it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Sometimes we get carried away on projects that are distractions, like the red light tickets. That was a huge thing, a multi million dollar project, or the ferry, that was a big huge thing. But like, can our kids graduate? Can we just refocus quick and work on the graduation rate? Because if you build it they will come. If you have a school district your kids can go to and succeed then we don’t have to worry about ferries enticing people to come because your kids can go to school and succeed. But I know lots of people who intentionally move out of the city because, first of all, if you live on east ave or any of the fancy shmancy places you’re already paying ten or twelve thousand dollars a year in taxes, then you have to add private school to that? You just don’t want to do it. So… I don’t even remember what your question was initially, I’m sorry. But I think we get carried away with, like, the public transportation idea, it doesn’t affect me so I should shut up. It’s probably a good idea not to buy gas, and let people ride bikes, but I think we need to stop finding initiatives to spend money on and focus on some of the existing problems we have. That are priorities.
J: I think that’s a great perspective. You mentioned on Facebook yesterday that you can’t stop losing weight! Can you tell me about some of the habits you’ve developed/changed, and advice for everyone struggling with their own weight loss?
L: It’s totally not healthy. I try to be very transparent about this, because people are like “What are you doing?!” And when I have intentionally gone to the gym and changed my eating habits, I've been like “do this! Do this!” This time I just got super stressed out and my stomach decided it hated food. It was not intentional, I’m still fat so I try and eat everything, I’m just not able to. I’ll start eating, and I’ll have to eat pretty slowly and be like “Do you like this, stomach? How are you feeling?” And check in with it, and it’s just not cooperating with me. So it is not any, in fact now, to be honest, I eat trash. Way more than I ever did before, because I can eat such little food that when I do eat I feel like I should be able to eat whatever I want to. So NOBODY follow me, I am nobody’s idea of what you should eat, I eat all the trash in the world. Before, I did. Like when I was trying to lose weight before, I supplemented with protein shakes, and I made green shakes, and I went to the gym. Like when this all happened, if you look at photos of me when I first, first went to court, oh my god. I was a beast. I was in the gym five days a week, I was doing weight lifting, I was drinking protein shakes. Now I’ve lost all my gains, and I just can’t eat, and I’m dwindling away to nothing. It’s not anything impressive guys, don’t do this at home.
J: Okay, that’s a good PSA!
L: When I first started making videos about gastroparesis when they were diagnosing me, I was losing 20 pounds a month. It was insane. It’s balanced out a little, I think I’m 175 now, but I haven’t weighed 175 since I was like 7 years old. [laughs] So it’s really weird for me, and it’s not intentional. I did just start going back to the gym, because weight loss without exercise is not… I’ve never done it before, before I always lifted, and now this time, I’m like “Oh…. I’m like a melted candle over here.” It’s just very different when you don’t do the weights, so I’ve gone back to the weights but this was not an intentional thing.
J: What is your favorite thing to do in the summer that you can’t do in the winter?
L: Go to the beach. The beach is my favorite place in the world, I don’t know why I wasn’t born at someone’s ocean house. In fact one of my biggest regrets leaving Thailand is that I didn’t make it to the beach. I was in the mountains in Chanbury, and we were nowhere near anything cool. So I did not make it to a beach, I love the beach. And I actually do go in the winter too, it’s just a lot less fun because it’s really cold here. But you can catch me at Charlotte Beach in the wintertime, like on the water. I love the beach.
J: Do you boat, or paddle too? Or mostly sit in the sand?
L: It’s really unfair, I get crazy motion sickness. So I have been known to get in a boat or two and throw up on everyone, because I’m just like, “It’s so great! I should be in the middle of the ocean or water,” and I get really bad motion sickness. So I will swim (not in charlotte because I don’t want to die), so I usually just sit there and watch the sunset. But in other climates, yes, I will be in everybody’s water all the time. I love tanning, I love getting in boats, they just don’t love me back. So, yeah. That’s my happy place.
J: Guilty pleasure TV show?
L: Oh my goodness! I am, like, queen of trash TV. I have eliminated most of the trash TV from my life, so this is less embarrassing.
J: You can make a list if you want!
L: At one point in time there would have been and it would have been, like, “Real” everything. But right now it’s just the housewives of Atlanta. I’m all wrapped up in their lives, I can’t get enough of them, and I’m always like “How did you get this job?” Because people follow me with cameras all day, and I do not get $250,000 an episode. So can someone give me a call? Because I’m already doing this for free [laughs] . So that’s probably my favorite ratchet reality television show right now. And, not for nothing, but you watch it and you’re like, “you guys are in your fifties. I’m not doing so bad. [laughs] You’re throwing wine bottles and you’re 50+ years old. So if I didn’t fight anyone today, I’m winning at life.”
J: I love that people can watch super trashy TV shows and be totally self aware about it. So in college my media ethics professor LOVED The Bachelorette. She would show us clips from it to give us breaks from class, but like, she’s teaching media literacy! She would have conversations with students about who she thinks is going to be next and everything. I think that’s all the questions I have written down for you… What should I ask you? [laughs]
L: I have no idea. I don’t even know why you guys want to interview me! So, I read Shonda Rhimes Year of Yes… I'm obsessed with Shonda Rhimes. I love all of her shows except for “How to Get Away With Murder” because it just got really weird. But I used to like that too. And I think that I’m like going through, I have periods of yes, I’m going to try and do a year of yes myself. I’m about to turn 38 years old, so I think that’s my challenge to myself. So you reached out, and I was going through my year of yes, but I’m like “Yeah. I don’t even know what they want to know about me, but I'll figure that out when I get there!” So I don’t have an agenda, I just was in my yes segment of life. So I said yes! Anything you want to ask me.
L: It’s fine for me! In the picture you showed me, I looked like a whole little angel. So I was fine with it, my skin looks so good in this lighting!
M: Yeah, the setup really worked. And hopefully, moving forward, this is going to be a reoccurring thing. By all means, it’s kind of cool to use the same setup.
J: Yeah. So this is for a new column called…[we changed the name]
Jane: Well, that’s tentative. Because I love that name, but I also have to figure out how it’s going to integrate into the rest of the magazine.
J: We have a new column which is short conversations with interesting people in the community. Tentatively titled.
Jane: And you are very interesting.
L: Well! [laughs] From what I’ve been told, I don’t know why, but apparently I am an interesting person. And people are interested in me, whether they like me or not! People who hate me seem to be the most interested! Like, you don’t like me. Why are you still watching? [laughs] But that’s been my experience. And I talked to Adam [Chodak], I went down, and I went “Adam, it’s been a week, do you still want to talk?” And he’s like “Yes. We always want to talk. Because if you want to talk, the people want to listen.” And I’m like, “The people who want to listen hate me.” He’s like, “That doesn’t matter.” Which I don’t understand. I don't like to listen to people I don’t like. That’s strange to me. If I determined that I didn’t like what you were saying, I’d probably never listen to anything you ever said again.
J: Well I hope you’d tell me!
L: Oh, that’s the first thing I’d say. That’s the bad part. I’d say, “I don’t like you.” And then I’d turn off your channel. That’s the bad thing I do, and that’s how I make enemies. So that’s always weird to me, like why follow people you don’t like? So anyway, I’m honored to be the first person. This is very exciting!
John Ernst is a lifelong Rochesterian and (585)’s editor-at-large. You can see more of his work at johnmwrites.com.