This week's SFist Memoirs contributor is Reynaldo R. Cayetano Jr., a self-taught film photographer whose collective Inks of Truth — a Guardian Best of the Bay 2011 winner — has been engaging and empowering the Sixth Street neighborhood through the arts. Reynaldo grew up on Sixth Street when his family moved to San Francisco from the Philippines in 1993 when he was six years old. Be sure to peruse his collection of photographs, some of which were published by Hamburger Eyes in Rey's 2011 zine, Sixth Sense.

As a kid in the Philippines, I had never met my dad because he was traveling and working abroad when I was born. When I was six, he came and gave me a toy, and my mom told me he was my dad. I was like, "You're a dad."

And then he said, "I'm here to take you away."

And I was like, "I hate you. Don't take me away." I didn't want to leave the Philippines, since my family was there and that's where I grew up.

Then we came here to Sixth Street, which is a gateway for Filipino immigrants. One of the most vivid memories I have was our first meal. My dad cooked rice and hot dogs, and I was like, "Oh my God. Hot dogs and rice and ketchup. I love America!" I still eat that today. It's very Filipino.

Sixth Street was a rough place to grow up in, a lot rougher than now. It was a very culturally grouped and disenfranchised neighborhood. There were times when there wasn't any food in the fridge.

My mom and dad were both working full-time jobs. There was nobody to pick me up after school. I was shy and and fell through a lot of cracks in terms of social programs. I hung out a lot and played basketball, and I really got to see the threads of Sixth Street. Playing basketball was a great way to let out my anger and frustration.

I was always an observer growing up. I've never been in a fight in my life, but I've seen stabbings. I've heard shootings. It's safe to say — and it's sad to say — that hearing gunshots doesn't bother me. I watched my friend get shot. I've seen drive-bys. I've seen drive-bys where they park and shoot each other. My window overlooks the neighborhood, so I had a front row seat to some of the violence.

Growing up, it was a stab every time someone asked me where I lived. I just said I lived on Mission Street instead of Sixth Street. It came with the connotations of, "You're struggling." Later on, that became my tool to have solidarity in my community and create a voice for the neighborhood.

I started photography because my first camera, which was a Nikkormat FT2, was supposed to be for my friend for her 21st birthday, but she passed away two months before I was able give it to her. I found it on her birthday and thought, "I can't let this go to waste. I gotta pick it up and teach myself." That was in December 2008. I'm just starting my fourth year of doing photography. Like basketball, it was a way to exert my frustrations. It was a way to heal from a tragedy. She was a real good friend of mine.

Like any art form it starts off as journal-style, to yourself, and then once you realize you have a talent for it, you start sharing it with your friends. If you share it with your friends, then you start sharing it with strangers, and having exhibitions of your work. One of our breakthrough art spaces last year was at DA Arts on Sixth Street through the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Our tenure was April 1st through early August, and it became a safe haven for people in the community.

Sixth Street is very under-represented and misrepresented. There were about four shootings right in front of the venue when we were there. The media will come in and scapegoat us and start talking about the Asian versus black gangs. I'm Asian, so that's creating a stigma over my head. Like I'm supposed to hate every black person on the street, and they're supposed to feel a threat when they see me. It's heartbreaking.

My goal is to see some headlines about Inks of Truth, like "Peace on Sixth Street." Inks of Truth has actually had over a dozen peaceful events, but you don't see those in the papers. It's very underground and grassroots, and I'm proud of that. It just shows how incompetent the writers are. There's such a detachment between these people and their jobs. They probably write articles from behind their desks and have never even set foot on Sixth Street. But there are so many cultures there. You can't forget that.

The reason I'm doing all my shows on Sixth Street is because I want to make the neighborhood a center for art, and it's already had tangible results. People are empowered by it. People are saying, "If Rey's doing it, I'm going to take videos on my phone of police harassing people. I'm going to know my rights."

Being raised on Sixth Street, or even in San Francisco, gave me this self-taught knowledge, and I understand the value of communication. Sixth Street is very face-to-face, and you get to talk to a lot of people. Downtown, people won't give you a second to talk to them. They all have their iPods on and are walking fast, but on Sixth Street it's a community. It feels like its own separate city at times. It taught me to utilize my skills as a speaker, embracing and applying the values of hard work.

I'm working on bringing together a bunch of different organizations so I can teach the community to document the neighborhood themselves rather than outside people trying to depict this "SoMa lifestyle." I hate this word — gentrification. I'm all for the progression of a neighborhood jobs-wise and economically, but you have to focus on the residents who have been here.

Reynaldo's current class, Photography 37A, which is a street photography class consisting of both first-timers and experienced shooters, will be exhibiting their work as part of Made You Look on Saturday, March 17th at 923 Market Street Rooky Records / Glass Key Photo at 448 Haight Street.

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