Back in those days, in Compton in the 1950s and early 60s, I always went by my full given name, TerryLynn. I was deeply rooted in my mixed-race neighborhood, and in the Compton City School District. My best friend was Japanese and Mexican. My friend next door was Bolivian and her mother loved me like a daughter. On Saturday nights I slept over and drank in the sounds, scents, language, foods and all things Bolivian.
We lived in a corner of Compton, California, bordering the city of Paramount, near Manuel Dominguez High School, in Compton. I’d walk to the neighborhood meat market where the butcher sliced twenty-five cents worth of baloney for my brown bag school lunch. My school PE jersey had Compton printed across the font and when we won the playoff games, we were Compton and we were proud. I had visions of attending Dominguez High with my classmates, friendships I’d forged since kindergarten.
And just when I had found my rhythm and had everything all figured out—my family moved. The reason for our move was to move up. My mom and dad wanted to lift me out of our extremely diverse, mixed-race, lower income bracket, high crime neighborhood. With the move, the plan was for me to begin assimilating in a whiter working-class neighborhood, so I could get in with what my parents thought would be a “better” crowd of kids. Except I had no idea how to do it. You can take the girl out of the neighborhood, but you can’t take the neighborhood out of the girl.
In my corner of Compton, with two tiers, white and everyone who wasn’t white, I fit in and I knew what was expected of me. When we moved, my parents urged (pushed) me into making friends with white kids. Except there are different rules and things necessary to know in order to move into a white crowd, and it’s not easy being the new girl, from Compton.
When I began attending a new school in South-Downey in Los Angeles county, I didn’t know how to measure up to white standards. The city of Downey is divided into two halves. North Downey is the uppity white section and South Downey, where we lived, is the mixed-race lower end. My high school was a mix of kids from the north and south. My parents had not moved up far enough and our zip code downgraded us. My skin and eyes were light enough to pass as white, but I had not been raised, or groomed to think or behave as a white person, and within white social circles everything about me was all wrong.
After we moved, in order to try to blend in I went to the land of magical thinking and began telling some of the kids in my new neighborhood that my name was Debbie. Like if I could become a different person, I would fit in. Within a week or two I ditched Debbie. Most of all, I didn’t want to pass as white. I didn’t feel like me anymore and that’s when I decided to shorten my name. I became Terry—instead of TerryLynn. In high school I went by Terry, and I don’t remember as much as I wish I could about high school; those years are foggy memories.
When I began my first full-time job, while trying to work my way through college, I made a spur of the moment decision to begin going by a childhood nickname given to me by my aunt. Auntie Joan often called me t-leaf. But sometimes she also called me Terra. As a kid I was always in and around and of the land. When I began a new chapter of my life in adulthood, I decided to walk forward as Terra.
Years later when I met the man I would marry, his last name was Trevor. I wanted to keep the last name I was born with. It was important to me. Yet the idea of changing my last name to Trevor was irresistible. A decade later, Terra Trevor began to write and publish.
But in 1998, when my son was 15, he talked me into going by Terry for a while, as a self-discovery experiment. When we went to South Korea together, I went by Terry. It was the oddest feeling, Terry made me feel like I was returned to high school, so when we returned to the United States I returned to Terra, where I have remained. Terra was on solid ground and I journeyed on.
Sometimes I visited my long-loved friend who had moved to New Mexico. In high school he went by his first name, Tom, and when he was twenty-five and moved, he switched to his middle name. But I changed his name to Luke in my forthcoming memoir.
For me names have a lot to do with packing up and getting ready to move.
I’ve traveled a long road to get to Terra, and it's the nickname I will use for the rest of my days on earth. But what I know for sure is that I'm carrying TerryLynn from Compton, with me, and I will never erase myself again.