Upendra Chivukula: We need representation
Chivukula with former NJ Governor Jim Florio
His story is the embodiment of the American dream – landing in the US with few dollars in pocket, beginning his work in politics as a community organizer in the 80s to being the first Indian-American elected to the New Jersey legislature in 2002. Now Upendra Chivukula is taking his passion and fight to Washington where he'll fight for the middle class and spur economic growth. As a candidate for New Jersey's 7th Congressional District while he's steadily finding support from various quarters, he feels Indian Americans "badly need
representation." "I think one of the important things need to be known is that of 435 members in House of Representatives and 100 Senators not one is an Indian American and even though we have what we know as Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans in the US House of Representatives, we don't have a single representation there too," says Chivukula. "We as a community have been trying to get a stamp for Diwali and we are not able to make it happen. It is a small thing but makes a big difference," he says.
With Maryland Delegate Kumar Barve
At Baishakhi event
As a Congressional candidate he wants to address important issues concerning the community. "Loans for higher education and comprehensive immigration policy or the lack of it are some of the important issues. I understand the hardships that companies and individuals go through."
Assemblyman Chivukula rose from humble beginnings to become the man he is today. Born in Nellore, India, he moved to Chennai as a two-year old as his father searched for work. Living with his parents, grandmother, and five siblings in a hut, there was never enough money to go around. Undaunted, he worked hard to receive a merit scholarship to study engineering at the College of Engineering Guindy (Anna University) in Chennai.
Speaking at BioNJ
In 1973-74 when he was living in Mumbai, a family friend who saw his ability suggested that he move to the US for better prospects. "I was quite content with India. I was grateful to India as it has given me so much," he says. With only $20 to spare, he applied to City College, New York and his application got accepted. With not enough time left to work on seeking financial aid, he went for his visa interview with sponsorship letters from his family friends settled in the US, Gopalbhai and Krishnabhai Desai. "The visa officer rejected it outright. He said clearly they are Gujaratis, you are not, why should we believe that they will support you," he says.
The next time he applied, he met with the same fate as this time he didn't have sufficient bank balance to show. Not one to give up, Gopalbhai Desai lent him $4000 cash to deposit in his account, which he did and got his visa finally. "It was god sent," he says. In 1974 he immigrated to the United States and received a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering.
While in college, he worked in the library to pay the bills but needed more to pay for the tuition. Someone suggested to approach English Tutoring Lab. The Lab asked him to give a test which he passed despite being a Telugu medium student and ended up teaching English to American kids.
After his studies Chivukula started working and gained professional experience of many years. "That was the time when Watergate was going on, there was a lot of political turbulence and I was trying to understand and become part of it," he says. "I was trying to get our community engaged. Not so much to run for office but I wanted to see that politically we get more active, motivated at grassroots level." By his own admission his political journey has surpassed his expectations. "Americans received me with open arms. I have been elected in areas where Indian American population was 5-7 per cent. I have the across the community appeal. Also feel I have been privileged to get opportunity from, encouragement from others. Makes me feel very good, quite optimistic about the progress our community can make politically," he says. Ask him if he faced any discrimination and he says, "Sometimes people dwell on name and accent but those are not important things. When you go out there in mainstream and help people, you get completely immersed in that community and work for their betterment, things are different. They see that he has education, he has ability, he can represent us like anybody else."
Upendra Chivukula is currently serving fifth term in the NJ State Assembly representing the 17th district, which encompasses six central New Jersey towns. He is currently Deputy Speaker, New Jersey Assembly. He is married to Dayci for 34 years and has a son Suraj and a daughter Damianty. He is very proud to have retained Indian values and continues to promote India in various aspects of his life.
[ BY Hiral Dholakia-Dave ]