Dayci Chivukula

“I just want to say that throughout my life, from Cuba to here, education, not only getting education but making sure that other people also have access to it, to share whatever you can, to educate others, have taken a big priority in my life.” This has been the driving force that propelled Dayci to survive, thrive, and make great strides in life.

Lucretia Dayci Chivukula was born in 1953 in Havana, Cuba. Growing up in the cultural district of Havana she was surrounded by art and creative people. “What I remember about my childhood was music and sea. If I was happy, I would go to the sea. If I was sad, I would go to the sea and contemplate, and it did help me that we had the sea, so deep and so close by.”  Her fondest memory is that of sitting in the park with older people “listening to their stories. I used to love their stories. That had a great influence in my life later, because as a teacher, I went ahead, and I said a lot of stories.”

“I have always defined myself, all my life, as an educator, not only an educator in concept but an educator in things in life.” Dayci credits her maternal grandmother Rosa Valdivia and mother Virgilia Sira Zarona for instilling the love for education and teaching early on, and always encouraging her to pursue her dreams even when the going got tough as it did on many occasions throughout her life. Rosa a self-taught seamstress, and singer taught herself to read “wrote a lot of poetry” was always present to encourage and support Dayci.  Growing up Dayci saw her mother unlock great potential in her students and realized early on that what her mother was doing was more than imparting education. She was helping build her community and giving a new life to many youngsters who might otherwise have been lost forever. “I learned early on that in life you cannot sit down and blame. I always feel that in life you must take charge” and so she did. The question uppermost in her mind was always “What can I do?” and how can I achieve my dreams.

Growing up in a multi-racial, multi-cultural family made Dayci very sensitive to the many hidden biases seen in society all over the world. “Cuba is like a melting pot. We have elements from Africans, Spaniards, and Native Indians, and even East Indians and Chinese.” Her paternal great grandmother was from India. Her dad Jacobo Gustavo she says was a first generation “mulatto” which means the “mix of Africans, and the Spaniards.” Dayci’s family besides being multiracial followed different religions. A practicing Catholic herself she embraced the Yoruba religion and syncretism and strongly believes that it played “a key role in the whole island’s identity, because it permeated into the culture, the arts, the performing arts, and the folklore.” She feels this also made it easy for her to embrace and respect her future husband’s Hindu faith. Her oldest uncle who was a successful journalist was gay and she remembers how hard it was for him to live openly and be accepted by society. She also noticed how some members of her family including her uncle who were “fairer” had an advantage over those with darker skins.

Dayci was recognized when she was two for her exceptional abilities and her benefactor enrolled her in a private school. This gave her a real head start in reading and learning. However, her carefree childhood days spent going to her favorite ice-cream, drinking guarapo (sugarcane juice), learning in school, and playing with friends changed dramatically when she was six years old. “When the revolution came to power, it was in 1959, and I do remember it as certain as it was today. It affected us somehow personally.” The political turmoil, unrest, and chaos taking hold the serene happy memories of childhood began to recede. Her grandfather lost his job. Neighbors lost their homes. She remembers that they survived from this repression only because her mother who was divorced by now was dating someone from Castro’s security team. “When you are a child, you are defined by your social interaction and your education” and the revolution disrupted both.

The years that followed were harsh and the only thing that kept Dayci going was her determination and support from her family. Her private school was shut down and she joined the “government regulated public school.” Being ahead of other students she became “really goal-oriented, and for me it was a shame not to get a hundred in something because I knew I could do it.” While excelling in academics she also wrote poems, rhymes, and even some screenplays.

Dayci was heartbroken when one day she saw some of her classmates led by her best friend carrying a sign that read “We are against Dayci”. She found out that her friends were doing this because they felt she was being favored by the teacher. Determined Dayci decided “I am going to turn this around” and invited all her friends for lemonade and cake to her grandmother’s house. “I will teach you how to get hundred” and in that instant Dayci, a fifth grader then, created her “first classroom”. “After that I became very popular, but I never spoke to my best friend again (laughter) That’s for sure.”

Dayci joined the “Programa de Monitores” which was for those who wanted to explore teaching. Having excelled in the program she was able to join the “Preuniversitario” program in a prestigious school because of her grades. She soon realized that she did not “fit in socially”. Facing class discrimination, she transferred to another school in Central Havana to complete her studies. Dayci learned the hard way that discrimination due to class, color, gender, education, and wealth all continued to exist even in Communist Cuba.

Her grandmother who was “always the motor, the engine behind every move” decided that they “had to leave the country to make any progress” had submitted paperwork that would allow Dayci and the rest of her family to leave Cuba. When the school found out that she was going to leave the country she was labeled a “gusana” or worm and the principal shredded all her academic records saying that “the revolution was not going to educate me to make money in the United States.” Defiant Dayci let her hair down and told the principal “Well, I am waiting for you to put my head in the shredder because that’s where the real knowledge is. Your papers are just papers.” So, while “blackballed” and unable to finish her high school education Dayci walked away with a burning desire to study and forge her own path.

Dayci at sixteen found herself “kicked out of school”, a haven for a child who was taught to value education. “Then, not only that, but they kicked my mother out of her position as a teacher, and they kicked my grandfather out of his job, so we had no money.” She had to find a way to support them and her younger brother, so she decided to “offer tutoring service for little kids and grownups.” While this was risky because according to Dayci “if they had caught me doing that, I would have been given a big fine or put for some time in jail because of that.” While life became tough her education helped her family survive in these difficult times.

The political climate became worse with the Bay of Pigs invasion followed by the Cuban Missile crisis and leaving Cuba became even more riddled with bureaucratic obstacles. Dayci had developed a thriving tutoring business by the time when she found out her application to leave the country was under reexamination by the immigration office. She visited the office daily only to be told by the officer “You cannot not leave the country. You are no longer eligible.” Tired of the daily visits one day the officer challenged her “You have seventy-two hours for your family to put money for all four of you to leave through another country.”

Dayci with the help of her grandmother was able to raise enough money. The officer while shocked at her resourcefulness had no choice but to give her the permission. However, he assigned her to work in the fields until the permission to leave the country came through. It was tough working with an all-male group of farm workers but when the farmer realized she could teach he hired her to tutor her daughters. Once again education came to her rescue. She began to help around the house, teach, and was rewarded with milk, and other foods for her family. Then the immigration officer decided that had to work in florist shop next to a funeral home. While this took away the advantage of bringing food home, she met a lot of people who like her were planning to leave the country.

Finally, when she was around twenty years old, she got permission to leave Cuba for Spain with her family in 1973. She looked out the window of the plane to take a snapshot of the island in her heart and “to never ever feel the need to come back to this country again.” Dayci felt the excitement that people felt in the plane. “Everybody was happy and felt liberated. They were coming to a better world” but Dayci the pragmatist knew that there would be more challenges to face and braced herself for the worst. They had left Cuba with “suitcases filled with rags” because to “leave without a suitcase meant that you didn’t have anything, and it would have been a bad thing for them.”

Dayci found that Spain while ruled by the dictator Francisco France “while not a democracy, was certainly more organized.” Madrid as a city was not safe for women and while she was able to find work, she had to fight stereotypes prevalent in Europe that Latinas “would do anything they wanted for money.” Her education and math skills helped her eventually get a job as a cashier and inventory manager but as an immigrant she experienced exploitation by her employers and was almost kidnapped while returning from work one day.

After surviving in these difficult circumstances for two years the American embassy granted her family permission to immigrate to the United States. Winning a lottery ticket out of sheer luck helped the family buy their passage to America and they landed in J.F. Kennedy airport in 1974. They moved in for some time with their father who lived in a Fort Apache, a very run-down neighborhood in the Bronx. Her stepmom kept reminding them about how expensive it was and Dayci remembers thinking “I didn’t step in the United States in the land of plenty. I came in the United States in a place that I didn’t really want to be” and knew she had to find a way to get out of it. The biggest challenge of course was that she did not the speak the English language well. After a bad experience in job hunting through the welfare office she decided that “if she wanted to get ahead in this country” she needed to learn the language. She started watching soap operas like As the World Turn and Guiding Light to pick up the language. She remembers using the phrase she learned “I have a wonderful idea” every time she had the opportunity and “that was my beginning of the English language”.

Soon she joined the Manpower program developed to help youth upgrade their skills. Since she knew typing, she took courses offered under Business Office Practice (BOP). She excelled in her courses and decided that she wanted to go to college. She recalls people saying, “The audacity of this women” when she kept telling people around her that “I am going to college.” She passed her diagnostic test with a near perfect score and shocked all around her when the City of New York offered her a full scholarship to any college within the CUNY system. She decided to pursue a degree in architecture in 1975 while still completing the BOP program. While her family was more settled and reunited in Uptown Manhattan, they were still struggling to make ends meet. She turned down a factory job explaining to her family that “If I take care of the present, I am going to be blocking my future. If I do well, all of you are going to be doing well.”

Dayci began to pursue her academics in earnest and began working in the architecture library to support her family. Here she met her future husband Upendra Chivukula, an electrical engineering student who was also supporting his family by working at the library. While pursuing her degree, the City of New York went bankrupt and suddenly Dayci realized that architecture may not be the best field to pursue. So, she changed her major to Spanish Theater with a minor in anthropology. Dayci married Upendra in November 1976 and moved to Ocean Township.

While studying Dayci had her first child, but she continued to attend college and working hard to build a life together with Upendra. She was surprised to learn that in the United States moving to a suburb was equated with upward mobility because in Cuba the outskirts were for those who could not afford to live in the city. she settled, she was surprised by what she calls “extreme democracy” where people could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.” She had grown up in a country where “you had to do whatever you told”. This freedom gave her the opportunity to pursue academics and build a life she had only imagined for herself and pursue the quintessential American dream of owning a house. So, when Upendra found a job in Pennsylvania they moved to Hatfield, near Allentown. They continued to live there even after Upendra got a job with AT&T in New Jersey as it allowed them to save a lot of money. They were finally able to buy a house and move to Howell in 1982.

 

She was surprised to find that her son was always unhappy and felt he had no friends. Then she also found out that the teachers instead of calling his son by his name referred to him as “Brown Boy”. She was saddened to see this and “did not want her son to grow up filled with scars.” She was doing her Masters in Spanish and working as a Teaching Assistant in Rutgers, so they decided to move to Franklin Township. They decided to become more involved in their community and Upendra joined the political club in town. The transition to this more “cosmopolitan and very well integrated town” was “easy, nice, and enjoyable. She found “a home” in Rutgers and later also joined the Catholic institution St. Peters High School in New Brunswick as a teacher.

Dayci and Upendra had agreed right from the beginning to do “equal part for Spanish culture and Indian culture.” While she spoke to her children in Spanish she says ‘their Spanish is no good. “Never tell anybody that your mother is a Spanish teacher because it will embarrass me” Dayci told her children laughingly. She taught most of the undergraduate classes in Rutgers and was responsible for getting the grant for the University to study the culture of the Guaranis people of South America. She also taught a course called “Methodology of Second Language Acquisition” and the Language Institute and she helped Rutgers develop a teacher’s training program. After teaching for fourteen years in St. Peters she got a teaching certificate and started working for the West Windsor-Plainsboro District. She retired after twenty years of teaching Spanish to middle-schoolers here.

While Dayci was pursuing her career in academics Upendra was becoming more involved in politics. “I was never the silent Chivukula. I was always the very vocal Chivukula. We only wanted to serve. When I say we, and I include myself, because he was the one running, but I was never behind. You know how they say, “Behind every man there is a woman”? No, I was side by side to him every step of the way. I consider in my life that being one of my biggest achievements.” Dayci was instrumental in bringing awareness to Upendra about the advantages of early intervention which led Chivukula to the champion the cause and pass a bill in New Jersey.

“I like to contribute my time to advocate for the rights of children with disabilities and for victims of domestic violence”. Dayci is passionate about community involvement and spends a great deal of time supporting local programs. She actively participates in the Share Your Foodways program, the St. Peters Care Clinic which runs a diabetes prevention initiative focused on South Asians, and even volunteers as a translator to help people overcome language barrier. Even though she had retired from teaching students she is very much involved with the Spanish teachers in West Windsor-Plainsboro District. She continues to help her family both in America and back home and is very engaged in raising her grandchildren – “The world is changing rapidly. I hope they work hard to achieve their dreams and that I am around to see them having a happy and productive life.”