A ‘Dreamer’ living the American dream succeeds in the restaurant business

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UNION, NJ — For Lizeth Morales, the owner of Union’s El Gordo restaurant on Morris Avenue, her success story almost never happened.

“I came here when I was 6 years old, and I was brought by my parents,” Lizeth said on Wednesday, Feb. 24. “They’d decided, like many immigrants, that this country had better opportunities and it would be able to give them a chance to build the life that we wouldn’t be able to have back home. For many years, I’ve lived as a ‘Dreamer.’”

“Dreamers” are named for the never-passed DREAM Act, which would have allowed young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children to remain here if they meet certain criteria. Opponents argue that the DREAM Act encourages illegal immigration, hurts American workers and rewards people for breaking the law. In 2012, President Barack Obama issued the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act did not pass in Congress several times. In 2017, President Donald Trump ordered an end to DACA, which shields some young, undocumented immigrants from deportation. It’s ending would mean that, over time, 800,000 young adults brought to the United States as children who qualified for the program would become eligible for deportation. On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA.

“I still went to school, worked many different jobs and, as a ‘Dreamer,’ you don’t qualify for any financial aid or student loans,” she continued. “Thanks to my parents’ help and myself working many different jobs, I was able to pay my way through college and graduated.”

Morales, a first-generation college graduate, earned her degree from William Paterson University in 2005.

“I took many risks,” Morales said. “I landed a job at Blinds To Go, where I worked for about six years in their management training program. I built a career, where I grew from sales associate all the way up to general manager, and here I was, at the age of 29, living this life that my parents had risked their lives to come to this country for. I was living the American dream, and I had my preferred career, I was a college graduate, but there was also this dark cloud hanging over my head where, underneath all that, I was this undocumented immigrant, a ‘Dreamer’ trying to adjust my legal status in this country. I’ve always been very career ambitious, so for me, getting married wasn’t something that I wanted. If adjusting my status meant for me to settle down and get married, I didn’t want that. I wanted to keep building my career and become financially independent.”

In 2012, everything changed for Morales. Living in Garfield, she was on her way to work in Hartsdale, N.Y., when she was pulled over for what she thought was a routine police stop, because she had been on her cell phone. Instead, the officer identified himself as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and asked for her documents. Three undercover vehicles pulled up behind her car.

“For so many years, I’d been trying to adjust my status and had gone to see countless immigration lawyers, and, at that point, where my status stood, I was in the process of being petitioned by my mother because my mother is a U.S. citizen. But because I wasn’t a minor, it just was taking very long,” she said. “But my lawyer would always tell me, given my status, should I come across immigration, there is that chance that I could be detained or deported. But I never committed any crimes or wrongdoing, so I was told they’re not looking for people like me. I was always working. Being a good citizen, I always thought there was no way that they would come and look for me. To face that truth, that you just don’t think it’ll happen to you, it was very scary at that moment.”

Morales was detained and processed by I.C.E. and spent 17 days in an immigration detention center in Elizabeth. Her father was detained on the very same day.
“I’ll never forget … them taking my fingerprints, asking me questions, and, at one point, I see the doors open and my father walk in in handcuffs. It just broke me because here was my dad — who’s lived in this country at that time for more than 20 years and who has never even had a parking ticket, that’s how much of a righteous man he was and worked three jobs and did everything he could to build a better life and provide for his family — detained by I.C.E., so helpless and in handcuffs,” she said.

Although Morales was eventually released, her father was deported. That they were arrested on the same day had been no coincidence.

“It turns out that I.C.E. was looking for us for reasons that are unknown to us,” said Morales. “They had been following me that morning because, when I got pulled over, I was about three blocks away from home. When they detained my dad, he was actually at his job and getting ready to start the day. They pulled up in the parking lot of his job. So, they had been looking for us both. It’s not like we were out drinking and driving and happened to get arrested. They were looking for us for whatever reason. To this day, they wouldn’t tell us why they were looking for us.”

This experience ultimately became the catalyst Morales needed to dig deep and start her own business, in the restaurant industry. She drew inspiration from her mother, who also had her own restaurant; it’s an industry Morales grew up in and has now been involved in for almost nine years.

“I think this definitely prepared me for the entrepreneurial journey as a restauranteur,” Morales said. “I grew up in the restaurant industry. My restaurant, the ‘El Gordo’ restaurant, the first location was founded in 1996 by my mother when I was just 14 years old. At that time, my mother was a single mother, a former housekeeper, and she was this woman that took the risk, trusted her gut, opened her own restaurant and built something for herself and for my sister and me. I always was blessed enough to grow up with that entrepreneurial spirit because of my mother.

“I think any kid that comes from a family business, you always hear about them taking over the business. But at the same time, I had a great corporate career and was very happy where I was,” she continued. “Due to my being detained and arrested, I lost my corporate job, which was a career I built for six years. I think this was God’s way of saying, ‘You’ve said you’ve been wanting to join the restaurant industry all along; now you have you start over.’ I had to start over because I lost my job and wasn’t sure how I would even qualify to get another job, and my status still wasn’t adjusted.”

Before her arrest, Morales says, she had always told her mother that the day that she joined the restaurant industry would be the day that she would grow the El Gordo name from a local mom-and-pop eatery to a national chain of Peruvian eateries. The first El Greco opened 25 years ago in Passaic, followed by one in Paterson in 2000, one in Jersey City in 2017 and now one in Union in 2020.

“I saw this as my chance to sort of walk what I’ve been talking,” Morales said. “That traumatic experience pushed me to be resilient and gave me the strength that I needed. It made me rebuild myself. … It definitely pushed me to now launch myself into this industry as an entrepreneur.

“Although I had come into a business that was already established,” she added, “my vision was to turn it into a recognizable brand and eatery that would offer homestyle Peruvian food but, at the same time, it would be different. It took some time to find my own way and develop my own confidence, but here I am, in my third location within the nine years that I’ve opened, and my last location I’ve just opened in Union, in August of last year.”

Now that Morales is a green card holder, whenever she visits her home country and sees the young children and the family she still has there, Morales said she is thankful for all the opportunities she has had here and views it as a blessing.

“To be able to have my businesses and to be able to give back to the community and employ many different people in different job opportunities, I think that is definitely, what I would say, what any immigrant comes to this country for, which is to have a better life,” she continued. “Due to my status and living as a ‘Dreamer,’ I fought so hard to be where I am. I’ve always been on the go, constantly asking myself, ‘What’s next?’ or ‘What’s my next goal?’ or ‘What’s the next thing that I have to do?’ I’ve never really taken the time to embrace and look back at how far I’ve come.”

Morales said she wants other “Dreamers” to know that they are the captain of their ship, and, no matter what waves may come, they will always have the power to navigate.

“I know that, sometimes, you feel so helpless,” Morales said. “Only the ones that have lived it understand how helpless you can feel being in that situation, because you feel as though you aren’t wanted in this country, even though it’s your home. But despite that, you have to believe that you are still in control of your life and the destination that you will reach. Have patience, stay positive, stay hopeful and keep working hard. In the end, everything always resolves itself.”

Morales’ business coach and friend Kathleen Pagan spoke lovingly of Morales and her miraculous journey.

“I’ve known Lizeth for the last four to five years,” Pagan said on Sunday, Feb. 28. “Lizeth is one of the hardest-working women I know. Nothing is ever out of reach, and she’s always willing to do whatever it takes to get to the end goal. To think she went from being detained by I.C.E. to becoming a restaurateur with multiple locations is truly admirable. Adversity does not define her.

“One thing I’d like Lizeth to know is that she’s one of the smartest, most loyal, business-savvy women I know,” Pagan continued. “She always sees the good in everyone and respects people for who they are. She’s kind and always giving. Lizeth is truly one of a kind.”

Another friend of Morales, Mariel Pagan Smith, also praised her character and the hardship she had to overcome.

“Lizeth is one of my dearest friends,” Smith said on Monday, March 1. “We’ve known each other since 2001, when we joined the same sorority. When it comes to how hard Lizeth has worked to get where she is today, Lizeth is a boss lady. She has a determination and enthusiasm that propels her to achieve great success with her restaurants. She has a vision for where she’d like her restaurant and the brand to be, and she works every day toward reaching those goals.

“El Gordo is going from being a delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurant to becoming a well-known, branded entity in the area,” she continued. “I’m in awe of Lizeth and all she continues to do to elevate this family business.”

Photos Courtesy of Lizeth Morales