The morning was like any other, the monotony of life so quickly forgotten: wake up, shower, coffee, drive to work, rinse, repeat. Such was the first hour or so of Lizeth Morales’ daybreak on Feb. 27, 2012.
At 29, she was the epitome of the American Dream, having come to the United States from Peru as a child, Morales was a college graduate, a homeowner living in Garfield, New Jersey, who held a sales and development management position at Blinds To Go.
Three blocks from her house, having just finished a call with work, she heard the sirens of an undercover police car and pulled over. Her first thought was the officer saw her talking on the phone. After the exchange of her license and registration, another undercover vehicle pulled up. Morales thought, All this for a cellphone ticket?
Within minutes, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers were taking Morales into custody and asking where her father was. At the detention center in Newark, New Jersey, she burst into tears when he walked through the door in handcuffs.
Her father was deported to Peru three months later. Morales was released after 17 days, given a second chance through the DACA policy (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) as well as a green card petition filed by her mother, who gained legal status in 2004 after marrying a U.S. citizen.
“There was a lot of time to think when I was in custody, and I realized I’d been able to accomplish so much in a country where I didn’t legally belong,” Morales said. “If there’s one thing no one can take from you, it is your education and experience. I was equipped with both and strong leadership skills that could help me succeed anywhere.
“If there was ever a time that I was prouder to be an American in my own way and thankful for this country, it was at that moment,” she says. “I started to see my experiences as a blessing rather than a curse. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to feel that way.”
More motivated than ever to succeed, Morales took, in her words, the only possible option. She left her job, withdrew every cent of her 401(k), and bought her father’s Peruvian restaurant, El Gordo. She purchased a second location from her mother in 2012 and has since opened one more, giving her three locations in New Jersey.
“My goal is to build a national chain,” Morales says. “There is nothing like what we offer in this country. Look how popular Mexican food, Asian food, Italian food restaurants are. The time has come for a Peruvian chain, and we are it.”
To ensure the restaurant’s success, Morales is a hands-on entrepreneur, visiting each of her locations every day, to help the staff and meet with the chefs.
As for her work ethic, as often is the case, that stems back to what she witnessed firsthand from her parents, who both often worked 15-hour days at local restaurants and housekeeping. Just before her freshman year studying psychology at William Paterson University, her father informed her that the family had been issued orders of deportation.
For Morales, this was a shock. Growing up, she was oblivious to her or her parents’ status.
“I was terribly naïve at the time,” she says. “I figured, this didn’t happen to people like my father or me, people who have lived a productive life in the United States, who paid taxes, owned a business, did well in school. My parents told me to not worry, not change my goals and strive to become successful. So, I did.”
In 2017, after years of lawyers, hearings and paperwork, Morales received her green card. Rather than celebrate, she worked until after midnight and crashed. In May 2022, she can complete the journey and file to become a U.S. citizen.
That kind of hard work sustained her restaurants during the pandemic. Each location remained open, donating and delivering more than 1,000 meals to frontline workers in the process.
“Having our first location turning 25 years old this year is a rewarding, triumphant and humbling feeling,” she says. “When people ask me what’s next, it’s important for me to first take this in. My mother and I have worked very hard to build our brand to where it is now. I believe our brand potential is tenfold right now and that makes the future of El Gordo even more exciting.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo courtesy of Lizeth Morales