She purchased and enlarged her father’s New Jersey restaurant after he was deported.
The monotony of life was easily forgotten as the morning went on: wake up, shower, coffee, commute to work, rinse, repeat. On Feb. 27, 2012, this was Lizeth Morales’ first hour or so of daylight.
Morales, 29, was the personification of the American Dream, having immigrated to the United States from Peru as a kid.
She was a college graduate, a homeowner in Garfield, New Jersey, and worked for Blinds To Go as a sales and development manager.
She had just ended a call with work when she heard the sirens of an undercover police car three streets away and pulled over.
Her initial thought was that the cop had seen her on the phone. Another undercover vehicle pulled up after she exchanged her license and registration. All this for a cellphone ticket, Morales reasoned.
Morales was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers within minutes, and they asked where her father was. When he went through the door in handcuffs at the correctional center in Newark, New Jersey, she fell into tears.
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Three months later, her father was deported to Peru.
Morales was released after 17 days, thanks to the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) policy and a green card petition filed by her mother, who obtained legal status in the United States in 2004 after marrying a U.S. citizen.
“When I was in detention, I had a lot of time to think, and I realized I’d accomplished so much in a nation where I didn’t have legal status,” Morales said. “Education and experience are two things that no one can take away from you. I had both excellent leadership skills and the ability to succeed in any situation.
“If there was ever a time when I was prouder to be an American and thankful for this country in my own way, it was at that moment,” she adds. “Instead of seeing my experiences as a curse, I began to consider them as a privilege.” To feel that way, you sometimes have to reach rock bottom.”
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Morales, more determined than ever to succeed, chose the “only” alternative, as she put it.
She quit her job, took out every penny from her 401(k), and bought El Gordo, her father’s Peruvian restaurant. She bought a second store from her mother in 2012 and has subsequently opened a third in New Jersey, giving her three total.
Morales says, “My ambition is to develop a nationwide chain.” “Nothing in this country compares to what we have to give.” Take a look at how popular Mexican, Asian, and Italian restaurants are. The time has arrived for a Peruvian conglomerate, and we are that conglomerate.
Morales is a hands-on entrepreneur who visits each of her restaurants every day to assist the workers and meet with the cooks in order to assure the restaurant’s success.
Her work ethic, like so many others, originates from what she saw firsthand from her parents, who both worked 15-hour days at local restaurants and in housekeeping.
Her father informed her just before the start of her freshman year at William Paterson University, where she was studying psychology, that the family had been handed deportation orders.
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This came as a shock to Morales. She had no idea what she or her parents’ position was as a child.
She admits, “I was really naive at the time.” “I reasoned that this wouldn’t happen to individuals like my father or myself, people who had worked hard in the United States, paid taxes, owned a business, and excelled in school.” My parents told me not to worry, not to modify my ambitions, and to work hard to achieve success. So that’s what I did.”
Morales earned her green card in 2017 after years of lawyers, hearings, and paperwork. Rather than celebrating, she worked until far past midnight before collapsing. She will be able to complete her journey and apply to become a citizen of the United States in May 2022.
During the pandemic, her restaurants were able to survive because of her dedication. Each shop remained open during the ordeal, giving and delivering over 1,000 meals to frontline employees.
“It’s a rewarding, triumphant, and humbling experience to celebrate our original location’s 25th anniversary this year,” she says. “It’s critical for me to take this in first when people ask me what’s next. My mother and I have put in a lot of effort to get our company to where it is now. “Right now, I believe our brand potential is threefold, which makes El Gordo’s future even more intriguing.”