Fight for your dreams with faith and courage, and you will accomplish your goals. Instead of focusing on the difficult process, focus on one step of the process at a time. Follow up, ask, do your homework, ask people with more experience, try different ways until you find the solution to your barrier or obstacle. Keep insisting, keep asking people, keep applying, keep believing in yourself.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ivan Vasquez.
Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Ivan Vasquez crossed the border at 15 years old and settled down in Los Angeles to pursue his version of the American Dream. Vasquez has been working in the restaurant industry since 1996, starting as a dishwasher during his high school years and climbing the ranks through the corporate restaurant industry to eventually owning his own concept, Madre. Vasquez is passionate about educating his guests about Oaxacan culture, as well as Madre’s extensive mezcal offerings. Through vast research, trips back to Oaxaca, and talks with notable mezcaleros, Vasquez has become an expert on all aspects of mezcal. He truly encapsulates what has become the modern American Dream.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Oaxaca, Mexico and come from a poor family. I was adopted by my aunt (Lucila, who I see as my mom) and her husband (who I see as my dad). They took care of me and gave me their last name after my biological mom decided to come to the States with a new family. I do not know anything about my real dad. With that said, I was raised with the best parents and I have one brother and one sister from those parents and five half-brothers here in the States. My dad had a body shop in Mexico and ever since I was a kid, he taught me how to work and fight for my dreams. My mom used to cook three meals a day every day for the family. She taught me her Oaxacan cuisine legacy. I grew up in the best place, Oaxaca, which is full of traditions and history. I’m the happiest man on earth just by the fact I’m Oaxacan and even though my childhood was difficult, I enjoyed it with friends and family.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
My dad used to work so hard to give us a roof and a meal, but he had an alcohol problem. We grew up seeing him on the street drinking and sleeping outside or at people’s house. When I was around seven years old, I was the one looking for him on the street, trying to stop him from drinking. My mom and my siblings lived with this for more than 38 years until he died this year to COVID and alcoholic disease issues. While he was a great man and took care of me, he created a lot of debt for my family. In 1995 we almost lost our house. My siblings were five and seven years old at the time. With no help from my dad, I started working in a nightclub in Oaxaca when I was 13 years old. I used to make good money to help my mom and was still able to go to school. Working at this adult night club opened my eyes to see the real world and eventually I was ready to leave Oaxaca to come to the United States to save my mom’s house and help my siblings. My dad did not stop drinking at this point. My dream was to come to LA for two years, make money working two jobs, go back to Oaxaca, and start a DJ company for special events.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
My mom and my aunt dropped me off at the airport. My mom did not like the idea but at that point I was the only one who could help her and my siblings. I think she knew we were not going to be able to see each other for a long time, which was one of her concerns. I left Oaxaca, flew to Tijuana, and stayed at a dangerous hotel there. My uncle, who was in the States, was waiting for me in LA and he put me in contact with the coyote. I was scared to be in Tijuana by myself when I was 15 years old. Someone picked me up from the hotel and took me to Sonora on a bus with others where we waited for two weeks to cross the border. With no communication with my family in Oaxaca, I was with all these people in a small room waiting for the right time to make the first attempt. We were not allowed to go out during those two weeks. We finally got the green light from the coyote and we were going to cross the border in the desert. They put us in a cargo van with 14–18 people and after several hours, we ran out of water and all thought we would die. But the coyote kept driving. We were stopped by a border patrol and they sent us back to Mexico. I lost contact with my uncle because of the arrest and I had run out of money. I asked for help from two of the adults that were sent back to Mexico with me and they told me not to worry and that it was normal to be arrested the first time. I stayed with them on the street and another coyote offered his services and we all went with him. They put me under the seats in a pickup truck and we arrived in Arizona. My destination was LA not Arizona, so I called my uncle who had to pay this coyote for him to release me in Arizona. My uncle had two friends in Arizona who were able to pick me up and feed me. They bought me new clothes and another friend came to pick me up to take me to LA. I was on an airplane with no ID and zero English. I honestly think God made a miracle happen for me to be able to fly to my destination. All I remember is that I showed my airplane ticket to the guard and he let me in. The ticket was under someone else’s name.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I am so grateful for my uncle. Thanks to him, I am here. He coordinated everything for me to get here. And then, once I was here, he got me into high school, fed me for two months while I looked for work, and helped me get my first job. I am also grateful for the two guys whom I met at the border. They gave me the hope to try a second attempt to cross the border. Also, I’m grateful for my friends who recommended I to go to school and start a life here. And finally, I am grateful for my family in Oaxaca that I was not able to see me for 10 years because of my legal status.
So how are things going today?
After 25 years, I have my own restaurants, I am a US Citizen, I own a house, I have a beautiful family, and I have a very proud mom.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to motivate people who have just arrived in the States to start a career or go to school. I am supportive of all single moms because my mom gave me the strength to stay here in the States and fight for my dreams. When I went back after 10 years, she confessed she cried every night because she was worried about me. She did not show her concerns to me, and that strength is incredible. I am about to start a nonprofit organization in Oaxaca for moms with kids on the street. It will be called “Madre.”
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
- If you crossed the border underage, you should get legal status right away, get a counselor, and have the right to go to school.
- If you are a parent and crossed the border with your children, you should get legal status right away regardless of nationality.
- If you get here illegally but show good behavior for five years, pay taxes, and you have a sponsor, like an employer or family member, you should get legal status.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
When I started my first restaurant, I was afraid to make the move and leave my good, paid job. Some members of my family told me to stay at my job because it took me a long time to get to the position I was in. Instead, I did not listen to them and I opened the restaurant. It was incredibly difficult and sometimes I wanted to let the dream go and cry, but I continued to follow my instincts, follow my heart, and believe in myself. To me, the five keys to achieving the American Dream are:
- Discipline: Have discipline in what you do. Lead by example by being the example for your team. Accept that you will have no days off or vacations until you achieve your goal.
- Order: Have your list of priorities in order. For example, I needed to make my first restaurant successful in order to think about opening a second one with more space, new design, etc. I would never have been able to open my second location in Torrance without having gone through the process of developing my first location. I did not have the budget, so I organized my list of priorities to achieve my second goal
- Follow the law: Stay out of trouble in your personal life so you can focus on your dreams or professional goals. Pay taxes, avoid issues with personal legal matters, business legal matters, etc.
- Listen to your heart: Don’t feel like you always need to listen to people. Follow your instincts and do not be afraid of taking huge risks. You can ask for opinions and suggestions from friends and family, but sometimes you just need to listen to your heart and your ideas. Believe in yourself and nothing else will not matter.
- Fight for your dreams with faith and courage, and you will accomplish your goals. Instead of focusing on the difficult process, focus on one step of the process at a time. Follow up, ask, do your homework, ask people with more experience, try different ways until you find the solution to your barrier or obstacle. Keep insisting, keep asking people, keep applying, keep believing in yourself.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
Minorities coming together strongly in the US
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I have two. The first is Michelle Obama for her ideas and leadership. She represents the women of the future — educated, smart, family oriented, and knows her time. The second is Floyd Mayweather for being not only a great athlete but also someone who is incredibly smart with his finances. He learned how to make money and invest for his future.
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You can follow us on Instagram @madre_losangeles.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!