Ivan Vasquez’s Journey Has Taken Him From Dishwasher to South Bay Restaurateur

This is his American Dream.

Some experiences have a way of leaving their mark, like an imaginary line drawn across the timeline of your life. There’s the “before” and the “after.” After college, before the kids, a new job, a new love, a loss … there are events that change us and often change the trajectory of our lives.

For Ivan Vasquez, the line that divided the before and after in his life was more literal. His “after” began once he crossed the border from Mexico into the United States.

The oldest of three siblings, Ivan grew up in Oaxaca. “Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico,” he says. With limited economic opportunities and the strain of an alcoholic father, Ivan made the decision to leave his home and travel to the United States.

The goal was to cross the border, find work and support his family back home. Ivan was 15 years old when he began his journey.

The streets of Tijuana in 1995 were intimidating for young Ivan, but it’s where he traveled to make his first attempt to cross the border. Crammed in a cargo van with roughly 15 other people of all different ages, Ivan lay motionless, sweating in the summer heat. After hours of driving across the desert, the van was stopped by Border Patrol.

“At that point I was thankful they got us,” Ivan says. “We didn’t have any more water.”

Ivan was taken by Border Patrol, fingerprinted and released in the Baja region where he met two older men who had crossed the border before. Having few alternatives, Ivan trusted his new companions and joined them when they opted to leave with a man claiming he could get them across the border that night. With four or five guys laying in the back of a truck and a smaller Ivan hidden under the seats, the group drove for hours in the heat—eventually making their way to a large ranch in Arizona.

“[At the time] you could apply through your work; you could be sponsored by your employer. I applied, but my attorney said it could take up to 10 years.”

Ivan had made it across the border but was now in the wrong state. He still needed to travel to Los Angeles where he had family to take him in. A plane ticket was purchased for Ivan using a friend’s Arizona ID. The teen boarded the plane while trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, and less than two hours later he was in L.A.

The family member Ivan was staying with was only in the States temporarily to work. Ivan found himself in a small apartment, sleeping on the floor with men who would sleep and work in shifts, maximizing their productivity. Ivan went to school but also began working as a dishwasher at Carl’s Jr.—a job he was able to obtain with a fake ID.

By the time he was a senior, he was able to get his own apartment as well as a new job as a cashier for Baja Fresh. Eventually he worked his way up to shift supervisor, store manager and then general manager. By the time he was 24 he was the assistant regional manager for 12 Baja Fresh locations.

Ivan was a sponge, learning everything he could—and it was working well for him. But he had also been away from his family for nine years. While they were grateful for the financial support he provided them, he missed them desperately.

Ivan began working toward citizenship. “[At the time] you could apply through your work; you could be sponsored by your employer,” Ivan says. “I applied, but my attorney said it could take up to 10 years.

In 2004, however, love would intervene. Ivan met his wife, Marisela, who happened to be a United States citizen. Eight months later he had his green card, and within days he was on a plane to Oaxaca to see his family.

Ivan stayed with Baja Fresh for 15 years but eventually felt it was time to move on. An opportunity to take over a small Tex-Mex restaurant in Culver City presented itself, and with the support of Marisela, Ivan went for it. He took ownership in 2013, and within six months Ivan’s vision for the space was coming to life.

He transitioned the menu from Tex-Mex to Oaxacan, inspired by his mother’s recipes. He changed the name to Madre and began offering a wide range of mezcal selections and handcrafted cocktails. It was an elevated experience for his patrons, and the positive feedback reflected that.

Still, Ivan wanted to see his concept on a larger scale. When a 7,000-square-foot Torrance space became available for a second Madre location, Ivan was intrigued but had his doubts. It was dark and dated, but after a three-month renovation Ivan completely transformed the look and feel of the space.

The new Madre restaurant in Torrance has a vibe that makes you want to linger. It’s open and inviting, decorated with well- curated tile selections—a nod to Ivan’s Oaxacan roots. Patrons can enjoy live music Thursday through Sunday while sipping craft cocktails or indulging in one of the nearly 400 mezcal selections.

Ivan had a mural of his muse—his mother,  Lucila—painted on a large wall in the center of the dining room. Her recipes still serve as the inspiration behind the restaurant’s mouthwatering menu. With lines out the door, Madre had been well-received by the Torrance community, Ivan says. And there are plans to open a third location, possibly in Mid-City.

Ivan’s success on its own is quite impressive. He’s a young restaurateur bringing a unique vison to a highly saturated industry. But it’s his journey that makes his success so inspiring. He came here with nothing but the desire to provide a better life for his family. And with an incredible amount of ambition and hard work, he was able to do that—and so much more.

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