Pete Turner ran his homegrown chain of burrito joints for for nineteen years without hearing so much as a peep about its name, Illegal Pete's. But then last year Turner opened a location in Fort Collins — and activists there complained that the name was a slap at the undocumented. "I didn't realize that this would become a free-speech issue," he said at the time. "It's an opportunity to learn."
And the lessons just keep coming.
Back when Turner opened his first place on the Hill in in Boulder in 1995, he felt like something of a renegade, starting up a restaurant when he was just out of college. The "Pete's" part of the name was a no-brainer; it was his first name and also that of his father, an investor in the restaurant who had terminal cancer. The "Illegal" was intended to be "mysterious, counterculture more than anything," Turner recalls. "What I really wanted it to be was an invitation for further inquiry, to break down a barrier, create a little mystery, maybe even a little anxiety, but then create a relationship with great service and great food."
Not only did Illegal Pete's succeed in creating that relationship in the original location, but the concept soon became a mini-chain, with a couple of locations in Denver (one more will open this spring in the former home of Mama's Cafe on East Colfax), and another in Boulder, all emphasizing community and support of the local music scene in particular. (On Colorado Gives Day, all of the Illegal Pete's spots pledged 50 percent of their evening proceeds to music organizations.) And then last year Turner decided that Fort Collins was a perfect spot for another Illegal Pete's — and found himself facing an unprecedented outcry and accusations of racism. But he held firm, meeting with community members and proceeding with last fall's opening — and a year later, that Illegal Pete's is an integral part of the Fort Collins scene.
At the time, Turner was already thinking of expanding out of state, specifically to a space in Tucson that he'd had his eye on for more than a decade. And when the owner of a clothing store that had operated near the University of Arizona campus since 1959 said he was ready to sell, Turner was there. For the past year, he's been renovating the space — and for the past month, fighting increasingly heated complaints that the name is a racial slur.
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They culminated yesterday in a protest and press conference outside the Illegal Pete's in Tucson, which opens today, where opponents announced they'd collected 2,500 signatures on a petition drive to get Turner to change the name of Illegal Pete's. "This is the most hostile state in the country on the topic of immigration," UA assistant professor Roberto Rodriguez told the Tucson Weekly. "(Turner) came under a false premise that this is all new to him. You don't want to start a business when you already have instant enemies; people who are alienated. And which community is alienated? Illegal Pete's serves what kind of food? Mexican food."
But once again, Turner is standing his ground, explaining to anyone who will listen how the original name came about, talking about the fifty employees — some Mexican, just as they are in the Colorado locations — are excited about the new spot. He knows this debate will not go away, but he's hoping he can win people over with that same service, food and commitment to community. He'll find out how successful he's been at 5 p.m. today, when the Tucson Illegal Pete's — Turner's eighth restaurant — opens its doors.
In the meantime, here's the information on the petition drive, Drop the Name or Shut it Down, on change.org:
Going up outside the main gate of the University of Arizona is Illegal Pete’s Mexican restaurant. Apparently, ignorant that Tucson is in Arizona – the SB 1070 anti-immigrant state – the owner, Pete Turner, feels free to dehumanize and insult millions of people. Tucson is also where the anti Ethnic Studies HB 2281 resulted in the elimination of Ethnic Studies in this state....
Please sign this petition, which calls for either changing the name of the restaurant or shutting it down before its mid-December opening. Either that or face a full-scale boycott.
The letter below is being delivered to the owner of the restaurant:
From: THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA
To" Pete Turner, owner of Illegal Pete’s:
The content of this letter is, simply put, very familiar to you and your company.
This fact, in particular, is the cause of much of our frustration and anger, but this is, by far, not our only point of contention. Over and over, you have claimed that you are dedicated to, and have provided much for, the community where your restaurants have existed, but what we ask is which community are you serving? What we are telling you is that we are not like other communities where your business exists, and we are more than willing to show you that.
Demographically, the cities of Tucson and South Tucson have a drastic percentage gap of Latina/o persons than your current locations (using the 2010 census, the smallest gap was about 10% and the largest was about 60%). To you, this may mean nothing, but what you must realize is that you, and your business, do not exist in a context-free world. To you, “illegal” is a playful and meaningless descriptor that gives your restaurant a memorable name; it creates a “clever” brand. That is because this word, and its connotations, affects only your stress level and your wallet.
We are here to tell you that no longer will you be able to claim blissful ignorance and profit from racism.
Unlike the state of Colorado, Arizona has legalized racial profiling and criminalization of brown persons by the state. Senate Bill 1070, passed in 2010, is just one aggression towards brown persons in a series that spans five hundred years; and the use of “illegal” to stigmatize Mexicans, Central Americans, Mexican-Americans, Latina/os, Chicana/os, and other brown persons is just another aggression that continually dehumanizes these communities. Your restaurant, and even more its name, completely disregards this slur and uses it as a tool to normalize the racism that is inherent within the term. Building upon the fact that the primary style of the menu is “Mission-style Mexican”, not only does your establishment offend a large portion of the Tucson and South Tucson communities, but it also appropriates its culture for the sole purpose of making money. It is beyond doubtful that any given patron is aware of the ridiculous story that you have provided to justify the use of “illegal”, and it is even more doubtful that this patron will consciously separate the fare from the name that is plastered all around them. Intentionally or not, you, by refusing to change the name, are perpetuating the use of “illegal” in connection with the Mexican culture. Moreover, the strategic location you have chosen (walking distance from the University of Arizona) and the inclusion of a bar in your racist-named restaurant, will unquestionably prolong our community’s problem with racially charged, alcohol induced “celebrations” of appropriated Mexican culture (i.e. Cinco de Mayo).
Already you have created a rift in our community, convincing our Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that, due to your high-paying positions, you are an overall positive institution, but what type of positive institution blatantly profits from marginalized communities? We, as voices of both the Latina/o community of Tucson and the University of Arizona student community, are standing up to your institution of hate and telling you that although you control your business, we will faithfully represent our community. And no matter how much you try to bribe us by “giving back to the community”, you will never be able to pay your way out of the fact that you have built a chain of restaurants on the exploitation and appropriation of a group of people that suffer because of a word and the hatred that fuels it.
Language represents ideas and no human is “illegal”.
You have heard this argument before and have willfully dismissed it - we are here to tell you that you will no longer be able to continue under this hateful name.
This letter is only the beginning.
M.E.Ch.A de University of Arizona