These days, when Pete Turner is questioned about the true meaning of his restaurant's name—Illegal Pete's—he mostly thinks about his father.
The first location in Boulder, Colorado opened two decades ago. Turner's dad, also named Pete, was by his side. He helped push his son through two years of service, until he passed away in 1997. In fact, one of the last mental images Turner has of his father is on the day he was cremated. His dad wore an Illegal Pete's T-shirt. "He was so proud," Turner says.
The name is like a family-inside-joke—at least to Turner and the people who know him best. To others, it was always a mystery. What does he mean by "illegal?" And Turner wouldn't go out of his way to explain, because, at first, the name didn't hold much depth. Partially-based on his dad's days as an "outlaw," and Turner's own experience as a young man who didn't always follow the norms. It was also influenced by a bar in a novel Turner read during his college days. As he's said many times before, "I am Illegal Pete."
But as he prepares to open the eighth location of his San Francisco Mission District/Southern California-style Mexican food joint on University Boulevard in Main Gate Square—the first in Arizona—he's had to hear a lot of outrage expressed by many Old Pueblo voices over the word "illegal" in his restaurant's name.
"In 19 years, I never had that issue," he says, referring to last year, when he opened an Illegal Pete's in Fort Collins, Colorado. Many of the city's Latino and Hispanic residents were pissed. Headed by a group called We Are Not Illegal, they demanded Turner change the name. "We have never used (the word) in that way," he adds.
Turner's been called an ignorant racist who's profiting from a hate-fueled word that is right at the heart of immigration debates—a term used to describe immigrants who live in the U.S. undocumented, and, really, insult many people of color, even if they were born on this side of the border.
To Roberto Rodriguez, author and an associate professor at the UA's Mexican American Studies Department, in recent times, the word "illegal" has pretty much morphed into a racial slur. It's an especially touchy term in a state like Arizona—the home of laws like SB 1070, which in the eyes of immigration rights advocates and allies led to racial profiling, as well as HB 2281, the statute that banned Mexican-American studies from the classrooms.
There is also a well-established history of racism in this country that resonates with Rodriguez. Historical events he thinks of, such as 1954 Operation Wetback that led to the deportation of thousands of Mexican workers.
"I think the most important element of all of this is memory, and I wish I could say it was limited to memory, this is the most hostile state in the country on the topic of immigration," Rodriguez says. "(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."
Local protests have largely been fueled by the UA student activist group Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlán, also known as MEChA. They've sent letters to Turner and met face-to-face with him as recently as last week. There is also an online petition titled "Change the Name or Shut It Down" that had nearly 2,500 signatures by press time.
Illegal Pete's opened today, Thursday, Dec. 10. MEChA referred to it as "D-Day," urging those who signed the petition, and any other supporters, to rally outside the restaurant. The group also held a press conference outside Illegal Pete's on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
"(I want Turner) to understand that we are not typical students. My own family not having documentation, being afraid of the possibility of not coming home after work," says UA MEChA member Mónica Contreras.
This is a symbolic year for undocumented students, known as DREAMers, because it is the first year they are able to attend the university paying in-state tuition. They've argued having the word "illegal" so close to campus solidifies its meaning. "The message that his restaurant is sending is very detrimental. It is bringing up that trauma that we have constantly have to navigate through every day on top of our other responsibilities."
Turner says he understands where protesters are coming from. In a way, he admires that this group of students is so passionate about questioning things. He's heard countless stories by those affected by the country's crippled immigration system and the bigotry that stems from an issue that's so politically polarized. Between his eight Illegal Pete's, many of his staff members are Mexican and Central American immigrants, and Turner is very familiar with the problems they have faced.
In his eyes, the word "illegal" as it pertains to his restaurant has absolutely nothing to do with immigrants or racial disrespect.
But, "No word is empty of meaning," says Maribel Alvarez, associate research professor at the UA's School of Anthropology and Director of the Southwest Folklife Alliance. "It is disingenuous to claim that there was good intention in naming the restaurant. Add the elements of Mexican food, the Southwest, Tucson ... it is an unfortunate name, it hits all the wrong notes."
Alvarez, too, supports a name change. She says it'd be like a sign of good faith—that he's truly listening to his adoptive community.
Turner feels cheated in a way. The meaning of this one word has changed over time. He thinks of people who use it in a derogatory way as a bunch of assholes who have created an ignorant and tense atmosphere that he hopes will soon disappear.
At his latest meeting with MEChA, Turner suggested hosting fundraisers for the group, and maybe other organizations on and off campus. He's proud of a lot of the partnerships he has in Colorado with nonprofits and efforts like the living wage movement, as well as programs for at-risk youth and people in prison.
Rodriguez sees the offer as a bribe, adding this isn't about hosting "MEChA Monday or wetback Wednesday" and the problem vanishes.
"'He has the audacity ... and I suspect there are always people who are willing to take that," he says. "I mentioned memory, but also dignity, and that is not for sale. That doesn't make (the name) less insulting. It just means someone is taking money somewhere ... to shut up."
Turner is not changing the name for now. Turner says he respects any type of demonstration, and that he is willing to keep conversations flowing until a gray area can be reached.
"It's just hard," he says. All (Turner) asks is that "everything remains civil, that people are respectful, we are not disrespectful ... we don't stand for that. It is always good to continue to talk, people with different opinions to just talk."
But critics only see one solution: change the name.
"The idea that there is no real problem because 'illegal' doesn't have anything to do with the food, and the food doesn't have anything to do with the people," Rodriguez says. "If you write something, it doesn't matter what you mean, the person that sees the sign or billboard...nobody is going to be there to censor it or say, 'Oh no, that is not what I meant.' Illegal Pete's Mexican restaurant, that is the connection, and he does not see it."