Words are not the thing – Illegal Pete’s

Theo Stroomer
Pete Turner, the owner of the Mexican-style restaurant chain. Credit Theo Stroomer for The New York Times

This New York Times article from Sunday brought me back to 1998 when I took a road trip across Nebraska to Colorado to visit the Royal Gorge Bridge in Cañon City, stopping at numerous points in between. One of the highlights of that trip was a meal of black beans and rice at Illegal Pete’s on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. It was so good (and cheap, I was a poor art student back then) I actually had two meals there during my short stay in Boulder before continuing on into the mountains.

All these years later, Illegal Pete’s is now a chain with 7 locations, the most recent of which just opened in Ft Collins.  The owner, Pete Turner, has found himself in the midst of some controversy over his use of the word “Illegal” as part of the business name.  It’s a layered set of circumstances concerning the power and context of words.

My feeling is that if Illegal Pete’s didn’t serve Mexican fare, it might not be as much of an issue.  It seems the choice of Ft. Collins as a location is also problematic.  According to the article, “In opening a new locale here — the chain’s seventh — Mr. Turner seemed to have stumbled on a political tripwire he had not known existed, drawing ire from local and national immigrant rights groups that say his use of the word in connection with a person’s name is derogatory and offensive.”  They want the name to be changed.

The thing is, Turner claims that undocumented immigration was the furthest thing from his mind 20 years ago when he founded the business.  He shares the story of how he got started in great detail on the restaurant’s website.  The main inspirations for the name were a novel he read in college as well as his father, who was known to have a bit of a rebellious streak.  When I visited in ’98, I took the name to be in the spirit of sayings like, “This food is so good, it should be illegal.”  But that was long before the word “illegal” had the stigma in context with US immigration issues that it has today.

What interests me about all of this is that it’s not cut and dry and it’s difficult to take sides.  Language is complicated.  The name was never meant to be derogatory towards any group, but it has come to mean something very hurtful to the relatively sizable minority population living in Ft. Collins as well as advocates for immigration rights all over the country.

In a letter to Turner inviting him to attend a meeting of concerned citizens in Ft. Collins, Colorado State University assistant English professor Antero Garcia wrote,“The restaurant will be located in the same area that current Fort Collins residents remember often seeing signs saying ‘No dogs or Mexicans.’ It is under this legacy of American racist practices that the name Illegal Pete’s becomes unacceptable.” (from an article by Josie Sexton, The Coloradoan)

Turner expresses dismay about receiving a great deal of support from anti-immigration advocates, whose thinking he is in no way aligned with.  He has met with the protesters, and has given the entire matter a lot of heart-felt consideration, but at the end of the day, he has decided not to change the name of the business.

Because I’m familiar with the history of the restaurant and I’m aware of Pete Turner’s pro immigration activities outside of this matter, in the end, I support him.  But as indicated earlier, I don’t believe it is cut and dry.

One of the more interesting comments from the NYT article is as follows:

Uga Muga

Miami 3 days ago

“The comments are overwhelmingly pro freedom of expression, find the issue silly or see misplaced passions on the immigration issue.”

“I note a country where imagery drives motivation. It may be the case across humanity. Exerting or attempting to exert control over opinion is what advertising and propaganda are all about. There are innumerable examples; I don’t know which are the most stunning. Liberty cabbage, freedom fries….. how about the Peoples “Republic” of China?”

“Words are not the thing but the thing is often about words.”

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