By Darryl Hannah
It wasn’t too long ago that Latino residents in Fort Collins, Colo., were deemed “illegal” and barred from certain restaurants that bore the signs “No Dogs and Mexicans.” That’s why many in the community are urging restaurateur Pete Turner to change the name of his restaurant chain Illegal Pete’s.
“Using the word illegal when you are referring to a human being is offensive,” Cheryl Distaso of the Fort Collins Community Action Network told reporters. She and others involved in the campaign have likened the restaurant’s name to a racial slur used to describe African-Americans. “Messages range from heartfelt personal stories about what it was like growing up in Fort Collins with ‘No Dogs and Mexicans’ signs in the downtown area, in the very same place the restaurant is going to be built,” she said.
The Boulder-based chain, with six locations across Colorado, serves food popularized in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s set to open a new location in Fort Collins in two weeks. And despite the complaints, Turner maintains that the restaurant’s name is a literary reference to a bar in a novel he read as an English major at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Pete is also his and his father’s name.
Illegal Pete’s “was just the name of an establishment in a novel I read. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a cool name,'” Turner told The Coloradoan. “The name was meant to be mysterious and provoke people to look into it further. But some just stopped at ‘illegal’ and assumed something.”
Context is crucial, says local immigration attorney Kim Medina, who moderated a recent community meeting between the Fort Collins Community Action Network and Turner.
“Social context is hugely important [and] we’ll never get to big issues, such as immigration reform, until we can solve these smaller issues of language,” said Medina, who said her office has received hate calls about its involvement in the campaign. “In Fort Collins there is a long history of racial discrimination. In the downtown area not too long ago, there were signs that said ‘Whites only, no dogs or Mexicans.'”
Turner does say he understands the feelings and emotions around the restaurant’s name but adds that the community has known his restaurant was opening for more than a year. He also says his company takes strong social responsibility, which includes programs for children and families in underprivileged communities, funding to local arts and music communities, and a scholarship for a student from Mexico.
“I understand when people say, ‘Hey, look, I was born and raised in America but because of the color of my skin, people tell me to go back to Mexico,'” Turner said. “I get that, and it was a good education opportunity for my team.”
While there was no protesting of his restaurants yet, the Fort Collins Community Action Network maintains that the issue is far from resolved. According to Turner, the recent meeting ended with “[Medina] saying, ‘Let us know whether we should be there to protest or celebrate on Nov. 13.'”