A growing fast-food chain is under scrutiny in Colorado.
Illegal Pete’s—a burrito chain that opened its first location in Boulder in 1995—is set to open its seventh location in Fort Collins on November 13. But some Fort Collins residents are calling the use of “illegal” in the name of the Mexican chain racist.
Antonette Aragón, a professor at Colorado State University, was one of about 30 people who spoke with chain owner Pete Turner at a community meeting last week. “When you use this term [illegal] it has a power and is very disturbing,” says Aragón of why she participated in the discussion. “It’s disturbing in the sense that it’s racist and continues the status quo.”
Turner says that although he sometimes felt uncomfortable hearing people’s concerns, he felt great about the meeting because it was done in good faith. “People’s feelings are always valid,” he says.
Those feelings have also been expressed on social media, as well as in private and open letters addressed to Turner. In a letter published on Coloradoan, professor Antero Garcia explained the historical context in which people object to the restaurant’s name:
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. I understand that this may not seem fair to you — as it may not be the origin of the name. However, the slippery nature of sociocultural context in the United States is something that cannot be dictated by us as individuals — they are a part of a culture of white supremacy that we remain entrenched within and which your restaurant’s name furthers.
The chain’s owner stresses that the name—which he says he took from a novel he read in college—was never meant to be a commentary on anything to do with immigration or race.
“There was no intent [with the name],” says Turner, who adds that he wanted customers to be intrigued by an edgy-sounding name and draw their own conclusions about it.
Turner does concede that one of the images on the restaurant’s website (see above)—which features his first employee, Orlando, with a black bar over his eyes—could be seen as linking crime to Latino people. He says he plans to take the image down soon and replace it with a similar image of himself or non-Latino employees.
But for people like Aragón, Turner’s intent is hardly what’s at stake.
“[Turner] is saying his intent is meaningless. But what’s the interpretation that people are taking this as?” she asks.
Meanwhile, both Aragón and Turner have been alarmed by explicit racists who are siding with the restaurant’s name—using what’s, so far, been a conversation where two sides have started a dialogue and turning it into fodder for hateful commentary.
Turner told Colorlines that he’s already made a decision and says that if he does drop “illegal,” it won’t be limited to the new location. “I’d have to change the entire thing,” says Turner. “[There’ve] been 20 years of branding and a lot to consider here.” Turner says he will share his decision with critics first, and then he will announce it to the public by Wednesday of next week.