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‘Illegal’ in ‘Illegal Pete’s’ Is Offensive to Indigenous People, Protesters Say

The name of Illegal Pete's, a Denver, Colorado-based restaurant, is offensive to indigenous people, protesters say.

University of Arizona (UA) professors and community organizers gathered at a press conference earlier this month to protest the opening of Illegal Pete’s, a Colorado-based Mexican food chain that opened its first restaurant in Tucson right next to the University of Arizona campus on December 10.

The organizers of the press conference decried the use of the word “illegal” as discriminatory and derogatory to those of Hispanic descent.

Concerned community members gather at the press conference. The name of the Illegal Pete's restaurant is offensive to indigenous peoples, protesters say. Photo courtesy Gabriela Maya Bernadett

Nolan Cabrera, Assistant Professor in the College of Education, said that “our students continually get lambasted with racist terminology being thrown at them on a regular basis ...This only adds fuel to that fire.”

Sarah Gonzales, a UA staff member, agreed noting that “the use of the term ‘illegal’ creates a negative environment.”

Martina Dawley, who is Navajo/Hualapai and the Assistant Curator for American Indian Relations at the Arizona State Museum, said the term affects the Native American community, too.

“We’re on O’odham land,” she acknowledged. “With the O’odham people having to deal with the border issues, I feel that the term ‘illegal’ does play a very negative role in their identity and who they are.”

The restaurant chain, owned by Pete Turner, first opened in 1995 in Boulder, Colorado. According to the restaurant’s website, the owner chose the name from a book he read in college and is an homage to his father, also named Pete. The restaurant currently has seven locations in Colorado.

Local residents were first aware of the restaurant’s plan to open a Tucson location in the spring of this year. The student organization MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlán) de University of Arizona started a Change.org petition calling on the owner to “drop the name or shut it down.” The petition has since garnered almost 2,500 signatures.

The owner recently met with concerned members of the community to address the controversy, however he said he will not change the name.

Roberto Rodriguez, Assistant Professor in the Mexican American and Raza Studies Department, says Arizona’s history of passing laws like SB 1070, which gives law enforcement broad powers to detain anyone they suspect is in the country illegally, and HB 2281 which banned Ethnic Studies, makes the name of the restaurant especially egregious.

 “For him it’s a name,” Rodriguez said. “For us it’s what we live.”