U. of Arizona students protest word 'illegal' in local restaurant name

Students at the University of Arizona are protesting the term “illegal” and calling for its removal from the name of a local restaurant because they deem the term a racial slur against Mexican immigrants.

“Illegal Pete’s,” a Mexican food chain based out of Boulder, Colo., opened a new location on Thursday night in Tucson, Ariz. across the street from the university campus. Student protesters gathered outside the restaurant on Wednesday in anticipation of the grand opening. Protestors marched up and down the sidewalk on “Illegal Pete’s” storefront with signs urging owner Pete Turner to “#DroptheNamePete.”

“Pete’s: where racist people eat,” another sign stated.

Protesters occupied the storefront for several hours and called the name of the restaurant an injustice to the Tucson community.

“What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now,” the protesters chanted.

A University of Arizona student group known as M.E.Ch.A., or the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, is leading the charge against “Illegal Pete’s” and circulating a petition demanding that Turner change the name of his restaurant or shut it down. Nearly 3,000 supporters have signed the petition.

In addition to the petition, students involved in M.E.Ch.A. organized a “National Call-In” starting Thursday evening and lasting until Friday night. According to the group’s page on Change.org, supporters of the protest called “Illegal Pete’s” on the night of its grand opening to voice their frustrations and demand the name be changed.

“Call and give your thoughts about the name; just be respectful, but also, be creative. Talk as long as you want,” M.E.Ch.A. told its supporters.

M.E.Ch.A. divided supporters participating in the call-in into groups so that “Illegal Pete’s” would receive a consistent stream of phone calls from protesters throughout the night.

Turner explained that he has never taken criticism for the name of his restaurant in the 20 years he has been in the business.

“We, a company with six locations and 20 years of rich history, can’t change our name. It is a very important part of our identity that we’ve built over the years, and it’s how our customers know us. It’s how I know myself,” Turner wrote in a blog post after he learned about the petition.

Turner went on to explain why he chose the name “Illegal Pete’s” and said that the name choice had nothing to do with Mexican immigrants.

“The adjective “illegal” was an exciting part of the name for me for a number of reasons,” Turner wrote. “The first reason was personal: my dad was a bit of a good-natured hell raiser when he was a younger man in that he always tried to keep the party going just a little bit longer; hearing these stories from his friends, it became innate in me to try and keep the party going a little longer too.”

Students involved in M.E.Ch.A. at the University of Arizona, however, took “Illegal Pete’s” to be a reference to illegal immigrants from Mexico.

“Your restaurant, and even more its name, completely disregards this slur and uses it as a tool to normalize the racism that is inherent within the term,” student members wrote in a letter to Turner. “Not only does your establishment offend a large portion of the Tucson and South Tucson communities, but it also appropriates its culture for the sole purpose of making money.”

Flyers condemning the use of “illegal” are circulating on campus and were allegedly produced in connection with M.E.Ch.A.

“‘Illegal’ has been used to criminalize and assault Brown [sic] bodies/minds,” the flyer states.

In addition, the flyer encourages students to boycott the restaurant, sign the petition produced by M.E.Ch.A., and vocalize opinions on social media using “#DroptheNamePete.”

Students and protestors quickly took to social media to express their frustrations.

“#Dropthenamepete not only bc it’s offensive and racist, also bc it rips us of our humanity,” one protester posted on Twitter.

“Right now – students speaking out #DroptheNamePete – we won’t accept racial slurs,” Professor Andrea Romero at the University of Arizona tweeted.

Another professor, Roberto Rodriguez, advised Campus Reform to look at an op-ed he wrote for Truthout.org to get his thoughts on the situation

“The university's responsibility in creating a safe space for its students, staff, faculty and workers includes not simply freedom from physical harm, but also freedom from psychological harm that can occur from repeated exposure to anti-Mexican mockery and bigotry,” Rodriguez wrote.

Rodriguez confirmed M.E.Ch.A is leading the protests on and off campus.

M.E.Ch.A identifies as a national student organization on a “quest to enhance the development of La Raza through education.”

Members of M.E.Ch.A. did not respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski