I attended the meeting Wednesday at CSU to discuss the name of your restaurant, Illegal Pete’s. I want to begin by thanking you for coming. I didn’t speak at the meeting, not because I had nothing to say, but because as a white person, I thought it was important to listen to what others had to say—my Latino colleagues at CSU, our students, and members of the Fort Collins community—and you as well, about the impact this restaurant’s name will have on their lives and on our city as a whole. By writing this letter in an open format, I am following the lead of my English Department colleague Dr. Antero Garcia, who invited you into a broader conversation about the deeply problematic nature of the word “illegal” in the restaurant’s name.
I was unaware that an Illegal Pete’s was opening in Fort Collins until this weekend when I read it on Facebook. A conversation rapidly unfolded there and across the country really that included disbelief, shock, and confusion over the name that a restaurant with this name would even exist at all. In 2014, how could this be happening? One response to that question that I read on Facebook continues to haunt me: “Because it is Fort Collins.”
I admit that my first reaction to this matter-of-fact response was a defensive one. I am not a Colorado native, but I have lived in Fort Collins for 15 years. My husband and I chose to raise our family here largely because we perceive the city and state to be more welcoming and inclusive than the Southern state where we grew up. We love this city and consider it to be our home; thus it was unsettling to hear the foregone conclusion on Facebook that the name of your restaurant was symptomatic of a currently racist environment in Fort Collins.
I have worked on some historical projects over the years with teachers, Latino youth, and CSU students, so I was already aware of the troubled race relations that existed in the distant past in Fort Collins because of the discrimination Latinos have experienced. Yet I like to believe that times have changed to the extent that most Fort Collins citizens would be horrified to learn that signs reading “No dogs, no Mexicans allowed” once hung in the shops of white businesses in Old Town.
At Wednesday’s meeting, however, I learned that especially for Latinos who grew up in Fort Collins, the wounds caused by this history are still very fresh. Some elders from the Fort Collins Latino community experienced (and continue to experience) this pain directly, but its residual effects on their families and friends remain acute. Even though this history tarnishes the “Choice City,” as Fort Collins is called, it’s important that we are aware of it, not because we can change it but because we have the power to shape what our present and future will become.
From your comments on Wednesday explaining that you originally named your restaurant after your late father, I sense that history is very important to you as well. I thus implore you to remember the pain expressed in the stories you heard at the meeting and to consider whether or not maintaining the word “illegal” honors your father’s memory.
I know some take the view that bygones should be bygones and that whites should feel no collective guilt from pain they didn’t inflict in the first place. “But I am a good person,” they say. “I wouldn’t have acted that way. I am not like that.” On the occasions when they learn that their words or actions have been offensive, they explain, “I wouldn’t hurt intentionally hurt anyone. I didn’t know.”
In the past, I myself have felt this way. I most likely have said these things. But these very comments are proof that I occupy a position of privilege by virtue of the fact that I am a white person living in an inequitable system that is larger than my immediate world.
I did not earn this privilege, but I benefit from it in countless ways, many of which I am not aware. As a white person, I believe I have the perpetual responsibility, then, to become more aware and to intentionally use the privilege I do possess in ways that might result in a more peaceful, just, and equitable world.
From Wednesday’s meeting, I understand that it was 1995 when you named your restaurant and that the word “illegal” was not as politically charged as it is today (at least in Colorado based on the research I’ve done over the past few days). I also understand that, as you explained, you meant no intentional harm. I must admit that I am surprised that until this week, you were unaware that “all of this was even an issue” or that the picture of the Latino on your website might be interpreted as offensive.
But after Wednesday’s meeting, you know. You have now been made aware. You have seen the faces and heard the voices of those you have inadvertently pained. And if you truly do “welcome all humans,” as you say on your website, now you have to decide what to do.
I hope that your decision will be to drop the word “illegal” from your restaurant’s name. I believe that doing so would be consonant with your values, with the admirable philanthropic work you have done in Colorado, and the fair labor practices and advancement opportunities you make available to all your employees, as one of them described on Wednesday. I believe that such an action would bring greater visibility and goodwill to your business in the end. I suspect that ultimately, it would also bring honor to your father’s name.
Yes, it would be easy to say that taking such action is too much trouble and too much expense, so why do anything at all? But doing nothing is also a choice. It took courage on Wednesday to sit down at a table with concerned faculty, students, and community members, people of color and whites alike. It took courage to listen carefully and interact respectfully, even when it felt uncomfortable to do so, as you began the meeting by saying. It will take courage, too, to make the proposed change, but many of us hope that because this is Fort Collins, that is what you will decide to do.