“Because It Is Fort Collins”: Another Open Letter to Pete Turner, Owner of “Illegal Pete’s”

Hello, Pete,

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.

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30 thoughts on ““Because It Is Fort Collins”: Another Open Letter to Pete Turner, Owner of “Illegal Pete’s”

  1. I agree about the picture, but according to Mr. Turner, the “Illegal” part of the name has nothing to do with hispanic immigrants, but is a reference to a bar in his favorite novel.

    • blogessor says:

      On Wednesday and in an e-mail he sent prior to the meeting, Pete explained the following:

      “I was an English Major and an avid literature fan and the name Illegal Pete’s came from restaurant/bar in a book. I thought it was mysterious and sort of rock and roll and it had our name in it so I went with it. We do serve Mission-style Mexican food but the name has nothing to do with it. None of our advertising or branding alludes to what you are taking the word ‘Illegal’ to be.”

      The meeting provided the opportunity for Pete to share his original intent in selecting the name for his restaurant and for the other participants at the meeting to describe the hurtful (but I believe, unintended) impact of the word “illegal.” (A woman whose name I didn’t catch drew the helpful distinction between intent and impact.) In reference to the picture, Pete acknowledged that the image could be misconstrued although this was not the intent.

      • Jeremy Harmon says:

        So would it be fair to state that the intent of those that attended this meeting was to shine a light on the issue of legal status as it reflects on perceptions of latino identity, but the impact was to provide fodder for those that resist the movement to remove the term “illegal alien” from accepted use by carrying it to what 99.9% of the population view as an utterly ludicrous extreme?

      • JSB says:

        I would implore the folks that make hiring and firing decisions about your employment and Dr Garcia’s employment to take note and begin actions to terminate your employment. It is clear that you lack the capability to actually teach the English language. Anyone that would make the arguments you have made in this open letter does not deserve to try and brain wash students to match their hyper sensitive PC views in their classrooms.

      • blogessor says:

        This message is in response to posts made by Jeremy Harmon (on 10/24) and JSB (on 10/25).

        Jeremy, I agree that the meeting with Mr. Turner has initiated a lot of conversation about the term “illegal” in both the local Ft. Collins community and more generally in the U.S. It’s impossible, of course, to determine how any exact percentage of the population will respond; I’ve yet to see 99.9% of Americans agree on much of anything. In the time since the story was published in the Coloradoan last week, it has been picked up by various outlets. The online responses in those venues have ranged from vitriolic to neutral to civil, regardless of the views being expressed by the writers. Unfortunately, many of those comments are so divisive that they shut down any possible dialogue before it has a chance to occur. Again, I don’t think that’s reflective of how Fort Collins citizens typically interact with one another, even when they disagree. At least that’s been the case in the many years I’ve lived here. I hope that isn’t changing.

        JSB, I know Professor Garcia well and have actually observed him teach. I believe I can speak for him, too, when I say that neither of us sees “brainwashing” to be appropriate in the classroom. An important part of my job as an English professor is to help students develop skills that will allow them: a) to view course content and issues with a critical eye from all angles, even when they may disagree with certain perspectives; and b) to interact respectfully with one another in expressing their views. In fact, in my syllabi, I include the following expectation: “come to class each day with something to say about what you’ve read, an openness to others’ responses and questions as well, and a commitment toward collaborating and constructing understanding together.”

        I hope that eventually we’ll see interactions like this happening in regard to this issue at hand.

  2. Clair Bourne says:

    Didn’t these Latinos originally come here because they wanted freedom? So now that they are here, why are they trying to remove freedom from the indigenous population? If they are “illegal” then they have no right to be offended, they shouldn’t be here, and if they are not “illegal” then it wouldn’t apply to them anyway. Time for white liberals to stop being offended on everyone else’s behalf.

    • Patrick says:

      It’s not liberals that are offended by the name. Liberals should be offended that someone is trying to make him change the name of his restaurant.

    • Seriously? indigenous?! They were here thousands of years before whites, conservative or liberal. I suggest the time is right for you to stop telling everyone else how they should feel, white lady.

    • Jeremy Harmon says:

      Umm…I’ve been ignoring the racist replies because I’m trying to address the attendees, but this one is just too much. I’m one of “these Latinos” you’re talking about. My family has been in Fort Collins for five generations. We’ve been in Colorado from the San Luis Valley since before the state of Colorado was the state of Colorado. So no…we didn’t “come here” for anything. We’ve been here. And we remain here.

      I guess the question, then, is what you come here for, because it doesn’t seem to be to respect the history, culture, and people of the land you currently claim dominion over.

    • blogessor says:

      Hello, Clair. I’m uncertain how you are defining the terms “illegal” and “indigenous” and whom you mean by “they.”

      If you are referring to those who attended the meeting when you say “they,” I can say that the Latinos who spoke are American citizens born in the United States, yet many of them have been referred to as illegal or have endured other racial slurs. I agree with them that the word “illegal” is offensive because it is dehumanizing. As several said at the meeting, “no *person* is illegal.”

      As I stated in my original post, their stories were painful but important to hear because they inspired empathy; I have never had to imagine what it would feel like to referred to as “illegal,” but now I have more insight into how degrading it must feel. You might find the stories on this website to be similarly helpful: http://colorlines.com/tag/i%20am

      For more information on the long history of Latinos in Fort Collins, I refer you to “Hang Your Wagon to a Star: Hispanics in Fort Collins, 1900-2000.” You can download a copy for free here: http://history.fcgov.com/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/rb&CISOPTR=8330&CISOBOX=1&REC=3

  3. Z. says:

    Maybe the research you’ve done on Pete would have included getting his name correct.

    • blogessor says:

      Thanks for your comment, Z. It’s absolutely important to get names right. I suspect that you viewed an earlier draft of this blog post. I inadvertently wrote “Pete Tyler” when I initially posted to the blog, but caught the error and immediately re-posted with the correct name, “Pete Turner.” On my screen, that is how it reads, so I’m wondering if this is a WordPress glitch.

  4. The insane political correctness of the liberal ilk is totally destroying the very fiber of America. It is ironic that the same people rarely if ever voice any protests against those that use racial slurs to describe white people. The ignorance astounds me. White people are not the only people that can be racists. I grew up as a minority in Tucson , Arizona. When we were kids, we would all joke with each other and no one ever got all twisted in a bundle about it.The the PC police came on the scene and there is very little any more that isn’t some how made in to a racial issue.Fact is, even native born Hispanics sometimes refer to illegals as “wetbacks”, just as some blacks using the N word to describe each other. Is that racist as well?

    • Patrick says:

      As a liberal, I’m offended that someone is trying to make him change the name of his business. the name of his business is not offensive to me in the least. If there is a group of Hispanics that find the name offensive, then he should address them. So I don’t understand why you think this is a “liberal” agenda.

    • blogessor says:

      I agree that whites do not have a monopoly on racist thoughts and actions. I’ve never experienced a racial slur as a white person, so I don’t know how that feels. I have, however, had bigoted comments directed at me because I am female, and I do know that it doesn’t feel good. All of us have been wronged at some point in our lives. I believe the only way we can move forward positively is to respond to others with empathy since we have experienced that pain ourselves.

      In regard to the situation at hand, I believe that listening and responding with empathy would be a huge step in the right direction. That’s what I saw happening at Wednesday’s meeting between Pete and others in attendance. My hope is that civil dialogue can continue in this space and other online venues as well.

  5. Stoney says:

    As a white person, I can spot white guilt from a mile away. Everything about this post is what’s wrong with this country today. If you have this much free time, please go find a real cause to support because this is just a waste of everybody’s time

    • blogessor says:

      Hi, Stoney, thanks for taking the time to read this blog post and share your opinion.

      I want to make clear that I’m not expressing “white guilt” here. In fact, I don’t find the notion of white guilt to be productive because it tends to focus on personal discomfort rather than on an inequitable social system. If the current circumstances prompt civil conversation around an important issue such as the humane treatment of all in our community, I don’t consider my and others’ involvement to be a waste of time.

  6. chadweikel says:

    This is a joke, yes?

    OK, OK… so you misinterpreted the name of the restaurant as a reference to the old stigmatizing term “illegal aliens” – no big deal. Nothing to be embarrassed about. Everyone makes mistakes.

    But wait… Once you reached out to Pete and he told you the background to the name – and it had nothing to do with anything racist – and you also found out how much awesome work his restaurant does in our local communities…??? You still took offense???

    C’mon. It has nothing to do with what you were afraid of… and you still persist?

    Please explain.

    • blogessor says:

      Hi, Chad,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I plan to persist in these conversations because I think it’s important for others to consider the impact of words regardless of intent. The stories that were shared at the meeting on Wednesday made it clear to me that many Latinos in our community have been harmed by the use of this word throughout their lives, both personally and more generally when the name is applied to human beings. Because this pain is an unfortunately common experience, I think it’s still important for Pete to reconsider the restaurant’s name.

      The stories on this website have also given me insight into the effect of the word “illegal” on others: http://colorlines.com/tag/i%20am

  7. Jeremy Harmon says:

    IF the name meant “Pete the Illegal Alien,” I would be on board with this protest in this biggest way. It doesn’t however. The syntax isn’t even there to reasonably entertain the possibility of that meaning.

    HOWEVER, now that you all have seen fit to assert that problematic and illusory perception, now the running joke is “Maybe we should call it ‘Undocumented Pete’s’.”

    This is one 4th generation latino Fort Collins Coloradoan, aspiring immigration law paralegal, and activist against the use of the term “illegal alien” who would like to SINCERELY beg you, Mr. Garcia, et. al. to stop being an absurdity that reactionaries can point to and dismiss our legitimate grievances.

  8. Jeremy Harmon says:

    IF the name meant “Pete the Illegal Alien,” I would be on board with this protest in this biggest way. It doesn’t however. The syntax isn’t even there to reasonably entertain the possibility of that meaning.

    HOWEVER, now that you all have seen fit to assert that problematic and illusory perception, the running joke has become “Maybe we should call it ‘Undocumented Pete’s’.”

    This is one 4th generation latino Fort Collins Coloradoan, aspiring immigration law paralegal, and activist against the use of the term “illegal alien” who would like to SINCERELY beg you, Mr. Garcia, et. al. to stop being an absurdity that reactionaries can point to to dismiss our legitimate grievances.

  9. riot says:

    What I want to know is how the term ‘illegal alien’ suddenly became racist. It’s not. It is a term to describe someone not born of this country who has entered it illegally. Hence the illegal alien. Seriously. Get off your high PC horses and grow up.

    • Jeremy Harmon says:

      Do you really want to know, or is that a rhetorical question? I’d be honored to explain the impact of that term to you, if you’ve ears to hear it, but if you are just meaning to dig in your heels and argue against the proposition I’d just as soon save myself the frustration (especially considering I’m commenting on a stranger’s blog and doing my very best to exercise civil restraint).

    • blogessor says:

      This 2012 piece from CNN provides perspective on the terms used and not used by the Supreme Court in the 2012 immigration case in Arizona. It also describes the history of the term “illegal immigrant.” You can read the entire piece at this link: http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/05/opinion/garcia-illegal-immigrants/

      Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

      The term “illegal immigrant” was first used in 1939 as a slur by the British toward Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and entering Palestine without authorization. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel aptly said that “no human being is illegal.”

  10. Jim says:

    This is a great cause. I posted this letter to professor Garcia, and I’m re-poting it here. If nothing else, we need to keep this important dialogue going:

    “I completely agree with you about the racist name of “the I-word” Pete’s (I refuse to actually say the name because of its hurtful nature). I think it takes great bravery to take such a nuanced position. One of the great things about this country is that the founding fathers made sure that nobody should ever have to endure being offended. And yes, this even includes those people, such as yourself and myself, who have extremely long antennae, and can find offence where seemingly very few others can. The other part of your courageous crusade which I find particularly inspiring is that, while other people who are offended by a private establishment will simply choose not to patronize it, you seem to understand that, as highly enlightened citizens, we are bound to a higher calling. We must try and get as many others as possible not to patronize the establishment. We need to engage in a public campaign to remind people who never even thought of the word as offensive (which, shockingly, seems to be the majority) why they would be offended if only they were smarter. As you know, the principles of social justice demand that we remain strong in our struggle. If we are confronted, for instance, with an abundance of evidence that the owner of the establishment has never demonstrated any racist tendencies, is an upstanding member of society who has helped members of all races through charity and employment, and who has a perfectly innocuous reason for carelessly including the “I-word” in the name of his private establishment (which all appear to be true in this case), we must not let these facts soften our resolve to make sure that he is held accountable for his reckless behavior. As I needn’t remind you, this is not about one well-meaning but unenlightened business owner and his majority of patrons (apparently oblivious to brazen injustice), but this is about protecting our G-word-given right to not be offended, and the vanishingly small number for whom that right has been violated in this case. Remember, this is about standing up for the L-word people.
    I am posting not only to express my admiration for you, but to ask for your help in supporting my own struggle. There is a national chain restaurant which has gotten away for a long time with using an even more blatantly offensive racial epithet in the title of their establishment. Similar to the situation with the “I-word” Pete’s, the people who named this restaurant probably had no intention to insult any particular race, or, just like with the “I-word”, they may not have even been smart enough to know that the word they chose could be seen as offensive by a small minority. I’m sure you feel the same way I do that the lack of intention is no excuse. By failing to take into account the sensibilities, no matter how delicate, of all people ever, when deciding on a name for their private establishment, they immediately become part of the problem. You and I must become part of the solution. This restaurant is known by the term “C-word” Barrel. Again, for obvious reasons, I won’t say the name, but it often follows Ritz or Graham. I am working on starting a Facebook Page to address this important and controversial subject. I know that you must be busy, but I invite and welcome your input, so that we may struggle together to give voice to the voiceless. Thanks again for your time and dedication to the cause.”

    • blogessor says:

      I appreciate your clever satire, Jim.

      One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve read comments here and elsewhere who see the name as no big deal is the use of statistics like”99%” and generalized words and phrases like “majority,” “small minority,” and “seemingly few.” Again, I want to stress that the ongoing conversations between Pete and the group of those who object to the use of the term illegal have been been incredibly civil. No one has called Pete a racist, Pete hasn’t called the group reactionaries, and no protest against the restaurant has been planned.

      I hope you’ll read my latest post. It includes links to sources that provide historical context on the use of the name and explain why it is not just a matter of political correctness. There, you’ll see that the Supreme Court has weighed in on the term, too.

  11. Jim says:

    Well, there’s a lot of fodder here for semantic dissection, which is generally tedious, but since the argument against the “I-word” is heavily invested in semantics, it’s worth pointing a few things out: 1)’majority’ and ‘minority’ are not meant to represent statistical facts, as I use them, any more than the word ‘entire’ when Professor Garcia says that the i-word is hurtful to an entire group of citizens. This, in fact, is demonstrably false, given the fact that some of the group he’s referencing (Latinos) have expressed in comments sections that they are not hurt or offended by the word. At any rate, it seems that there should be an understanding that rhetorical language is not always statistically literal, on either side of this. 2) when you point out that no protest is planned, you neglect to mention the “if” that goes with that, namely, that no protest is planned IF the owner makes the decision you want. 3) while most of the links you provide are not particularly instructive, and seem more like propaganda, there’s enough information available to get a good idea of the main objections to the I-word, and they almost all rely on semantic manipulations. For example, it is pointed out rightly that being an undocumented person in the US is not a criminal offence. It is a civil offence. What is not explained is how this in any way makes the term ‘illegal’ inappropriate. A civil violation is still a violation. It is not legal. Many traffic violations (often civil rather than criminal), for example, are referred to legitimately as illegal – an “illegal U-turn”, an “illegal turn on red”, “illegal entry/exit onto a freeway”, etc. Furthermore, even if you restrict the use of the word unnecessarily to only describe criminal activity, there are plenty (not all but not an insignificant amount either) of undocumented people who gained illegal entry into the US, which is a criminal offence, and so the term “illegal immigrant” for such people is completely appropriate. The most convincing argument against the “I-word” is that “illegal” should not be used to refer to a person. But this also falls apart under more thorough analysis. If I call someone an “illegal u-turner”, for instance, it should be understood that illegal does not refer to the whole person, but to the act that they did that was not legal. It’s impossible for a person to be not legal. That doesn’t make any sense. So when we call someone an “illegal combatant”, an “illegal seller”, an “illegal occupant” (e.g., someone who doesn’t pay rent), an “illegal logger”, an “illegal tenant”, an “illegal hacker”, an “illegal manufacturer”, etc., in each case there’s no indication that anybody using these terms is referring to the person as against the law (which, again, makes no sense). They are referring to the illegal act that they did. The same is true for “illegal immigrant” and its synonym “illegal alien”.
    Obviously, if someone looks at someone and calls that person illegal simply based on the way they look, that’s wrong. But unlike many other racial slurs that only have one connotation (which is purposefully hurtful), “illegal”, when not corrupted into an epithet, has perfectly legitimate and accurate descriptive value, including in regards to immigration. All of this is tedious, as I said, but given that your side is claiming to be spurred by a concern about how language shapes culture, it seems important to stress where your side is misinterpreting the language, or at best, only uncritically understanding it.

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