Illegal Pete’s and The Smug Face of Tone Deafness

My friend, David, asked me to write about Illegal Pete’s, a restaurant chain from Colorado with an offensive name. My first reaction was: ugh. Not because I didn’t want to write it but because it deals with the theme of smug tone deafness, which is popular these days, especially in political circles.

I first read about the restaurant a few years back. I was shocked someone would dare to name their restaurant after a racial slur, especially in my hometown. It made the news several times because apparently, I was not only person who had a problem with a restaurant using a slur. The news died down however and the name persists today.

After a recent trip to Denver, I can confirm to you that Colorado has also become tone deaf and done its damndest to shed its Chicana/o activism past. See my article on ‘the little Denver library who didn’t know it was named after a Chicano legend’ here.

See, there’s a new sheriff in town and papa’s got a brand new bag (of weed). This has caused people to flock to Colorado in droves in search of the next high, which has resulted in yet another gold rush. Only this time around, instead of massacring the natives for gold nuggets, the process taking place is called gentrification, but the result is the same.

The Denver I knew is dead and what replaced it can only be described as a hipster paradise, which is a whole other discussion but what you end up with businesses like Illegal Pete’s.

“Who eats there?” I asked a friend about Illegal Pete’s.

“Hipsters and bros.”

Say no more.

This kind of crowd sees no problem patronizing a business with a slur for a name and would populate condos built on indigenous burial grounds…after pissing on it. And they have largely taken over Colorado.

The owner of Illegal Pete’s, Pete Turner, is unapologetic about the name (surprise, surprise) and has defended it several times, citing a book he once read in college as inspiration. Turner hails from Colorado and started the business in 1995 in Boulder. He copied the popular “Mission-style” burrito formula (See: Chipotle) and the rest is history, or HIS story.

If you visit the Illegal Pete’s website, you are greeted with a multi-colored, patchwork American flag and the slogan: The More The Merrier.

How quaint! This thinly veiled apology for the restaurant name is almost saying, “Surprise! Yes, we know the name is offensive but so what! We support (illegal) immigration! Please patronize our business!”

The website goes on to say:

“The name resonated with me for the obvious reason that my name is Pete, but of equal importance, it was my father’s name. He was also a bit of a good-natured hell-raiser in his day, and he was my moral support during the months leading to opening and the two years of operation up to his death in August 1997.” 

If that’s true why not just call it “Pete’s”? Never mind.  Asking people to use their brains in this day and age is asking too much. See: social media.

Culturally sensitivity?! Fuck outta here with the PC crap!! Trump 2016!

If Turner’s reasoning (he said he doesn’t mean it that way) behind keeping the name sounds familiar that’s because it’s a common defense. Similar arguments can be heard from Washington Redskin’s faithful and owner, who swear, with a headdress and face paint on, that they are honoring indigenous people, not insulting them.

Who knew?

Turner, whose business has seen success, and even expansion to Tucson, AZ, is about as tone deaf as you can get these days and that’s saying a lot. And boy is he smug about it!

Despite repeated pleas from the Mexican and Chicana community, Turner says his intentions are pure.

“I swear…I didn’t mean ‘nigger’ the way it sounded…”

Yet one of the most damning pieces of evidence against the name of the restaurant comes from the letters of support for Turner receives. It turns out…bigots dig the name! Again, who knew?!

Turner told the New York Times that he is “troubled” by the letters of support he receives from people who are “proudly anti-immigrant” and love the name of the restaurant.

(Hint: Psst, hey, Pete? That’s a clue, dude.)

“Mr. Turner said the uproar had caught him off guard. He is particularly troubled by the barrage of supportive emails he has received from people who said they were proudly anti-immigrant.” – NYT, 2014

Not troubled enough it seems.

Let’s review, on the one hand, you have several communities of people who have told Turner, to his face, that despite his “good intentions” and charity work, the name of the restaurant is offensive, period, and that he should change it.

In addition to that, you have letters of support from proud anti-immigrant bigots who adore the name because they too, see it as a slur. Bingo.

So, if people opposed to the name see it as a slur and people in support of the name also see it as a slur, what’s Turner’s goddamn problem? I wonder if he’s a Redskins fan to boot.

What more does Pete Turner need in order to realize that he is wrong and his business name is as offensive as calling it “Nigger Pete’s”?

Truth be told, there is NO other connotation for referring to a person as illegal in 2015. None. Just ask Donald Trump.

For Turner to play dumb at this point is offensive in itself and if he thinks that he has a rosy reception waiting for him in Tucson he has another thing coming.

Choosing to be tone deaf is equally offensive. Pete Turner is either an idiot or he simply does not care about the communities who support his business. So he can flush his good intentions down the toilet. If the latter is the case, Illegal Pete’s should see a national boycott.

And this is a problem that those who are wealthy and White have these days. I guarantee you were Turner on hard times (see: boycott) he might change his tune. Why? Money talks. In fact, it’s the only thing that talks now.

I also guarantee you that if a Mexican guy started a business called “Kike Dave’s” there’d be blood and national uproar but I digress.

I say all of this, here in 2015, which feels more like 1950, or at least, an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Recently, Tide rolled out a campaign about washing away hurtful slurs (like illegal) and using the power of Tide soap to ease the pain.

Ohhh…if we only had Tide in the 50s!!

They even went so far as to make shirts with the word “Beaner” on them so they could wash it off. Really.

If that was not enough, the National Council of La Raza partnered with Tide for this campaign, which is just bizarre. But 2015 has seen corporations stepping into the role of activist and people signing off on it without much notice. Want some LGTB Doritos with your lunch?

After seeing the Tide commercial, I had to ask: would they dare to create a commercial with slurs against Blacks and Jews on t-shirts? The answer is no.

Just like Pete Turner wouldn’t name his restaurant Faggot Pete’s. Yet, for a multitude of reasons, it’s open season on Mexican and Chicano people.

The national organizations, the so-called Latino media, politicos and the social media famous, all preach respectability politics. Turn the other cheek. Be the better person. Take the higher road…yet we, collectively, are still the butt of every joke and the coveted market – both for votes and dollars.

No one is fighting back. Why..? Alas, that is a discussion for another day.

If anything, just as the 1950’s saw the door begin to close on bold-faced conservative racism, and give birth to radical politics and respect by any means necessary, I believe that once the fog of the social media era clears, similar things will happen. Maybe.

But for the foreseeable future, we are stuck with ignorance, apathy and the smug face of tone deafness.  It’s high time we repeat some of the other themes from the past and revisit our self-defense and self-determination.

Ya basta.

— by Sarlos Cantana

Sarlos Cantana is a gonzo Xicano author. Look for his book in 2016 from BSP. 


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One Response to Illegal Pete’s and The Smug Face of Tone Deafness

  1. Pingback: What ever happened to Sarlos Cantana? | Broken Sword Publications

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