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Who is Illegal Pete–Mexican migrant or countercultural hipster?

These questions have been raised in recent weeks after a group in Fort Collins called asked Pete Turner, owner of Mexican food restaurants called Illegal Pete’s, to change the name of his company because using the word “illegal” as part of a Mexican-style restaurant was insulting to Mexican-Americans who are often told to “go back home” despite being American citizens.

The story swiftly shot around the world after it was posted on the Drudge Report, with many expressing surprise and anger, saying that the word “illegal” is not a racist slur, and it was never Turner’s intention to use it that way.

This fracas is similar to many that have raged around the country about offensive company names, triggering talk about such issues as corporate branding, business strategy and life in multicultural America. Football isn’t immune either, with the Washington Redskins being called on to change the team name.

Recently, controversies have erupted over restaurant names like Chink’s Steaks in Philadelphia and Bandidos in San Francisco, evoking earlier examples in restaurant history, such as the restaurant chain Sambo’s, back in the 1970s and ’80s, when activists argued the name was a racist slur.

Last summer, a food truck called the Wandering Dago was banned from the Saratoga race track by the New York Racing Commission because its name was considered offensive.

People have also argued over the names of menu items like the Wopburger — still served at the Blue Parrot in Louisville — and even a citrus fruit called Kaffir limes, because the word “kaffir” is a racial slur in South Africa, similar to the N-word in American culture.

In all these disparate debates, there is one similarity: Where one person sees political correctness run amok, another sees cultural sensitivity in a globalized economy.

Word associations

Last week Turner announced in a lengthy post on his company website that he will not change his company name.

“The word ‘illegal’ means many things,” he said, after detailing the history of how he chose the name, using the word “illegal” for its edgy, countercultural meaning.

The group in Fort Collins, made up of community members, students and professors at Colorado State University and Front Range Community College, said they “condemned” the decision,

“Regardless of the intention of Pete Turner’s decision to name the restaurant initially, the impact is painful and offensive,” said Cheryl Distaso, coordinator of the Fort Collins Community Action Network. “Turner maintains that he engages in fair practices with employees, and cares deeply about the betterment of the community, but he has chosen to name his restaurant in such a way that he is aligning himself with anti-immigrant activists such as John Tanton who use the word ‘illegal’ to hurt and oppress others.”

In multicultural America, where U.S. census data shows that by 2043, the white population will no longer be a majority, business owners such as Turner face tough decisions over words with multiple meanings.

“It’s very tricky,” said Phil Fernbach, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. “You have to be sympathetic to other people who have different experiences, and certain cultures have associations with words that are totally innocuous in other cultures.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary manages this complexity with two separate entries for the word illegal. The first defines illegal as “not authorized by law.” The second, especially for English-language learners, uses the same definition but gives the example of “an illegal alien/immigrant” as “a foreign person who is living in a country without having official permission to live there.”

The name Illegal Pete’s triggered controversy because it specializes in burritos.

“We might be having a different conversation if it was a pasta place, but it’s not,” said Daryl Maeda, chairman of the Department of Ethnic Studies at CU. “For people of Latino ancestry, the dominant image in our country is that Latinos are in this country illegally. … That association is a strong one in our country, and the naming of Illegal Pete’s calls up those associations, which is why it’s really offensive to some people.”

It may not have been Turner’s intention to use the word as a racial slur, he said, but that’s been the impact.

“He should be applauded for his efforts to create a better workplace for his workers,” said Maeda, “but at the same time he should realize that the name of his restaurant has perhaps unintended consequences, so if he’s really dedicated to social justice, he should do the right thing here.”


There also are unintended consequences, however, of changing a restaurant’s name after accusations of racism.

Last year, the owner of Chink’s Steaks in Philadelphia finally gave up his fight to keep his restaurant’s name — and lost 30 percent to 40 percent of his customer base.

“They say, ‘You bent to the PC police,’ ” said Joe Groh, who renamed his restaurant Joe’s Steak and Soda Shop.

He bought the business from its original owner, Samuel Sherman, who’d been nicknamed “Chink” as a kid because of his almond-shaped eyes.

Groh really didn’t want to change his restaurant’s name, “but I did it for my employees and my family. It was the right thing to do.”

It was also the only thing to do if he wanted to grow his company, because in 2008 when he tried to open another Chink’s in a different neighborhood, the outcry was so loud that he finally gave up. But recently, he decided to open a new restaurant in an upscale neighborhood, and — despite a petition with 10,000 signatures urging him to keep the name Chink’s — he changed it.

“Over a year and a half later, people are still bitching about the (new) name,” he said. “It’s a problem that will never go away.”

Last month in San Francisco, owners of a new Mexican restaurant called Bandidos were accused of using a racist slur, and within days — before customers got attached to the name — they rebranded as Hecho.

“As small-business owners, we have been saddened that unknowingly the name of the restaurant we recently opened has offended people,” Jesse Woodward and Dana Gleim said in a statement. “This was never our intention and we feel horribly about it, so we have decided to change the name.”

Some say the issue boils down to branding in the 21st century.

“Corporate brands have established value. But as the furor over the name of the Washington Redskins football team shows, companies that fail to keep their brands relevant and up-to-date risk finding themselves embroiled in controversy,” Maeda said.

The Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, has said he will never change the team’s name, despite a growing chorus of objections to the pejorative name, which is a slur to American Indians.

In the case of Illegal Pete’s, Haragopal Parsa, professor of hospitality management at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, believes keeping the name is a mistake, especially considering the growing Latino population in the state.

“What he is saying by not changing the name is ‘I couldn’t care less what minorities think; if you don’t like it, don’t come to the restaurant.’ That’s the same thing as Snyder, and that’s the wrong message.”

But others disagree.

“From a business point of view, you have to weigh the positives and negatives,” Fernbach said. “It’s not just rebranding, but an implicit admission of guilt that they did something wrong. Plenty of consumers might think, ‘I didn’t know they named it after this ethnic slur,’ but if they don’t change it, this probably blows over.”

The group in Fort Collins says its fight is not over and that it is working with people in Tucson to protest Illegal Pete’s when it opens next August in Arizona.

“This week the National Association for Multicultural Education is having its annual conference in Tucson, and we’re building a network of activists there,” said Antero Garcia, assistant professor in the English department at Colorado State University.

“Every restaurant opening, and each one staying in business, is an opportunity for us to create dialogue around the issues of white privilege.”