The controversial university-area restaurant Illegal Pete’s opened its doors Thursday evening with about 50 student protesters, who chained themselves together and chanted slogans, in front of the entrance. The restaurant’s front patio, which had opened earlier for a private party, was relatively calm until about 5 p.m. when it officially opened to the public.
Shortly after, between 50 and 100 protesters converged on the restaurant with signs and blowhorns. Several protesters handcuffed themselves together with a chain to simulate Operation Streamline, a method of processing and deporting undocumented immigrants in which people are sentenced in large groups.
The protest was organized by several high school and university student groups including the University of Arizona Chicano-rights group M.E.Ch.A., which claims the word “Illegal” in the restaurant’s name is a racial slur.
A Change.org petition titled “Illegal Pete’s Mexican Restaurant: Drop the Name or Shut it Down” organized by M.E.Ch.A., has garnered more than 2,600 signatures. The petition argues that unlike Colorado, where the restaurant chain started, Arizona has a highly-charged political environment that includes racial profiling and widespread injustice against Latinos.
The scene didn’t stop hundreds of people from entering the restaurant, 876 E. University Blvd., packing the front patio and lining up for drinks and California-style Mexican food served assembly-line style.
Patrons sitting just a few feet away from the protesters, inside the patio area, ate burrito bowls and sipped Moscow Mules in copper mugs while protesters yelled, “Illegal Pete’s, where racists eat.”
In order to enter, people had to walk behind the human chain and past a woman holding a sign that read “racists enter here.” At one point, customers started shouting “Illegal Pete’s” as a counter protest. The crowd inside was a mix of UA students, families and people of various racial backgrounds. Tucson Police Department officers stood by as the protest raged on into the evening.
“They’re just making a hard time for everybody here. I wish they would just go away,” said Omar Corella, who was eating with his family as protesters arrived. Corella said his family emigrated from Imuris, Sonora, and that he still lives there part time. “These people are not going to call me a racist. That’s pretty much why I’m here.”
Illegal Pete’s owner Pete Turner was present at the opening, meeting with customers and giving interviews in the industrial-chic, second-level bar punctuated by exposed red-brick walls. Looking noticeably tired, and soft-spoken, Turner said that he had tried to reach out to protesters during a meeting last week, but was unsuccessful.
“It didn’t seem really honest, the conversation, but that’s fine, I mean they’re upset,” he said. “People have a right to their opinion. They do. This is obviously a topic that is very sensitive in Tucson, but (also) in the country right now, with the Syrian refugees and everything else. It’s a sensitive topic, so I get it.”
Illegal Pete’s Tucson is Turner’s first restaurant outside of Colorado, where he started the chain in 1995.
His last restaurant opening in Fort Collins led to a similar pushback, attracting national attention from the New York Times. Turner has claimed repeatedly that the name is an homage to his late father Pete, who had a rebellious streak. Turner has also said the name is a reference to a bar in a novel he’d read, but did not want to state the name of the novel during the interview.
“It’s really not important, I’ve said all this stuff way too many times,” he said. “It’s just, again, it’s a name. I’m so sick of talking about it, honestly.”