Skip to content Skip to footer

When a Racist Restaurant Opens on the Edge of Campus, What Is a University’s Responsibility?

Universities must be proactive in addressing racism, whether on campus or within their university communities.

An entrance to The University of Arizona located in Tucson, Arizona on March 16, 2014. The decision by a white owner to open a Mexican restaurant called "Illegal Pete's" at the doorstep of the University of Arizona seems to be the epitome of either sheer callousness or complete obliviousness. (Photo: Katherine Welles /

A white-owned Mexican restaurant called “Illegal Pete’s” will open in December at the doorstep of the University of Arizona. A growing debate surrounds the restaurant’s opening – a debate that could ultimately touch every university in the country.

In this case, the proposed restaurant is just one block from the main entrance to the university, and it is precisely where the campus pep rallies take place before the big games. Because of the restaurant’s location, its opening has ramifications that go beyond legal or real estate questions. Yet, at the moment, the university is remaining neutral on this matter. But is neutrality possible when the school’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of the university community?

This controversy involves the question: Are universities responsible for the conduct of tenants in adjoining university villages – which are the heart of university life – whether they own the property or not? In this case, this question is particularly relevant as the owner of this restaurant appears to be locating his liquor establishments near college campuses.

In this case, the opponents of the restaurant are arguing that the university’s responsibility in creating a safe space for its students, staff, faculty and workers includes not simply freedom from physical harm, but also freedom from psychological harm that can occur from repeated exposure to anti-Mexican mockery and bigotry. The opponents, led by the student group MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/Chicano de Aztlan), have begun a petition, demanding that the owner either change the name of the restaurant or shut it down.

In this case, it is highly likely that Illegal Pete’s owner, Pete Turner, is actually counting on community outrage to generate free nationwide publicity for his Colorado-based chain of restaurants. That may not be a good gamble.

The decision to open this restaurant at the doorstep of the University of Arizona seems to be the epitome of either sheer callousness or complete obliviousness. In Arizona, the 2010 anti-immigrant SB 1070 legislation requires that police officers inquire about the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country without proper documents. This legalization of racial profiling has led not simply to inconveniences, but also to the tearing apart of families by police officers acting in tandem with immigration officers.

The community in which the restaurant will soon open is also a place where residents live with Operation Streamline, a dehumanizing court procedure that takes just 60 to 90 minutes and convicts 70 migrants a day, shipping them off to for-profit private detention centers.

Turner is also seemingly unaware that Arizona is the home of HB 2281, the anti-ethnic studies measure that created much conflict in Tucson, as it led to the dismantling of Tucson’s highly successful Mexican American studies program.

This operation and these measures have become part of Arizona’s desert landscape for the last several years. Is Turner unaware of the resultant racially charged political strife?

Turner might want to read the articles and the letters to the editor regarding these issues in the Arizona Republic and the Arizona Daily Star during the period of 2010 to 2012. The vicious and virulent hate that was unleashed during that time was unprecedented. A great number of the many thousands of hate letters that were published invoked the term “illegals.”

Turner feigns ignorance of the fact that the term “illegal,” when used in reference to an individual, a people or culture, is demeaning – particularly when it is applied to people who are being violently displaced from their homes and families due to their immigration status. And whether the university agrees with its usage or not, can there be any doubt that this restaurant will once again trigger acrimonious hate?

Here is one easy test regarding whether a business name is appropriate: Is the word “illegal” attached to anything Mexican?

Is the term offensive? Highly. Has it been used to denigrate the Mexican and Central American communities in the past? Always. Is there a history of people at liquor-serving establishments mocking Mexicans in the United States, especially in college towns? It is virtually a ritual. Will liquor be served at this establishment? Yes. End of discussion.

If anyone has a doubt regarding the inappropriateness of this term, please go to the Drop The I word campaign website. But unless one has been hiding under a saguaro cactus, it should be obvious that the word is offensive.

The 2016 presidential campaign, in particular, has highlighted this inflammatory issue. One candidate in particular has been whipping up anti-Mexican hate and anti-immigrant frenzies by claiming that “illegals” are the source of most of the nation’s problems. This candidate has been calling for the instant deportation of 11 to 30 million migrants, the construction of a 2,000-mile wall and the overturning of the 14th Amendment, which would ban birthright citizenship. This has already caused violence against Mexicans and Latinos at Donald Trump rallies.

This also comes at a time of heightened awareness regarding the idea that “my culture is not your costume.” On college campuses and at nearby drinking establishments, the mocking of Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Arabs and African Americans is hardly news.

Illegal Pete’s threatens to become a permanent home for that continual mockery and exploitation of these non-white cultures.

That being the case, can the university morally afford to remain “neutral?”

Countdown is on: We have 6 days to raise $39,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.