Its racist history and ties to
the American dream
FOREWORD: Growing up in a family of six, traveling by plane was never an option. Each road trip, my North Carolina family would pile up suitcases in the back of a Dodge minivan, stick an obnoxious children’s “geography songs” tape into the cassette player, and drive towards our educational vacation destination—frequently passing over the North Carolina and South Carolina border. Anyone who has ever traveled towards the North Carolina or South Carolina border on Interstate 95 has been bombarded with the pun-filled billboards of Anglicized Spanish that advertise the near sights of a colorful, tacky road stop in Dillon, South Carolina known as “South of the Border.” Upon reaching the North Carolina and South Carolina state border, passing travelers are greeted by a giant sombrero and poncho-wearing “Pedro” statue. Filled with dining, gift shops, carousels, Ferris wheels, bumper cars, a reptile exhibit, and an arcade, to a child, South of the Border looks like paradise. To an adult, however, South of the Border looks nothing more than a dirty, run-down, burn-a-hole-in-your-pocket, bed-bugs-in-the-motel-beds, sketchy tourist trap. When driving past South of the Border in the 2000’s, the site always looked deserted. So much so that it comes as a shock that the place is even still in business. This was not the case during the first few decades of its existence, which was the height of South of the Border’s appeal.

The American Dream

The American Dream

The “American Dream” idea was first introduced in 1931 in James Truslow Adams’ book, “The Epic of America.” The concept developed into nation-wide values of wealth and freedom for the nuclear, white, middle-class family living with a “white-picket fence.” After the Great Depression and World War II, the American Dream grew as the middle class started to have more disposable income to travel and eat out at restaurants. This travel was made possible by President Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. After the Act, the construction of interstates and motels took off, including South of the Border.

South of the Border welcome sign

South of the Border Opens

In 1949, Alan Schafer first opened up South of the Border. “South of the Border” first started as a small bar stand called “South of the Border Beer Depot.” At this time, numerous North Carolina counties were still dry of alcohol despite the end of prohibition in 1933 from the passing of the 21st Amendment. Since both North Carolina and South Carolina did not ratify the 21st Amendment, bootlegging was still common in the 1940s and 50s in several counties near the states’ border. The culture of bootlegging allowed “South of the Border Beer Depot” to immediately gain business. Schafer’s bar later expanded to serve food and become known as the “South of the Border Drive-in.” Schafer added motel rooms in 1954, commencing the “South of the Border” mega land that it is today.

South of the Border Pedro Statue

The Origin of "Pedro"

The origin of “Pedro,” the South of the Border mascot is rather troublesome. Whether from a series of microaggressions fueled by mob mentality and ignorance or from actual intended racism, two Mexican immigrant “South of the Border” workers—that Alan Schafer is credited for “saving” from Mexico and giving them the opportunity of the “American Dream” working as bellboys for the motel—began to be called “Pedro” and “Pancho” by American peers. Later, the name “Pancho” was dropped and simplified to just “Pedro,” the new “exotic” face of South of the Border. The greatest significance of South of the Border is not simply the racism, but how the attraction so closely reflected the South’s racial curiosity and systemic racism intertwined with the “American Dream” ideal.

Jim Crow sign

Jim Crow Era

The American Dream’s freedom of travel did not extend past white families. South of the Border flourished during the Jim Crow Era when traveling was difficult for people of color. During this time, many motels were not made available to them. “The Negro Traveler’s Green Book” was a book that informed people of color safe ways to travel. Racial discrimination was evident in Dillon, South Carolina, where South of the Border is located. Ben Bernanke, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, who grew up in Dillon and even worked summer jobs at South of the Border, describes the racial tension in the area in the 1950s and 1960s. In a 2009 “Person of the Year” Time article, Bernanke shares that his home in Dillon County was egged after he had dinner with a black friend. Minstrel shows, productions in which actors wore blackface to mock people of color, were still popular in the south through the 1960s. Racism towards African Americans as evidenced in minstrel shows was similar to the cultural insensitivity South of the Border displays towards Mexicans.

South of the Border billboard sign

Racial Stereotyping

The racism in Dillion was not limited to African Americans, but included Hispanics as well. In the mid 1900s, South of the Border was appealing for its “exotic” Mexican theme. South of the Border heavily reinforces Mexican stereotypes, which leaves customers ill informed about Mexican culture. “Pedro” is always depicted with a mustache and wearing a poncho and sombrero. This attire, however, is not indicative of common Mexican daywear. In Mexico, a sombrero is typically worn by a folk musician called a “mariachi” or by a horseman called a “charro.” A charro is a person who participates in the Mexican sport “charreria” which is similar to a rodeo. Author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Gustavo Arellano, writes, “As Mexicans have migrated to the South over the past twenty years, too many folks reduce us to a seemingly silly hat.” South of the Border’s billboards have also proven to be problematic in how Mexicans are reflected. Signs like “No Monkey Business Joost Yankee Panky!” use words like “joost” to poke fun at the way a native Spanish speaker may pronounce “just” in English.

Present Day South of the Border

Present Day

South of the Border still exists today, but in a less obtrusive way. While at one point in time there were 250 South of the Border billboards spread across I-95, there are fewer today. Even though "broken English" has since been removed from all the billboards, South of the Border's racial implications may still remain in people's minds.




You Scored:


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Grunwald, Michael. "Person of the Year 2009: Ben Bernanke." Time. December 16, 2009. Accessed September 28, 2016.,28804,1946375_1947251_1947520-2,00.html.

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