HAMER, S.C. — For hours, whimsical billboards count down the miles to exit 1A on South Carolina's stretch of Interstate 95 where a giant sombrero hovers in the sky like a neon UFO.
Pedro, the mustachioed, 97-foot-tall patron saint of travelers in need of a pit stop, beckons. Visitors can drive through his legs and find a parking place. It's time to stretch, hit the bathroom, grab a hot dog, see some alligators and snag a few fireworks to detonate on the beach.
South of the Border is a roadside mash-up of novelty architecture, tacky souvenir shops and wacky attractions. If Las Vegas hooked up with Route 66 and had a baby, this would be it.
Whether you think it's cute is a matter of opinion.
Granted, there are plenty of haters out there, people who dismiss the place as a run-down tourist trap. Some sniff at the idea of setting foot in Pedro's wonderland for reasons that run the gamut, from sheer snobbery to objections over racial stereotyping.
But the South Carolina tourist staple is the product a Jewish man who hired African-Americans at a time when that was unpopular in the region.
"The history of South of the Border reflects the complexity of race relations in the U.S. South in many ways," said Nicole King, author of "Sombreros and Motorcycles in a Newer South: The Politics of Aesthetics in South Carolina's Tourism."
Based on recent visits to the Dillon County attraction, South of the Border shows signs of its age but remains a very popular highway respite, especially for those headed to the Grand Strand.
"Our business is up so far this season," said Rosa Dunson, South of the Border's personnel director.
An attraction is born
In 1949, the people of Robeson County, N.C., were facing the unpleasant realities of the county's prohibition on booze sales.
So Alan Schafer, owner of Schafer Distributing and a beer wholesaler just over the state line, erected a pink, cinder-block stand in Hamer, S.C., and named it South of the Border Beer Depot. Within a few years, a small motel was added and the name was shortened to South of the Border.
The theme ramped up quickly after Schafer returned from a business trip to Mexico with two new employees in tow. In a time largely devoid of political correctness and cultural sensitivity, people felt fine referring to the men who worked as bellboys at the site's motel as Pedro and Pancho, according to the attraction's website. Soon, everyone called them both "Pedro" and the idea for the smiling, bandito-like mascot was born.
More attractions were added to the flourishing tourist complex, and South of the Border's motif was applied with a heavy hand: sombreros, tacos, tamales, cacti, ponchos and, of course, Pedro, a character intended to elicit laughs and add a lighthearted touch to Schafer's pet project.
By the 1960s, South of the Border stretched 300 acres and, like its own little town, had a drugstore, post office, barber shop, variety store, eateries, gas station, campground and saloon.
The attraction has ebbed a bit from that high-water mark, but under the direction of Schafer's family, South of the Border has maintained its special campy niche since its creator died in 2001.
A day at the border
It's a typical June day in South Carolina, the kind where you break into a sweat standing still. Cars pull off the interstate and swarm into the complex, which is split in half by U.S. 301.
The pulse of the action is felt at Rocket City, a massive fireworks warehouse.
"Where we're from in Northern Virginia, fireworks are illegal," Dan Marciano said holding his massive haul of explosives. He, his wife and two children are on their way to North Myrtle Beach. "We always stop to grab enough for the week. One of the best things about the beach here is setting off fireworks at night. The kids love it, and they look forward to coming to South of the Border for a little fun. It helps break up the trip."
Inside Mexico West — said to be the largest gift shop on the premises, souvenir hunters search through thousands of items. There are Pedro figurines in all sizes, a huge inventory of ceramics, hundreds of hats, and tables of colorful blankets called serapes.
"It's actually made in Mexico," marvels a woman, reading the label of a colorful sombrero. "I really thought it'd say 'Made in China.'"
People line the entry to the Sombrero Tower, Pedro's version of the Space Needle. For $2, tourists can get a birds-eye view on a 200-foot observation deck situated in the brim of the giant hat.
"Hey — wouldn't it be neat to sit right here and have guacamole and chips with a margarita afterward?" Caty Conrad of Cincinnati asked her boyfriend, Fred, atop the sombrero. But this is not mere whimsy. The couple is scoping out the complex as a possible site for their October nuptials.
"The honeymoon suites are really nice — really," she says. "There's a sign on the interstate that says the honeymoon rooms are 'heir conditioned,' — that made us laugh so hard."
The employment pool — which once included former Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, a Dillon native who worked summers there as a teen — is a mix of more than 300 North and South Carolina locals. That number falls short of the 700 or so that once made South of the Border the largest employer in Dillon County. Still, the impact is significant to this area, which is home to more than 32,000 people.
"South of the Border contributes a lot in terms of tourism and employment," said Tonny McNeil, director of Dillon County Economic Development. "They are a large contributor to our tax base, too, so, it's far more than a tourist attraction to us."
The construction of South of the Border might have started as a business experiment, but it became a cultural one, too.
In the predominately Southern Baptist farming community of Hamer, Schafer's Jewish heritage distinguished him as a minority, a position he used not only to stretch the conservative mores where alcohol was concerned but to obscure racial boundaries.
Schafer not only routinely employed African Americans and other minorities, but he helped register them to vote, as noted in King's book and a Schafer family memoir archived by the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina. Schafer stood up to angry Klansmen over South of the Border's diverse workforce, according to the memoir. The confrontation ended with a rifle-carrying Schafer demanding that the mob depart.
Coming from a man whose roadside attraction was built on cultural stereotypes and what many consider blatant racial insensitivity, it's a contradiction that has not gone unnoticed.
"In the context of today's political climate of racism, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic prejudice, South of the Border is a place that can push us to both reflect on the South's fraught history of slavery and inequality, and to see beyond the simplistic white/black binary of Southern race relations," said King, the tourism book author. "Considering the Pedro caricature at SOB in particular, and the stereotyping of our Latinx community in general, prejudice and hate are things we, as a society, ignore at our peril."
For decades, Schafer dismissed commentary from people who complained Pedro unfairly propagated a "lazy, crafty Mexican" stereotype. But pressure mounted, including complaints from the Mexican Embassy that Schafer back off the Pedro theme. According to the book, "Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumer Culture in the American South," the point was not well-taken by Schafer, who felt his diverse workforce and the millions in merchandise he purchased annually from Mexico were proof of his good intentions.
Billboards that once proclaimed "Ees onlee wan South of the Border, Amigos" gave way to more benign, but still humorous messages. Despite the cultural shifts over the decades, South of the Border and Pedro remains popular kitsch with tourists.
"Racist? That's crazy," said Mauricio Ventura, a North Carolina resident on his way home from a family beach vacation. A native of El Salvador, neither he nor his wife seemed bothered by Pedro. "I think things go too far. Pedro is funny to me, and I don't think it's racist. We laugh about it. What are you going to do? This place - it is what it is."