If you’ve ever taken a road trip on I-95, chances are you’ve passed by one of 250 billboards advertising the same rest stop. Advertised from New Jersey to Florida, South of the Border is a strange RV park and motor hotel you may (or may not) have heard of. Located right on the border of North and South Carolina, this Mexican-themed rest stop is both alluring and downright confusing. And the fact that it’s still open baffles many.
History of the South of the Border
What started as a small beer stand near a plethora of dry counties, South of the Border first opened by Alan Schafer in 1949. It became a local pitstop for alcoholic beverages, growing over the years. In 1954, 20 motel rooms were added, and in 1962, a fireworks store, which capitalized on North Carolina’s law against buying fireworks.
Then I-95 was routed right by 1964, and Schafer quickly built a small town to accommodate the highway traffic. A barbershop, a post office, a go-kart track, and a gas station were tacked on as well. But for better or worse, the most iconic aspect of the rest stop became its mascot, Pedro.
It’s incredibly challenging to write this without saying that Pedro, for lack of a better term, is a stereotype. The character of Pedro was based on not one, but two unnamed men who helped Schafer import Mexican trinkets to the states. Schafer helped them get US citizenship, and they worked as bellboys in his motel. Though, the customers called the two “Pedro and Pancho” until it was eventually just Pedro.
If you read that and felt slightly offended, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. But if you’re interested in visiting this strange RV park/motor hotel, what exactly is there to do?
What is there to do at South of the Border?
As mentioned, there are a plethora of shops on site for clothes, food, and trinkets. But there are also shops inspired by the Carolinas, such as a Myrtle beach store and a sports store. And while the fireworks store is certainly the main attraction, there are very few non-shopping-related pass times available.
The giant sombrero water tower sits atop an arcade, which is currently closed for maintenance. And the amusement park is practically abandoned, as many of the rides are out of commission. I’ve refueled at the rest stop and the atmosphere is unsettling, to say the least. There are a couple of restaurants, which are rarely ever busy, and the impressively large indoor reptile lagoon, but that’s genuinely about it.
But as you drive by it, there’s something unquestionably mystifying about this place. You’ll remember it every time you’re on I-95 (at least I do), and if you want to stay there, you can. Pedro’s RV park and campgrounds start at $31 a night, and the motor hotel starts at $65. In the photos, the rooms look nice, and they all prohibit smoking and pets, but those measures feel about the same as putting lipstick on a pig.
There’s no denying the stereotypical, racist undertones of this attraction, turning an entire culture into a tourist trap. Though what’s more American than capitalizing off of someone else’s heritage?
The controversy behind this Mexican-themed motor hotel
You may have been to young to remember, but many of the old South of the Border billboards were rather demeaning. Featuring a “Hispanic dialect” words like big were spelled “beeg” to replicate a voice similar to Speedy Gonzales. The only difference is that Speedy was Hispanic representation in American TV, whereas South of the Border was just plain stereotyping.
In 1993, the Mexican Embassy complained to Schafer about the billboards. But Schafer reminded them that the tourist trap generated $1.5 million dollars in export revenue for Mexico. Despite that rebuttal, the billboards were changed from broken English to dad jokes, some of which hurt to read.
What’s funny is that, according to The Washington Post, South of the Border was one of the first places in the south to welcome African Americans post-segregation. And while this, paired with immigrating two young men sounds peachy, the stereotyping is just too strong to overlook. Many theorize that it’s only around today because it’s in an area where nobody will criticize it.
It’s attracts people in the same way a lamp attracts a moth. It’s bright, shiny, and well kept from afar. But the closer you get, the easier it is to spot every flaw. The attraction looks old, and the message it sends isn’t exactly progressive. But this RV park and motor hotel will slam you with a wave of confusion every time you drive I-95.