¡Bienvenido, Amigos!

Pedro’s weather report: Chile today, hot tamale!

You never sausage a place! You’re always a wiener at Pedro’s!

Pull over for sommtheeng deeferent, Señor!

“Look, another one!” My brothers and I pointed.

Just a leetle bit longer, amigos! Pedro so happy!

Our excitement billowed as the billboards became more and more frequent, the miles listed on the bottom of each sign dwindling in number.

Then we crossed into South Carolina. We pulled off the highway. The welcome sign glowed. The mustache glimmered. And we had reached our destination.

South of the Border.

LOVE AT FIRST SIGN

It all started with a trip to Florida in 1996. My family was driving down to Jacksonville for a vacation with our relatives, and we stopped at the South of the Border roadside motel for a night on the way down. Instantly entranced by the radiance of neon cactuses and endless string of souvenir shops, my brothers and I asked our dad if we could stay there instead of driving the rest of the way to Florida.

“Dad, do we have to go to the beach?” we probably asked.

“Yes,” my dad probably responded. “But don’t worry kids. We’ll be back,” he probably said after that.

But I can’t remember the exact conversation because I was too busy looking at the statue of a cartoonish Mexican bandito named Pedro.

Five times the size of an average man, Pedro lit up the night with his jovial smile and prominent stature. Even though he stood at around 15 feet tall, his amiable aura made him feel approachable and down-to-earth. He had a playful glimmer on his face, and the sprightly spark in his eyes made you want to know exactly what kind of mischief he had up sleeve.

He seemed like the kind of person that loved frivolous shenanigans but could still wrap you in a warm hug at the end of the day.

We were enamored.

So true to his word, every summer we’d pack our suitcases into the station wagon and my dad would drive my brothers and me the five hours to Dillon, South Carolina, our anticipation rising with each passing Pedro sighting. As the billboards became more and more dense, we knew we were getting closer. Finally, we’d pull off the highway and see the revered Pedro statue, who seemed to get happier about our arrival each year.

The week that followed would be filled with activities entirely exclusive to the South of the Border area: swimming at the motel pool, video games at the arcade, and putt-putt at the Golf of Mexico. We’d hop around the seemingly endless souvenir shops for gems that we knew we’d never find anywhere else, like wind up maracas or straws in the shape of rattlesnakes. We’d eat authentic Mexican foods, including hot dogs from the ¡Hot Tamale!, Fun Dip from Pedro’s Candy Fiesta, and pizza from the diner shaped like a sombrero. Then we’d stock up on “South of the Border” bumper stickers for our bedrooms, planning to one day put them all over our future cars.

We’d wander through the life-sized animal statues – armadillos, coyotes, donkeys, a polar bear – spread among the green metal cactuses and plastic tumbleweeds, commenting to each other that we felt like we really were in Mexico.

To finish off each of our adventure-packed days, we’d ride the elevator up to the top floor of the sombrero tower, standing at the railing that looked over the entire property while soaking in our most cultural life experience yet.

Then we’d walk by the Pedro statue and silently wish him a good night, filled with anticipation for the next day.

MORE THAN JUST A REST STOP…?

Okay.

Let me just take a minute here to explain South of the Border to all of you who haven’t heard of or experienced it yourself.

South of the Border was created in 1950 as a rest stop for travelers driving long distances on I-95. It’s an attraction-slash-resort (and I use the term “resort” very, very loosely) with a feebly executed (and mildly controversial) Mexican theme. It’s recognized for its hundreds of billboards dotting the highway all the way between New Jersey and Florida, many of which feature Pedro and his childish Central American accent. After complaints from the Mexican embassy themselves, saying that the depiction of Mexicans was culturally insensitive, South of the Border rebranded to make Pedro sound less…well, ignorant.

It has remained a common stopping point for travelers, with one motel, a few restaurants, and somewhere around twelve gift shops. People will stop there for a bathroom break, a cheap lunch, an occasional overnight stay, or a carload of debatably legal fireworks.

But it is not – I repeat, it is not – an intended destination point.

The employees, managers, owners, and even Pedro would agree with this openly.

So I’m not really sure what it was that my brothers and I saw in the South of the Border roadside attraction that inspired an annual tradition, but we sure saw it. And each vacation ended in a tearful goodbye to the resort, whispering promises to Pedro of our return the next summer.

BEYOND THE MUSTACHE

The last year that we went to South of the Border is the year I remember most vividly.

I don’t know if it was because we were getting older, or because it was getting more touristy, or maybe a mix of both; but that year, South of the Border had abruptly and completely lost its charm. Suddenly everything seemed cheap, kitschy, and exceedingly outlandish.

Why are there a dozen souvenir shops that all sell the same things?

Why are the cactuses the color of pistachio ice cream? And – tap tap – why are they hollow?

Why does everything have a sombrero on it?

Why is there a polar bear statue?

Even Pedro had lost his allure, his wide, mustached smile appearing less inviting and more racist every time we looked at him.

It felt like going to see Santa after you’ve stopped believing in him. What was once blanketed in magic and frosted with fascination is now just a lonely old man with too much white hair surrounded by kids waiting to sit in his lap.

That year at South of the Border, when it was time to pack the station wagon and head back to Richmond, my brothers and I couldn’t get into the car fast enough. My dad returned the motel key, and we started the trip home.

A few miles into the drive, we passed by a billboard. Back up Amigo, you going the wrong way!

No, Pedro. We going the right way.

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