Pedro: South of the Border
Pedro weighs 77 tons. He stands firmly at 97 feet, entangled in 4 miles of wiring, peering over the South of the Border rest-stop off I-95, in Dillon South Carolina. Pedro’s presence is unavoidable on the journey down from the northern state of New Jersey to the southernmost Florida, as one is confronted with an array of over 250 billboards. Some rather extraordinary examples range from the first garishly humorous sign proclaiming, “Pedro says Shalom” to the enticing pun- “You never sausage a place”.
You really can’t make them up.
From crown to ground, Pedro is only a scant 15 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty, thus Pedro and I certainly differ in physical size and appearance. Yet I feel a great sense of camaraderie with this lonely giant, as we are both outsiders to the South. As a European residing within the South, I share Pedro’s perspective of not quite fitting in to our surroundings, it seems like Pedro and I are both struggling to make sense of the paradoxical place we’re now part of.
I am not unfamiliar with roadside oddities; in my home country of England we have such beasts as the ‘Angel of the North’ and the ‘Willow man’ who greet me on my drives through the English countrysides. These sculptures are isolated pieces of art, stood alone next to motorways commemorating regional history. Pedro on the other hand is surrounded by an explosive array of stores, restaurants, amusements and firework stands. One visitor states how South of the Border is “a place created solely for the tourists.”[i] Pedro’s purpose is therefore to be an advertisement of monumental size. Both locals and visitors alike have chosen him to be the figure of welcome and travel within the South.
Pedro stands steadfast, even as his surroundings change, with his strangeness becoming accepted as everyday by those who are used to his presence. When asked whether South of the Border’s attractions like Pedro were ‘weird’, an employee refuted this saying -“to us it’s not weird… it’s part of the local scenery.”[ii] Pedro may be aging, fading and increasingly forgotten; yet to us non-Southerners, he is a gigantic oddity that makes us want to slam on the brakes, get out the car and greet him in the way he deserves. With smiles and childlike intrigue, rather than hasty ambivalence.
“Keep America Green! Bring Money!”
The construction of Pedro by the South of the Border creator Alan Schafer is a testament to Southern ingenuity, physically shaping the Southern landscape since the 1950’s. The rest stop was initially created as a beer depot in South Carolina. Thirsty North Carolinians could escape their ‘dry’ state and pour into a Mecca for beer lovers. Over the years multiple other attractions including Pedro were added in order to create a rest stop that could draw in travellers from all over America. In an undeveloped area, Pedro’s appeal was so magnetic that business only increased as the US 301 and Interstate I-95 intentionally crossed within his path. He was consistently chosen as one of Roadside America’s Seven Wonders, being the largest freestanding sign east of the Mississippi.
Pedro is a symbol of how Southerners have cultivated their own landscape in order to create business and wealth. South of the Border today, however, is somewhat a shadow of it’s former self. There is a decrease in visitors, lack of commercial growth, and extensive job losses[iii]. One infamous billboard even states- “Give Pedro the Business.”[iv] Furthermore, Pedro is in fact not clearly accessible from the I-95, travellers are required to drive around in order to find him. The decline of Pedro’s surroundings place him as a very particular kind of Southern ruin. He is emblematic of how the monumental so often intercepts with the ruinous in the South. He speaks to a forgotten past: to a roadside culture that once reveled in the excessively odd, however has now transformed into being a normalized part of the landscape. Pedro is in conflict as a forgotten everyday occurrence to those used to him, yet when encountered by an uninformed outsider like myself still draws wonder and intrigue.
“Back up, amigo, you missed it!”
Boundaries are an intrinsic part of both Pedro’s history and physicality. The flat structure of Pedro has the appearance of a cartoon who has faced the misfortune of being steam-rolled into rigidness. He has an arch between his legs that creates a roadway just off the 301 bordering the North and the South. He offers a halfway beacon for travellers from the North, even those heading all the way from New York to Florida. The archway beneath Pedro creates a liminal space and a temptation to cross his borders. This embodied ritual is part of what makes Pedro so infamous; going through his garishly large trousers makes the traveller aware of their direction and how far they have to go. The text on Pedro also expresses this sentiment as he boldly proclaims on both his faces- ‘South of the Border’. All focus is on continuing South, regardless of which side or direction you approach him. Pedro is not only a border to the South but recognition that the South needs a border in order to separate itself from the rest of America.
I am certainly aware of many other famous Arc structures throughout the world, with my closest neighbour being the French ‘Arc de Triomphe’. The monument designed in 1806 was a commemoration to those fallen in the Napoleonic war. However it is part of a much wider scheme of design. Dating back to the 15th century the ‘Axe historique’ is line of buildings, predominantly arches, that stretch from the Tuileries Garden all the way to through the Champs-Élysées. It is often referred to as the spine of Paris. These monumental Arcs have a specifically rich and deep ideology of their own. They speak to a triumphant past of grandeur and prestige whilst providing a ‘view to the west’. Pedro may be seen as his own triumphant arc (although granted, on a much smaller scale). He is bizarrely American, with ideologies of a manifest destiny and a gateway to the further America.
One does not walk through Pedro on their journey however; it is a process to be undertaken in a car. The notion of journeying through state borders and road tripping through the country is a quintessential part of America and roadway culture. Although there is public transport through railways and buses, the need for a car in America is higher than any country I have visited before. The built environment of the South is one defined by open space and consequently the lure of the open road. With towns, schools and stores often being miles apart within the rural South, people have had to rely upon cars and vehicles (whether they like it or not) in order to function. South of the Border indeed lives off car culture; the dull roar of engines is a welcome reminder that money is speeding their way. However the modern world has created a new sense of urgency amongst drivers that have left them casually glancing at Pedro as they continue on their journey. It seems that the tool of his ascent has equally been the tool of his demise.
I would love to visit Pedro myself, alas; living in England with its abundant transport links has meant there is no need for me to learn to drive. Without a driving license in America I am as cemented to my location as Pedro is. Hopefully in the future I will be lucky enough to hitch a ride, eagerly chase the road signs and drive to Pedro rather than through him.
“Pedro’s Weather Forecast: Chili today, hot tamale!”
Pedro represents two Mexican workers who were employed by Alan Schafer after a trip to Mexico in order to establish working relations. Over the years, patrons of the rest stop began to call all the workers ‘Pedro’ and thus the character was born- both a native and an outsider. South of the Border is in actuality over 1,000 miles North of the U.S. border with Mexico. I cannot help but raise the unavoidable question- why is a 97-foot Mexican welcoming people to the South of America? Is it a representation of the imagined South; a place where multiple races and ethnicities are celebrated for what their heritage has added to the region? Or could it be seen as parodying Mexican stereotypes to such a degree that celebration indeed borders precariously towards mockery?
As with many other novelties and famous creations, Southerners are fascinated with the lure of the exotic and foreign. People are encouraged to believe they are gaining a true taste of Mexican culture. The entirety of the rest stop is based around Mexican symbols such as sombreros and cacti. One visitor, when pondering the appeal of the rest stop, smiles and simply says- “In South Carolina we are in Mexico too.”[v] It is a unique homage to Mexican culture that simultaneously makes it part of the South whilst also presenting it as different. Pedro is therefore an outsider that has paved himself within the Southern landscape, paradoxically claiming his home whilst showcasing his outsider status.
Pedro has staked his place both within the South and the Southern imaginary.
He is there to stay, whether he makes sense or not.
By Sarah Madge