Anyone who drives along Interstate 95, through the Carolinas, cannot miss them: the billboards to stop at South Of The Border, fronted (of course) by a Mexican in stereotypical dress named Pedro. If you’ve ever stopped there, the first word that probably comes to mind is tacky. My question is: Are Latinos offended by the open stereotype of “Pedro” and all the other Mexican entities found at this public travel stop? Or does it not matter with all the other issues of the day?
South Of The Border started, just over the South Carolina border, as “The South of The Border Beer Depot” in 1949, by Mr. Alan Schafer, as a place for citizens of the then “dry” state of North Carolina, to come have a cool one. It was such a successful venture, with North Carolinians coming from miles around, that he expanded operations.
In the early 1950s came a restaurant and also motel rooms. “Pedro” began when Mr. Schafer went to Mexico to make import connections. He befriended two young Mexican men who wanted entry into the United States. He helped them get it and granted them jobs at his motel. People who saw them began nicknaming them “Pancho and Pedro.” Eventually just the name Pedro held on, and over time came all the stereotypical imagery to promote stopping at South Of The Border.
Living in South Carolina in the 1990s, I passed billboards many times driving to and from work. In those years came N.A.F.T.A., and also a great increase of Migrant Farm Workers, in both of the Carolinas. In the last few years I was there (moving back to NY in 2000), I remember hearing about a call to soften the presence of “Pedro.” I do not know what particular group was responsible, and I could not find any data about official lawsuits or motions in online records or articles. It seemed to come in the wake of the Native American calls to nationwide sports teams to get rid of Native references in their team names and mascots. What I remember was a change from the big smiling Pedro on the billboards (with the black hair and brown skin) to a “neutral” person playing a guitar, with face covered under a sombrero. That was as far as any action went.
That action has been reversed in recent years, and the visual stereotyping of Mexicans, along with such phrases as “Pedro’s Weather Report: Chili Today, Hot Tamale”, have once again made their way back to a visual presence for the thousands who drive along the I-95 in the American Southeast. In other words, “Smiling Pedro” is back.
Should there be a new fight against this stereotype, or is it not worth taking notice? Does it matter with so many other larger issues going on today such as laws in Arizona, and Obama’s stance on immigration? While such a presence is not as blatant an attack as the language used in the coverage of the Arizona situation, and other places, it does create a minimalization of the Latino as a person, regardless of what particular country their heritage stems from.
By Miguel Muller, Guest Contributor.