Kitschy racism is historically cute yet persistently damaging. Racism itself isn’t cute and delightful like cupcakes and pennant banners. Live, love, laugh? You’ll probably find a few hundred faux typography images of that, but you’ll be hard pressed to find some racist quotes to pin to your board (please let me know if I’m wrong). I’m talking about the campy images and monuments from the past that were often portrayed as charming and whimsical. I’m talking about seemingly innocuous things from the pre-civil rights, pre-women’s rights era that are so evocative they become exempt from criticism.
Less than a month ago, my family and I drove eighteen hours down to Florida to visit extended family. As we drove along I-95 and crossed the border between the Carolinas, we spotted these pun-filled billboards about the ‘best kept secret’ of the highway, South of the Border. The signs told us we’d always be a wiener at Pedro’s, so we gave it a shot. Bright colours and Space Age signs promising Mexican food was appealing after driving a long stretch of road on an empty stomach.
We parked the car and as soon as I stepped out onto the pavement to stretch my legs, I got this weird feeling. It felt like I was in the twilight zone. The place itself was interesting to look at with all the bright colours and the googie architecture reminiscent of the 1950s. It made South of the Border the perfect tourist trap with all the little signs and statues that were ideal for that social media photo-op. Stores were selling kitschy, novelty items that were probably mass produced, but in that particular setting, they could’ve been original, artisanal junk from etsy. But there was also something off about the place. It had this seedy, ghost town vibe; and it was this sad circus quality to it that made it appealing to me as a photography hobbyist (the day I call myself a photographer, I better be published on NatGeo). It had the same sort of appeal as wanting to photograph an abandoned factory.
It felt bizarre. The whole time, I walked around and snapped pictures like a typical, unassuming tourist. I wondered if Dillon, South Carolina had a big Mexican community that I just hadn’t heard about. Maybe they had given the go-ahead on the project. But there were the signs that mocked a bad impression of a Hispanic accent. There was Pedro, the mascot, who was a racist caricature of a Mexican bandido. There were so many negative stereotypes being perpetuated, that I was convinced it was simply a racist tourist trap. I went from being this thoughtless tourist to feeling like my presence in that particular place was supporting something derisive and distasteful.
We intended to eat so we followed the sign that read, in huge red letters, ‘Hot Tamales‘. We went inside and found fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, cafeteria trays, and the most uninspired menu of hot dogs and French fries. At this point, I wasn’t totally surprised; in fact i was a little relieved. I was relieved that we ended up not eating there; and I was relieved that unsuspecting tourists wouldn’t taste South of the Border’s version of Mexican food and let it tarnish their experience of the real thing. We ended up driving further South for food, but not before we passed a sign telling us to ‘back up amigo’ and now ‘Pedro sad.’
Pedro’s not a real person though. Pedro is some man’s racist caricature of a culture and people that are very much real. I can’t speak for Mexicans so I don’t know what the consensus is on South of the Border, but I can only imagine it’s seen as just one of many classically, kitschy attractions from the past that still hold on to vestiges of racism. It’s like the whole Pinterest-approved trend of plantation weddings. So romantic and also simultaneously ignorant. People just latch onto what’s old and aesthetically pleasing without understanding its history or why it’s problematic. The thing is, before anything is said and done (I’m not campaigning for all antebellum-style houses to be torn down or anything), all I want is to have civil, open-minded discussions about race. I want to talk about the cute and kitschy stuff, the traditional team mascot, and the ‘way things were’ and I want to scrutinize them without retaliation.
“You’re being too PC” or “You’re so easily offended.”
Ouch. That stings. Pass the hydrogen peroxide. No, but really, what are you supposed to say after someone calls you out for being too politically correct or offended? I’m sorry I’m a more enlightened individual? I’m sorry society has prejudices that affect my life? But this post isn’t here to discuss hypothetical scenarios and badass comebacks to obstinate douchebros. We’ll save that post for another day. For now if there’s anything you should leave with, its these words of advice: if you see punny billboards inviting you to join Pedro at the South of the Border, keep driving.