RIVER NORTH — A River North nightclub is apologizing to patrons after letting one of its guests bring in a racially insensitive piñata the night before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Matt Solida, 27, a DJ who regularly plays sets Downtown, was spending time off Sunday night at El Hefe, 15 W. Hubbard St., when he said he saw the "very minstrel-looking" black piñata with big white eyes, red lips and no pants getting passed around the club.
"I was with friends of color; it was very embarrassing for me to have brought them there," said Solida, who performs under the name MattBoyWhite. "Everyone seemed OK with it, and that's what really bothered me."
Nobody would tell Solida who brought the 3-foot-tall piñata to the bar, and when Solida pressed, they laughed the piñata off as an "inside joke" as they took pictures with it.
"Whatever the inside joke was, it was a table full of white people passing around a piñata, which is something you beat with a stick," Solida said.
Solida described the pinata as "blackface." Blackface controversies trace their origins to vaudeville minstrel shows of the 19th century, when white actors would use makeup to demean black features and exaggerate ugly racial stereotypes.
One executive at El Hefe, a mini-chain based in Arizona, has since reached out to Solida to apologize, Solida said. Justin, a shift manager at the River North bar who declined to give his last name when asked Tuesday, said a customer brought in the piñata for a party without the club's knowledge.
The bar took action "once the manager realized what was going on" Sunday, Justin said.
Robyn Moore, a spokeswoman for the Riot Hospitality Group that owns El Hefe, released a statement that the bar neither purchased nor provided the piñata to the group and apologized to anyone "who was offended by the situation."
"We will use it as a teaching moment for our staff as it concerns the allowance of such party favors into our establishments," Moore said in an email.
Solida, who regularly performs at competing River North clubs, said he and his friends have experienced more subtle racism in the neighborhood before. He said a club owner might ask Solida to play less rap, or for his friends to adhere to a dubious dress code, but he's never seen anything like the piñata he saw Sunday, the night before Martin Luther King Day.
"It was blatant display of racism," he said.
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