All too human? Mpls. pinata maker's work looked like lynching to some

Victor Chavarria stands beside one of more than six bridesmaid pinatas.
Victor Chavarria stands beside one of more than half a dozen bridesmaid pinatas he was completing for a wedding celebration that included white, Latina, and African-American brides, on May 7, 2018.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

It was a shocking image: A photo circulating on the internet over the weekend showing what appeared to be a set of white-clad African-American figures hanging by cords from the porch roof of a north Minneapolis home.

The figures were piñatas created for a multi-racial wedding, built by a man trying to grow a fledgling business from his home.

The image, however, triggered waves of anger and horror on social media, and death threats toward the figures' creator, Victor Chavarria, who's apologizing now for what he says was an innocent mistake — leaving the freshly created piñatas to hang from his home to dry, not realizing they could be viewed as racial violence.

"I deeply apologize. Effectively immediately, I changed my processes. I wouldn't do anything to offend anybody, they gave me my feedback and of course, I listen," Chavarria told MPR News in an interview Monday. "I'm here to serve the community, not the opposite, and I am deeply sorry."

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It grew into more than just a misunderstanding, however. The photo was posted on Facebook, apparently without explanation, and drew a ferocious response. Chavarria said people expressed their unhappiness online, threatening him, his home and his family, from as far away as Kentucky.

Chavarria said he even called the police and when a pair of officers showed up at his house, he told them what had happened and asked for extra patrols, because he was worried about the backlash. The wedding order he was working on was canceled.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. A Mexican immigrant from Hermosillo, Chavarria has a master's degree in business from the University of St. Thomas and he's trying to make a living in the piñata business. His wife is a school teacher. They bought their home in north Minneapolis three years ago.

Some of his neighbors were shocked and angered by the hanging figures.

A photo of pinatas hanging on a house in Mpls. set off a storm on Facebook.
A photo of the black women pinatas hanging outside a house in Minneapolis set off a storm on Facebook. The owner said these are some of more than half a dozen custom bridesmaid pinatas he was completing for a wedding celebration that included white, Latina, and African-American brides.

"I was a little upset about it," said Candace Thurman, who lives nearby and saw the piñatas.

"I just thought it was really inappropriate," she said, as she waited for a school bus for her son to go to kindergarten Monday morning.

She noted that the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a remembrance of victims of lynching, was recently dedicated in Alabama. "It just brought back memories. From slavery," Thurman, who is black, said of the display down the street from her home. "It just looked bad."

Chavarria had been working on a big custom order — an eight-member wedding party, recreated in paper mache, tissue paper and paint. It was for a multi-racial wedding: the groom was black, the bride was Latina, and the bridesmaids were white, Latina and black.

A set of custom pinatas for a wedding party
Victor Chavarria was making a set of pinatas for a wedding party when neighbors spotted several of the pinatas, painted to look like African American bridesmaids, hanging on his porch for their paint to dry, May 7, 2018.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

As he worked his way through the order, he said he hung the piñatas just outside his front door, so their paint would dry in the sun and open air. That's what the online photo captured in a Facebook post, one that has since been taken down, but not before being circulated widely.

He's been creating piñatas since 2015 and actually sold them to some of his neighbors in the past. "We love north Minneapolis," he said. "We've been here for three years and people are kind to us and we try to be kind to them."

Chavarria said he wants to build his business there, and hopes eventually to hire people from the neighborhood to boost production.

"This is the American dream, right? Following what you're good at and trying to provide value to the community, creating things they like," Chavarria said.

Chavarria knows about the history of slavery, segregation and racial violence in the United States and understands that the sight of hanging black bodies — even well-meaning facsimiles — is disturbing for some.

"They have a point," he said. "Perception is reality for people and I have to be very careful and sensitive to my community, and I deeply apologize to anybody who got offended. My processes changed immediately, and I won't dry piñatas on my porch anymore."

He said he's had backlash before from people who wonder why he would make elaborate, beautiful piñatas, only to see them beaten to pieces.

"It's not hitting a lovable character. It's actually reaching for the goodness inside — the candy inside, which is the candy, or the treats — some people don't want candy for children," he said. "Some people unfamiliar with piñatas, they see violence. We see the reaching for the goodness inside."