The Hollywood’s Writer’s strike just hit its 100th day mark, pausing many movie promotion press tours including Flamin' Hot the movie and despite the low promotion Searchlight Pictures announced it is officially the most streamed movie premiere and then most watched streamed movie of all time. Also despite receiving negative reviews from some members of the press, who argue that the narrative is detached from real events, it is a win for the Latinx community.
The film, based on the story of Richard P. Montañez, portrays his contribution to the creation of Cheetos Flamin' Hot while working as a janitor at Frito-Lay. Despite this, it is difficult to deny the fact that Flamin' Hot Cheetos holds a significant cultural relevance among modern U.S. Latinos. Many millennials and Gen-Zers cannot imagine their childhood without indulging in or being surrounded by those fiery, red, dusty, and crunchy morsels.
In June, the movie "Flamin' Hot'' premiered on the streaming platforms Hulu and Disney+ in the United States, as well as on Star+ in Latin America. One week later, the film, led by renowned actress Eva Longoria in her directorial debut, made its way to the White House, making history as the first Latino film to be screened at the nation’s capital.
During the film screening, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden expressed her interest in Montañez's story.
“Richard helped change the way companies think about Latino customers, helped establish that this community and the economic power it holds deserve to be taken seriously,” said the First Lady Biden at the event.
The First Lady also emphasized that the film was not just about Montañez, but about all the individuals who are underestimated and are able to achieve their dreams through courage, sacrifice, love, and the support of their loved ones, despite the circumstances.
Eva Longoria, on her part, expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to be at the White House with a film that is based on the story of a Latino like Montañez and was directed and produced by Latinos also showcasing Chicano culture. In her speech, the director explained that when the great stories of Latinos are told, the great story of America is being told because American history is Latino history and Latino history is American history.
After recognizing Longoria's work and career and with a touch of humor, President Joe Biden took the floor. The President spoke about the importance of showcasing all of America's stories. He said "Flamin' Hot" the movie is a small glimpse into the diversity of the United States and the strength and hope of Hispanic culture, which is also a part of the nation. Therefore, being the first Latinx film presented at the White House is a source of pride and celebration for the Latinx community. Additionally, Biden noted that this story honors the courage of Latino ancestors who left behind everything they knew in the hope of making a new life on American soil. As we know, America has been nurtured and grown thanks to the hard work and dreams of immigrants.
“We’re unique in all of history, America. America is not based on ethnicity or religion or geo- — we’re founded on an idea. An idea: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men and women are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…’ No,— we’ve never fully lived up to it. We’ve never lived up to it, but we’ve never abandoned it. And we keep trying to make it better,” said President Joe Biden.
Latinxs have endured a lot from those who seek to make them invisible. That's why every small achievement that is accomplished should be a source of pride and celebration for the Latinx community. "Flamin' Hot Cheetos” is an example that Latin flavor has conquered the palate of American culture, becoming an iconic and representative product for generations.
Richard Montañez: A Latino Hero or an Exaggerated Narrative?
Criticism has arisen from “Flamin’ Hot” the movie when looked at from a biographical lens and focused on the credibility of the narrative rather than the inspiring and positive story in the film. These criticisms stem from a 2021 article by Sam Dean, a journalist from the Los Angeles Times. The journalist highlights that Richard Montanez did not contribute to the creation of Flamin' Hot Cheetos as the current entrepreneur claims in his speeches and in his book titled "Flamin' Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man's Rise from Janitor to Top Executive."
“Montañez didn’t invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, according to interviews with more than a dozen former Frito-Lay employees, the archival record and Frito-Lay itself,” wrote Dean in the 2021 L.A. Times article.
According to the information gathered by the reporter, Flamin' Hot Cheetos were created in 1989 by a team of professionals at Frito-Lay in Plano, Texas. Dean wrote that Lynne Greenfeld, a junior employee with an MBA, was responsible for driving the brand and giving it the name Flamin' Hot. In 2018, Greenfeld expressed her discontent with the credits attributed to Montanez.
Despite the criticisms, Montañez has felt supported by PepsiCo, after they issued a statement in 2021 attributing the launch and success of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and other products to several individuals who worked at PepsiCo, including Richard Montañez.
“To be clear, we have no reason to doubt the stories he shares about taking the initiative to create new product ideas for the Cheetos brand, and pitching them to past PepsiCo leaders,” the company said.
On the other hand, L.A. Times columnist Gustavo Arellano has pointed out that despite the film having a smooth plot and director Longoria doing a great job with the cinematography and characters, she made a mistake by believing Montanez's version, who refers to himself as the inventor of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and a Latino hero.
In 2023, Eva Longoria commented in a telephone interview with the L.A. Times.
“We never set out to tell the history of the Cheeto,” she contended.
“We are telling Richard Montañez’s story and we’re telling his truth,” said Longoria about the 2021 article’s claims on the validity of Montañez’s claims.
The Cultural Impact of Flamin' Hot Cheetos for U.S. Latinos
Flamin' Hot Cheetos is much more than a product. These spicy flavored crunchy snacks have become a cultural icon for Latinx in the United States. Their spicy taste has resonated so strongly within Latinx, Chicano, Hispanic, and the first-generation culture that it has been a source of inspiration for songs, fashion, movies, social media trends, and even culinary dishes. In fact, the distinct red powder from the product that stains the fingers has become a trademark and has been incorporated into various culinary creations.
The popularity of Flamin' Hot Cheetos can be attributed to the specific timing of its launch, explained Marina Filippelli, the CEO of Orci, a multi-segment advertising and marketing agency to NBC News. In the early 1990s, snacks were predominantly salty without any spicy flavor. When Flamin' Hot Cheetos hit the market in 1992, it provided a solution for those craving something spicy in their snacks. Moreover, at this particular moment in history, the Mexican population, who are accustomed to spicy flavors, was growing in America, increasing from 4.3 million in 1990 to 9.2 million in 2000. According to a 2022 interview of SVP of brand marketing for Frito-Lay and PepsiCo on Digiday, the success of Flamin' Hot Cheetos continues to expand the spicy snack category and has grown by 12 percent in the past four years.
Currently, Flamin' Hot Cheetos has become an ingredient in many dishes from Hot Cheeto dusted tacos, to Hot Cheeto infused tamales, Hot Cheeto topped off sushi, Hot Cheeto crusted corn dogs, and Hot Cheeto elotes. Some of those are served at Fatima's Grill, a Mediterranean-Mexican fusion restaurant located in Downey, California who serve Hot Flamin’ carne asada burritos.
In addition, Flamin' Hot Cheetos has also made an impact on the runways. In 2019, Cheetos returned to the Big Apple to present the Cheetos' Haus of Flamin' Haute Couture. The brand explained that the collection was inspired by consumers and their interpretation of how Cheetos look.
The story told by Richard Montañez
Richard P. Montañez was born in Ontario, California. He was the son of Mexican parents who worked as farmers, and he had nine siblings. Montañez's early years were scarce, and he had to leave school in the sixth grade. Money was always a problem for him from a young age so he worked as a gardener and car washer. He experienced gang initiations from gangs to engage in criminal activities, but luckily for him he always got caught.
At the age of eighteen, Montañez started working as a janitor at the Frito-Lay plant located in Southern California. This job represented a chance for the young man to have a stable income and access to benefits. Gradually, he began to take on more responsibilities, although progress was slow. Montañez found inspiration from PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico who, in a company-wide video, told his employees to "Act like an owner." This phrase left a lasting impression on the young man's heart and shaped his performance within the company.
One day, while organizing the shelf at a store in a Mexican neighborhood, Montañez realized that there were no products for those who enjoyed spicy flavors. He went home with his wife and started brainstorming ways to add chili flavor to chips. Eventually, they came up with the idea of adding it in powder form. In 1989, Montañez brought his new creation and shared it with his coworkers, who thought it was a great idea. The janitor went above and beyond to convince the bosses that there was a potential market among people who enjoyed spiciness. Of course, he wasn't initially heard, but as he recounts, after many attempts, he managed to make himself heard, and a year later, the entire process was handed over to the experts.
Regardless of whether the story is true or not, the fact remains that Montañez spent four decades working for Frito-Lay and rose from a janitor to an executive position. Other Oscar-worthy biopic films that are loosely based on facts get more praise and recognition but why not this one? Why can’t this film be celebrated for being a Latinx-owned and produced film on a historic entrepreneur. His involvement in the company accelerated the growth of the Flamin' Hot brand and other brands, especially through his “Hispanic” marketing efforts. His hard work and dedication deserves to be celebrated and he should be recognized as an influential Latino figure who achieved the unthinkable at a time when our community was often overlooked. Montañez's journey serves as a testament to the resilience and determination of individuals who strive to make a difference and break barriers in their respective fields.