Flamin’ Hot: A Troubling Story of Mexican-American Identity
Initially, I had no plans to see “Flamin’ Hot,” the film directed by Eva Longoria that tells the story of Richard Montañez, a day laborer turned Frito-Lay executive. For at least 20 years, this Mexican-American has told everyone let it come close that he invented the popular variety of Cheetos of the same name.
The self-proclaimed “godfather of Latino marketing” taught corporate America that they could make billions of dollars off their community, and Latinos willingly shelled out that money because they finally felt seen.
He repeated this story to the point that the media—including myself—quoted it without a word.
A Controversial Revelation
When my colleague Sam Dean published an article in 2021 proving that Montañez was, at best, In most cases, a liar, Hot Cheetos lovers accused the Los Angeles Times of trying to kill their name. Two years later, Longoria – who was already planning “‘Flamin’ Hot” when Dean’s article appeared – is still sore. for the whole thing.
In an interview the superstar gave to the newspaper earlier this spring, she dismissed Dean’s reporting saying with a laugh: “[Parece] that the LA Times could devote its resources to more important things.”
Supporting the Film for Representation
So why would I want to see Longoria’s film? Because better Latinos than me say I should. The National Hispanic Media Coalition, which has rightly denounced the media for decades, bias against Latinos in Hollywood and in the national media, sent out a press release urging people to see “Flamin’ Hot.” The Los Angeles Plaza of Culture and Arts in downtown LA town, hosted an outdoor screening earlier this month attended by Longoria, Montañez and Dolores Huerta.
Friends of mine who believed Dean’s conclusions posted on social media that they had seen “Flamin’ Hot” and that they had liked it.
I get the widespread call to support the movie, which premiered Friday on Hulu and Disney+.There aren’t enough projects in Hollywood with Latinos in leading roles in front of and behind the camera, so we should at least think about showing up in the few that do arise.
As I wrote in a column defending Dean’s findings, “[los latinos] they are interested in those who reach levels that we can only hope to reach. After all, we’re still outsiders in America despite our numbers, despite our centuries of living here.”
An Ambiguous Film
So this past weekend I sat down to watch “Flamin’ Hot.” The movie is like its namesake: for sting, though nowhere near as good as his fans say and far more troublesome than they’ll ever admit.
Jesse Garcia plays Montañez as a nice guy, a janitor, who doesn’t let obstacles – an abusive father, an incident with drug trafficking, a racist society, skeptical bosses – get in the way of his dreams.
Veterans Dennis Haysbert and Tony Shalhoub perfectly embody the Rancho Cucamonga plant engineer who gave Montañez the opportunities he needed and the CEO of PepsiCo who reportedly approved of her dreams of “Flamin’ Hot.”
Longoria does a good job as a first-time director. Her characters are engaging, the plot unfolds smoothly over 99 minutes, and the photography is warm and comforting . Yet he throws away everything good about the movie by blindly believing Montañez’s pitch: not just as the inventor of Hot Cheetos, but as someone who should be hailed as a Latino hero.
A Pander to Mexican Identity
From the mariachi chants that punctuate From the fanfare of 20th Century studios before “Flamin’ Hot” begins to the vintage pickup that García’s Montañez drives at the end, Longoria exudes Mexicanness. Spanish guitars, congas, and mariachi trumpets play throughout the film. The white characters are mostly buffoons with no redeeming value. Beloved Chicano songs like “Cutie Pie,” “No Tengo Dinero,” and “Mexican Power” are brought up as proof that Hollywood finally understands Latinos. Lines like “The Hispanic market will not be ignored” and “Vamos a llevar [Hot Cheetos] to our people” are thrown to guarantee applause and whoops from viewers.
The film claims Montañez came up with the idea for Hot Cheetos in 1992, even though Dean’s article shows that was the year the snack made its national debut after successful trials in Texas and the Midwest. Dean’s story doesn’t discount the vital part of Montañez, who actually dropped out in Ontario, rose through the ranks at Frito-Lay, and now travels across the country to talk about his unlikely rise. He didn’t invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but others at Frito-Lay.
But Longoria doesn’t care about the details of the story, he cares about Mexican pride. “Flamin’ Hot” is the kind of story that high school teachers projected onto their Mexican-American students when I was coming of age in the 1990s to make us feel better about ourselves. No doubt teachers today will do the same to their students. That’s what makes “Flamin’ Hot” not just pandering, but damaging.
The Balance Between Truth and Fantasy
I don’t doubt Longoria’s sincerity in bringing nuanced Latino stories to the big and small screen. She has produced documentaries on the exploitation of farmworkers and stars on a CNN travel show about Mexico. In interviews, he has frequently cited “Occupied America,” a founding text of Chicano studies written by Cal State Northridge legend Rudy Acuña, which he read while earning a master’s degree at Cal State Northridge.
But Eva, Montañez and the Hot Cheetos aren’t the milestones you create Check it out in another Acuña book, “Anything But Mexican: Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles.” In a chapter on the commercialization of Olvera Street in the 1980s, the professor lashes out at the beer companies that spent hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising of Cinco de Mayo, as well as against Mexican American civic and business groups, in order to capture the Latino market. It was an example of recognition of Latinos by corporate America, a tradeoff that led to the “degeneracy of Cinco de Mayo into a multicultural beer festival” and contributed to rising alcoholism rates among Mexican Americans, he argued. Acuña.
The “fantasy heritage” of companies that recognize Latino pride, Acuña complained, “is often more attractive than the truth, and certainly more profitable.” Faced with the dilemma of choosing between fantasy and truth, Longoria went for the fancy.
She doesn’t even consider whether we should celebrate Montañez and Hot Cheetos, a nutritionally devoid product adored by a community ravaged by diabetes and obesity struggling to find healthy eating options. The fact that Mexican Americans are claiming the snack as their own and celebrating a man who claims to have helped introduce it to her community is enough for her. That’s reminiscent of Mexican musicians who sing about narcoculture and dodge criticism by saying they only give the public what they want.
“We never set out to tell the story of the Cheeto,” Longoria told my colleague Mark Olsen in his irritated interview with the Times. . “We’re telling the story of Richard Montañez, and we’re telling his truth.” That “truth”—supporting someone for what they stand for, rather than what they actually did—is the same kind of historical revisionism that Mexican-American activists are trying to dismantle. And now we’re supposed to celebrate? Pass me the Doritos, and pass the flamin hot lio de Longoria.
This article was first published in the Los Angeles Times in Spanish.