Like many Mexican Americans, I grew up eating those heavily processed corn puffs called Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, my nose usually running from all the lime and Valentina I’d douse on top. And while I don’t walk around with red-stained fingers as often as I did in middle school, hot Cheetos still hold a special place in my chile-loving heart. But despite the nostalgia, I couldn’t shake off my lingering skepticism while watching Flamin’ Hot, Eva Longoria’s directorial debut that details the underdog story behind this billion-dollar brand. Yes, it’s a remarkable story about how Latines can overcome enormous barriers in corporate America—but it’s told in a way that tastes like a Frito-Lay press campaign.
Flamin’ Hot charts Richard Montañez’s (Jesse Garcia) rise thanks to his ingenious snack idea, from janitor to marketing executive at Frito-Lay. Working at a Cheetos plant, Montañez endures years of rejection as he tries to climb the corporate ladder, until one day he gets the idea of redeveloping the product with the spices he loves in Mexican street foods, like elote. In an all-hands-on-deck family affair, the Montañezes tirelessly work to concoct the perfect level of heat and lip-smacking sazón. Fast-forward through multiple taste tests and a ballsy phone call to Frito-Lay executive Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub), and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are on every shelf in the local market—and they eventually go flying off of them too.
There’s an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed first: The accuracy of Richard Montañez’s story has been up for question since 2021, when the Los Angeles Times investigated Montañez’s claims and came up empty. In a statement to the Times, Frito-Lay called his story an “urban legend.”
If we assume that Flamin’ Hot is close (enough) to the truth, it spins a story of how perseverance and defiant belief in a vision can unlock incredible opportunities, even for those who find themselves on the margins of society. It’s supposed to be a feel-good tale, about how the entrepreneurial son of immigrants spotted an opportunity in celebrating Mexican flavors. But a major issue lies in its inadvertent message: Like a red-dusted Trojan horse being wheeled out of the Cheeto plant, Flamin’ Hot packages its inspirational rags-to-riches tale with a shiny portrayal of Frito-Lay that, in a few ways, feels like a two-hour sponsored ad.
Montañez’s resourcefulness is also a story about making a profit. It’s about how Mexican flavors (and the Hispanic consumer) boosted a multi-billion food corporation during an economic downturn. When a young Richard is bullied at school for eating a burrito at lunch, he sells it to his bullies and spins it into a business. When the Montañezes struggle to get by, Judy Montañez (Annie Gonzalez), his wife and cheerleader, sells tortillas outside a grocery store. When sales at Frito-Lay are down, Montañez saves his factory from closure by adding a Mexican spin to the company’s product.
Like many immigrants and first-generation Americans, Montañez sees his community’s buying power, but corporations only see profit margins. And although Flamin’ Hot doesn’t hide that ugly truth, it tries to send the message that big companies can change—that they can foster diverse talent and engage with diverse consumers. It tethers Frito-Lay to the Latine community and says, “We got a good thing going on—now go check out our full line of Flamin’ Hot products featured in the closing credits.”