Flamin’ Hot Gives Richard Montañez’s Story the Hollywood Treatment

Can a movie centered around snack foods be inspirational? Sì, yes it can. But the facts might get a little twisted in the process.

Fact Checked

American author and raconteur Mark Twain has often been quoted as saying, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” That seems to be the approach of Eva Longoria and the filmmakers behind Flamin’ Hot.

Separating fact from fiction in a movie is sometimes difficult. After every biopic, multiple people release articles and YouTube videos disclaiming the truth from the fiction. And that’s sort of the nature of movies. While Twain was talking about embellishing in the printed word, film, by its very nature requires some things to be left out, timelines shortened, stakes artificially raised, real life people combined into a single character, and the like.

Most of the time, this is done carefully, with an eye not to stray too far from reality just to tell a cool story. I’m not going to presume what Longoria, producer DeVon Franklin and writers Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chàvez had on their minds. However, it is telling that the finished film ignores or deflects aspects of the investigation by both Frito Lay and the Los Angeles Times completed before the film was shot that disprove large portions of their source’s story.

Spicy Story

Played superbly by Jesse Garcia, Richard “Ricky” Montañez’s story starts on the streets. He picked grapes with his family, lived in a migrant camp, and occasionally stole things and sold drugs. After getting married, he attempts to “go straight,” taking a variety of jobs, including one in a slaughterhouse. But he isn't succeeding and in a moment of desperation, goes to a local gang leader, looking to make some extra cash.

To his credit, the gang leader tells him no, get a ‘real job,’ and agrees to put in a good word for Richard at the Frito Lay plant he works at. After an amusing scene where Ricky’s wife, Judy (Annie Gonzalez) fills out his application, complete with graduating from a high school he never attended, but his prospective boss did, Richard convinces the plant supervisor played by Matt Walsh that he’s the man for the job.

“I’ve got a PHD! I’m poor, hungry, and determined!”

Dennis Haysbert and Jesse Garcia in Flamin' Hot (2023)
Image Credit: Anna Kooris/20th Century Studios.

Starting as a janitor, in an effort to make himself more valuable, he befriends Clarence (Dennis Haysbert), a black engineer, and learns everything he can about the plant, while still fulfilling his duties.

Added Flavor

From here, the movie diverges from both Montañez’s public (and published) story, and the claims made by former Frito Lay employees. But at least it makes for good drama.

Ricky gets inspired by his son’s love of hot Mexican corn. It burns! But it’s a good burn. When rumors of a plant closure start circulating along with an inspirational video from corporate head Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub) encouraging employees to think like they're the CEO, Ricky sets upon a plan. He takes some Cheetos home and starts experimenting with the flavor – hoping to find something that appeals to the Latino community of So Cal.

Brice Gonzalez, Annie Gonzalez, Jesse Garcia, and Hunter Jones in Flamin' Hot (2023)
Image Credit: Emily Aragones/20th Century Studios.

He eventually finds a way to contact Enrico’s office, does an excruciatingly painful presentation, and gets the go-ahead to start making Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (and more Flamin’ Hot products down the line).

Then, in what seems to be a nod to the controversy of 2021, the film touches on the scientists who were developing a hot flavor in the Midwest, and the marketing people refuse to spend anything to promote Ricky’s creation.

Community Involvement

Ricky and Judy then take it upon themselves to buy and distribute hundreds of bags of the Flamin’ Hot products, with the help of their family and the migrant community they live in. Seemingly overnight, the Flamin’ Hot line becomes a success and a hero is established.

I’ll not ruin the ending, although if you know anything of Montañez’s story, it’s not hard to figure out. This is a Hollywood movie after all, and Richard did retire in 2019 as a Vice President of Frito Lay.

Where the Hollywood-ization of the story works well is in how it portrays the community. While Ricky is ostensibly the hero, his wife Judy is presented as an equal partner – and much smarter – in the creation of the Flamin’ Hot brand. Ricky is shown reconciling with his father, who used equal parts alcoholism and religious legalism to drive a rift between him and his son.

The people at the factory are a family; even the somewhat cartoonishly evil white men who oppose Ricky at first come around. The migrant community is extremely supportive. Roger Enrico lives up to his promise of if you help us, we’ll help you.

Tony Shalhoub in Flamin' Hot (2023)
Image Credit: Anna Kooris/20th Century Studios.

This is what makes the movie so inspirational. It’s not the creation of the snack food that revolutionized Frito Lay’s sales, it’s the presentation of a strong Latino community, a marriage that works, a family that strives together, and people who support one another, regardless of the hardships.

And that is what makes the movie worth seeing, regardless of any question of historicity or credit.

Spicy Wheat vs Chaff

What is not in question is that Richard Montañez did have an inspirational journey. He did go from rags to riches and has now embarked on a second successful career as a motivational speaker. He is an icon for his community, a shining beacon of hope for others who feel their contributions are pointless or undervalued.

Whether he came up with the particular flavor combo as detailed in the film, or simply organized a large movement in the Southern California Latin community to elevate the brand – verified to be fact and also detailed in the film – he did accomplish a lot.

His story is one to point to as victorious. But the true story could have stood on its own and still been hugely inspirational. Perhaps even moreso.

Rating: 7/10 SPECS

Flamin’ Hot is playing at select theaters, as well as on Disney+ and Hulu, starting Friday June 9th.

We’ve got the latest on all the movies in theaters now.

Editor in Chief at Wealth of Geeks | + posts

Paul Rose Jr is the Editor in Chief of Wealth of Geeks & manages the Associated Press program for The Insiders network. He has worked as TV News Producer, Forensic Analyst, and Train Conductor, among many other things. He’s the former TV Editor for InfuzeMag and owns more books, DVDs, and comics than most people have seen in their lifetimes. When he’s not writing or editing on Wealth of Geeks, he exercises his creative muscle writing screenplays and acting in film and television in Los Angeles, CA.