Everything comes from somewhere. Even things we may not have thought about before. Like, say, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Frito Lay’s Flamin’ Hot products, Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos and others, have been around for decades now, right next to the original variety on your grocery store’s shelves. If you like a little spice with your chips, the Flamin’ Hot variety just might be your jam.
Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these chili-spice flavored variants just magically sprung into existence one day–the brainstorm of scientists in a top-secret Frito Lay lab somewhere.
But they didn’t. Just like our favorite superheroes, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (and their similarly smokin’ chip siblings) have an origin story that would give Peter Parker a run for his money. And in fact, the hero of this story, Richard Montañez, almost becomes a superhero himself—albeit more of the marketing type.
Richard’s backstory could hardly have been humbler. The son of migrant farmers growing up in Guasti, California, Richard and his eight siblings didn’t have much. “I started at the bottom—the very bottom,” he narrates early in the film.
Bullies in school hurled racial slurs at Richard and his Mexican friends. So Richard sold them burritos in response. “The Burrito Hustler of Guasti Elementary,” he dubbed himself. Hustling the school hallways turned to hustling on the streets as he and his girl, Judy, got older—the police always just one short step behind.
A judge tells young Richard after an arrest, “If you don’t wake up, you’re gonna end up in a cell or in the ground. And I think you can do better.” And when Judy gets pregnant, Richard decides it is indeed time for a change. “It was time for me to choose something better,” he tells us. “But better doesn’t always mean easier.”
With encouragement from a friend and a bit of fudging on his resume, Richard lands a job as a facilities technician—a janitor—at the Rancho Cucamonga, California, Frito Lay plant. He’s determined to make something of himself, to stay clean and provide for his family. (Maybe even trading in his mop to become a technician at the plant one day?)
But a decade later, Richard is still pushing that mop. Hope is in short supply everywhere, it seems. That’s when Richard has an idea: “I was searching for a door to open. And there it was. It had been all around me the entire time.”
That idea, of course, is dousing Cheetos with a bit of Mexican-culture inspired chili spice.
It was billion-dollar brainstorm. But Richard would have to get the attention of PepsiCo/Frito Lay CEO Roger Enrico to make it happen.
And it’s not like he can just call up the company president and say, “I have an idea!”
Or … maybe he can.
At each step along Richard’s journey, we see how a combination of his determination and vision, paired with his wife’s faithful encouragement and the wisdom of a mentoring coworker, keep Richard’s hope afloat.
The movie salutes the importance of embracing a strong work ethic. Over and over again, it also shows how Richard and his many friends and family of Mexican heritage ran up against the roadblocks of discrimination, racism and prejudice. Richard’s grandfather tells him that he may not have much, but he has his good name and his pride at doing a job well.
The film proudly embraces that heritage and identity. When one of Richard’s sons gets picked on for his race, Richard tells him, “Being Mexican is a superpower!” His son struggles to receive this encouragement—“I ain’t 4 no more, dad. Plus, no one craps on Superman like they crap on us.” But Richard persists in his belief that life can be better for him and his family.
Richard isn’t the only person here to exhibit grit and determination. Arguably, his wife, Judy, has even more of those qualities than Richard himself does. She’s a champion for her husband, clinging to her faith (more on that in a moment) as she prays for him and works to make ends meet for their impoverished family.
Richard also forges a unique friendship with a no-nonsense plant engineer named Clarence, who likewise encourages Richard not to give up his dreams at several key points.
Richard eventually finds a way to share his idea about Flamin’ Hot seasoning for Frito Lay products with Roger Enrico, the visionary CEO of PepsiCo/Frito Lay. Though many others in the film think the janitor’s dream is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, Enrico listens to Richard and takes his idea seriously enough to implement it over the objections of other key executives.
Though Richard has a complex relationship with his father, the older man eventually tells his son, “I am so proud of you, and I’ll always regret not being the man that made you the man you are today.”
All in all, Flamin’ Hot recognizes and honors the importance of hard work, family, loyalty and faith, even when it looks as though hope will be be snuffed out.
Flamin’ Hot isn’t a Christian movie, per se. At least, not in the way we normally think about films in that genre. That said, it is a very pro-faith film.
Judy, especially, talks about praying for Richard and sometimes lights a candle that serves as a symbolic stand in for hope.
We learn that Richard’s father, Vacho, has been a hard, stern and abusive man for much of his son’s life. But five years earlier, he came to know Jesus. And, in his own way, he’s trying to evangelize Richard—even though at times he still belittles him in the process. “If you read the Bible,” he lectures at one point, “you would know that it’s a man’s job to provide for his family.”
Because of that abusive past, Richard has a hard time receiving spiritual encouragement from his father, who even graciously tries to get Richard a job as a janitor working at his church.
Richard himself has some reservations about faith. He eventually prays for God’s blessing despite his many failures in life, including “guns, guns, drugs, stolen cars, other drugs. Lord, please forgive me for my past sins and pour all Your blessings out.”
After saying he was one of nine children, Richard jokes suggestively, “It was the 1960s. Of course my parents got down.” Later, he says of some friends who are perhaps still selling drugs, “They could sell condoms to a nun.”
Richard and Judy kiss.
Judy occasionally wears some revealing spaghetti-strap tops. We see a shirtless guy.
It’s implied by Richard’s references to guns that he lived a pretty checkered and occasionally violent life as a younger man.
A couple of daydreaming sequences played for humor include mock violence–such as someone being choked, a scene inspired by the movie The Godfather. Another scene involves Richard imagining that he’s beating a man with his mop and then kicking him on the ground.
Richard verbally alludes to his father’s physical abuse “every day” when he was growing up. Judy, as a child, has a bruise on her arm that she tries to cover up, and Richard instinctively knows that she’s coming from a home with domestic violence as well.
Six s-words, one use of “What the eff?” God’s name is misused once, and we hear one exclamation of “Good Lord!” “H—” is used five times, “d–n” four times. Other vulgarities used one to three times each include “a–,” “p-ssed,” “pr-ck,” “crap” and “balls.” We hear racial slurs, too.
We see Richard drinking beer a couple of times. It’s suggested that his father’s abuse stemmed in part from alcoholism. Richard says of his dad’s conversion to Christianity, “He replaced gin and juice with Jesus juice.” There’s a reference to rich people drinking champagne.
We hear a handful of references to drugs and drug dealing. Richard chooses to leave that life in search of honest work. But it’s clear many others believe that dealing drugs is the only way they can support their family (including one character whose mother has cancer and needs expensive medications).
A slow-motion scene played for humor finds Richard, as a young man, running from police, who eventually catch and arrest him. It’s suggested that perhaps he had stolen a car.
In moments of doubt and insecurity, Richard is quite prone to reverting to a self-destructive narrative, blurting out things like “I’m a nobody. I’m stupid.”
Judy helps Richard with his resume, lying to say that he graduated from high school when, in fact, he didn’t. (Richard isn’t illiterate, but he has trouble reading. He jokes that a company’s new products aren’t usually created by “blue-collar hoodlums who probably can’t spell the word hoodlum.”) The white hiring manager realizes that Richard lied on his resume but hires him anyway, saying, “Honestly, most of the Mexicans here work pretty hard. It’s a janitor gig. What’s the worst you could do? Break a mop?”
That kind of barely concealed racial prejudice is something we see Richard and others face repeatedly. When Judy is pregnant with their third child, a white man crudely and cruelly says to her, “You women pump these wetbacks out like a factory!” That prompts her son to ask, “Mommy, what’s a wetback?” Other racial slurs include “dirty beaner” and “whopper.”
Richard narrates how he saw the police treating Mexicans horribly in the late 1960s and early 1970s in California: “Back then, la policia believed they had a right to beat your a– in the street if your name was Gonzalez or Martinez. To be Chicano meant being invisible and still getting a beat down.”
Richard’s story is the archetypal American tale. It reminds us that even today, the right brainstorm paired with ingenuity, determination and opportunity can yield a Hollywood ending as spicy and satisfying as this one.
But Flamin’ Hot does more than just deliver a feel-good underdog story. We’re invited to glimpse a world in which racism and prejudice are everyday obstacles for people to overcome–right alongside poverty and often a lack of opportunity that leads to desperation. But the movie unpacks those harsh realities in a way that rarely, if ever, feels condescending or preachy (at least to me). And that’s no small feat.
The result is a story that inspires each of us to work hard. And it affirms that no matter how menial or seemingly insignificant some jobs seem, every person has dignity, and every person deserves to be treated accordingly.
Actress and first-time movie director Eva Longoria said of her film, “Richard Montañez’ story resonated with me because his story is my story. Being underestimated, having the discipline and desire to be more – not have more, but be more. I definitely have that in me. I think everyone can identify with that and say there’s a piece of me that is reflected on the screen and in this story.”
I suspect many viewers will respond similarly. At some point, all of us have felt misunderstood, unfairly treated, close to losing hope and giving up. And so often, as this film illustrates, the decision to stay in the game, to give it another shot, to keep hoping and keep trying comes down to the encouragement of those who love and believe in us.
That’s certainly the case with Richard. While he’s the main focus of Flamin’ Hot, he realizes that none of what transpires in the film would have been possible without the tenacious and fierce love of his wife, Judy, who never stopped believing—in God or in her husband.
For all of that, the medium-sized elephant in the room here is the film’s language. It’s solidly PG-13 stuff, and it may be more than some families want to navigate en route to the movie’s inspiring ending. That gritty realism may feel authentic to some, while others might wish the moviemakers had sprinkled just a bit less verbal spiciness on this otherwise empowering true story.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.