By Crystal Harrell

On Jan. 14, the Palm Springs International Film Festival screened “Flamin’ Hot” followed by a conversation with the director and cast. Award-winning Eva Longoria’s feature directorial debut follows the inspiring true story of Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) who, as a Frito-Lay janitor, disrupted the food industry by channeling his Mexican-American heritage to turn Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from a snack into an iconic global pop culture phenomenon.

As portrayed in the movie, Montañez claims to have been encouraged by Roger Enrico’s “think like a CEO” message and invented the Flamin’ Hot seasoning with his wife Judy as a DIY project, taking home unflavored Cheetos in garbage bags to experiment with when the machine broke and left them unseasoned. Montañez previously stated Enrico’s phone number was listed in the company directory. He called Enrico, pitching his idea for a product aimed at Latinos, and arranged a sales presentation where he handed out homemade bags sealed with a clothing iron and hand-drawn logos. The presentation and a test market in Los Angeles happened in 1991, before a nationwide release in 1992.

Montañez did in fact rise from a floor-level position to marketing executive, and he was involved in pitching new products such as Flamin’ Hot Popcorn in 1993 followed by two types of Fritos — Flamin’ Hot and Lime and Chile Corn Chips. Roberto Siewczynski, who worked with Frito-Lay as a Latino-focused consultant, clarified that events Montañez has described actually took place during the Sabrositas test market in 1994.


The movie presents an economic downturn during Ronald Reagan’s presidency leading to layoffs and prompting Enrico’s message

Clarence Baker, played by Dennis Haysbert, was based on a co-worker Montañez had at the plant. He died several years before production of the movie and a different name was used for the character.

Montañez initially responded to the controversy by claiming he was pushed out of development before the test markets and his contributions were not documented due to his low level position at the time.

Director Eva Longoria responded to criticism of the movie’s accuracy, “We’ve always been telling Richard Montañez’s story, and we’re telling his truth. We weren’t making a movie about the history of the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto. We’re telling the story of Richard Montañez.”

She separately admitted that the scene where Montañez’s coworkers clap and cheer for his promotion is “the one thing that did not happen.” Addressing a screening of the movie at the White House, an official speaking anonymously stated it is not a documentary, and was shown to reflect Americans of different backgrounds.

Longoria has directed for more than two decades now − including TV shows “Gordita Chronicles,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Black-ish” − but with Flamin’ Hot, the stakes were higher. The movie tells the real-life, rags-to-riches story of Richard Montañez, who says he invented Frito-Lay’s Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Longoria “immediately felt ownership” when she read the Flamin’ Hot script and felt she was the “only person who can tell this story.”

At her core, she wanted Latinos to “see the possibility of what they can be” in the life of Montañez, who went to work as a janitor for Frito-Lay at age 18 and later became vice president of multicultural sales and community promotion for PepsiCo.