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Opinion: Hot Cheetos are Los Angeles

And no one calls them “Flamin’ Hots.”

Courtesy of Rachel Reyes

I didn’t go to journalism school and I’m not a media critic. I don’t know if it’s meant to be “whom” or “whomst” and I frequently have to sound out certain words in order to spell them properly (Feb-RU-ar-y). I’m not an expert on writing but I am an expert on myself, Hot Cheetos, and Los Angeles.

Now that we have that out of the way, I’d like to say very calmly and clearly that the Los Angeles Times hit piece on Richard Montañez (inventor of Hot Cheetos) published on May 16 is complete “caca,” as my grandma would say. If you haven’t read the piece, I’ll offer this Variety article that summarizes it along with another exploration into the Hot Cheetos origin story on NPR’s “Planet Money” that features Montañez himself instead of centering white folks who don’t recall his existence. Long story short: Montañez might not have invented Hot Cheetos because there is no paper trail to prove it and some former executives at Frito-Lay want us to believe it was an idea that came from everywhere but the Rancho Cucamonga plant Montañez worked at. [For transparency: years ago I was romantically involved with the author of the LA Times piece.]

Written in a style that is a mix between both a forgotten Gawker article from the early aughts and a New Yorker “Shouts and Murmurs,” the article’s author chooses to believe people who have never met Montañez over those who have known him for decades. The article offers written statements from Frito-Lay that call Montañez’s recollection of events “urban legend” and credit the invention of the hot chip to a junior Frito-Lay employee fresh out of college instead. Protected behind a paywall until mid-week and pushed as a groundbreaking exposé by the paper’s most active Twitter users, the article was met with disgust from many people, specifically Mexican and Latinx folks who felt personally attacked. I gaslit myself for a bit, thinking there is no way that someone would just wake up one day and decide they’re going to prove Montañez is a liar – but that seems to be what happened. I continue to be flummoxed, a week later, as to why our most prominent daily newspaper is using its resources this way. I’d like to feign surprise with how this article treats its subject but I won’t. The LA Times is known for its disparaging treatment of Latinx folks – and, specifically Mexican people – both in its coverage and its inability to pay its white and Latinx journalists equally.

On Wednesday, May 19, the paper released the piece from the confines of subscriber exclusivity and a new wave of readers became upset with the assertion that Montañez lied about his part in Hot Cheetos history. By the week’s end, PepsiCo (parent company of Frito-Lay) released a statement in support of Montañez, saying, in part, “…we attribute the launch and success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and other products to several people who worked at PepsiCo, including Richard Montañez.” You would think the LA Times would issue an apology, or a retraction, or anything acknowledging that they were wrong, but they haven’t. Instead, they’re insisting this statement, which refers to the article as “speculation,” somehow vindicates their conclusions. White supremacy is wild.

I don’t read the LA Times because it’s not a media outlet that speaks to me, but I do follow a select few of its non-white journalists who I believe do good work and represent our city well. I did, however, grow up reading the LA Times. My grandparents, both now passed, had a subscription to the LA Times and would read it over their morning huevos and coffee. My grandpa used their children’s section as a way to get me interested in the world around me and my grandma would make me wash my hands after reading the paper so I didn’t get the ink all over everything in the house. I have fond memories of the paper and my childhood. That’s what made this article sting that much more: it is a reminder that most of these articles aren’t written for me and weren’t written for them, either.

I agree with what Rodrigo Nuñez said in his latest “El Pochcast” episode, “Hot Cheetos are not Mexican by birth… except, they are Mexican. Here’s the thing: Hot Cheetos weren’t considered Mexican because a Mexican guy invented them, a Mexican guy claiming to invent them made sense because Hot Cheetos are Mexican.” 

And I would take it a step further: Hot Cheetos are Los Angeles, a symbol of home, and a symbol of my Mexican identity. It might not make sense to the handful of white LA Times journalists (who aren’t from LA) who spent time defending this article with their entire chest all over Twitter all week (yikes!) but for some of us pochos, Hot Cheetos are part of what makes us feel Mexican. When you attack Montañez – or Hot Cheetos – you’re attacking us: Mexicans and Angelenos alike. I’m not sure what the cultural exports from places like Boston or Milwaukee are, so I can understand that this author and their defenders are probably shocked at the backlash. But this speaks to the inability this daily newspaper has in accurately representing the people who live in LA or understanding what we care about. 

I’ve had the privilege of living all over this country and all over the world, and one of the things I missed just as much as my grandma’s menudo is Hot Cheetos. Friends and family would send me care packages filled with Hot Cheetos when I lived in places like Northampton and London, cities that are not familiar with the spicy chip. My stained fingers reminded me of home and grounded me in my identity whenever I wasn’t in LA. Growing up as a Mexican who doesn’t speak Spanish was tough at times, but one thing I could offer my classmates who would laugh at me was Hot Cheetos. They were my great equalizer in Pacoima, proof I was Mexican, and a reminder to myself and others that I belonged. There’s nothing quite like peeling open a fresh bag of Hot Cheetos on the Tube after months of red-dust deprivation to remind you that no one can take LA out of the girl.

Along with mango-flavoured Lucas and chalupas at lunch, Hot Cheetos defined my childhood in the Valley. When I was in middle school, there was talk of banning the sale of Hot Cheetos because so many library books were returned with red fingerprints. In high school, countless clubs and teams would sell Grandma’s Mini Cookies, Cup Noodles, and Hot Cheetos to raise money. I’m not ashamed to say that’s how I subsisted through most of high school. Every sleepover and pool party featured a big, inviting bowl of Hot Cheetos. You can’t walk or drive or bike in LA without seeing a crumpled up bag on the street (please don’t litter). Countless taco trucks, cafes, and corner markets prominently feature bags of Hot Cheetos next to the register. I had my nails done once at a salon that sold Hot Cheetos on a stand adjacent to their nail polish display. As a Mexican, I was raised to value family, friendships, and my community above all. I consider Hot Cheetos part of that calculation.

Look, I think it’s fine to want to write about a snack’s origin story, even if most of them are boring or frequently wrong. There is a way for a white journalist to write about non-white people and report with compassion and respect. I know that the author of this article is capable of telling stories with dignity, but that’s not what happened with this piece, and it’s upsetting.

I have seen a lot of responses to valid critique of the article’s premise being brushed off as hyperbolic. If it’s “just chips,” then why spend an entire year on an idea that came to you out of the blue? Why did this piece make it to publication if the author didn’t speak to Montañez himself? Did it occur to the author, or their editor, to reframe the article as an exploration on how corporations like Frito-Lay treat their most expendable workers? Or, why not write a piece on how Hot Cheetos are one of the earliest (and most lucrative!) examples of marketing toward a Latinx audience? I would love to know how much money the LA Times made off of making this a “subscriber exclusive” for a couple of days.

I’m not sure what kind of frustration the author, their editor, or the LA Times in general has with the Latinx community, but this article was in no way an invitation to connect to our people. It was a lackluster attempt at taking down the legacy of a man who worked his way up the corporate ladder at Frito-Lay successfully. I’ve watched dozens of interviews from Montañez this week, and instead of thinking about ways I can disprove what he’s saying, all I can think about is how familiar he sounds.

He sounds like my dad, he sounds like my tíos, he sounds like my grandpa, when he talks about his work and his ideas. My dad has given many ideas to executives at his company that were taken and implemented without compensation. I grew up around dozens of men like Montañez who work hard, long hours and never get the opportunity to be heard and promoted within the workplace. That Montañez’s ideas were not explicitly credited to him by executives does not surprise me: why bother ensuring proper credit is given to the Mexican janitor?

As I type this, looking down at my Cheeto-stained fingertips, I am reminded that I am home. Home is wherever the Hot Cheeto is. And I don’t care who invented them.

PS: a note on local lingo, we call them Hot Cheetos not “Flamin’ Hots.” If someone is repeatedly referring to them as “Flamin’ Hots” that’s a sure sign they’re not in a position to spill any ink over the chip, its history, or its inventor.