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Flamin’ Hot (2023)

When we first meet Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) he is a small California-born, Mexican boy working the land and picking grapes with his family and learning important lessons about hardship, work, and belonging. It soon becomes clear that his tight-knit Mexican American family instilled competing ideals in his young brain, ones of dedication, hard work, and pride, but also of abuse and insufficiency. Flamin’ Hot is the directorial debut of Eva Longoria of Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) fame and it is not hard to see why such a project was close to her heart.

From those hard beginnings, as a young adult, Richard was sent down the wrong and often illegal paths of drug dealing and hustling, earning him a record and making it even harder for him to eventually straighten out his life. But as we soon find out, Richard was nothing if not determined, and the push he needed soon arrived in the form of his pregnant girlfriend’s pleas for reform. Indeed, it is Judy, the soon to be Senora Montañez, whose unwavering support and belief underpins this entire heart-warming, rags-to-riches, “true” story. We place true in quotes because Richard’s claims about his invention of the Flamin’ Hot brand have been disputed.

The bulk of the movie unfolds around Richard’s work life as a janitor at a Frito Lay plant. In this role he was meant only to clean and maintain the space and the machines, not to learn, innovate, and expand the company’s clientele and product offerings to the tune of billions of dollars, which is exactly what he ended up doing! Much of the humour of this good-natured comedy comes from Richard’s cheerful defiance of the racial and class hierarchies of factory life. When he first arrives at Frito Lay, there are designated lunch tables much like a high school cafeteria where the jocks won’t sit beside the drama club members. It was the plant janitorial and manual labour staff, mainly Latino, who were segregated from the engineers and plant supervisory floor staff, who in turn dared not sit with the upper office staff. Humorously too, this self and community segregation was also reflected in the foods that the distinct groups ate for lunch and it is the offering of his wife’s Mexican burrito that eventually allows Richard to befriend the only black engineer, Clarence C. Baker (played by Dennis Haysbert of 24 [2002-2010] and, taking you way back, Waiting to Exhale [1995]) fame).

As we soon see, Richard is kind, open-hearted, and although deprived of a strong formal education, a voracious learner. It is Baker, the black man who should be running the plant (but who has been repeatedly passed over in favour of less educated and experienced white men), who teaches Richard the intricacies of the machines. All this, we see, is on Richard’s own time. This level of dedication and knowledge positioned Richard perfectly for what would come next. When news comes down from PepsiCo boss Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub) of plant closures due to poor sales, Richard’s imagination is sparked by an ingenious solution. You see, for Richard the problem of poor sales was not the nature of Frito Lay products so to speak, but the blandness (or mainstreamed whiteness) of most of their flavours (think Cool Ranch) which had, until Montañez, completely overlooked and underestimated the Latino market.

A vibrant and playful sequence in the film materializes when Richard convinces his wife and sons to participate in the creation of a new seasoning to place on the already existing Frito Lay products like Cheetos. The inspiration comes when Richard, sitting in a park with his children, listens as his youngest, Steven (played by the adorable Brice Gonzalez), cries out when eating a roasted and seasoned piece of corn. The “problem”? It was so spicy that it burned. But Steven quickly assures his father that the burn was “good”. It’s that good burn that Richard soon has his wife pursuing alongside him as the family fans out across various markets and grocers in search of the right blend of peppers that will create a dry blend of spices that will adhere to the Frito Lay products. In the end, it is little Steven who gives the family his final “good burn” thumbs up, letting his father know that it is time to send the products to Mr. Enrico.

How Richard gets the package of his products to the PepsiCo boss and wins the opportunity for a face-to-face pitch meeting was a gutsy feat in itself. But the story does not end with Enrico tasting and approving production of Flamin’ Hot products. As the film makes clear, internal head office dynamics in the form of “knowledgeable” white male executives, were employed to try to kill the product by deliberately underfunding its launch. It was Richard’s family, friends from the neighbourhood, and plant colleagues who saved the Flamin’ Hot brand and their Frito Lay plant by getting the product into the hands of customers through their own efforts. The rest, you could say, is history! What becomes of Richard? He’s promoted to oversee Multicultural Sales and Marketing. At the end of the film, we see photos of the real Richard Montañez, his wife, and three sons and learn of the vast popularity of the Flamin’ Hot products.

Flamin’ Hot is an upbeat, funny, heart-warming, family-friendly, and poignant film about an American family’s inspirational journey to which many people who “started from the bottom” will relate. In Richard we see someone who was driven to provide a better life for his family and who understood that to learn and grow one must be unafraid to declare what one does not know.

Although this story is about a Mexican American experience, it is really a universal one about how people with the odds stacked against them can, with belief in self and support of family and friends, rise up, and claim a place in the world that the nay-sayers never thought was theirs to begin with.