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Why People Are Upset About The Flamin' Hot Cheetos Story


It was a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story made for Hollywood. A Mexican American janitor working at a Frito-Lay factory in California in the late 1980s had an idea for a new chip flavor - neon orange-dusted Cheetos, but spicy. Well, he pitched the idea to execs, Flamin' Hot Cheetos were born, and the janitor rose through the ranks. He was a success story in a mostly white corporate world. But a recent Los Angeles Times investigation has poked holes in that tale. According to Frito-Lay, Richard Montanez did not invent hot Cheetos. The debunking of his claim to fame has caused pain and backlash, particularly among the Latino community.

LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano wrote about that this week and joins me now. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Hola, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hola. Nice to have you with us. I should mention first that NPR's own Planet Money had reported on this, had reported that Montanez invented the chip. They are doing a review of that story now. You yourself told his invention story in your book, which was titled "Taco USA." What new information did the LA Times, your colleague at the LA Times, Sam Dean, uncover when he started reporting?

ARELLANO: Well, Sam starts interviewing people from that era at Frito-Lay, and they tell him a completely different story, that actually, it was started in the Midwest. It was actually invented by a woman. And to the - and this is not something that just people are just, you know, talking to talk. Frito-Lay then launched its own investigation in 2018, internal investigation - again, you know, talking to their own folks. And they told Sam Dean then that at the end of everything, the fact that - the idea that Richard Montanez was the sole inventor of Flamin' Hot Cheetos is - their words - quote, "an urban legend."

KELLY: What is Montanez saying in response?

ARELLANO: Well, he would not talk to Sam at the Times because, again, I think he was shocked that someone would actually question his version of the story. And, you know, ever since, he's now talking to anyone else, you know, saying, no, you know, I am the inventor. I just know my story the way I told it, and just leave it up to that.

KELLY: Now, I mentioned there's been backlash, a lot of backlash, a lot of people angry with the LA Times and with Sam Dean, who, I should mention, is white. Explain what's going on here.

ARELLANO: I was also surprised by the backlash, although I expected it. I mean, think about the optics. Here's a white reporter, a big publication, the LA Times, telling the world this guy who has become a - you know, a folk legend in the Latino community, especially with Mexicans, actually, his tale wasn't true. Of course people would be upset. I would be upset, frankly.

But I am anchored by history. As the author of "Taco USA," I've seen this troupe happen multiple times, where you have someone claim this ingenuity in creating this Mexican food product that would go on to become mainstream and popular, but historically, it's been white people taking the credit for a Mexican invention. In this case - and again, I originally believed Montanez in "Taco USA." After seeing Sam's story, I was convinced about that. And so I also put in my book that, look; Mexicans can also take credit for stuff just like white folks can. And so I mentioned some examples from my book as well.

KELLY: And I want to just stress that there are investigations under way, including - I mentioned NPR's own review of our reporting. I mean, there are conflicting accounts here. But it gets to another point that you raise in your column, which is the deep desire of Mexican Americans to have a hero who looks like them and that that also plays into some of the anger and backlash here. Explain.

ARELLANO: Oh, my God, yeah. Again, a janitor who was able to rise to become a big cheese, if you will, at Frito-Lay - that's an amazing story, and people just love it. The fact that - it's such a powerful tale that Eva Longoria is going to direct a film based on Richard Montanez's life. And the interesting thing is the story of Montanez is absolutely true. He did go from janitor to, you know, vice president at Frito-Lay. It just seems that he didn't really invent Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

KELLY: Well - and again, we'll await the review of all that and where it all lands. But thank you for being with us.

ARELLANO: Gracias.

KELLY: Gustavo Arellano - he's a columnist at the Los Angeles Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Karen Zamora
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.