Opinion: Hot Cheetos Are Los Angeles
I didn’t go to journalism school and I’m not a media critic. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be “who” or “who” and I often have to pronounce certain words to spell them correctly (Feb-RU-ar-y). I am not an expert in writing but I a m an expert on myself, Hot Cheetos and Los Angeles.
Now that we’ve got it out of the way, I would like to say very calmly and clearly that the Los Angeles Times bestselling article on Richard Montañez (inventor of Hot Cheetos) published on May 16 is a complete “poo”, as would my big one. -mother say. If you haven’t read the article, I’ll bring you this article on Variety that sums it up along with another exploration of Hot Cheetos’ origin story on NPR’s “Planet Money” that features Montañez himself. instead of centering white people who don’t remember its existence. Long story short: Montañez may not have invented Hot Cheetos as there is no written record to prove it and some former Frito-Lay executives want us to believe it was an idea that came from everywhere . But the Rancho Cucamonga factory where Montañez worked. [For transparency: years ago I was romantically involved with the author of the LA Times piece.]
Written in a style that is a blend of both a forgotten early Gawker article and a New Yorker “Shouts and Murmurs,” the author of the article chooses to believe the people who have never met Montañez rather than those who have known him for decades. The article offers written statements from Frito-Lay that characterize the memory of Montañez events as an “urban legend” and attribute the invention of the hot chip to a junior Frito-Lay employee fresh out of college. Protected behind a paywall until midweek and pushed As a groundbreaking exposition by the newspaper’s most active Twitter users, the article was greeted with disgust by many, especially Mexicans and Latinxes who felt personally attacked. I got a little scared, thinking there’s no way someone would one day wake up and decide they’re going to prove Montañez a liar – but that seems to be it. come. I continue to be puzzled a week later as to why our most important everyday life is using its resources in this way. I would like to pretend to be surprised at the way this article deals with its subject, but I will not. The LA Times is known for its derogatory treatment of Latinxes – and, in particular, Mexicans – both in its coverage and its inability to pay its white and Latinx journalists equally.
On Wednesday, May 19, the newspaper pulled the article out of the limits of subscriber exclusivity and a new wave of readers were upset by the claim that Montañez lied about his role in the Hot Cheetos story. At the end of the week, 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’d think the LA Times would issue an apology, or a retraction, or whatever that was grateful they were wrong, but it isn’t. Instead, they insist on this statement, which qualifies the article as “speculation”, in a way. justifies their conclusions. White supremacy is wild.
I don’t read the LA Times because it’s not a medium that speaks to me, but I follow a few of its non-white reporters who I believe do a good job and represent our city well. However, I grew up reading the LA Times. My grandparents, both now deceased, had LA Times subscriptions and would read it during their morning huevos and coffee. My grandfather used their children’s section as a way to get interested in the world around me and my grandma made me wash my hands after reading the newspaper so that I didn’t get the ink everywhere in the House. I have fond memories of the diary and of my childhood. That’s what made this article even more pungent: It’s a reminder that most of these articles weren’t written for me and weren’t written for them either.
I agree with what Rodrigo Nuñez said in his last episode “El Pochcast”, “Hot Cheetos aren’t Mexican by birth… except they’re Mexican. Here’s the thing: Hot Cheetos weren’t considered Mexican because a Mexican invented them, a Mexican claiming to invent them made sense because Hot Cheetos are Mexican.
And I would go even further: Hot Cheetos are Los Angeles, a symbol of my home and a symbol of my Mexican identity. This may not make sense to the handful of white LA Times reporters (who are not from Los Angeles) who spent time defend this article with their whole chest all over Twitter all week (Yes!) but for some of us pochos, hot Cheetos are part of what makes us feel Mexican. When you attack Montañez – or Hot Cheetos – you attack us: Mexicans and Angelenos. I’m not sure what cultural exports are from places like Boston or Milwaukee, so I can understand that this author and his supporters are probably shocked by the reaction. But it is testament to the inability of this daily life to accurately represent the people who live in Los Angeles or to understand what is important to us.
I’ve had the privilege of living all over this country and around the world, and one of the things I’ve missed as much as my grandma’s menudo is Hot Cheetos. My friends and family would send me care packages full of Hot Cheetos when I lived in places like Northampton and London, cities unfamiliar with the spicy chip. My stained fingers reminded me of my home and anchored me in my identity whenever I was not in Los Angeles. Growing up as a Mexican who doesn’t speak Spanish was difficult 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 that I was Mexican and a reminder to myself and others that I belonged. There’s nothing quite like opening a cool bag of hot Cheetos on the tube after months of red dust deprivation to remind you that no one can take the girl’s LA away.
With Lucas and mango chalupas at lunch, Hot Cheetos defined my childhood in the Valley. When I was in college there was talk of banning the sale of Hot Cheetos because many library books were returned with red fingerprints. In high school, countless clubs and teams were selling Grandma’s Mini Cookies, Cup Noodles, and Hot Cheetos to raise money. I’m not ashamed to say that this is how I survived most of high school. Every sleepover and pool party featured an inviting large bowl of hot Cheetos. You can’t walk, drive, or cycle in Los Angeles without seeing a crumpled bag on the street (please don’t throw trash). Countless taco trucks, cafes and local markets feature bags of hot Cheetos next to the register. I had my nails done once at a salon that sold Hot Cheetos at a booth adjacent to their nail polish display. As a Mexican, I was raised to value family, friendships and my community above all else. I consider Hot Cheetos to be part of this calculation.
Look, I think it’s okay to want to write about the origin story of a snack, even though most are boring or often wrong. There is a way for a white journalist to write about non-whites and to report with compassion and respect. I know the author of this article is capable of telling stories with dignity, but that’s not what happened with this piece, and it’s heartbreaking.
I have seen many responses to a valid critique of the article’s premise considered hyperbolic. If it’s all about “chips”, why spend a The whole year on an idea that came to you out of the blue? Why was this article published if the author was not speaking to Montañez himself? Has it occurred to the author or his editor to reframe the article as an exploration of how companies like Frito-Lay treat their top-spending workers? Or, why not write an article about how Hot Cheetos are one of the first (and most lucrative!) Examples of marketing to a Latinx audience? I’d love to hear how much money the LA Times has made to make this a “subscriber exclusive” for a few days.
I don’t know what kind of frustration the author, his editor, or the LA Times in general has with the Latinx community, but this article was by no means an invitation to connect with our people. It was a lackluster attempt to destroy the legacy of a man who successfully rose through the corporate ranks at Frito-Lay. I’ve watched dozens of Montañez’s interviews this week, and instead of thinking about ways to refute what he’s saying, all I can think of is how familiar he sounds.
He looks like my father, he looks like my tíos, he looks like my grandfather, when he talks about his work and his ideas. My father gave many ideas to the leaders of his company which were taken and implemented without compensation. I grew up with dozens of men like Montañez who work hard, long hours and never get the chance to be heard and promoted in the workplace. That Montañez’s ideas were not explicitly credited to him by the executives does not surprise me: why bother to ensure that the Mexican concierge is duly recognized?
As I type this, looking at my fingers stained with Cheeto, I remember that I am at home. Home is where Hot Cheeto is located. And I don’t care who invented them.
PS: a note on the local jargon, we call them Hot Cheetos and not “Flamin ‘Hots”. If someone repeatedly calls them “Flamin ‘Hots”, it’s a sure sign that they aren’t able to spill ink on the chip, its story, or its inventor.