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Column: What the anger over Flamin’ Hot Cheetos origin story is really about

Bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos on a shelf
Bags of Cheetos Flamin’ Hot Crunchy are displayed for sale.
(Chicago Tribune)

For over 15 years, Richard Montañez told a tale of bootstrap hustle so incredible that few ever doubted it.

The way he told it, he was a lowly janitor at a Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga in the 1980s when the high school dropout thought of a brilliant idea: What would happen if we put spicy powder on Cheetos? Montañez pitched the idea to skeptical bosses, then turned into a Big Cheese once Flamin’ Hot Cheetos became a commercial smash and a cultural touchstone for Latino and Black consumers.

It was a saga he repeated in classrooms, at conferences and to the media, a story so powerful that Eva Longoria wants to direct a film about his life. Journalists, food historians and the public gobbled up Montañez’s word without question — because who dared to doubt it?

In a country where white people constantly get the better of Mexicans, here was a Mexican who showed the gringos what’s up.

That’s why I recounted Montañez’s success in my 2012 book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.” I repeated it two years ago to San Francisco public radio station KQED, going so far as to state: “When it comes to Mexican food, there [are] so many origin stories ... and almost all of them are just a bunch of lies. The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos origin story is one of the very few that has actually been verified.”

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Richard Montañez has for years told a story of how he dreamed up Flamin’ Hot Cheetos while working as a Frito-Lay janitor. The archival record, former employees and Frito-Lay itself say otherwise.

Then about a year ago, my L.A. Times colleague Sam Dean asked me something I had never considered: What if Montañez hadn’t told the truth?

I told Sam that, while I didn’t see any reason to discount Montañez, he should see if there was a there there.

There was.

This past weekend, Sam crushed Montañez’s claims like a toddler squeezing a Cheeto into dust. The deposed Flamin’ Hot king’s resume is mostly real and truly impressive — the Ontario native did rise up from mopping floors to sitting in executive offices and on prestigious advisory boards. But Sam found documents, people, videos and more evidence that showed Montañez had little, if anything, to do with the development of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Sam’s story went viral, and many readers praised his work. But another school of thought also emerged to defend Montañez. His supporters accused Sam of trying to tear down a successful Mexican, of wasting his time to investigate such a seemingly trivial matter. Some even accused this paper of ulterior motives — best-selling author Julissa Arce, for instance, tweeted that The Times “just can’t stand us winning,” whatever that means.

It’s easy to dismiss the critics as Flamin’ Hot Truthers who can’t see the Cheetos bag for the chip. But I understand why people are rallying behind Montañez. The truth hurts, for one. And their frustration over Sam’s article isn’t so much about Montañez rather than a microcosm of two big issues that continue to plague Mexicans in the United States: historical erasure and the continued yearning for heroes that white America can also embrace.

The former phenomenon was one of the themes of my “Taco USA” book. The crediting of popular Mexican food products in this country to whites is a trope that perpetuates the idea of American ingenuity and Mexican idleness. Call it Manifest Destiny with a dusting of cheese.

Frito-Lay, parent company of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, offers two examples.

Founder Elmer Doolin told anyone who’d listen during his lifetime that he created his company by buying the original recipe for $100 from a Mexican in San Antonio during the Great Depression. Doolin never bothered to name that Mexican, nor did his company in the decades since. It wasn’t until a Texas Monthly reporter found Gustavo Olguin in Oaxaca in 1982 that the actual inventor of Fritos entered the official record.

Another example features my favorite chip: Doritos. When Frito-Lay executive Arch West died in 2011, news outlets across the country — including this paper — wrote he invented Doritos after getting “inspired” by a vacation in Mexico, because that’s what West said.

I laughed when all those obituaries came out because the real inventors were the Morales family of Anaheim. They offered a version of Doritos at Disneyland in the early 1960s at the old Casa de Fritos restaurant that they stocked, and convinced West that Frito-Lay should mass-produce their crunchy creation. Family members showed me documents to support their claim, and Doolin’s daughter confirmed this in her own book.

One more example: Taco Bell. In founder Glenn Bell’s grandiosely titled “Taco Titan: The Glenn Bell Story,” he openly boasted about how the idea to make billions off of hard-shell tacos came from a Mexican restaurant that stood across the street from his hamburger stand off Route 66 in San Bernardino. Bell didn’t bother to name it and even joked that their tacos “dripped melted fat.”

That restaurant is still around, and its name is Mitla Café. I was proud to tell their story in my book, along with the Doritos one, as a form of historical recovery. Food history, especially involving junk food, might seem superfluous — but the public loves it, because it’s so tangible and visceral. That’s why the oldest documented frozen margarita machine sits in the Smithsonian. Why the venerable King Taco chain still keeps its original taco truck.

That’s why Montañez’s story had such cachet.

There are too few Mexican Americans recognized for inventing things beloved by almost everyone. We’re invested in those who do rise up to levels we can only hope to achieve. After all, we’re still outsiders in the United States despite our numbers, our centuries of living here. And now you have a white reporter named Sam Dean telling us that a Mexican had fibbed about creating a product popular with so many?

I’d be mad, too.

But then reality grounds me. See, Mexicans can stretch the truth to fit a convenient narrative as well as gringos when it comes to our food, folks. The most notorious example is Gruma, the largest tortilla company in the world. The multinational has long claimed it was the first producer of dehydrated masa, which revolutionized tortilla-making because fresh masa spoils quickly. Gruma puts its origin date as 1949 — but 22 years earlier, Jose Bartolomé Martinez of San Antonio took out a U.S. patent for the exact same thing and called it Tamalina.

Few ever credit Martinez for his innovation, while Gruma’s dehydrated masa product, Maseca, continues to be a staple in Latino households across the United States, with few critics to be found.

Montañez — who’s going to publish his second memoir soon — is doubling down on his Flamin’ Hot Cheetos legacy. Although he wouldn’t talk to Sam, he told Variety in the wake of our investigation: “All I can tell you is what I did. All I have is my history, what I did in my kitchen.”

That’s all the validation his fans need. But like those stray Frito corn chips that don’t curl, it doesn’t necessarily make it right.


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