The Improbable Story Arc of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos

Flamin Hot Cheetos Story BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Belatina

Did you hear about the “Hot Cheeto girl” phenomenon or of the inventor of the spicy treat Ricardo Montañez who is now feuding with the Los Angeles Times as to who actually invented it? (It’s quite the controversy.) If you haven’t, you are probably not that active on TikTok (which is not a bad thing) and don’t have to stomach that a meme that began as a lovable character called Rosa was transformed by social media into a racist stereotype that targets Latina and makes us out to be cartoon-like, aggressive and loud.    

Like we need this.

The meme started innocently enough — with a character called Rosa — created by Adam Martinez, 20, from San Antonio, Texas. 

Martinez’s (@AdamRayOkay) Rosa made us fall in love with her when she asked “do you have a dollar?” because she was dying for a slushie. So, open your purse, she said. 

Wearing a black turban on her head, a strangely made-up face, and talon-sharp acrylic nails (almost always one missing) she made us laugh and left us wanting more Rosa episodes. There is even one in which she has a pregnancy scare. 

Adam told BuzzFeed that Rosa is modeled after the girls he grew up with. “Everybody just knows her, everybody loves her. It’s a familiar feeling you get when you hear her voice. It was just something that I wanted to bring back,” he said.

When she first came on the scene, Adam’s creation was simply known as the “Arizona Tea and Hot Cheetos queen.” She became Rosa after Martinez saw the video got over 9.8 million views on TikTok.

But, with her millions of views, Rosa dragged in something not so nice – the  “Hot Cheeto Girl” trend and thus was born a cruel, racist stereotypical meme. The modern-day equivalent of the blackface for the Latinx.

Blackface was popular in the U.S. after the Civil War when white performers played characters that dehumanized African Americans. The portrayal of blackface — making darker by applying shoe polish, greasepaint, or burnt cork and painting on enlarged lips and other exaggerated features — is mired in centuries of racism. 

The meme spread like a nasty virus through multiple media platforms — from Tik Tok to Instagram and Twitter, injecting racial stigma into it and ridicule.

People that were not Latinx started to post videos of themselves acting out a Rosa or a Hot Cheeto girl stereotype and most of these videos were offensive and hosted bad imitations of what non-Latinos believe is a Latinx accent. Go to the Urban Dictionary and you will find the definition of what is considered a Hot Cheeto girl.   

The stereotype construct goes like this: she is a girl who eats Hot Cheetos all the time — no matter the hour of the day or night — and is usually argumentative, loud, and violent. 

She talks back to teachers, is a bitch because she can, intimidates others, and hides under her desk eating hot chips. Hot Cheeto girls wear long eyelash extensions, t-shirts of the skate culture Bible and bands they don’t even like, hoop earrings, acrylic nails, and lots of badly applied make-up. (Since when did a Latinx not know how to apply make-up?) 

Let’s get this straight America, once and for all: an underrepresented woman from an urban area doesn’t necessarily have a penchant for spicy food, nor is she aggressive and loud, and not all eat Cheetos, flaming hot or otherwise. 

This was not the intent behind Rosa and it was not the purpose of the joke.

And it’s especially not funny in the color-divided United States where race and gender can be reason enough to discriminate.  

Enter Eva Longoria and Hollywood. 

Longoria landed the directing job for Flamin’ Hot, the Fox Searchlight biopic about Richard Montañez, the man who says he came up with the idea of the spicy Flamin’ Hot Cheetos snack. DeVon Franklin is set to produce the movie under his Franklin Entertainment label, currently under a production deal at Fox.

Montañez rose from humble beginnings to achieve the American Dream. The son of a Mexican immigrant, Montañez was a janitor at Frito-Lay when he concocted the idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos taking straight out of the flavors of his community. It was a hit that revitalized the company and created a pop culture phenomenon. 

Except that according to an LA Times article, he might not have. The story is titled The Man Who Didn’t Invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and it stirred a hot mess of controversy.  

“None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market,” Frito-Lay said in a statement to the Times.“We have interviewed multiple personnel who were involved in the test market, and all of them indicate that Richard was not involved in any capacity in the test market.”

But if you thought the saga would end here, last Friday Frito-Lay retracted most of the comments issued last week.

“The information we shared with the media has been misconstrued by some, which resulted in confusion around where we stand, a range of emotions among our employees and consumers, and a strain on our valued friendship with Richard Montañez and the Latino community,” the company now says.

PepsiCo — the parent company behind Frito-Lay — goes on to say it attributes “the launch and success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to several people who worked at PepsiCo, including Richard Montañez.”

Montañez insists that his story is true, and the film will probably be made to celebrate that other concoction known as the American Dream. 

It makes me think of Andy Warhol. He was once asked if he believed in the American Dream. He responded: No, but I think we can make money out of it. Or something like that. 

Rosa was a rather sweet portrayal of a character we all know. But just like the American Dream, that sweet portrayal bared its teeth and became the Frankenstein version — the Hot Cheeto Girl. 

I like Rosa better.