Richard Montañez is his name. He’s the Mexican American person who began his career as a janitor at a Southern California Frito-Lay factory in the 1980s. Montañez worked at the company for more than four decades, eventually earning an executive-level marketing role. A new movie released on Hulu and directed by Eva Longoria is an inspiring story of how one working class Latino man’s innovative, culturally-responsive idea led to the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, a billion-dollar innovation for Frito-Lay, PepsiCo’s snack manufacturer.
The Los Angeles Times reports that upon hearing the film was in the works, a former Frito-Lay employee emerged to dispute its accuracy. Accordingly, “a junior employee with a freshly minted MBA named Lynne Greenfeld got the assignment to develop the brand – she came up with the Flamin’ Hot name and shepherded the line into existence.” The article doesn’t specify Greenfield’s race or ethnicity. In an interview with Variety, Montañez refutes Greenfield’s claims and insists that he and his Mexican American wife Judy were the product’s creators. This stance is consistent with the narrative presented in his book, Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive.
According to The Times, Frito-Lay employees reportedly indicated that no company records show that Montañez was involved in the product’s creation. It was allegedly developed in the Midwest, not in Rancho Cucamonga, where he worked. In a follow-up statement, PepsiCo said what it originally communicated to The Times had 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 second PepsiCo statement also acknowledged the following: “Far from being an urban legend, Richard had a remarkable 40-plus-year career at PepsiCo and made an incredible impact on our business and employees and continues to serve as an inspiration today. His insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers were invaluable and directly resulted in the success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. To be clear, we have no reason to doubt the stories he shares about taking the initiative to create new product ideas for the Cheetos brand, and pitching them to past PepsiCo leaders.”
In the closing scene of the movie, Jesse García, the actor who portrays Montañez, says this: “We all write all our own stories, we create our own destinies. You think I was gonna let someone else steal mine? Nah, never.” Greenfield’s claims could be interpreted as an attempt to do just that.
There are several racialized truths related to the story Montañez tells in his book and in speeches he delivers across the country — the inspirational story that Longoria presents in impressive cinematic fashion. These six truths capture the workplace realities of many Latino professionals, not only in the 80s and 90s (the period in which the film is primarily situated), but also now.
1. Workplace Stratification Disadvantages Latinos And Companies – Like most businesses, the Frito-Lay factory where Montañez worked was racially segregated. Latinos were almost entirely represented in the lowest-paid, least-powerful positions. White men occupied the highest leadership roles. Consequently, several organizational cues powerfully convey to working class Latinos and other employees of color that they are to stay in their place at the bottom and not talk to whites who are at higher ranks.
2. Inequitable Access To Executives Stifles Cultural Innovation – In the movie, Montañez bravely calls PepsiCo’s CEO to pitch his idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. It was a big no-no that upset many colleagues, but ultimately paid off for Montañez and the company. This shows that if given the chance, Latinos and other employees of color could successfully contribute to the innovation and profitability of businesses. But too few are afforded access to executive-level leaders. Most never get the chance to meet or meaningfully engage with their CEOs.
3. Latinos Experience An Abundance Of Racial Microaggressions At Work – “You have to fill out an application and before you ask, no, we don’t have it in Spanish,” is what a white woman told Montañez when he first showed up at Frito-Lay to apply for a job in the film. His white male supervisor repeatedly mispronounced his name. There were other moments in which Montañez and other Latino workers were confronted with racial stereotypes.
4. Latino Employees Are Untapped Cultural Experts – Montañez understood his people. He, Judy, and their children worked to perfect a recipe that would taste like home for many Latino consumers. Unfortunately, professionals whose lived experiences, deep understandings of what resonates culturally, and residence in communities for which products are being developed aren’t often treated as experts. They’re underrepresented on product development teams. And they typically aren’t invited to offer input into product development and marketing because white leaders erroneously presume that custodians, groundskeepers, and food service workers (the roles that many Latinos occupy in companies like Frito-Lay) don’t know enough about business.
5. Latino-Led Product Innovations Are Disadvantaged By A Lack Of Investment – In the film, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos wasn’t an instant success. One white executive insisted to the CEO that he never should’ve listened to a janitor and the product should be immediately discontinued. Montañez refused to give up. He took marketing into his own hands by recruiting Mexican Americans from his neighborhood to aggressively introduce Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to other Latinos. They didn’t know the product existed before this. When appropriately resourced with marketing budgets, teams that include Latino professionals across all levels, and multidimensional strategy, products created by Latinos have a much higher likelihood of success and sustainability.
6. The contributions of Latinos are often erased – Without Longoria’s new film, there’s a serious chance that most people wouldn’t have ever learned the Richard Montañez story. Across industries, Latinos and other professionals of color make significant contributions for which they receive insufficient credit, sometimes no recognition at all. They aren’t celebrated in corporate historical records. Others get to take credit for their ideas.
It’s praiseworthy how Longoria, producer DeVon Franklin, and the screenwriters balanced the presentation of these racialized workplace realities with the inspirational depiction of Montañez’s journey and billion-dollar contribution to one of the world’s largest corporations. The way they situated it in the 80s and 90s (including the hairstyles of those times) with such visual accuracy is also commendable. What’s unfortunate, though, is that much of what Montañez experienced in his workplace at that time is still reflective of the realities that confront too many Latino employees across professions today.
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