Hot cheetos I envied wealthy white children in middle school. However, I also had something that they didn’t.The origins of Hot Cheetos Crunchy Flamin’ Hots are, as with all good stories, disputed. Their invention was long attributed to Richard Montanez who, in the 1980s, worked as a Frito Lay machine operator in Rancho Cucamonga.
Montanez claims that he brought plain Cheetos home from work one day and experimented with different flavors with his wife.
His success with the snack resulted in him being promoted to an executive role. The Los Angeles Times reported last year that Montanez’s story was incorrect.
He may have pitched similar products while at the Los Angeles Times, but Flamin’ Hot Cheetos wasn’t one of those.
But, to me, Montanez’s tale speaks to a completely different truth about Flamin’ hots. They are associated with my childhood experience as a Los Angeles kid who stayed after school.
In the early 2000s, middle school was dominated by children of color who had a single parent working and no siblings. These kids were often kids who would otherwise have been home all day.
My friends and I would walk to the convenience store across the street from the Mexican restaurant to purchase Flamin’ Hots every day, after school had ended at 3 p.m.
Flamin’ Hots has revealed a secret map of Los Angeles.
My parents had separated by the time I was in elementary school. They moved to El Segundo. My dad moved to the San Fernando Valley while my mom moved to Westwood, a wealthy Westside neighborhood.
She had a U.C.L.A. fund-raising job. This was the deciding factor in my choice of school. I was allowed to attend Holmby Hills school through interdistrict permits.
These permits allow students to travel to schools outside their district based on parental employment.
After high school, I was able to understand how space and time work in Los Angeles. How people’s relationships with the city are affected by commutes, child care demands, and the rush hour.
My mom worked close to school. However, my dad drove me from the Valley on days when I was staying with him.
My grandma drove from Hacienda Heights to help my mom, and my uncle drove from Torrance. Our school took us to and from school in indirect routes that crossed many neighborhoods, each with its own race and class.
After I switched to Santa Monica’s private school, I was in seventh grade. My mom and I moved to Topanga Canyon, California with my stepdad. I felt smaller and closer to the Westside.
However, after-school hours gave me a greater sense of place. Flamin’ Hots helped me navigate that geography. The bag was pulled tight and your nostrils were filled with anticipation. Your hand was stuffed in the bag, encasing each Flamin Hot between your fingers. The burn intensified, and you couldn’t stop until you emptied the bag’s last remnants into your mouth.
Some people couldn’t take the heat and others didn’t know how to cross the street. I doubt they were able to properly place Flamin’ Hot’s nuanced flavor. This map now reveals a hidden map to L.A.’s sprawl that is dominated by the overlooked and neglected communities of color.
These communities are not visible from the Westside, but are visible to me. Flamin’ hots tasted a lot like Tajin seasoning, which was sprinkled on fries, cups of mango, melon, and pineapple by fruit-cart sellers on the Eastside;
powder packets of Shin Ramyun noodles kept in a cousin’s kitchen cupboards, Orange County; Tapatio, Valentina hot sauce, used on tacos, burritos, and even kimchi made from large plastic tubs sold at H Mart, Greenland Market, Van Nuys, or Rowland Heights.
My preteen anxieties were not easily distinguished from those of my wealthy white classmates who could afford Kate Spade bags. The time after-school was when I was no longer reminded of the things I had and didn’t have by those I envied. Flamin’ Hots was what my friends and me had that others didn’t.
Flamin’ Hots is a perfect example of unapproved innovation. It was a challenge to acceptable tastes that embrace artificial excess. It was a demonstration of American ingenuity. However, the implicit lesson it taught was that Flamin Hots could be enjoyed by everyone.
The Times’s revelations made it clear that not everything on paper matters as much as the stories and mythologies we create. Flamin’ Hots is for those who, like Montanez take up residence after-hours when tall tales reign supreme. They are for those who take over the school at all costs, leaving no trace except the telltale red dye 40 stain on our lips, tongues and fingers.