The inspiring journey of Richard Montañez (Jessie Garcia) can only be told accurately if his supportive wife, his struggle with family, his Hispanic heritage, and his wrestling with faith are included. Flamin’ Hot tells the story of Rich’s idea to make a spicy concoction that will revolutionize the snack industry. But what makes this hilarious film a must-watch is its firm grasp on reality—often faith is born out of a lengthy time of adversity.
Adversity in Diversity
The film’s title and most of the trailer showcase Rich’s epiphany and campaign to whet Frito-Lay’s appetite for spicy snacks. Rightfully so (this battle, and the ensuing success, is what made Rich famous), yet it’s a small portion of the journey. As Nacho Libre says, “…beneath the clothes, we find a man…and beneath the man we find…his…nucleus.”
Director Eva Longoria and screenwriters Linda Yvette Chávez and Lewis Colick’s storytelling is as flavorful as Rich’s spices. The account spans decades, somehow comedically and maturely dealing with immigration, racism, classism, and Reagan’s ’80s, all wrapped in family bonds and conflicts. Granted, anyone who thinks racism is fake news may not love the movie. Everyone else may enjoy the thought-provoking treatment of some difficult topics without getting preachy or distracted from its mission: showing great things can come from adversity.
Of the many lessons the film teaches, the persistent call of God and our (often) lengthy response is one of the best. Initially, we may think Rich and Judy start on a level playing field of faith. They both grew up in hard-working homes, and hardship drives them to make poor choices. But when confronted with the promise that faith in God can help them, only Judy responds positively. It’s not an overt reaction, but she does little things like being intent on keeping a prayer candle burning and saying prayers.
Is it because Rich is stubborn or ignorant or frustrated that he scoffs at faith in a higher power? The biggest key to understanding his hesitancy is Rich’s justified bitterness towards his hypocritical father. His dad, Ray (Emilio Rivera), was always abusive. When Ray “found God” the physical mistreatment subsided, but the sanctimonious and demeaning criticism endured. When we behave like Ray, our judgmental arrogance can be the biggest obstacle for those we love to come to faith.
Rich’s slow progress in faith also comes from the grind of corporate class systems and discrimination. (The film perfectly portrays how corporations’ senior leadership have high pay, tenure, and are relatively stress-free compared to middle-managers’ discrepant pay, minimal job security, and constant stress.) Discrimination begs a valid question many of us wrestle with: why should we place our faith in a God who dawdles in correcting justice? As such, the film is more than an underdog story. Flamin’ Hot is a realistic view of the world, in both Rich’s hilarious, absurdly relatable fantasies and in the way that maturity is portrayed as a slow burn.
Is Putting All our Chips Down Enough?
Recognizing that he needs to clean up his act and provide for his family, our hero pounds the pavement looking for a job. Networking lands him a janitor position at Frito-Lay and hard work keeps him there. Rich is optimistic, but over time finds systemic racism is present inside the corporation just as much as outside in the world. When bright but overlooked Clarence (Dennis Haysbert) mentions they trash brown chips, Rich exclaims, “People always trying to throw away the brown ones.” That’s the moment Clarence decides to mentor Rich.
One of the film’s strengths is that it portrays the wear of time without feeling boring or prolonged. There is a slick scene with Rich narrating times passing over a single shot where real items have progressive years painted on them. Rich is patient, waiting for his opportunity to wow management. When none of his bosses recognize his abilities, Rich dreams up his spicy concoction.
The process takes time, and as Rich and his family work on the recipe, his faith progresses too. When the family prayer candle goes out, Rich rushes to light it, a testament to how he’s changed from wanting to blow it out because it was silly and superstitious. This works as an analogy of letting a flaming hope in faith burn out versus diligently working to keep that hope and faith alight. Not flamin’ hot just yet, but nevertheless, burnin’.
There are some ups and downs in making the sample products, but the Montañez family faces each hurdle with prayer. At one point Rich has given up, but Judy encourages him, rhetorically asking if he knows what she’s been praying for all these years. She answers, “That you would see the gifts and talents that you have.” It wasn’t enough that Rich had a genius idea or put all his eggs in one basket: he needed to have faith and persevere.
The outcome and titular story of spice is satisfying. But what makes this story so rewarding is that Rich 1) doesn’t immediately get recognized for his determination, and 2) more importantly, Rich’s faith is born out of a similar adversity. Despite the abuse by his father and having no hope, he is supported by his wife and slowly comes to rely on God (1 Corinthians 7:14-16).
So while we don’t see the Montañez family read a Bible or go to Mass, there is growth in faith. Do you think I’m reading too much into a semi-autobiographical depiction? Well, the real Rich Montañez is a devout Christian who gives God the glory for his success. He explains:
I read in the Bible that God says that if you are faithful in the little things, that He will put you in charge of big things. I wanted to do something with my life but had so much self-doubt. My life changed when God helped me with not believing in myself.
Kudos to Longoria and the other filmmakers for shooting an underdog movie grounded in reality. But what if we don’t revolutionize an industry, or what if our hard work never pays off? Judy’s advice is pertinent. Believing in yourself (as in the talents God has given you) coupled with believing that God will take care of you, is a taste of unadulterated faith.