With Hollywood putting increased emphasis on inclusion and representation, Linda Yvette Chávez has emerged as one of the hottest screenwriters of color working in the studio system today. Even before co-writing the screenplay for Flamin’ Hot for director Eva Longoria and Searchlight Pictures, Chávez created the Netflix series Gentefied and was named one of the “Top Latinas Changing the Game for Representation” by Glamour Magazine. She also inked a multi-year deal with 20th Television, although her next project is likely to be a feature adaptation of Erika L. Sanchez‘s bestselling novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, which has America Ferrera attached to direct.
Her new film, Flamin’ Hot, which may or may not be based on a true story, tells the tale of Richard Montañez (played by Jesse Garcia), the son of Mexican immigrants, who gets a job as a janitor at the Frito-Lay factory in Rancho Cucamonga. After noticing that members of his Latinx community in California were looking for a super spicy alternative to Frito-Lay’s products, with many of them adding their own hot sauce, Montañez claims to have invented the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, with the film loosely based on his own memoir, Flamin’ Hot: The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive.
Above the Line recently spoke with Ms. Chávez a few weeks back to learn how she got involved with telling Richard’s story, and how she helped boost some of her friends, including a few who worked on Gentefied. ATL should note that after conducting this interview, we were made aware of an L.A. Times story from 2021 in which Frito-Lay pushed back against Montañez’s account of his creation, so with that in mind, it might be best to watch Flamin’ Hot like any other biopic — as an entertaining look into a real person’s life that may take some artistic license.
Above the Line: Flamin’ Hot is a really fun movie that I didn’t get to see at South by Southwest, unfortunately, though I’m sure that was a great premiere.
Linda Yvette Chávez: Awesome screening! [laughs]
ATL: Though that audience was lucky enough to see it on the big screen, I still think it’ll be a great movie for families to watch at home together. I know you were doing Gentefied for Netflix, so was the ball already rolling on this movie either with the producers or Eva before you got involved, or did you write it on spec?
Chávez: It was 2019. I was at the tail-end of post-production on my show Gentefied. I was actually about to go into surgery when I got the call from my reps, saying, ‘Eva really wants you to come in and pitch on this movie.’ I had heard Richard’s story, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, okay. I’m getting an organ taken out, though, so how fast are they moving?’ They were like, ‘They’re moving fast,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’m not going to be able to do it,’ but then Eva was like, ‘I want Linda. I will wait,’ and they called me [and said], ‘She’s gonna wait.’
I recovered, and I came in and did my pitch, met her and [producer] DeVon [Franklin], and it was just such an exciting time to see them both. That’s when I got involved, and it was really in transition [at] the end of the first season, during the second season. I was working on that as well as another movie and the show, and getting to work with Eva and DeVon the whole time. It was really, really great.
ATL: You’d adapted another book and Eva had read that screenplay, though the film still hasn’t been produced, right?
Chávez: Yes, I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, a New York Times bestseller by Erika L Sanchez. I got to adapt that for Anonymous Content and MACRO, and America Ferrara is attached to direct that. Strangely enough, Flamin’ Hot came after I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter because Eva had read that script and was like, ‘I want this voice for Flamin’ Hot,’ and that’s why she was determined to get me. Mexican Daughter is hopefully going to shoot next year, but with the pandemic and the way the world is, it [ended up coming] after. You know how the business works…
But it’s been fun to actually work with both of them [Eva and America], because they’re friends, and they’re champions in this industry as Latinas, having these two powerhouse Latinas be folks [who] I admire, and who I get to learn from — these two incredible directors — has been such a blessing. I can’t wait to do it again, hopefully, with America, the next round.
ATL: What kind of shape was the screenplay in when you came on board? Did you need to sit down with Eva and start from scratch, or were there parts of it that worked but maybe needed to be further fleshed out and given more of a voice?
Chávez: Eva had such a specific vision. [That was] actually the thing that brought me on board, solidly. She sent me her deck when I was having the surgery. ‘Look at my deck. This is what’s gonna be like.’ DeVon says that whatever Eva wants, Eva gets, and she was like, ‘I want you to write this.’ She sent me her deck, and she had a very specific vision for the voice and tone of the film, which is very much my voice and my tone. That specific vision was comedic, [and] the script wasn’t comedic before. We both talked about bringing Judy (Annie Gonzalez) out much more drastically.
I knew I wanted to sit down and restructure everything and really find the comedic, heartwarming center of the story. I really wanted to bring up the father-son relationships, because, for me, this was a story about a man and his wife as a love story, but it was also a story about [a] father and son — like those father and son relationships you see throughout the whole film between him and Dennis Haysbert‘s character and his own father, and him and his son. I knew I had to dig in deep with Richard and his family to figure out what were the dynamics that were happening between all of them during that time.
I spent a lot of time reworking the whole script and working with [Eva’s] vision and then bringing in my special sauce to it — my own flaming hot slurry to the script and my own voice. That was part of the journey. It was a two-year process, it took a long time. The first thing I told Richard was, ‘You’re responsible for my digestive issues. I ate so many Hot Cheetos growing up.’
ATL: I’m not sure how many people know Richard’s story. To me, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos just showed up on the shelf one day, and I was like, “What on Earth are these?”
Chávez: I knew it was showing up because just like in the movie, we were Latino — Chicano-Mexican-American — born and raised in LA. I was putting Tapatío [hot sauce] on my chips and my Doritos, my whole family was — we were doing that. The minute that the spicy chips started to roll out, it was like, “Yes! I can skip that part of putting hot chili on my chips,” which I probably shouldn’t. We [were like], ‘Why haven’t people been doing this?’ and the minute it rolled onto shelves, I was like, ‘That’s exactly what we need,’ and it was delicious.
He knew what was up, but yeah, his story, like so many stories in the Latino community — a lot of our trailblazers, a lot of our heroes, are unsung. We don’t get to hear their stories the way they deserve to be heard, and Richard is just one of so many [who] we have to listen to and hear. I hope this opens the door to many, many more.
ATL: I haven’t read Richard’s book, but just from the movie, he seems like a real personality, a real character. Did you spend a lot of time with him to get some sense of that from him? Or were you able to pick up on that from his book?
Chávez: A combination of that — talking to Richard, talking to Judy, and then, watching a lot of his motivational speaking, you get so much of his personality. He doesn’t front being someone else. He’s very much, in his motivational speaking, ‘I am Richard.’ He’s a little bit “hood,” as he says in the movie. He is his full self, and he tells these stories with so much passion.
I think one of the things that was probably one of the biggest challenges [was], Searchlight and Eva really wanted us to really capture his charisma. He’s so charismatic and to capture that personality, it was a lot of work to get [it] onto the page, and then Jesse — and Eva, with her directing — just brought it home. I can’t imagine anyone being able to embody Richard the way that Jesse did; he, like, killed it. That’s really how he is.
If you talk to him, he’s just this humble sweet guy who’s like, ‘I’m just trying to do my best.’ There are lines literally lifted from our conversations that I put into the movie, like when he says, “To succeed in this life, get yourself a Judy.” He literally said that to me in one of our interviews. He’s so charismatic and has great one-liners that are in there.
ATL: Did Eva start looking for actors around the same time as you were writing, or was the screenplay completely done before she began casting the role of Richard?
Chávez: I’m not sure of the exact timeline, but we definitely had some drafts of the scripts [and we were] pretty close to [the] production draft by the time she was casting. I got brought into the conversation very much at the end when she had her top picks, and she was like, ‘Linda, I have my top picks. Let me send them to you.’ This whole time, I hadn’t said that Annie Gonzalez [who plays Richard’s wife, Judy] was actually one of my best friends. She was in my show, Gentefied. I’ve known her for over 10 years, and she showed me [her] tapes, and I hadn’t said a word, because I believe that “best person wins,” but when I saw those tapes, I was like, “This is Annie’s role.”
I told Eva, ‘I don’t know if my opinion matters at all, but I will say her performance is incredible.’ I was so excited to see her in it, and the same with Jesse. Seeing them together, the whole thing was just so beautiful, and the way that he carried it through the film was exciting. But I do feel like it was towards the end, when we were closer to production, that they were cast if my memory serves me right.
ATL: You seem fairly young, but the movie takes place in the ’60s through the ’80s. I’m assuming you weren’t alive in the ’60s, so did you have to do a lot of research into that time period just to get a sense of the vibe back then?
Chávez: A lot of conversations with Richard and Judy — the way that they were — and also research online, watching things, talking to people. And then also, my own family. My parents grew up in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. I have cousins who grew up in the ’80s; I know the ’80s really well, and I understand those different decades. I think as [a] writer, for me, personally, I think my special sauce is knowing my community and not only the Latina voice in my community — I can write men. I can write young men [and] I can write older men. I’ve spent my whole life being in love with all those people in my community and studying their mannerisms and the way they talk and the specificity of their backgrounds. For me, that was something I’ve been working on my whole life in a lot of ways, but also the research into how they specifically [spoke] during that time.
And then, in production, so much comes through in the production design [and the] costumes. [Costume Designer] Elaine Montalvo, I frickin’ adore her. She worked on Gentefied, and Eva told me she was looking at her. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, get Elaine! She’s a dream, she’s incredible!’ And she was. You see it in the film. She knew that time [period], and she knows how to capture our community so beautifully. The actors themselves do the work as well to make sure to bring in their contributions to the way that people spoke during that time.
ATL: They shot the film in Albuquerque, so were you able to go there and be on set for any last-minute tweaks that needed to be done?
Chávez: No, I didn’t get to go. I had a conflict during that time — I wasn’t able to go — but it’s one of the things I wish I had gone to do. I got a ton of stills and shots from DeVon and Eva from set, [and] TikTok videos [from] Brice Gonzalez [who plays Richard’s son]. They all sent videos through text messages and just watching it from afar, I was just so happy and excited. More than anything, [I was] really inspired to see Eva fulfilling her vision. When she finished it, I was like, ‘You did it, you did it.’ She was like, ‘We did it,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, girl, but you did it. You fought for this thing, down to the last moment.’ Just that celebration, to me, was so beautiful to witness.
ATL: From what you’re telling me, it sounds like you’ve created this community between Eva and America and some of the below-the-line creatives who work on multiple projects together, which is pretty cool.
Chávez: You have to, especially with the Latino community. We’re all in the same struggle for representation. We’re all trying to lift each other up. We’re all trying to come together, and I think someone like Eva and America, who have a lot of power, have a name. They are the cream of the crop of our community, and they’re doing incredible work to lift others up in their community. For Eva to go out and find a screenwriter who is Latina, who has the right voice, to fight for that person, for me to be a part of this [and] to really put my hands into the script and create the thing that I think she wanted to see, [and] bring my own voice into it, that is ally-ship. That’s lifting up other people in your community.
In the process of that struggle, all great friendships, when you go through it, you get closer and closer together. I think in the process of this, I’ve become great friends with America. She’s just a homegirl now, and Eva as well. She’s incredible. And everyone in the community, not only myself and them, but Gloria Calderón Kellett, Tanya Saracho, all these great directors, filmmakers, creators — we’re all together in this struggle to get our work to the next level, to get it into the mainstream the way that it deserves to be.
ATL: Is Eva from Los Angeles as well?
Chávez: No, she’s a Texican, from Corpus Christi, I believe. She reps Texas proudly, and I know those Texas Mexicans — I have cousins in El Paso, so I semi-rep Texas. I grew up [spending] summers in El Paso and Juarez, but she’s a Texican, and honestly, a lot of the Texas Mexicans who are in the industry, they’re out here. They’re reppin’ their cities.
ATL: Thanks for taking the time to chat. I know with the Writers Strike, it’s a tricky time to promote your projects, but, hopefully, this brings some attention to the strike, as well as Flamin’ Hot and Gentefied, which I promise to watch.
Chávez: Yes, please do. We’ve heard some incredible statistics about it recently. I can’t say anything, but a researcher who I spoke to last night said some great stuff about it that I think she’s gonna put out later. It only had two seasons, but please check it out. It’s on Netflix… as long as they keep it on there, you know?
Flamin’ Hot will begin streaming on June 9 on both Disney+ and Hulu.