Hispanic Heritage Month

From chips to memes: How Flamin' Hot Cheetos became a cultural icon for U.S. Latinos

The spicy snack has inspired songs, clothes and movies, but for some Latinos in the U.S., the chips hold a particularly special meaning

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You have the chips, but they've also inspired songs. Sweatshirts, socks and sweatpants. Restaurants. Entire TikTok personas. And now, even Eva Longoria's latest film.

Cheetos Flamin' Hot, or Flamin' Hot Cheetos as they're colloquially called, have transcended grocery store aisles and become a cultural icon for Latinos, even spawning entire TikTok characters.

"There are so many U.S. Hispanic consumers that love this type of flavor palate that there was no way they could go wrong with these types of products," said Marina Filippelli, the CEO of Orci, a multi-segment advertising and marketing agency in Los Angeles.

Filippelli doesn't work on the Frito-Lay brand's marketing, but she's spent enough time — more than 25 years — in the multicultural marketing industry to know what U.S. Hispanic consumers like to eat. And spicy snacks are one of those things.

"U.S. Hispanics really over-index in spicy snacks, Flamin' Hot Cheetos as well as Takis and all of the other smaller brands," Filippelli said. "[Flamin' Hot Cheetos] seem to have a very strong foothold, and I think they just really understand the power of their brand."

What makes them so popular?

Flamin' Hot Cheetos entered the U.S. market in the early 1990s, and it's precisely the timing of their arrival that helped make them so popular among U.S. Latinos.

"You know, it wasn't easy to just go to the regular convenience store or the regular supermarket and pick up something like that. At the time, in the 90s, we mainly had the basic potato chip flavors and maybe tortilla chips — and maybe Doritos with cheese," according to Filippelli.

Flamin' Hot Cheetos were the first spicy snack to be mass-marketed to Americans. And it was the spicy, chili powder profile that attracted Latinos, especially those of Mexican descent.

"Mostly Mexican-American, but a lot of U.S. Hispanics come from countries where they're used to a different palate," Filippelli explained. "They're used to different flavors, particularly in Mexico. Obviously, [they have] a lot of spicy flavors in the food, and so there was an opportunity to really get in the space and take hold because there really wasn't anything [similar] that was coming to the U.S. at that time."

At the same time the spicy snack entered the American market, the U.S. was seeing a boom in its Mexican population. From 1990 to 2000, the population of foreign-born Mexicans more than doubled to 9.2 million people, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Today, Flamin' Hot Cheetos is part of the $262.2-billion-a-year savory snacks industry in the United States. Information on Flamin' Hot is difficult to find, but in a 2022 interview with Eater, Frito-Lay said the spicy snack segment had grown 12% in the last four years. The company also said over 50% of Americans had tried Flamin' Hot Cheetos at some point. We reached out to Frito-Lay for comment on this story but did not hear back.

"[Frito-Lay has] incorporated Hot Cheetos — and the brand — and then the product itself into different areas of consumer's lifestyles," said Filippelli. One way it has done that is with the dust.

Hot Cheetos dust

If you've talked to anyone who has eaten Hot Cheetos recently, one dead giveaway would be their fingers. The chips are known to leave a stubborn red dye on the fingers of the person eating them.

The grainy red dust quite literally leaves a mark, and it's something entrepreneurs, namely those in the food business, have capitalized on. There are Hot Cheeto corn dogs, Hot Cheeto elote, Hot Cheeto sushi and even Hot Cheeto cookies. One Southern California restaurateur didn't think twice before incorporating Hot Cheetos into his Mediterranean-Mexican fusion restaurant in Downey, Calif.

"The Flamin' Hot Cheetos [idea] came about from my daughter, Fatima," Ali Elreda, the owner of Fatima's Grill, said. "One day she just said, 'Why don't you try throwing some Flamin' Hot Cheetos on something?' It took some time. It took a lot of bags of tortillas to be thrown away because we didn't really perfect it the way we wanted to perfect it."

But once they perfected it, it was a hit. The result? A Flamin' Hot Cheetos burrito loaded with carne asada, sour cream, cilantro and nacho cheese.

"We have people that fly in from Chicago," Elreda said. "We have people that come in from London, from Canada. People take the drive from Fresno. We think that it's not just from Instagram and whatnot, but our TikTok presence is just insane. You know, with 1.1 million followers. We live in a generation now where we eat, sleep and drink off of our phone and people want to be like this, do this and eat like that."

One customer named Monica said she drove two hours because her daughter saw the restaurant's food on social media.

"Growing up, that’s what we had, Hot Cheetos," said Monica. "That was a thing. We had a lot of Mexican food, spicy salsa. We might as well have permanent red fingers."

Because of the success of the burrito, Elreda decided to incorporate Flamin' Hot Cheetos on birria tacos, burgers and basically any item customers want the spicy red snack on. The restaurant offers the Cheetos in ground form, but it also has menu items, like the burrito, where the Cheetos maintain their original shape.

The 'Hot Cheeto' girl

While it may not be a surprise Flamin' Hot Cheetos has taken off in the food space, what may be surprising is how it's given rise to social media content creators. The recognizable yellow-orange-red bag can be seen playing a leading role in popular TikToks.

"I was like, 'I have to include Hot Cheetos in there because people are going to relate so much,'" said Marlene Mendez, a content creator who goes by @MarleneDizzle on social media. Mendez is referring to one of the first skits she posted on Twitter in 2020.

In the video, Mendez is holding a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, playing the role of a high school student who is FaceTiming with her friend, played by Adam Martinez, a content creator who goes by @AdamRayOkay. The two students are gossiping about a foul smell in the classroom before they notice another student looking at them. Mendez's character asks the student, "What the [expletive] are you looking at?" visibly upset. At no point does Mendez stop eating Flamin' Hot Cheetos. This, according to Mendez, embodies the "Hot Cheetos girl" persona many Latinos went to school with.

"You would always see someone eating Hot Cheetos, at like, at seven in the morning," Mendez said. "I think it's also the way she would act, the way she would talk, the how she would dress up — her hair and everything. So in my videos, I would crunch up my hair because that's what I used to do in high school, too."

"She's spunky, she's sassy, she says funny things — but she's also smart and she's got her stuff together," said Filippelli. "The 'Hot Cheeto girl' is a bit of a stereotype, right? But I think a lot of a lot of women content creators are trying to make it their own."

It's a stereotype Mendez thinks she can lean into because she was the Hot Cheeto girl at her school growing up.

"I would eat Hot Cheetos for breakfast and people would be like, 'Oh my gosh, Well, it's like 7 or 8 a.m.' And I'm like, okay, but I haven't eaten breakfast. I'm eating breakfast."

It's a character that has resonated with Mendez's viewers. So much so, it effectively made her social media famous, helping launch the full-time career Mendez now has as a content creator.

"Everybody loved her. I think Hot Cheetos were the first chips that we — I mean, I grew up with Hot Cheetos. That was my first bag of chips, I think. I don't remember trying any other bag of chips, like Fritos or Lay's."

Perhaps it's these larger-than-grocery-aisle icons that Flamin' Hot Cheetos has inspired that has made the brand a culturally significant one for many Latinos.

"I think it's really interesting that when you look at how [Flamin' Hot Cheetos] is branding themselves today, how they're doing their marketing today, they really have understood their consumer group and where people are. So while they are using big-brand, known names like a Bad Bunny to appeal to U.S. Hispanics, you can get you get the sense that they're also really encouraging their own consumers to speak for them."

This story was originally published on June 16, 2023.

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