Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream
Finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize
Four undocumented Mexican American students, two great teachers, one robot-building contest . . . and a major motion picture
In 2004, four Latino teenagers arrived at the Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics Competition at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They were born in Mexico but raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where they attended an underfunded public high school. No one had ever suggested to Oscar, Cristian, Luis, or Lorenzo that they might amount to much―but two inspiring science teachers had convinced these impoverished, undocumented kids from the desert who had never even seen the ocean that they should try to build an underwater robot.
And build a robot they did. Their robot wasn't pretty, especially compared to those of the competition. They were going up against some of the best collegiate engineers in the country, including a team from MIT backed by a $10,000 grant from ExxonMobil. The Phoenix teenagers had scraped together less than $1,000 and built their robot out of scavenged parts. This was never a level competition―and yet, against all odds . . . they won!
But this is just the beginning for these four, whose story―which became a key inspiration to the DREAMers movement―will go on to include first-generation college graduations, deportation, bean-picking in Mexico, and service in Afghanistan.
Joshua Davis's Spare Parts is a story about overcoming insurmountable odds and four young men who proved they were among the most patriotic and talented Americans in this country―even as the country tried to kick them out.
most unruly kids aside and tried a different tactic. He explained the importance of education and how it would help the kid throughout his life. The kid was unimpressed. “We’re the worst kids in the school,” he said with a touch of pride. “We don’t care.” For Allan, it was a moment that would affect him and the students he taught for years to come. He realized that the kids were acting out to maintain their bad reputation. It might have been a pejorative label, but it was all they had. “At least
This competition will push your imagination and technical skills. Enter the event with the spirit of the men and women explorers who have set out into the unknown.” The event organizers may not have been thinking about four boys from a ghetto high school, but the words resonated. One of the first tasks was figuring out how they were going to pay for it all. MATE would cover meals and housing in Santa Barabara and provided one hundred dollars for building supplies. That was about enough to cover
“Damn,” Lorenzo muttered as he caught a glimpse of the MIT team. Their robot featured a large EXXONMOBIL sticker and was the smallest, most densely instrumented robot at the competition. The group wore matching blue shirts emblazoned with the words MIT ROV TEAM. They were white and most had brownish-blond hair. To Lorenzo, they looked like the embodiment of power. “I’ve never seen so many white people in one place,” he marveled. “Let’s focus,” Oscar ordered. They were scheduled to appear for
excited to talk. Over the summer, a local TV station had aired a segment about the school’s success, but nobody seemed to pay attention. I was the first national journalist to call. “When there’s a fight or something, the press is all over us,” he said. “We do something good, nobody pays attention.” The last time they had a brawl at the school, he told me, his students piloted a small, homemade robot past the news crew that had arrived. When that elicited little response, they drove circles
nothing. Oscar rented a one-room concrete structure by a dried-up riverbed and walked to local businesses to apply for a job. He wasn’t the only one looking for work. After two weeks, he hadn’t found anything, but he heard that a car-parts factory just outside town was hiring. He lined up with a dozen other applicants at the factory gate and got an appointment for an interview the following day. He showed up with his résumé and ASU diploma. The interviewer seemed surprised. “You’re pretty well