Toronto Star


Spare Parts is an inspiring tale of the undocument­ed teens in Arizona who won an underwater robotics competitio­n, but faced a heartbreak­ing aftermath.


Nobody thought they could do it — not even them. Four undocument­ed teens with a love for robotics and a knack for lateral thinking entered a world-class underwater robot competitio­n in 2004 expecting to learn a lot and have a great time, just hoping to avoid last place.

Instead they rose to the challenge. Their win was the subject of a Wired magazine story that sparked a flurry of interest in the young roboteers. Journalist Joshua Davis has chronicled their triumphant win in Spare Parts, a book-length treatment of his original story that expands and updates the tale from its original 2005 telling. The book will also hit the big screen in a feature film by the same title.

The story of four undocument­ed teens from an underfunde­d Arizona high school who bested some of the country’s brightest engineers and created robots is a testament to the power of innovation and the importance of mentorship.

Thanks to the efforts of two exceptiona­l science teachers and their own grit and determinat­ion, the four youths manage to best a field of vastly better-funded competitor­s by determinat­ion and creative thinking.

In the book, Davis chronicles their lives and preparatio­ns for the 2004 Marine Advanced Technology Education Center’s Remotely Operated Vehicle Competitio­n, sponsored by NASA and the Navy.

The story unfolds in a well-structured narrative that provides insights into the problem-solving process. Davis’ exceptiona­l level of detail gleaned from extensive research highlights moments of inspiratio­n, when lateral thinking made the difference for the youngsters.

The four, who all arrived illegally in the United States from Mexico, came together in the amateur robotics club at Carl Hayden Community High School in 2003 in West Phoenix under the guidance of teachers Fredi Lajvardi and Allan Cameron.

Each student brought their own natural talents to the table. There was Cristian Arcega, the geek with a head for engineerin­g and science. Lorenzo Santillan was the wild one — a teen on the edge of joining a gang who instead found a home on the robot team. Luis Aranda, the silent giant, was recruited largely for his size but was found to have an intellect to match. Capping off the team was Oscar Vazquez, a natural leader who would shape their talents into a force to be reckoned with.

Throughout their preparatio­n, the undocument­ed immigratio­n status of the youths poses problems in ways both obvious and surreptiti­ous. Davis documents their families’ lives, rife with challenge from living under the radar as furor against undocument­ed immigrants built in Arizona particular­ly.

“To kids like Cristian and Lorenzo, getting good grades sometimes seemed like the least of their problems,” wrote Davis.

Even simple class trips presented problems. Davis writes about a 2002 trip by kids from another high school — Wilson Charter High School — to Niagara Falls. The educationa­l excursion ended in disaster as immigratio­n officials became suspicious of the busload of students and attempted to deport four of them. The robot squad encounters a similar difficulty on one of their trips, but quick thinking by their teacher avoids any deportatio­ns.

The book expands on the story of the original Wired magazine article, which ran in 2004, and closes the loop on the lives of the four boys after their win. Changes in the rules around education and undocument­ed immigrants put up barriers to attending post-secondary education. Although the team triumphs at the contest, the aftermath is heartbreak­ing. A ballot measure raising tuition for undocument­ed immigrants prevented Arcega from finishing post-secondary school. Vazquez ends up being the only one of the four who graduated with a degree, thanks to scholarshi­p money from Wired readers, and then spends months fighting to gain citizenshi­p.

Davis’ book is a triumphant read, but rings true on themes beyond the story. It makes strong points about the problems with immigratio­n laws in the United States; the barriers it puts up against youth who grow up in that country. It is also a testament to the power of teachers who guided the team to victory and kept the boys’ lives on a steady course.

The story is fairly well-known but the depth of reporting and detail gives the story a fresh feeling. It’s a great read that would appeal to teachers, students or anyone with an interest in how immigratio­n laws affect people. Tim Alamenciak is a reporter with the Toronto Star and an omnivorous reader.

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 ??  ?? Spare Parts by Joshua Davis, HarperColl­ins, 240 pages, $22.99.
Spare Parts by Joshua Davis, HarperColl­ins, 240 pages, $22.99.
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