Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream

Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream

by Joshua Davis

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374712655
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 12/02/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 118,581
Lexile: 930L (what's this?)
File size: 283 KB

About the Author

Joshua Davis is a contributing editor at Wired, cofounder of Epic magazine, and the author of The Underdog, a memoir about his experiences as an arm wrestler, backward runner, and matador. In 2014, he was nominated for a National Magazine Award for feature writing. He has also written for The New Yorker and other periodicals, and his writing is anthologized in the 2012 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing as well as in the 2006, 2007, and 2009 editions of Best Technology Writing. The movie Spare Parts is based on his reporting. He lives in San Francisco, California.
Joshua Davis is a contributing editor at Wired, cofounder of Epic magazine, and the author of The Underdog, a memoir about his experiences as an arm wrestler, backward runner, and matador. In 2014, he was nominated for a National Magazine Award for feature writing. He has also written for The New Yorker and other periodicals, and his writing is anthologized in the 2012 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing as well as in the 2006, 2007, and 2009 editions of Best Technology Writing. The movie Spare Parts is based on his reporting. He lives in San Francisco, California.

Read an Excerpt


LORENZO SANTILLAN had always been different. It might have been his head. When he was a few months old, his mother dropped him on a curb in Zitácuaro, a town of about 100,000 people in the Mexican state of Michoacán. He already had an odd, pear-shaped head, but now he developed a lump on his forehead. Laura Alicia Santillan was worried. She decided that he needed better medical attention than he was getting in Mexico, so she began the long journey to the United States, eventually slinking through a tunnel under the border with Lorenzo in 1988. Lorenzo was nine months old. She was motivated by a simple desire.

“We came to the U.S. to fix his head,” she says.

She found a doctor in Phoenix who agreed to examine her son. The man said that surgery could realign Lorenzo’s skull, but with a significant risk of brain damage. But, as far as the doctor could tell, Lorenzo was doing fine. The surgery would be strictly cosmetic and was otherwise unnecessary. Laura took another look at the bump above her son’s right eyebrow and saw it in a new light. From that moment on, she told Lorenzo that the bump meant he was smart. “Your extra brains are in there,” she told her son.

Now that Laura and Lorenzo were in the United States, there were reasons to stay. The family had barely been getting by in Mexico. After slicing off half of his right index finger in a carpentry accident, Pablo Santillan, Lorenzo’s father, fed the family by disappearing into the forest for days on end with an ancient musket. He would return with skunks, squirrels, and iguanas slung over his shoulder. Laura dumped them into a stew, added some tomato, chili, and onion, and called it dinner. She was only fourteen when she married Pablo (he was twenty), and neither had made it past sixth grade. There weren’t a lot of opportunities in Zitácuaro, but in the United States, Pablo had a shot at making five dollars an hour as a gardener. It seemed worth relocating.

The family moved into a two-room apartment near downtown Phoenix. A block away, prostitutes offered their services from an abandoned building. Drug dealers worked the corners. It was starkly different from Zitácuaro, where Pablo could search the forest for food. Now they lived in the middle of a big city and it wasn’t possible to hunt for dinner. Laura got intermittent work as a hotel maid, and Pablo worked landscaping jobs throughout the scorching Arizona summer.

Before coming to the United States, Laura had given birth to two children: Lorenzo and his older brother, Jose. When she crossed over to the United States, she was pregnant and soon gave birth to Pablo, Jr., on U.S. soil, which meant that her third child became an American citizen. Yoliet and Fernando, a daughter and a son, were also born in the United States. The three American-born siblings would go on to have significantly more opportunities to live and work in the United States than the two who had adopted the country as their new home.

For Laura, Mexico soon became “an erased memory.” But Pablo never forgot the solitude of the Mexican forest. A quiet, stoic man, he wore cowboy boots and sported a handlebar mustache so thick, it hid his mouth. He had the hard-drinking, solitary nature of a cowboy but now found himself in a vast urban desert with five children. It was a heavy load to bear. At night and on weekends, he often bought a twelve-pack of Milwaukee’s Best and started working his way through it. As Lorenzo tells it, when Pablo was drunk, he became emotional. Sometimes he told Lorenzo that he loved him, other times he snapped. On one occasion, when Lorenzo was in middle school, Pablo asked his son to clean up the living room. When Lorenzo refused, Pablo grabbed an electrical extension cord and went after him.

School wasn’t much better. As Lorenzo got older, his jowls bulged out but the top of his head stayed comparatively narrow, giving it an egg shape. Kids mocked him for his misshapen head and, once he got to middle school, they laughed at his unibrow. “I didn’t understand why people would do that,” Lorenzo says. Many days, he came home crying.

With little choice, Lorenzo decided to embrace the fact that he was different. While the other kids at school had short hair and nice fades, Lorenzo went the other way. His mother cut his hair—they couldn’t afford a barber—so he asked her to only trim his bangs and let the rest of his hair grow out. Soon, he had a mullet.

“It looks really nice,” Laura told her son.

His classmates were less supportive; the ridicule was frequent and varied. Sometimes they called him an egghead; other times, he was referred to as El Buki, after a long-haired Mexican pop singer. When students called him a woman, he fired back that he was more of a man because he could take all the insults. “I don’t want to be like everyone else!” he yelled back, and tried to pretend it didn’t hurt.

In seventh grade, a friend asked him to carry marijuana for Sur Trece, a local gang associated with the Crips. He agreed and was entrusted with a pound of weed, which he stashed in his backpack. Eventually, he was instructed to leave it in a hole on school grounds. He did as he was told but was terrified the whole time. “I could get my ass kicked at any moment,” he kept thinking. He realized he wasn’t cut out to be a criminal and refused to do it again.

Instead, when he arrived as a freshman at Carl Hayden Community High School, he decided to join the marching band. To prepare him, his mother found a piano program offered by the Salvation Army and managed to get a free upright piano (though it was missing a number of keys). She set it up on the back patio so he could practice. Lorenzo learned how to play pieces by Debussy (“Clair de lune”), Erik Satie (Gymnopédie no. 3), and Chopin (Sonata no. 2). Lorenzo could listen to the music a few times and then play it back. He figured he was learning enough that he could wing it at band practice.

Unfortunately, band practice is not a place where winging it works. The first problem was that the band had no piano. The closest thing the music teacher could come up with was the xylophone. Next, Lorenzo had no idea what to play since he couldn’t read the sheet music.

Nonetheless, as Christmas neared, the teacher handed him a uniform and hat and told him to get ready for the annual holiday parade. Lorenzo dutifully donned the outfit, strapped the hulking xylophone to his body, and marched alongside the rest of the band as they paraded down Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix. He knew the songs they were performing had big parts for the xylophone, but he couldn’t play them. Every now and then he would try to hit a few notes, but they were always wrong. As the parade streamed endlessly through downtown Phoenix, he kept wondering when the humiliation would be over. The best he could do was keep his legs in time with the others as they walked.

“It was a walk of shame,” he says.

He returned the xylophone and never went back to band. He felt that he didn’t belong anywhere, though he was desperate to find friends, or at least people who wouldn’t mock him. But it was high school and he looked funny. He had also been held back a year in first grade when he was still learning English. As a result, he was a year older than his classmates, which suggested he had flunked a grade.

Lorenzo tried to reason with his hecklers. When he mispronounced a word in English and kids laughed, he pleaded for some sympathy: “Why you gotta make fun of me for something I meant?” That only produced more laughter.

Lorenzo’s anger mounted and he started picking fights at school. He ended up bruised, scraped, and in the principal’s office. He was on track to be expelled. In an effort to turn him around, the school counselor assigned him to anger-management class. He learned that his anger was explosive, the most dangerous type. If he didn’t rein it in, he would self-destruct. The counselor showed him how to calm himself by counting backward from ten. The problem was, he wasn’t sure he wanted to calm himself. It was hard to ignore all the teasing.

After school, Lorenzo started helping his godfather fix cars. Hugo Ceballos lived with the Santillan family and had set up an informal business in their driveway; anybody with car problems could pull in and Hugo would pop the hood, figure out what was wrong, and fix it right there.

Hugo wouldn’t let Lorenzo do much more than clean the tools with a rag damp with gasoline. It gave Lorenzo an excuse to stand beside the cars and watch. He learned that when you jack up a car, you should position a tire on the ground beside you when you slide under the vehicle. That way, if the jack fails, the car will land on the tire, not you.

That’s a badass idea, Lorenzo thought.

Lorenzo wanted to do more, but Hugo didn’t let him. So Lorenzo hovered on the periphery, cleaning the occasional tool and watching closely as Jose, his older brother, helped. Hugo explained to Jose that it was important to keep track of all your parts. “Anything you take off a car, remember where it goes,” he told Lorenzo’s brother. When Hugo installed a rebuilt engine, Lorenzo stood a few feet back and listened as Hugo showed Jose how to use a torque wrench to tighten the bolts. Lorenzo listened carefully and tried to get as close as he could to the car. He had to be careful though; if he got in Hugo’s or Jose’s way, he’d get yelled at and told to go inside.

The chief lesson Lorenzo learned was that it was important to be creative. Hugo wasn’t running a normal mechanic’s shop, with a wall full of tools and shelves filled with supplies. He had little money, a small set of hand tools, and his ingenuity. To survive, he had to come up with fresh ideas and adapt.

Lorenzo took that to heart. He didn’t fit into white American culture and couldn’t find his place in the immigrant community. Even band—the standard home for high school misfits—didn’t work for him. But his days looking over Hugo’s shoulder in the driveway had taught him to think outside the norm. In the driveway, an unusual idea wasn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it might be the only solution.

AT ONE TIME, Carl Hayden was a well-regarded school; it even had its own off-site equestrian program. Students could ride horses in an indoor facility so they wouldn’t get too hot in the desert heat. The school district even built a rodeo ring for teens. It was meant to be a school for white kids.

It’s not that way anymore. Now the neighborhood around the school has an abandoned, overlooked feel. Some of the roads are still unpaved dirt. Junk-food wrappers and diapers lie in the desiccated weeds on the side of the road. At the school entrance on West Roosevelt, security guards, two squad cars, and a handful of cops watch teenagers file past a sign that reads, CARL HAYDEN COMMUNITY HIGH SCHOOL: THE PRIDE’S INSIDE.

There certainly isn’t a lot of pride on the outside. The school buildings are mostly drab, late-1950s-era boxes. The front lawn is nothing but brown scrub and patches of dirt. The class photos beside the principal’s office tell the story of the past four decades. In 1965, the students were nearly all white, wearing blazers, ties, and long skirts. Now the school is 92 percent Hispanic. Drooping, baggy shorts and crisply ironed denim shirts are the norm.

The current student body reflects the transformation of Phoenix. The city was founded in 1868 by Jack Swilling, a morphine-addicted former Confederate officer. Swilling had come to Arizona seeking gold but ended up falling in love with a Mexican woman instead. Trinidad Mejia Escalante, a seventeen-year-old from Hermosillo, Mexico, was visiting relatives in southern Arizona when she encountered Swilling. Escalante’s mother didn’t approve of the drug-addled soldier, but the young lady was smitten and eloped.

Soon after their marriage, the Swillings built a canal near the Salt River, a meager flow of water that spills out of the burnt-umber Mazatzal Mountains into a broad, flat valley. They planted corn, sorghum, and even a vineyard and discovered that the land was productive. The winters were warm and the soil rich. Before long, the Swilling Canal drew other settlers, one of whom dubbed the new community Phoenix. This referred to the ancient, ruined Indian canals that still ran across the land, the remnants of a lost civilization that was now rising again as a result of the marriage of an American man and Mexican woman.

In 1870, early Anglo immigrants to the region named the town’s east–west streets after U.S. presidents and labeled the north–south roads by local Indian-tribe names. It seemed like a fitting compromise, given the history of the region. But in 1893, the town council decided that the Indian names were too hard to remember and renamed the north–south roads with numbers. The new names also helped Anglo immigrants feel that the land was more fully theirs.

As the city developed, tax revenue was largely allocated to infrastructure for the neighborhoods settled by Anglos. The white neighborhoods got water lines, sewage pipes, and paved roads. The barrios where Mexican immigrants settled got almost nothing. In 1891, the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce published a pamphlet touting their achievements. “Here are none of the sleepy, semi-Mexican features of the more ancient towns of the Southwest, but, in the midst of a valley of wonderful fertility, has risen a city of stately structures, beautiful homes, progressive and vigorous.”

When World War Two brought a boom in wartime manufacturing, factories were opened in West Phoenix, away from the pretty citrus groves and canals of East Phoenix. To house workers, companies such as Goodyear and Alcoa constructed small villages near their factories. The housing attracted working-class whites, who built a community in the area. Carl Hayden Community High School was meant to serve that population.

But in the sixties and seventies, as the factories expanded and pollution increased, the working-class whites in West Phoenix migrated out of the area. Leukemia outbreaks among children were reported. In many cases, the housing was poorly built, as it was meant to be only temporary. “Anybody who could afford it moved to the East Side,” says John Jaquemart, a historian for the City of Phoenix, who grew up in East Phoenix during that time. “At the least, you moved somewhere else.”

At the same time, the population of the region was exploding, driven by a boom in agriculture and high-tech industries. In 1950, the city had 106,818 residents, making it the ninety-ninth-largest city in the United States. Over the next ten years, the population quadrupled and added hundreds of thousands of residents every decade after that. By 1990, Phoenix had a population of almost a million people and was the sixth-largest city in the United States.

The population boom led to a ripple effect across the region’s economy as relatively wealthy, newly arrived residents needed a variety of services, from landscaping to cleaning. The spike in demand for labor was met in part by immigrants who streamed across the border illegally, all of whom needed somewhere to stay. West Phoenix was the prime choice. It was cheap and close to downtown, and whites were abandoning it because of the potential health problems and poorly built, decades-old temporary homes.

The changing demographics of the city posed a challenge for school administrators. A 1974 Supreme Court ruling prohibited busing between districts, which meant that white people in the suburbs could stay in their own schools, while minorities in the city center were left with the facilities abandoned by their predecessors. Nonetheless, in 1985 a federal judge ordered the district to desegregate. With few options, administrators tried to entice white students into the inner city. In the mid-1980s, Carl Hayden became a magnet specializing in marine science and computer programming. The thinking ran roughly along these lines: white people like the ocean and computers, so if there’s a school that offers specialized classes focused on those things, it’ll attract white people.

It didn’t work. No amount of computer programming or oceanography curriculum was enough to entice white families, who fled to the suburban neighborhoods surrounding Phoenix. While tony districts such as Scottsdale and Mesa filled with white students, Phoenix grew increasingly Hispanic. Finally, the district just gave up. There was no more diversity to balance. In 2004, Carl Hayden was 98 percent Hispanic—pretty much all the white kids had left—so in 2005, the federal court lifted its two-decade-old desegregation order. Administrators and some teachers tried to put a sunny spin on it. “From school to school, we are equally balanced,” announced Shirley Filliater-Torres, the president of the district’s Classroom Teachers Association. She didn’t point out that the schools were equally balanced because they were nearly completely filled with one race. “We have probably done as good a job as we can to desegregate, given our student population,” she said.

The transformation was complete. West Phoenix was Hispanic. And while that population worked downtown or in East Phoenix—cleaning the city at night like ghosts that disappeared at sunrise—the doctors and engineers in Scottsdale and Mesa rarely ventured west. Various reasons were given: it was dangerous, it was dirty, it was hot.

“We looked with nothing but contempt at anything west of Central Avenue,” says William Collins, a historian with the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office.

According to Jaquemart, the City of Phoenix historian, East Siders claimed they could never live on the West Side because the sun would be in their eyes as they drove downtown to work in the morning. Jaquemart’s geography professor at ASU put it more succinctly:

“There’s nothing worthwhile there.”

Copyright © 2014 by Joshua Davis

Reading Group Guide

In 2004, four Latino teenagers from Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, Arizona, arrived at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to participate in the Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics Competition. Going up against some of the best collegiate engineers in the country (including an MIT team funded by ExxonMobil), Oscar, Cristian, Luis, and Lorenzo wowed the judges—and raised the stakes in America's immigration debate. Born in Mexico but raised in Arizona, they were undocumented and their team was underfunded, but thanks to the support of two enthusiastic teachers, the kids from the desert managed to build an award-winning underwater robot using scavenged parts. Tracing their journey, including the decade after their high school triumphs, Spare Parts gives voice to a group of young men who proved to be among the most patriotic and talented students in this country—even as the country tried to kick them out.

Timely and thought-provoking, Spare Parts is essential reading about the hotly debated issues we face today. We hope that the following topics will enrich your discussion of this compelling, inspiring story.

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