Four Mexican American students, two great teachers, one robot-building contest . . . and a major motion picture
Joshua Davis’s Spare Parts opens in 2004, when four Latino teenagers arrive at a national underwater robotics championship at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Oscar, Lorenzo, Cristian, and Luis were all born in Mexico but raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where they grew up in constant fear of deportation. Their high school—hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, no pool, little money to spare, and more than 80 percent of students below the poverty line—was the last place you’d expect to find kids building an underwater robot. But two bighearted teachers believed that four unusual students—a disciplined ROTC cadet, a rebellious would-be gang member, a brainy nerd, and a quiet towering giant—needed something different in their lives.
Their robot, which they dubbed Stinky, wasn’t much to look at, especially compared to the competition. They were up against some of the best student 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, donations from bemused strangers, and, when Stinky sprang a leak just moments before the competition, a handful of tampons.
But this contest is just the beginning for these four young men, whose story takes us from the unpaved roads of West Phoenix to the halls of Congress and from the battlefields of Afghanistan to vigilante-style murders in the American Southwest. It is a story whose impact is still being felt today. It is the story of a fight for the new American Dream.
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.
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