Robots Can Only Get You So Far: ‘Spare Parts’ and the American Dream

Detail of the movie poster for 'Spare Parts,' which conveniently wraps up author Joshua Davis' book on a happy note.

The United States, despite a host of examples to the contrary, fancies itself a country where race and class don’t impact upward mobility. On the surface, Joshua Davis’ new book Spare Parts appears to undergird this faulty belief. The book tells the story of four undocumented Latino students from impoverished Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix who manage, through hard work and ingenuity borne of their difficult lives, to win first place at a prestigious underwater robotics competition in 2004.

Yet Spare Parts ultimately illustrates the idea of the American Dream as a myth, a construct that benefits only a select few, and excludes the majority. Davis obviously spent painstaking hours interviewing his subjects and researching their lives, and the result is a gripping piece of storytelling about people who don’t usually get the hero treatment. Each student’s life gets a chance in the spotlight, with Davis poring over their early lives in Mexico, along with tense border crossings, even tenser living conditions under poverty’s grip, and Arizona’s progressively worsening anti-immigrant stance.

Oscar Vasquez, a star ROTC student, desperately wants to join the U.S. Army, but is foiled by his immigration status. Cristian Arcega loves to build robots and other contraptions, and is primed for college, only to have those dreams disrupted by the 2006 legislation that tripled college costs for undocumented immigrant students. Lorenzo Santillan dreams of being a chef, despite growing up in extreme poverty with an uncaring father. And Luis Aranda, with a passion for cooking and electronics, hopes to escape the low-wage jobs that appear to be his destiny.

As the students scramble to raise $1,000 to build their robot from simple parts purchased at Home Depot (along with a couple of high tech pieces from generous donors), you can’t help but root for them. Against all odds, they arrive at the MATE competition in Santa Barbara, with a robot named “Stinky” in tow, hoping to place anywhere but last. Instead, their sweat equity leads to a victory over even MIT’s $10,000 Exxon-Mobil-sponsored robot.

But as the teenagers rise to greet a standing ovation at the awards dinner, it’s hard not to wonder: what happens next? Would this victory be enough to bust them out of their marginalized positions in a society that still defines people along sharply drawn lines of race and class, no matter how much lip service is paid to equality and equal opportunity in America?

SparePartsCoverAt this crucial point in the narrative, Davis turns to Oscar Vasquez, who’s about to turn 18, a reality that exposes him to the possibility of being deported to Mexico for ten years—a country to which he now has few ties, either familial or national. A heavy-handed metaphor involving shrimp that have washed up on the beach around the students, “hundreds that had been overpowered by forces behind their control,” hammers the point that as undocumented immigrants, no matter how hard they work, these kids have little control over the outcome of their lives. They will always be trapped by the constraints of their immigration status and the limited opportunities provided to low-income and poor people in the United States.

And yes, to prove the point, Davis returns eight months later to Vasquez, who despite his promising leadership in the robotics competition, is now hammering Sheetrock into the wall of a half-built apartment building.

“He may have proven himself to be one of the most innovative underwater engineers in the country, but now he was just another day laborer,” writes Davis, with a tinge of sadness.

Still, after a feature story detailing the robotics championship runs in Wired in 2005, readers band together to fund a $120,000 scholarship for the four boys. This allows Vasquez to attend Arizona State University, where he graduates with high honors and a degree in mechanical engineering. The robotics program, still led by hard-working teacher Fredi Lajvardi, morphs into a pathway to college for many students at Carl Hayden. “This team has transformed so deeply the expectations, dreams, and possibilities have expanded beyond what was previously imaginable,” says one billionaire funder.

The story of Vasquez’s return to Mexico, in an attempt to legally migrate into the United States, is particularly compelling. It’s a reminder that the DREAM Act and the creation of a legal pathway to U.S. citizenship for young immigrants is long overdue. As Davis points out, there is no Hollywood ending to this story. Ironically, the film adaptation of Spare Parts, which stars George Lopez and Jamie Lee Curtis and opens in theaters this weekend, ends with the victory at the 2004 MATE competition. But the real-life story itself is still in progress.

“The movie provides a happy ending,” writes Davis. “It’s an ending that continues to elude some of the individuals portrayed in this story.” The challenges that continue to face the former robotics champions—to escape the hold of poverty, to get a college degree from a decent school, and to get a decent and well-paying job—stand as a reminder that the United States has a long road to travel towards honoring the humanity of all people that cross borders looking for a better life.

Robots Can Only Get You So Far: ‘Spare Parts’ and the American Dream 20 July,2015Leilani Clark


Leilani Clark

Leilani Clark writes about books for KQED Arts. Her writing has been published at Mother Jones, The Guardian, Civil Eats, Time Magazine,  Food & Wine, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and The Rumpus.  She is the editor of Made Local magazine in Sonoma County. Find her on Twitter @leilclark.

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