Peter Carlson, a former Washington Post reporter, is a columnist for American History magazine and the author of several books, including “Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy.”
By Joshua Davis
Farrar Straus Giroux. 224 pp. $25
Four scruffy teenagers, all of them illegal immigrants, drove to Santa Barbara, Calif., in June 2004, carrying a crude contraption constructed out of pipes and wires and emitting a nasty smell. They carted it to the University of California, strolled into a campus aquatic center and slipped it into a swimming pool.
The ugly, reeking contraption was a robot designed to work underwater. The four teenagers built it at school — Carl Hayden Community High School, located in a poor Mexican American neighborhood in Phoenix. They’d come to Santa Barbara to compete in an underwater robotics contest sponsored by NASA and the U.S. Navy. Standing by the pool, Lorenzo Santillan, one of the Phoenix kids, checked out the competition — 10 teams from colleges, including a squad from MIT composed of two computer science majors and 10 engineering students. “I’ve never seen so many white people in one place,” Santillan joked.
MIT’s robot was a sleek aluminum machine decorated with a sticker advertising Exxon Mobil, which had donated $10,000 to the team. It was a thing of beauty. The robot from Hayden High was not. Made of PVC pipes pasted together with funky-smelling glue, “Stinky” — as the kids named it — contained computer parts they’d begged and borrowed, along with such high-tech equipment as a plastic briefcase, a milk jug and a sunscreen bottle. The Phoenix kids lowered Stinky into the pool for a test drive. They worked the remote controls, but the robot didn’t respond. They hauled Stinky up and saw that water had leaked into the plastic briefcase that housed its brains. The contest began the next morning, so they needed to fix the problem overnight.
Joshua Davis tells the story of these four plucky teenagers and their robot in his fast-moving and sometimes inspiring book “Spare Parts.” It’s a story Davis first told in Wired magazine in 2005, and a movie version will arrive next year. Of course, Hollywood doesn’t make movies about poor immigrant kids who lose robotics contests to corporate-funded MIT students, so you’ve probably already guessed that the Phoenix team won the contest. Congratulations! You’re right. It’s a feel-good tale of scrappy underdogs beating long odds. But there’s more to the story, and “Spare Parts” illuminates the human side of two polarizing political issues: immigration and education.
These teenage engineers are four examples of the bogeyman who terrifies so many Americans — the Mexican who sneaks into the promised land. Of course, they’re also individuals, each with his own quirky personality.
Oscar Vazquez joined ROTC at Hayden High and was so gung-ho that he won an Officer of the Year award. He planned to join the Army until a teacher informed him that illegal immigrants couldn’t serve.
Cristian Arcega loved to build things, and he learned English watching his favorite TV star, Bob Vila, the home-repair guy. Smart and curious, he amused himself by reading about cell biology online and graduated second in his class at Hayden High.
Luis Aranda preferred Julia Child to Bob Vila. Inspired by watching Child cook on TV, he began working in restaurants at age 11, first as a dishwasher, then as a cook. He didn’t like studying — reading made him sleepy — but when he heard about a class where kids could build a robot, he signed up.
Santillan had a goofy haircut his classmates dubbed the “Mexican mullet.” When they teased him, he fought back, which got him into trouble. His grades were terrible, but he learned how to improvise creative solutions to mechanical problems by working for a backyard mechanic who made a living fixing cars despite having few tools or spare parts.
That skill came in handy in Santa Barbara when Stinky started leaking the night before the contest and the Phoenix kids needed something to keep their robot’s wires dry.
“It’s got to be small and super-absorbent,” Arcega said.
“Absorbent?” Santillan asked. He’d heard that word in TV commercials. “Like a tampon?”
It was a brilliant idea, and the team rewarded Santillan by making him go into a drugstore to make the embarrassing purchase. But the tampons saved the day.
The kids are the heart of “Spare Parts,” but the book’s real hero is their teacher, Fredi Lajvardi. An Iranian immigrant who was bullied by his Arizona high school classmates during the 1980 Iran hostage crisis, Lajvardi understood his undocumented students. And he knew how to push them to do better than they believed they could. When they ran into problems, he declined to solve them. “Call an expert,” he said. They made calls and soon learned that experts are often eager to give free advice — and sometimes free equipment — to high school kids eager to learn. These boys depended on the kindness of strangers, and the strangers almost always came through.
That part of the story is uplifting. After their victory, things get more complicated. I won’t spoil the suspense, but anti-immigrant backlash and our infuriating bureaucracy take their toll on the boys.
“Spare Parts” is a delightful book, perfect for entertaining and inspiring high school kids. Davis writes well, and he keeps his plot moving swiftly. I only wish that he’d paused more often to quote these young men and let them tell us in their own words how they felt about their extraordinary experiences. They have a great story to tell — a great American story.