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Spare Parts

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

Joshua Davis

FSG Originals

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ISBN10: 0374534985
ISBN13: 9780374534981

Trade Paperback

240 Pages


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Finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize

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.


Praise for Spare Parts

"Four scruffy teenagers, all of them illegal immigrants, drove to Santa Barbara, California 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 . . . 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 . . . Joshua Davis tells the story of these four plucky teenagers and their robot in his fast-moving [book] . . . 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 . . . The kids are the heart of Spare Parts, but the book's real hero is their teacher, Fredi Lajvardi . . . 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 . . . [These young men] have a great story to tell—a great American story."—Peter Carlson, The Washington Post

“Perhaps the most gripping popular-science book I have read.”—Noel Sharkey, Nature

"Davis is a master storyteller. It’s hard to imagine anyone not pulling for these kids and not caring about what happens to them . . . To people who truly believe that America and Americans can’t show compassion to illegal immigrants or that all illegal immigrants are 'lazy' and are here to 'leech off the government', hopefully this book will provide another perspective. Nothing about immigration is simple, and Davis certainly doesn’t suggest any quick fixes or serve up any platitudes. But in a world where the media often seems more interested in highlighting the negative rather than the positive, Davis’ book, which manages to do both, is a most welcome read."—Catherine Ramsdale, PopMatters

"Spare Parts is one of those rare stories that grabs hold and doesn't let go. It's hilarious, sad and beautifully told: it will make you think hard about what it means to be American and where we will find the next generation of talent."—Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail

"It's the most American of stories: how determination and ingenuity can bring triumph over long odds. There are too few stories like these written about Latino students. Poignant and beautifully told, Spare Parts makes you feel their frustration at the obstacles and indignities faced by Cristian, Lorenzo, Luis, and Oscar—and to cheer as they rise to overcome each one of them."—Sonia Nazario, author of Enrique's Journey

"Spare Parts is an unforgettable tale of hope and human ingenuity. Against a backdrop of urban desert decay, a faltering school system, and our country's cutthroat immigration policies, Joshua Davis offers a moving testament to how teamwork, perseverance, and a few good teachers can lift up and empower even the humblest among us."—Héctor Tobar, author of Deep Down Dark

“This is hands down my favorite kind of story: underdogs plus ingenuity plus pluck and dedication equals a deeply moving and touching narrative. I love these kids!”—Adam Savage, cohost of MythBusters

“This is important reading . . . Young adults will benefit from from reading and discussing this realistic, eye-opening chronicle . . . Davis pulls no punches as he describes the grim sociopolitical atmosphere that allows the oppression of talented people for no morally acceptable reason. The four young inventors and their struggles helped spur the DREAMers movement.”—Donna Chavez, Booklist (starred review)

“A gratifying human interest story that calls attention to the plight and promise of America’s undocumented youth.”Library Journal

“Davis takes what could have been another feel-good story of triumphant underdogs and raises the stakes by examining the difficulties of these young immigrants in the context of the societal systems that they briefly and temporarily overcame.”Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


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...

About the author

Joshua Davis

Joshua Davis is the cofounder of Epic Magazine and longtime writer at Wired, where his work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for feature writing. He is the executive producer of the critically acclaimed Apple TV+ series Little America, which tells stories of immigrants across the United States. He is also the author of The Underdog, a memoir about his experiences as an arm wrestler, backward runner, and matador. He lives in San Francisco with his family.

Joshua Davis

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