The true story of how 4 undocumented teens from Phoenix beat MIT in a robotics competition


It all came down to grit, determination and some tampons.

Ten years ago, four undocumented Hispanic teenagers from a tough neighborhood in Phoenix built a robot named Stinky out of odds and ends, entered it in a national underwater robotics competition, and unseated reigning champion MIT to win.

No one - not their teachers, not their parents, not the students themselves, and certainly not the elite team from MIT - thought they could do it.

But every time the boys and their advisors came up against an obstacle, they cobbled together a solution. Over and over and over again. When the robot - cheap PVC held together with rubber glue - sprang a leak the day before the competition, the teenage boys summoned the courage to buy tampons from a local grocery store to absorb the moisture. It was a winning idea that helped put a ragtag group of kids from Phoenix atop the podium.


Since their victory, the boys have been featured in magazine articles, a book, a documentary and now a feature film, "Spare Parts," which is set to be released nationwide on Friday.

But the decade that has elapsed since their victory has been anything but easy.

Oscar Vazquez, regarded as the leader of the winning team, had a lifelong goal of joining the military, but his undocumented status shattered that dream, and prevented him from relying on federal scholarships or student loans to pay for college. Donations from readers of Wired, which published an article on the boys, helped him cobble together enough to attend community college and then graduate from Arizona State University. But his immigration status remained unresolved and he ultimately returned to Mexico for a year. It was only when Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) heard about his plight, that he was able to return to the country he'd come of age in.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

George Lopez, Oscar Vazquez, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Carlos PenaVega attend the 'Spare Parts' screening. (Photo by Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images)


Vazquez joined the military, served in Afghanistan and now works as a mechanical foreman for BNSF Railway in Montana. Two of his fellow teammates, Lorenzo Santillan and Luis Aranda, run a catering company together in Phoenix, and the fourth, Cristian Arcega, dropped out of college because he couldn't afford it and helps a neighbor with his business.

Not one makes a living designing robots.

Vazquez told Fusion at a recent "Spare Parts" screening hosted by the Center for American Progress that he doesn't think things have gotten much better for today's undocumented teenagers.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

George Lopez, Oscar Vazquez, and Carlos PenaVega speak onstage at the 'Spare Parts' screening. (Photo by Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images)


"The only thing they have to their advantage right now is that the subject's out there," he said. "There's more talk about it. We're trying to focus on the positive now. When it was my turn, I was being pretty negative about this subject, and I think we're trying to change it now. In a way they have it easier, but there's a lot more pressure on them to succeed, to prove that what we fought for was the right thing to do. So they have a lot more pressure on them now than we did."

Carlos PenaVega, who plays Vazquez in the movie, told Fusion during his first joint interview with Vazquez that he hopes the movie encourages people to reflect.


"Sure, it's an inspirational movie, and I know how people feel about those kinds of movies, they're good," he said. "But this is so much more than that, and I feel like it's going to raise a lot of awareness for so many things, and I'm really proud of it."

"A dream doesn't have a citizenship and a dream doesn't have a color," George Lopez, who plays the students' advisor, added. "Anybody anywhere should feel free to dream and not think that because of political issues or how we are as a country or the climate of immigration that you're dream is not of any value."


Lopez pushed back at the idea that the film is political, though.

"I don't think it's a political film," he said. "It isn't to try to wave a banner for immigration or tell people how to think. It's just a fantastic story of these great kids that did something pretty amazing. So in no way is it meant to be a statement or a movie to divide thinking, it's just a movie for everybody to enjoy."


But Durbin, who introduced the Dream Act 14 years ago, used the screening to criticize the lack of action on immigration reform in Congress.

"Sadly, I stand before you today and that has still not become the law of the land," he said. "This is an amazing, inspiring story, but there are thousands just like it."


Kevin Joyce contributed to this story.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.


Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.

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