Joshua Davis’ ‘Spare Parts’: Part Inspirational Story, Part Indictment of the American Dream

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Spare Parts, the George Lopez movie opening in theaters in January 2015, is an inspirational true story about four undocumented high schoolers in Arizona who took on fancier, richer college kids — including MIT — in an underwater robotics competition, and, against all odds, built a better robot. It’s a heartwarming story adapted from a 2005 Wired article by writer Joshua Davis.

Before we get to the movie, however, Davis wrote a book, Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle For the American Dream. For the bulk of the book, Davis — a contributing editor at Wired, a cofounder at Epic Magazine, and the author of The Underdog — does a succinct job of showing how four young men, going to high school in an impoverished part of Phoenix, Arizona, came together to create a robot called Stinky. The robotics team was brand new, the school had no money, and they used wits and ingenuity to create a robot that could best MIT’s underwater robotics team through casual household items like balloons and milk gallons.

In some ways, the book plays like a cousin of Buzz Bissinger’s sports-in-America classic Friday Night Lights. Davis has been tracking this story for a decade, and he’s a clean, professional writer, but the story doesn’t have the emotional-you-are-there heft of Bissinger’s classic. While Davis draws vivid portraits of the core four kids — the soldier, the smart one, the wild card, the big guy — he doesn’t delve too deeply into their everyday lives and families, and it’s easy to see these bright young men as a collection of traits. Davis is strongest when he’s writing about Lorenzo, the wacky wild card with the mullet and awkward social skills. You start to understand what his life and his motivations are like. You want this kid to get a happy ending, after the robotics win.

And here’s where the book makes a leap from heartwarming happy endings and incredible true stories to something messier and stranger. In 2005, Davis wrote about the team’s incredible win, which had gone previously unnoticed by the media. With that article, a fund was started for the kids, so that they could afford to go to college and to pursue engineering as a job. It’s painfully obvious that they would make very good engineers.

But these kids didn’t have that option. Boeing wasn’t going to hire them (unlike the team from MIT, who came in second place, and every one of whom got meaningful employment). These were immigrant kids from immigrant families, and they had not much in the way of money and even less options in the way of how to get to college. And they lived in Arizona, one of the harshest states regarding immigration policy.

Davis doesn’t editorialize that much as a writer, but he doesn’t have to. Arizona politicians passed harsh laws that tripled the college tuition of undocumented immigrant kids, and we see how Christian — the brightest of the group, a kid who could’ve gone to MIT — has to drop out of college, taking a job at Home Depot and tinkering on the side. Similar fates awaited the rest of the robotics team. It plays as a tragedy about the ways in which America is messing up and losing its grip on some of our best and brightest because of fear and outdated rules.

At one point in the book, Davis writes about the film version of Spare Parts. He notes that the film will be inspirational, and it’ll end with the team’s triumph at the robotics competition. But as he writes this, the book has thirty more pages to go, and they’re gut wrenching, ultimately. (Although from this auspicious start, the Carl Hayden Robotics Team is still going, and there’s a large amount of girls on the team nowadays.) Ultimately, the book is a very good argument — just by showing us the lives that these young men have waiting for them in Arizona — that our immigration policy in America today is irrevocably screwed up and disturbing, playing caviler games with real people’s lives and opportunities. The American dream is something that people like to preach about a lot, but in the case of Spare Parts, something is very wrong with the American dream in 2014.