Spare Parts centers on the story of four immigrant high schoolers living in a poor neighborhood in West Phoenix, Arizona, and their extraordinary path to winning a national underwater robotics competition against teams from prestigious colleges like MIT. The four students—Oscar Vazquez, Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, and Luis Aranda—must overcome tremendous odds and obstacles in order to accomplish this achievement, including their immigration status, their lack of funding, and their inexperience in the competition. But Davis does more than simply enumerate the ways in which the team is an underdog; he also demonstrates how being an underdog can actually be an asset, and how the things that make the students and the team different or disadvantaged are also the reasons that they are able to succeed.
Even prior to the robotics competition itself, Lorenzo, Cristian, Luis, and Oscar are outsiders at Carl Hayden Community High School. This outsider status leads them to find a community in and bring a unique perspective to the robotics team. Lorenzo grows up with an odd-shaped head; when he is teased by other students, he grows his hair in a mullet, but that only gives them more reasons to tease him. He isn’t able to join a gang because he is too honest, and he also isn’t able to join the school marching band because he doesn’t know how to play an instrument. To find something to do, he then watches his godfather Hugo work on cars in the makeshift auto repair shop he has set up in his driveway. Thus, what initially is an escape becomes Lorenzo’s foundation for building things and working creatively. Cristian becomes an outcast too: in elementary school, he has a hard time making friends because he is still learning English, as his parents had just moved to the United States from Mexico. He is too tiny for sports and also develops allergies early in his life, and as a result he spends much of it indoors. This leads him to watch Bob Vila’s home improvement show and to try to take apart any technology he can get his hands on. His early struggles thus lead him to his interest in engineering and to practical hands-on knowledge that helps him succeed later. Luis, on the other hand, is almost too big for sports. He is six feet and 250 pounds, and he is also generally quiet. His stature and his silence intimidate other kids, and he has a hard time making many friends. However, these are the very reasons that the other students ask him to join the robotics team: he can provide some of the necessary muscle for lifting and building the robot. Oscar finds a community within the ROTC, but his biggest disadvantage is an obstacle that all of the students face: they are living in the country illegally. For this reason, Oscar cannot enlist in the Army, and must instead find another community. This brings him to the robotics team, where his leadership and motivation become invaluable. Thus, like the other boys, he turns a rejection into a path towards a new field.
Once the boys have joined the underwater-robotics competition, their disadvantages (particularly their lack of funding and even their initial lack of knowledge) lead them to come up with creative solutions in building their robot, Stinky. The Carl Hayden students are up against vastly favored college teams; MIT’s team, for example, has fifteen engineering students and a $10,000 grant from ExxonMobil. By comparison, Carl Hayden has four students competing and about nine hundred dollars in total. But this lack of budgeting causes them to get creative: instead of buying or building with expensive materials, they have to find simple solutions. Instead of using machined metal and glass-syntactic foam to build their robots, for instance, they use PVC pipes. Where MIT students use vacuum-sealed containers and a syringe to get a sample from a barrel, Lorenzo comes up with the idea to use a balloon, copper tubing, and a sump pump. This lesson in simplicity is what earns them the Design Award at the competition, and so their lack of resources actually becomes a helpful limitation. Additionally, the students turn to the experts when they don’t know how to solve a task, unafraid to ask for help. One of the robot’s requirements is to measure the depth of a mock-up U-boat, and so they call Greg De Trey, who owns a company that sells laser-range finders. When they ask if his equipment works underwater, De Trey not only tests the laser for them, but offers to lend them one of his own—equipment that would normally cost between $375 and $725. The same thing happens when they call Frank Swankoski for advice about measuring temperatures underwater. He gives them expert information and donates a thermocouple to help them. Thus, by not having all the information but being willing to learn, the students are able to gain valuable resources that allow them to triumph as the overall winners in the competition.
As Davis notes, it would be very easy for the students to get caught in a downward spiral of poverty and low expectations. Instead, they are able not only to develop real talents for robotics, but also to overcome the socioeconomic barriers they face in order to succeed. In charting their paths, Davis implies that under the right circumstances, and with motivation and teamwork, any student has the potential to excel, even if they are overcoming severe odds.
Underdogs and Overcoming Odds ThemeTracker
Underdogs and Overcoming Odds Quotes in Spare Parts
There were teams from across the country, including students from MIT, who were sponsored by ExxonMobil, the world's largest publicly traded company. The Latino kids were from Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix.
As a NASA employee, she had become accustomed to working with engineers who conformed to a sort of industry standard: white, well educated, conservative clothes. These four teenagers standing in front of her signaled that the future looked different.
The chief lesson Lorenzo learned was that it was important to be creative. Hugo wasn’t running a normal mechanic’s shop, with a wall full of tools and shelves filled with supplies. He had little money, a small set of hand tools, and his ingenuity. To survive, he had to come up with fresh ideas and adapt.
To Arpaio, Mexican immigrants were unlike any immigrants that had come before them. They were often disease-carrying criminals and didn't have the same values as American citizens.
In his nineteen years as an ROTC commander, Goins had never met a finer student than Oscar. He embodied everything the military was looking for: leadership, intelligence, dependability, integrity, tact, selflessness, and perseverance. […] “Oscar had it all,” Goins remembers. “His only drawback was that he wasn't a U.S. citizen.”
Lorenzo felt his father didn’t have any respect for him, Hugo wouldn’t let him use the tools in the driveway, and the kids around school mocked him for his strange looks. Now a teacher was entrusting him with the lives of a handful of fish. To most people, it might not seem like a lot, but to Lorenzo it was unprecedented.
To Fredi, this was a battle for the future of an unusual but talented kid. He appreciated Lorenzo's offbeat ideas and felt that the long-haired goofball had genuine talent. But Lorenzo was caught in the tractor-beam pull of poverty and low expectations.
Fredi was impressed. It was a practical, cheap, and ingenious solution. […]
“You did it,” Fredi said, clapping Lorenzo on the shoulder.
Lorenzo responded with a big smile. “I did it.”
“It needs a name,” Lorenzo said.
Oscar remembered Lorenzo’s choking on the glue fumes and suggested, “Why don’t we call it Stinky?”
It reminded them that they were doing something they had never done before. In Phoenix, they were called illegal aliens and pegged as criminals. They were alternately viewed as American, Mexican, or neither. Now, for a moment, they were simply teenagers at a robotics competition by the ocean.
Stinky represented this low-tech approach to engineering. But that was exactly what had impressed the judges.
“If the really long list of immigrant inventors who have made this country and the world a much better place is to stop here and now, we will also likely become the newest declining nation,” one reader commented.