After ‘La Vida Robot’

May 22, 2017 2:13 PM

Lorenzo Santillan (center) signs copies of Jonathan Davis’ “Spare Parts,” of which he was the focus, for community members at Laney College on May 4. Prior to the signing, he shared his experiences being an undocumented teenage immigrant with a talent for engineering.

By Sarah Carpenter
Managing Editor

Lorenzo Santillan was a 16-year-old undocumented student who was failing most of his Hayden High School classes.

He had recently dropped out of a gang after his friends were arrested for theft. His father was a gardener, and his mother had just been fired from her job as a hotel maid—they were at risk of eviction for nonpayment of rent.

Twelve years later on May 4, Santillan spoke to Laney ESL students to tell the story of how his life took a dramatic change.

In high school, with few options for after-school activities, Santillan attended a meeting advertised on campus.

Two science teachers had put up the flyers, which offered to sponsor anyone interested in competing in the third annual Marine Advanced Technology Education Center’s Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition.

Santillan was one of three undocumented students on a team of four students from his school. Together, that team would go on to make headlines.

Their underwater robot, which they named “Stinky,” was built out of plastic tubing on a budget of $800 and infamously used tampons to prevent leaks reaching its circuitry.

It beat MIT’s robot made by a team of 12 students on a budget of corporate donations totaling $11,000.

WIRED magazine contributing editor Joshua Davis wrote a story in 2005 titled “La Vida Robot,” about how Santillan and his team beat MIT to win gold that year.

Their story was a classic triumph of the underdog.

In the story, Davis mentioned that since three of the students were undocumented, they were not eligible for scholarships despite their incredible talent.

WIRED readers managed to raise over $90,000 in scholarships for Santillan, Oscar Vazquez, Cristian Arcega, and Luis Aranda.

Their story was a classic triumph of the underdog.

Santillan’s team had no experience with public speaking, so they practiced their presentation on strangers who would give them five minutes of their time.

When there was a leak, Santillan had the idea to ask a woman in the feminine care aisle at a grocery store to advise him on the “most best tampons” to use.

None of them expected to win. Santillan said that he had asked his teacher, “‘Can we go to Hooters if we win?’ and the teacher said yes, because we were never gonna win, and we were never gonna go to Hooters, so why not—why not give them something that’s never gonna happen?”

Instead, they won first place, and their story reached hundreds of thousands of readers. In 2015, the film “Spare Parts” was made based on Davis’ WIRED story, starring George Lopez, Carlos PenaVega, and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Santillan was cautious about spending the scholarship money. He wanted to study engineering, and could have pursued it in college. But he knew that without his citizenship he would have trouble getting a job after graduation.

None of them expected to win.

He used the money to attend culinary school, where he could learn the skills necessary to start making money right away.

Meanwhile, the documentary “Underwater Dreams” was released in 2014, chronicling the team’s story. This is when Santillan began giving talks about his story.

“I’ve been told ‘no’ many times,” Santillan said. “I never had any experience with public speaking. I haven’t had the experience that many people have in cooking. I would just tell [ESOL students] not to give up, because if I can do it, they can do it too.”

Santillan is now a small business owner, running a catering firm in Phoenix with Aranda. He also just bought a trailer to be used as a food truck, again with the financial aid of people who believe in him.

“There’s always gonna be someone who wants to help you out,” he said. “You just gotta reach out.”

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