In 2004, a team of four undocumented high school students from a low-income community in Phoenix beat the odds when they won first place in a national underwater robotics competition.
The students from Carl Hayden Community High School defeated students from some of the nation’s top colleges and universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ten years later, the incredible story of Lorenzo Santillan, Oscar Vazquez, Cristian Arcega and Luis Aranda is featured in a documentary called “Underwater Dreams.” The film — narrated by actor Michael Peña and produced by Jeb Bush, Jr. — uses new and archival footage to tell the story of how the four students went on to win the NASA-sponsored competition in 2004.
Beyond that, the documentary also shows the legacy that the team left behind at Carl Hayden Community High School, where the student population is about 94 percent Latino and where more than 90 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch.
“We wanted to prove to all the colleges and universities out there that we could compete with everybody else at the same level or even higher,” Santillan said on Friday, standing outside the AMC Arizona Center 24 in downtown Phoenix where the film is being shown this week.
Since first hitting theaters July 11 in Los Angeles and New York, “Underwater Dreams” has been receiving a lot of attention.
Jonathan Alter of The Daily Beast called it “a seemingly modest human interest film that may be the most politically significant documentary since Waiting for Superman.” And David Dewitt of The New York Times said the documentary shines a light on “underground Americans who deserve recognition.”
Winning the competition
The four students entered the 2004 competition with little hopes of beating some of the nation’s top engineering college students. Even their teachers, Fredi Lajvardi and Allan Cameron, didn’t think they would make it far in the competition.
With a budget of $800, the students build their underwater robot and named it Stinky. They used everyday materials like PVC pipes that they bought at Home Depot to build Stinky. Meanwhile, their opponents spent thousands of dollars to build their underwater robots, which were more technologically advanced.
A day before the competition, which was held at the University of California in Santa Barbara, the four students took Stinky out for a test run in the water and discovered a leak in their robot’s mechanical housing.
They sprung into action and come up with a solution: place eight super-plus tampons to soak up the water from the leak. The tampon solution worked and their robot performed admirably.
However, they still had one last task to complete: the engineering evaluation. That portion of the competition, which was worth half of the total possible points, involved underwater engineering professionals evaluating all robots and asking students questions about their design. Again, the four students performed well.
When all the points were tallied, the Carl Hayden students surprisingly come out on top.
“When they announced that we won, we were overjoyed but shocked,” Cameron said in a previous interview with VOXXI. “It was not in our realm of thinking that we could win this.”
‘An epic David and Goliath story’
Mary Mazzio, who wrote and directed “Underwater Dreams,” said she created the film because she wanted to tell the story of how the four students did something no one thought was possible.
“I thought it was an epic David and Goliath story,” she told VOXXI. “I thought here’s a group of people that are overlooked, that did something remarkable and that needed to have a spotlight on them.”
Mazzio added that what has been “wonderfully surprising” is how the film has been bringing people together from both sides of the political aisle.
She noted that on the left, Chelsea Clinton moderated a panel discussion after the film was shown at the Clinton Global Initiative on June 23. On the right, groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the LIBRE Initiative have also signed up to host special screenings of the film.
“There’s nothing more exciting than to have a piece of content that is not polarizing but instead evokes a thoughtful response, particularly among policy people,” Mazzio said.
Lajvardi told VOXXI the documentary does a good job of showing how the four undocumented students have become role models for others. He also noted that more students have now joined the Carl Hayden robotics program and are going on to college.
“Part of the documentary has to do with how the kids got together and worked to beat MIT,” he said. “The other part has to do with how those kids opened the doors for all the other kids to follow behind in their footsteps in the robotics program.”
“Underwater Dreams” comes several months before a feature film based on the same story hits theaters Jan. 16. Starring in that film, produced by Pantelion Films, are actors George Lopez, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marisa Tomei and Carlos Pena. It was first titled “La Vida Robot” before the name changed to “Spare Parts.”
To attend a screening of “Underwater Dreams” or to get a copy of the documentary, visit www.underwaterdreamsfilm.com.