Power of the pen as a catalyst for change: meet the maker


Joshua Davis discusses his time in arm wrestling competitions.

Joshua Davis, author of “Spare Parts,” took the real life triumphs and tribulations of four undocumented students who, with limited resources and deportation a strong possibility, won an underwater robotics competition on the collegiate level.

Their names are Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, Luis Aranda and Oscar Vazquez. They attended Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Ariz. and in 2005, they won the national “Marine Technology ROV” championship. The robotics competition was partially sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and NASA. They competed against students from universities like MIT.

On Oct. 20, Davis said to a filled PepsiCo Theater, his journey to four undocumented students in Arizona and their journey to success beyond the robotics competition. President David Levinson introduced Davis who strolled onto the stage with only the desire to tell his story, to tell their story.

“We’re telling stories based on our assumptions about people when I think we might be missing elements of the truth and I wanted to find out what that truth was,” Davis said.

Davis’s journalism career appeared to be random considering he was an Economics major in college. His first story was about his experience in the “U.S. National Armwrestling Championships,” which was published in Maxim, a national magazine.

Davis said in 2003, he asked editors at Wired, a magazine based in San Francisco, if he could be a war correspondent in Iraq and they asked him what his qualifications were.

“Well, I’m fourth place in the United States with my right arm and I’m seventeenth in the world,” Davis said.

The audience and Davis laughed at what seemed to be a terrible response for someone trying to get a job, but Davis ended up being their war correspondent, officiating his role as a journalist.

Davis said that by chance he read the press release e-mailed to him by Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi, mentors of the robotics program at Carl Hayden High School. Lajvardi told Davis that they had received attention from press in Arizona about Arcega, Santillan, Aranda and Vazquez winning the robotics competition. Despite their accomplishment, they were still well known as primarily a gang school where fights broke out frequently.

Davis’s tone transitions to accompany the serious events he would soon describe. The laughter is long gone from both Davis and the audience.

Davis said Arcega, Santillan, Aranda and Vazquez wondered why their school only received negative attention from the media when they were building advanced robots.

“They [Arcega, Santillan, Aranda and Vazquez] said, ‘Hey, why don’t you pay attention to the cool things we’re doing?’ They were like, ‘That’s not the story we were sent here to cover’,” Davis said.

The audience is quiet. There was not a mutter or cough to be heard in the theater. Davis continued by recounting Arcega, Santillan, Aranda and Vazquez’s journey to winning the robotics competition.

Davis said he asked Arcega, Santillan, Aranda and Vazquez whether or not it was okay to reveal that they were undocumented in “La Vida Robot”, the article about their journey, which preceded the book “Spare Parts.”

“Oscar [Vazquez] said, ‘We’d like you to do it.’ The way they explained it was they said, ‘We think this is a Rosa Parks moment,’ ” Davis said.

Seven seconds crawled by, it seemed like minutes. Davis’s voice became soft, tentatively reaching out to the crowd without breaking the dam.

“It still gets me choked up,” Davis said.

The “La Vida Robot Scholarship Fund” was created and according to Davis, has raised more than $100,000. Santillan and Aranda used the scholarship money to attend culinary school and they now run a catering company in Phoenix, Ariz. Vazquez attended and graduated from Arizona State University (ASU) with a degree in mechanical engineering. Arcega currently attends Western Michigan University.

After Arcega, Santillan, Aranda and Vazquez won the robotics competition, they still faced difficulties. Vazquez was deported and banned from the U.S. for a period of time and eventually, the ban was lifted. Arcega attended ASU, but could not complete his education due to an increase in tuition for undocumented students. When the book “Spare Parts” came out, an anonymous donor made it possible for Arcega to attend college again.

Professor Maria Buchta, chair of the Common Read committee, said the college’s community supported all of the Common Read events.

“People really supported us and bought the books for the students,” Buchta said.

Blanca Del Sid, a 20-year-old student working towards a Pharmacy Technician certificate, said what stuck with her the most was Davis’s commitment and sincerity when it came to telling his story.

“It was the way he reacted when he said this story had stuck with him for so many years even though it’s been 10-11 years he still feels that it’s just happening. He shows it by the way he talks about it … He’s really passionate,” Sid said.

Davis said even the best and the brightest will struggle before they are triumphant.

Davis said, “Even if you prove that are you among the best underwater engineers in the country, if not the world, you still have to fight everyday to prove that.”

Photo by Raul Camino 

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