Tale Of Phoenix Robotic Champs Captured On Film

By Jude Joffe-Block
July 22, 2014
Underwater Dreams
(C) 2013 Richard Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs
"Underwater Dreams" is playing in select theaters.

PHOENIX — Ten years ago, an unlikely group of immigrant students from a poor Phoenix high school beat out MIT in an underwater robotics competition. Their inspiring David-versus-Goliath story is the subject of a new documentary called "Underwater Dreams."

Opening night at Phoenix’s downtown AMC theater on July 18 was sold out. The film tells the story of Cristian Arcega, Oscar Vazquez, Lorenzo Santillan and Luis Aranda through a mix of archival footage and recent interviews.

The documentary captures the team's stunning victory, as well as the challenges they’ve faced without legal immigration status.

The year is 2004. All four are teenagers who were brought this country illegally from Mexico by immigrant parents. They are on the robotics team at Phoenix’s Carl Hayden High School, which serves a mostly Latino, low-income student body.

On a lark, their teachers enter them into a sophisticated college marine robotics competition in Santa Barbara. They build a robot they nickname Stinky.

When they arrive, the Carl Hayden boys are overwhelmed by their competition, which includes a team from MIT.

(C) 2013 Richard Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs
Cristian Arcega, 26, was not able to complete his studies at ASU after Arizona voters passed Proposition 300.

“The MIT robot was impressive looking, I mean it was custom made,” team member Cristian Arcega said in the film. “And it was even like anodized and it had a bunch of logos and stickers from the sponsors. I think Exxon Mobil was on there. That was a little intimidating.”

The film cuts to Oscar Vazquez, who said felt the team’s accents stuck out.

All of the boys learned English as a second language.

“I had never seen that much white people,” said Lorenzo Santillan in the film. “Nobody was Mexican or Hispanic or Latino.”

Then the boys blow away the judges with their presentation. And their robot, Stinky, which they built out of cheap PVC piping from Home Depot, outperforms the other teams.

They beat MIT to come in first place.

(C) 2013 Richard Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs
2004 Robotics Team members Cristian Arcega, Oscar Vazquez, Luis Aranda, and Lorenzo Santillan with Carl Hayden teacher Fredi Lajvardi.

The fateful awards ceremony, with a judge announcing the winner, is depicted in the film with archival footage.

Everyone at the Phoenix premier knew the story, but the theater's audience still erupted with proud applause and cheers.

The movie theater was packed with the team members' friends, relatives and teachers, as well as current Carl Hayden students who have continued the young men's legacy in robotics.

Leticia Arcega, Cristian’s mother, said all the parents of the four boys brought them to the U.S. with the same goal of giving them better opportunities.

“And I think I achieved that,” she said in Spanish.

But there’s a darker side to this story.

Three of the four of the Carl Hayden team members were undocumented at the time of the competition, and that made it tough to pursue college and professional careers.The film shows a poignant reunion between the Carl Hayden team and the MIT team 10 years later. The MIT grads have gone on to impressive jobs in engineering. Several work in robotics. Another designs Apple accessories.

Only one of the Carl Hayden group, Oscar Vazquez, was able to earn a bachelor’s degree.

At the Phoenix premier, Cristian Arcega, now 26, explains why he wasn’t able to finish Arizona State University.

Jude Joffe-Block
Team members, their teachers, and director Mary Mazzio (with microphone), speak to the audience at the Phoenix premier.

“I graduated from high school second in my class,” Arcega said. “I was on the presidential scholarship going to the ASU, and then a year in, Prop 300 passed and my scholarship got revoked.”

Arizona voters approved Proposition 300 in 2006. It said students without legal status had to pay out-of-state tuition at Arizona’s public universities and could not get state scholarships.

“[I] kind of missed out going anywhere after that,” Arcega said.

Instead, Arcega transferred to a trade school. He still hopes to get a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, but in the meantime is starting his own electronics business.  

Santillan is a chef and has his own catering company. Aranda is a supervisor at a janitorial company and sometimes works with Santillan in catering.

Together they four young men have been trailblazers, inspiring younger Carl Hayden students to join the robotics club. The club is helping to send a new generation of students to college, sometime with scholarships.

Diserae Sanders, a recent Carl Hayden graduate, said the team’s success at the Santa Barbara competition inspired her directly.

“I was still in elementary school,” Sanders said. “These guys started to be popular, and I was like, ‘I want to be like them and I want to do robotics and go to Carl Hayden High School.’”

Sanders is headed to Arizona State University this fall and ultimately wants to work in robotics.

“We need engineers, we need mathematicians,” said Mary Mazzio, the film’s writer, director and producer.

Mazzio hopes the film can inform the national debate on immigration reform, and the need to nurture diverse talent in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“There are going to be 1.2 million unfilled jobs in science and technology,” Mazzio said. “These are the kinds we need to fuel our future as a country and keep us competitive.”

"Underwater Dreams" is playing in select theaters around the country. It is also available on demand on cable providers.

A Hollywood feature film based on the story is expected out early next year.