In 2004, a team of four undocumented high school students from Phoenix did something no one thought was possible. They won first place in a national underwater robotics competition, beating students from some of the nation’s top universities.
Now, their incredible journey is being made into a movie titled “La Vida Robot.” The film, produced by Pantelion Films, will be released in theaters this fall. It stars George Lopez, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marisa Tomei and Carlos Pena.
The film shows how students Lorenzo Santillan, Oscar Vazquez, Cristian Arcega and Luis Aranda from Carl Hayden Community High School beat a group of MIT students and went on to win first place in a national robotics competition held at Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2004.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Vazquez told VOXXI, recalling how he felt when they won. “I just remember being so happy.”
Vazquez, who is currently serving in the Army, was considered the leader of the group dubbed the Falcon Robotics Team. He and the three other students used the $800 they fundraised to build their underwater robot, which they named “Stinky.” Meanwhile, their opponents fundraised thousands to build their robots.
And while other teams used top-notch tools and materials to build their underwater robots, the Falcon Robotics Team used everyday materials to build theirs. For example, they used PVC pipes that they bought at Home Depot and assembled them using rubber glue.
Allan Cameron, one of the two robotics teachers, had confidence in his students but admitted he never imagined they would win first place. He thought they would get third place.
“When they announced that we won, we were overjoyed but shocked,” Cameron told VOXXI. “It was not in our realm of thinking that we could win this.”
The team received ‘zero attention’ at first
The robotics team celebrated the win by going down to the beach in Santa Barbara. They thought that once they got home, news would spread about their big accomplishment.
But that didn’t happen.
“There was zero attention and we couldn’t figure out why,” Fredi Lajvardi, the other robotics teacher, told VOXXI. “We were sending letters, emails, everything to David Letterman, Jay Leno, you name it — anybody who would put on a group of high school students who beat MIT.”
It wasn’t until six months after the competition that they received a call from Joshua Davis, a writer for Wired magazine.
“When he called us he said, ‘Is it true that you beat MIT?’” Lajvardi said. “I told him, ‘Here’s the website so you can go check it out, you can call the event organizers, you can call MIT.’ He called back half an hour later and told us not to talk to anybody and that he was taking a plane out from San Francisco to come talk to us.”
Several weeks later, Davis published an article on Wired magazine about how the four undocumented high school students from Phoenix won the robotics competition. He titled it “La Vida Robot.”
The story gained national attention. But Cameron and Lajvardi had one concern: The story revealed that the four students were undocumented.
Both of them feared this would have ramifications for the students and their families, especially because hardly anyone was coming out as undocumented during this time out of fear that they would be deported.
“We didn’t know whether ICE would come out and arrest them there on campus,” Cameron said.
But that didn’t happen and there weren’t any negative repercussions. Instead, support started pouring in. Within a year after the Wired magazine article was published, people had donated $100,000 for a scholarship fund that was used to send the four students to college.
At the same time, Cameron and Lajvardi began getting calls from production companies that were interested in turning their story into a movie. Lajvardi said various companies, including Warner Bros. and MGM, signed contracts for the rights to create a movie but no film was ever produced.
‘La Vida Robot’ film finally became a reality
Hopes of making the film were dwindling until Lopez and Pantelion Films became interested in making the movie. They signed a production deal last year and began filming almost immediately.
In November, the four students and their teachers were invited to New Mexico to watch some of the filming.
“It was an emotional time because it had been 10 years that we had been working on getting this movie done,” Santillan said, describing how he felt when he was on the set in New Mexico. “We had been signing contract after contract but nothing ever happened until this came along.”
The overall story of what happened to the Falcon Robotics Team when they won first place in the 2004 competition is portrayed in the film, except for a few changes.
For instance, there’s only one robotics teacher instead of two in the film. Lajvardi and Cameron are combined into one character named Fredi Cameron, who is played by Lopez.
There’s also a female teacher, played by Tomei, who is added to the mix. And the principle, who in real life was a male, is a female played by Curtis.
Despite the changes, the team says the film kept the overall message of how four undocumented high school students accomplished something no one thought they could do.
Beating the odds is a common theme in the Carl Hayden robotics program. Most of the high school students who go through the program — even those who are undocumented — end up going to college and many of them pursue engineering careers.
Lajvardi said that since he and Cameron began the program in 2001, almost half of the students have been undocumented. He said he hopes “La Vida Robot” will expand awareness of the plight undocumented youth face and the need to pass legislation, like the DREAM Act, that would allow them to become U.S. citizens.
“The United States is not going to fall apart if you let these kids become citizens,” he said. “It’s the exact opposite of that. You will gain from what they’re adding to society all the time.”
Santillan said that with this film, he hopes to “give a voice” to other Dreamers like him.
“I hope it gets the point across that we’re just as hard working as any other person and that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to,” he said.
Originally published on VOXXI as ‘La Vida Robot’ shows how four undocumented students beat the odds