La Vida Robot
How four underdogs from the mean streets of Phoenix took on the best from M.I.T. in the national
underwater bot championship.
By Joshua Davis
The winter rain
makes a mess of West Phoenix. It turns dirt yards into mud and forms reefs of garbage in the
streets. Junk food wrappers, diapers, and Spanish-language porn are swept into the gutters. On West Roosevelt
Avenue, security guards, two squad cars, and a handful of cops watch teenagers file into the local high school.
A sign reads:
Carl Hayden Community High School: The Pride's Inside
There certainly isn't a lot of pride on the outside. The school buildings are mostly drab, late '50s-era boxes. The
front lawn is nothing but brown scrub and patches of dirt. The class photos beside the principal's office tell the
story of the past four decades. In 1965, the students were nearly all white, wearing blazers, ties, and long skirts.
Now the school is 92 percent Hispanic. Drooping, baggy jeans and XXXL hoodies are the norm.
The school PA system crackles, and an upbeat female voice fills the bustling linoleum-lined hallways. "Anger
management class will begin in five minutes," says the voice from the administration building. "All referrals
must report immediately."
Across campus, in a second-floor windowless room, four students huddle around an odd, 3-foot-tall frame
constructed of PVC pipe. They have equipped it with propellers, cameras, lights, a laser, depth detectors,
pumps, an underwater microphone, and an articulated pincer. At the top sits a black, waterproof briefcase
containing a nest of hacked processors, minuscule fans, and LEDs. It's a cheap but astoundingly functional
underwater robot capable of recording sonar pings and retrieving objects 50 feet below the surface. The four
teenagers who built it are all undocumented Mexican immigrants who came to this country through tunnels or
hidden in the backseats of cars. They live in sheds and rooms without electricity. But over three days last
summer, these kids from the desert proved they are among the smartest young underwater engineers in the
It was the end of June.
Lorenzo Santillan, 16, sat in the front seat of the school van and looked out at the
migrant farmworkers in the fields along Interstate 10. Lorenzo's face still had its baby fat, but he'd recently
sprouted a mustache and had taken to wearing a fistful of gold rings, a gold chain, and a gold medallion of the
Virgin Mary pierced through the upper part of his left ear. The bling wasn't fooling anyone. His mother had
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