I know several young people who were tied to their televisions last week waiting to hear about President Obama’s executive action on immigration. They are brilliant students living in inner-city Phoenix, attending or alumni of Carl Hayden High School, well versed in science, math and engineering, all Mexican-Americans and all either undocumented themselves or with family members who are undocumented. In 2004, four of these pioneering students entered and won an underwater robotics competition as high school students against some of the most well-funded and highly developed engineering colleges in the world including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Cal Tech.
To enter the competition as high school students was audacious. To perform well in the competition against some of the brightest and well-resourced college students in the country was highly impressive. To win the competition was miraculous.
Their story was captured by writer and director Mario Mazzio and narrated by Latino actor Michael Peña in a documentary entitled, “Underwater Dreams.” Besides premiers in New York City and Los Angeles, the film was shown at the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival and the Clinton Global Initiative this summer along with a discussion moderated by Chelsea Clinton.
Without being heavy-handed, the film easily portrays problems with our current system for undocumented immigrants. Angelica Hernandez, a student featured in the documentary, graduated as salutatorian from Carl Hayden High School, valedictorian of the Fulton School of Engineering at Arizona State University, and 2014 recipient of a master’s of science degree in atmosphere and energy from Stanford University. Her inability to enter college at in-state tuition rates, in a state where she had grown up since the age of nine, until Obama put into place Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), shows how some of our country’s brightest science minds are slipping through the cracks.
One of the most painful parts of the movie was the sequence where the students who won the robotics competition in 2004 were reunited with their competitors from MIT. In that scene you hear from MIT alumni who are working at some of our country’s most prestigious technology firms including Google and Apple and then you hear from Carl Hayden robotics competition alumni, Lorenzo Santillan and Luis Aranda, talking about working in restaurants and trying to start a catering business. While their path is admirable, the scene underscores how a lack of documents leads to a lack of opportunity – even for brilliant budding engineers.
Another poignant part of the movie was the drive and expectations of the teachers and counselors who worked with the students to win the competition. They are not Latino, in fact the two teachers who were most instrumental are Fredi Lajvardi, Iranian by birth, and Allan Cameron, European American. Their work is a telling reminder that it is a coalition of cause and not just a coalition of color that always has and can continue to change the world.
The four students winning the competition is the beginning of the story and not the end. After their success, scores of Carl Hayden students – some documented, some not, but all Latino – have entered and excelled in the national robotics competition. These students are in the process of demolishing the myth that math, science and engineering are only the realm of white and wealthy.
I hope that more students of color watch the documentary along with the new motion picture, “Spare Parts.” Starring George Lopez, Alexa PenaVega, and Esai Morales, the Hollywood sensational version of the story to be released on Jan. 16.
The Emily Griffith Opportunity School, long known for the opportunities they have provided generations of Denverites, including many recent immigrants, brought the film to Denver for their inaugural film festival in October. After the film I had the pleasure of interviewing Carl Hayden students and robotics team alumni, Lorenzo Santillan and Angelica Hernandez. During that discussion, Santillan commented that a lack of a piece of paper made him feel, “less than and inferior sometimes,” and that, “the robotics competition wasn’t nearly as hard as our fight for citizenship.” Hernandez remarked, “This is the only country I know and love. I just want the right to live, study and work without fear of deportation for me or my family.”
President Obama’s latest executive action is merely the next step in the continuing battle for these students.