'Spare Parts' Finds Increased Relevance Amid Immigration Debate Spare Parts is a new movie about a team of undocumented high school students who beat the Ivy League in a prestigious engineering contest.
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'Spare Parts' Finds Increased Relevance Amid Immigration Debate

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'Spare Parts' Finds Increased Relevance Amid Immigration Debate

'Spare Parts' Finds Increased Relevance Amid Immigration Debate

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Wired magazine published a classic underdog tale 10 years ago. It was about four Mexican-American kids from a Phoenix high school who entered a prestigious engineering competition and beat the Ivy League. That story has now become a movie starring George Lopez. It's called "Spare Parts." Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team fills us in.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The four guys who won the competition you just heard about made national news in 2005, so this isn't a spoiler.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It is my honor to announce that first prize in the U.S. Underwater Robotics Championship goes to Carl Hayden Community High School.


BATES: That really happened, but how did they get there? "Spare Parts" tells the story of four Mexican-American kids - three of them undocumented - who combined their skills in engineering and math to construct a clunky-looking robot out of, yep, spare parts that performed elegantly. Teacher Fredi Cameron, played by George Lopez, has to be persuaded by one of his students to give it a try. He's skeptical.


GEORGE LOPEZ: (As Fredi Cameron) In order to enter this competition, we would have to build a remotely operated vehicle that swims underwater. I mean, you know this is the desert, right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Permission to speak freely, sir?

LOPEZ: (As Fredi Cameron) Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) There's an ROV up on Mars. I'm pretty sure it wasn't built up on Mars, sir.

LOPEZ: (As Fredi Cameron) OK.

BATES: And it's not easy or cheap. The kids raised money, but even using spare parts from discarded machinery and inexpensive substitutes, it's not enough.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You are still short $134.63.

BATES: So, reluctantly, Dr. Cameron pulls out his checkbook even though he'd told them earlier he couldn't.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I thought you couldn't donate.

LOPEZ: (As Fredi Cameron) It's a robotics contest not a fundraising contest. Besides, who's going to know? Oh, hey, and my man ate a couple ice creams on the way in.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Can I have an ice cream?

LOPEZ: (As Fredi Cameron) Too late. I already wrote the check.

BATES: They made the robot, named it Stinky after the glue that held his PVC pipes together, and the rest is engineering history. "Spare Part's" studio, Lions Gate, is hoping Hispanic moviegoers will turn out to support this film.

Chiqui Cartagena is vice president of the political and advocacy group at Univision and an expert in the Latino market. For a long time, she says, Hollywood ignored Latino moviegoers.

CHIQUI CARTAGENA: There has been, I would say, a major ah-ha in the last three years, really, we have seen studios starting to pay attention. But, you know, before that, it was not as frequent.

BATES: "Spare Parts" may get an unexpected boost from the news. The new GOP-led Congress reignited the immigration debate when it announced this week it would vote to repeal funding that provides protection for the country's undocumented residents.

At a Washington, D.C., screening hosted by the Center for American Progress, the theater is a mix of policy types, immigration reform advocates and DREAMers - young, undocumented kids very much like the ones in the movie. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a staunch DREAMer supporter, says "Spare Parts" shows that immigrants are a necessary part of America's success.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: The immigrant spirit in America makes us different. That is built into America's DNA. That's why we are the nation we are today.

BATES: Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro's grandparents were Mexican immigrants. He says the movie is good entertainment, yes, but it also illustrates what the country will miss without immigration reform.

REPRESENTATIVE JOAQUIN CASTRO: It really highlights the very incredibly talented young people who are DREAM Act students and have such wonderful talents to lend to our American society but are not given the chance to do that.

BATES: No one knows that better than Oscar Vasquez, one of the four students depicted in the film. He says the movie may help people to understand a contentious political issue through the experience of his robotics team.

OSCAR VASQUEZ: You know, the immigration debate's out there, and I think that really brings it into focus. It's trying to put some faces in that issue.

BATES: Chiqui Cartagena says there are many good stories like this, and she hopes soon there will be more Latino filmmakers who will make these stories visible.

CARTAGENA: We're not there yet, but I have great faith that we will get there.

BATES: And with Hispanic moviegoers continuing to be the dominant demographic for Hollywood to please, that's more of a when than an if. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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