José Cárdenas: "Underwater Dreams" is a new documentary that follows four undocumented students who entered an underwater robotics competition in 2004. The group was from Phoenix’s Carl Hayden High School. We will talk to two of the students and one of the coaches featured in the documentary, but first, watch what "Underwater Dreams" is about.
(Sound on tape)
>> They were a rag tag robotics team. Four teenaged boys from Phoenix, Arizona, decided to build an underwater robot. Just for the hell of it. They took their robot and headed west, to a sophisticated underwater robotics competition up against the likes of MIT.
>> When we arrived at the competition, I was pretty nervous.
>> The other robots were like pieces of underwater jewelry.
>> We looked like the carnival had arrived.
>> We were way over our heads.
>> We noticed water in the case.
>> We're telling it to go forward, the robot's going sideways and I'm thinking –
>> Oh, my god.
>> We were all having problems.
>> My idea was a tampon. This was a do-or-die situation.
>> MacGyver would be proud.
>> But the robot was only the beginning.
>> Who are these punks from nowhere that had no business doing what they do? What is that?
>> They broke the mold and said catch me if you can.
>> It wasn't about building a robot.
>> The 2004 team showed us it was possible.
>> No matter what background you come from or where you are, you can do what you set your mind to do.
>> Kids at Carl Hayden high school become leaders.
>> They have a sense of social responsibility that was cultivated as being part of this team.
>> Knowing you can't do something just because you're lacking a piece of paper is kind of devastating.
>> What the robotics did to me was to show me, even though I don't know where to start, I can solve the problem.
>> We should empower as many people as we can to build great things.
>> These boys laid a foundation. They inspired those behind them to see that possibilities could exist. To be courageous. To dream and to fly.
>> I want to solve the energy crisis.
>> Make a difference in my community.
>> Be a computer engineer.
>> Develop the renewable energy infrastructure.
>> The next generation of autonomous vehicles.
>> Make them go faster.
>> Prosthetics for kids.
>> Discover, like, alien life.
>> I want to be an astronomer.
(End of tape)
José Cárdenas: With us tonight to talk about the Carl Hayden robotics documentary "Underwater Dreams" are one of the coaches Fredi Lajvardi, and two of the team members Cristian Arcega and Lorenzo Santillan. Thank you all for joining us on "Horizonte." We've actually talked about this wonderful story a number of times over the last 10 years. And as I understand it, from talking to you earlier, this movie has been in the works for about that same period of time.
Fredi Lajvardi: Yeah.
José Cárdenas: Why so long? To get it from talking to actually on the screen?
Fredi Lajvadri: Well, the director and producer contacted us right about when the story happened, but we had already signed with Warner Brothers, so she kept checking every year to see if the contract was up and if we were free to sign a contract with her. Turned out that just about a year ago our contract wasn't renewed and we were kind of free agents and we went ahead and signed with her to do the documentary.
José Cárdenas: Kind of like LeBron James going back to Cleveland.
Fredi Lajvardi: So she jumped in when she had that window of opportunity and in less than a year she filmed it and got it all done and ready to go.
José Cárdenas: I understand ultimately it's a collaboration between her and Lions Gate.
Fredi Lajvardi: Yeah, Lions Gate jumped on afterwards. After we had already started to do the documentary, they wanted to now do the feature film. So we had to put that in the contract that she would be able to still be able to make the documentary and everything worked out right.
José Cárdenas: So, a lot of memories for you guys. They're shown on the screen. What was it like going through the movie making process? And then I want to talk about the actual events and what it was like to compete against MIT and some of the other major universities in the country.
Cristian Arcega: It was very inspirational especially getting to see and hear all the different stories, because the documentary doesn't just cover us. It covers a lot of the history of our team and a lot of stories we were unaware of due to not being personally familiar with the students and also their history and families.
José Cárdenas: We're talking about people who came after you.
Cristian Arcega: And before us, as well. There were a few students that graduated and they came back and said and they, you know, gave us feedback on what the story had turned into.
José Cárdenas: So as I understand it, Cristian and you Lorenzo were sophomores at the time. This was about the third year of the program. Why did you get involved to begin with and tell us about your experiences in the competition.
Lorenzo Santillan: I had just entered the competition –- I joined the robotics team because my friend had left for Mexico and I didn't have anywhere to go. I joined the robotics team because I found a place where I could work with tools and, you know, play with them and break stuff and do all that good stuff.
José Cárdenas: So Fredi, part of the appeal of the movie is the story of doing things that people don't think you can do. And they think of Carl Hayden, they also think of kids who are immigrants to this country. And yet, you believed in them all along the way.
Fredi Lajvardi: Yeah, I mean, talent can be found anywhere. Really the only thing that determines whether or not you can be successful is yourself. That's something that I learned when I was young, and we try to teach the kids. I think they hit the jackpot when they realized having beaten MIT in a very competitive competition. I think it opened the door for all the students after them, as well.
José Cárdenas: It was an eye opener for you, too. That little clip we heard, you used an expletive because you were surprised at what was happening.
Fredi Lajvardi: Any time you're in a competition like that, there's unusual things that happen and sometimes, you probably don't choose the best words at the moment, but there's a lot of emotion and time invested and you feel frustrated when things don't go exactly the way you want or if you’re shocked with how tough the competition is, but that's part of being in it and learning how to dealing with it and either learning from it so you can do better next time or if you get lucky, you do well and win the first time.
José Cárdenas: So Lorenzo, you beat MIT among other universities. What was that like?
Lorenzo Santillan: I think I didn't know how to feel because at the same time, we beat MIT and we beat all the top really high-caliber colleges and universities, but at the same time, I was probably -- I didn't know who they were. So, it didn't make a difference if I beat a college or university, I didn't know who they were. So I was like oh, cool we beat MIT. Later, the teachers told me who MIT was and all the other colleges that we had just beat. It was like whoa, we did just did that. Like, oh my god! We had to sit down and walk on the beach and soak it in for a little bit.
José Cárdenas: Cristian, what about afterwards? Was there a letdown maybe not immediately, but over time?
Cristian Arcega: There definitely was. We didn't get a lot of attention at first, and then about a year afterward we were on your show, you were one of the first ones to actually pay attention to our story and after that there was a lot of media publicity and the movie stuff started coming out. But after we graduated high school, there was a lot of anti-immigration legislation in the state and I lost my scholarship from Prop 300 and I didn't really have anywhere or any set goals because my whole life I had already always been aiming for that goal. I want to go to university, I want to be an engineer, I want to be and do something great. And I thought we had done some great things when I was in high school and I thought we were on the right path, but life takes you on some not so interesting directions sometimes, especially in Arizona.
José Cárdenas: So Fredi, did that make it hard? You have these kids who’ve accomplished so much. Incredible future ahead of them and they can't advance because of legislation like Prop 300, which says you can't get in-state tuition or provide state financial aid. What do you tell the kids that come after them? Why should they keep doing it?
Fredi Lajvardi: It wasn't as hard as you think. If you think about it, you think the kids won't continue because they saw what happened to them. In fact, it was the complete opposite. The kids doubled down and worked harder. They were able to secure funding from nonfederal groups, so they could pay the three or four times in-state tuition in order to go to college and a whole slew of kids went to ASU after that and got their degrees.
José Cárdenas: And we’re showing some of them on the screen as we’re talking.
Fredi Lajvardi: It inspired them more, it gave them more sense of purpose and more that they wanted to prove to everyone they were worth it, even if it meant having to pay out of state tuition, even though they live in the state and they purchase everything in the state, and in some cases, pay taxes, so it just motivated them more to do it and I didn't expect that. I was really surprised by how tough they were about it. One of the things I think that we use, if I could say anything, was, you know, you end up -- you could get deported any time. What do you want to be deported as? Do you want to be deported as a landscaper, a garbage collector or an engineer? So your education, as long as you're here, is the number one thing. Do anything you can, scrape for it, do yard sales, do anything you can, but get that education because once you get that, they can't take that away from you and the interesting thing is this is kind of ironic, you could work in any country, except the United States.
José Cárdenas: That’s an excellent point. We need to talk a little bit about the movie. The documentary took nine years to get going, but it's gotten going now and premiered in New York City is that right?
Fredi Lajvardi: New York City and Los Angeles.
José Cárdenas: And this week in Phoenix on Friday.
Fredi Lajvardi: On Friday.
José Cárdenas: Tell us about that.
Lorenzo Santillan: Well, it's going to be on Friday in the AMC center downtown at 7:30, and we're excited because well, it's Arizona and it's where we originated from. I'm really excited about it and I hope a lot of people can show up.
José Cárdenas: Cristian, it's gotten great reviews. And as I understand, there's going to be a shortened version that's going to be shown on television.
Cristian Arcega: That's right. This weekend, which will be on Sunday afternoon, you would have to check your local schedule for that, but it's going to be simultaneously broadcast in Spanish and English on Telemundo and MSNBC. And also Monday, it will be broadcast by Mun2.
José Cárdenas: And Fredi, you know you're a central character in this. As I understand it, there's going to be, for lack of a better description, a commercial version of this. There's a movie that's in the works right now and tell us about that.
Fredi Lajvardi: Well, this movie, which is called “Spare Parts,” is being produced by Lions Gate and Pantelion. And it's starring George Lopez is going to play a combination of myself and Dr. Cameron, so the character's going to be called Fredi Cameron and of course, they inserted a female interest in the movie. This character is played by Marisa Tomei, who pushes George Lopez to work with the kids and make sure he stays true to his word, and doesn't just abandon the kids. I don't want to tell too much about the movie, but it's real exciting because we actually, our current robotics team got to build and operate all the robots for the movie, the underwater robots. A lot of the kids today on the team have participated in helping the special effects for that movie.
José Cárdenas: Cristian, we're almost out of time. What does this mean? There’s the excitement. There’s the novelty of being in a movie or having your life portrayed that way. Is there a deeper meaning to all of this?
Cristian Arcega: There's always a deeper meaning, especially when it affects you directly and I hope what other people take from this is there's a lot of barriers in this country, especially if you're undocumented or whatever other problems you have individually, but you always have to have hope and you always have to keep trying your best and try to get to your goals, because even if you don't reach them, I haven't become a mechanical engineer yet, but I'm still aiming for that.
José Cárdenas: And Fredi, we’re almost out of time, but I understand that there have been other successes you've produced valedictorians and other people have gone on to be very significant in their careers and so congratulations to you, congratulations to all of you. It's been an inspiring story and I wish you all the best. And thanks for coming back on the show.
And don’t forget, if you want to watch previous episodes or find out what’s coming up on the show just go our website azpbs.org and click on "Horizonte." That’s our show for tonight. From all of us here at "Horizonte" and Eight, I’m José Cárdenas. Have a good night.