I met up with Joshua Davis and his black lab Jake at his home office in Noe Valley to talk about Josh’s new book Spare Parts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the story of Christian, Luis, Oscar, and Lorenzo, four low-income, undocumented students from an impoverished Phoenix high school that won a national competition for underwater robotics against well-funded college teams such as MIT. Lionsgate and Pantelion Film’s movie based on the book was released this month.
What struck me most about Josh is his compassion for the underdog and passion for life, competition, adventure, and excitement. While no other journalist in the country responded to the PR announcement about the boys’ accomplishment, Josh recognized it for what it was—a story about four boys whose dreams allowed them to achieve extraordinary things that exceeded any and all expectations placed on them.
Through Josh’s curiosity about and deep appreciation for people that devote and commit their entire lives to their passions, such as arm wrestling and backwards running, he made his way out of a dead-end data entry job and discovered his own love for competition and capturing incredible stories that, as his Epic Magazine website says, “happen to real people.”
Personally, I couldn’t help but feel envious when Josh talked about how, a decade ago, he dropped the normal working world in search of excitement and adventure. As someone who has worked full-time for years raising funds for Bay Area nonprofits, I felt a bit sheltered around him. But through his writing, I, too, can enter his diverse and compelling experiences around the world, and be reminded that there are many different ways in which people feel alive.
The Rumpus: What drew you to this story? In 2004, you received a strangely formatted PR announcement about these high school boys winning a Remote Operating Vehicle competition, almost deleted it, but then followed up later to learn more about this story that you eventually covered for Wired Magazine and, ten years later, turned into a book.
Joshua Davis: There were a number of things going on in my life at the time that made this resonate with me. I had never intended to become a journalist. I always wanted to be a writer but, like many of us, couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I’d written a novel and bought a book about how to get published. This is back in the early ’90s and 2000s, when you would actually go to a bookstore and buy a huge book that had publishers’ addresses. I sent out the first two chapters and got nothing. And I was working to pay the bills as a data entry clerk at Pac Bell. That was not much fun. I was literally typing numbers into the computer everyday and felt like just an extension of a machine.
Around that time, I saw a flyer for the US National Arm Wrestling Championship. I hadn’t had any experience in arm wrestling. The last time I ever thought about it was back in the ’80s, with Stallone’s movie Over the Top, where he played a truck driver trying to win back his son. I was curious that arm wrestling still existed and that it was this organized thing, so I thought, Hmm, I’ve got a boring life, let me go check this event out.
So I went to Laughlin, Nevada. Middle of nowhere. When I arrived, the organizers were like, “It’s an open event. Anyone who wants to can enter. Why don’t you enter? If you’re here to experience something, you might as well do it.” So I ended up entering the U.S. National Arm Wrestling Championship in the lightweight division.
Rumpus: Love it.
Davis: No surprises, I lost. It was a double elimination, and I got beat very easily.
Rumpus: How long did you last?
So I retreated to the back of the room, met a bunch of the wrestlers. They were really interesting, nice people, very committed to this thing that most people either look down on or don’t think about at all. It was really wonderful to see their passion.
I was talking with one of the wrestlers in the back when they started the award ceremony. They started with the lightweight division and said, “Fourth place in the United States, Joshua Davis. Get on up here!” I thought, Who are you talking about? I had lost all my matches. They put a medal around my neck and said, “Congratulations, you’re fourth out of four.” There were only three other competitors in the lightweight division.
So that was like, whoa! Now I’m a nationally ranked arm wrestler and it turned out that that made me an alternate for the US national team. And when numbers two and three couldn’t travel to Poland for the world championship, they were forced by their by-laws to invite me to become part of team USA.
Rumpus: Why couldn’t the others travel?
Davis: One of them was on probation.
So I ended up going to Poland as part of the American arm wrestling team and got seventeenth in the world.
Rumpus: Wow. Were you like pumping iron?
Davis: Oh yeah. I had about five months to train, and I took it very seriously. I devoted all my free time to lifting weights with my right arm. In order to stay in my weight class, I couldn’t lift any weights with my left side, so I got this big right arm. My friends called me “The Claw.”
So that experience actually changed everything for me. Because I had this unexpected adventure, and a neighbor of mine in North Beach, where I was living at the time, was a magazine editor who said this sounded like a magazine story, I wrote up a pitch and sent it out. Maxim bought it. I made enough money to cover the trip.
Rumpus: That was the first piece you published?
Davis: That was my first national magazine piece. I had written some pieces for the Bay Guardian, but that was my first real, meaty piece.
And I had this yearning to keep doing that. I didn’t want to go back to Pac Bell. I didn’t feel I could work a normal job after that. So I set off on this series of somewhat quixotic adventures, one of which was right before I got this email that we started talking about.
I’ve always been a runner and had run a marathon and a few races. I was never good enough to win any of them by any stretch. But then I heard about backwards running. I suddenly realized that this was a whole new territory of competitive endeavors, so for a good swath of 2004, I was running backwards.
Rumpus: How fast could you run?
Davis: I did a seven minute, thirty second mile.
Rumpus: Did you use a rearview mirror?
Davis: No, I tried that. The problem is it bounces too much so you can’t really see. You basically just have to go with God.
Rumpus: So you’re not turning around?
Davis: Every now and then you will, but you can’t if you want to go fast. Particularly in a race, you can’t afford to slow your gait down. It becomes a very spiritual experience because you can’t see what’s happening.
Through these experiences, between arm wrestling and backwards running, I met a lot of people who had devoted their lives to something that other people thought was silly. Ridiculous even. And yet it was their life and they loved it. It had so much meaning to them.
And so when I got this email from this urban high school—a very low performing one where less than fifty percent go to college—and they announce that they were building robots and loved it, that hit me in the same way as people who say, “I’m going to run backwards even though you think it’s stupid.”
Rumpus: So you read the email, and almost deleted it.
Davis: I almost deleted it. I let it sit there for about a month. I got it on November first, and then in December, I phoned the school and spoke to Fredi Lajvardi. As soon as he started to tell me what happened, I was like, ‘This is a good story.’ I flew out there in early January of 2005, almost exactly ten years ago.
Rumpus: How could you tell it was a good story?
Davis: It was an underdog story. It was a story of kids coming from an impoverished background where there were very low expectations of them, and yet they had succeeded wildly and the dissonance between the expectations and their success was interesting to me. I wanted to find out if this was an anomaly or if there was something else going on, a program that systematically allowed kids from these backgrounds to expand their horizons, do things that they couldn’t otherwise do.
And there’s a question in my mind. You have an impoverished school with high needs kids, a lot of ESL, and a lot of them needing help in any number of ways in rudimentary skills. Should you invest in just those basic skills, like math and English, and put all your energy and resources there? These teachers are saying, “Nope, not at all.” You give kids goals and challenges, you give them dreams, and they’re going to learn those ABCs and rudimentary skills in pursuit of those dreams. If you give a kid a worksheet and say, “Learn multiplication,” they’re bored, and they won’t do it. But if you give kids a robot and say, “Assemble that, and it could drive across the floor,” they’ll learn everything they need to know. That was a powerful concept.
Rumpus: Also, the kids had to keep their grades up to participate in the robotics program.
Davis: Right, when Lorenzo came on the team his GPA was very low, he was on the verge of getting kicked off and the other kids on the team helped tutor him, Christian in particular. Lorenzo would ask him for the answers and Christian would be like, “No way, I’ll explain to you how I did it, but I’m not going to tell you the answer.”
Rumpus: Christian was the brains.
Davis: He was the brains. He knew he was smart.
Rumpus: And a bit arrogant?
Davis: There’s a little sense of arrogance because he just felt he was smarter than everybody, and it was probably true. But he didn’t have college counseling or conversations about college in such a way that he knew how to channel that intelligence. So if you would’ve asked him before he joined the robotics team what he wanted to do with his life, I don’t think he would’ve had any idea. His dad was a welder, his mother stayed home.
Rumpus: But he sort of tried to build robots all his life.
Davis: He was taking things apart, took radios apart, built things. He had Bob Vila as a role model, so that was a big thing.
I spoke to Bob, and that was a really fascinating conversation because I never knew he was Cuban American. Neither did Christian, neither did anybody. As far as Christian knew, Bob was a normal New England construction guy, but in reality he was born in Cuba. There just weren’t a lot of role models besides Bob Vila that showed him a way to do anything with his intelligence.
Rumpus: Did Christian like Lorenzo?
Davis: Not at first, nor did Oscar. They did not like him. He was the clown. He was a troubled kid. He had been involved in a gang, had said that he had gotten out of it but was constantly getting into fights. He had been sent to anger management class not once but twice. His grades were poor, but in large part it was because he was being taunted and bullied.
There was an incident early in his sophomore year when he was in a science class. He had long hair and somebody threw gum in his hair and that was very hurtful. The teacher didn’t do anything. He went home, his mother tried to get it out for days. She suggested he cut his hair, and he was like, “No way, ’cause if they see me cut my hair as a result of their taunting, then I’ve given into them.” People didn’t like his hair and he looked funny because of his odd-shaped head.
Rumpus: He’s the one that fell as a baby.
Davis: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons they came to the US, to get medical attention for his head. The doctors said there’s basically nothing wrong, they could do surgery but it would be strictly cosmetic. So a lot of his acting out and his truculence and his clownishness was an attempt to cope with the fact that he felt stigmatized.
But on the other hand, the fact that he was an outsider and as a result approached things from unusual perspectives is one of the things that made the team so successful.
Rumpus: His ideas came out of nowhere.
Davis: Like the balloon solution. The team had to take a fluid sample underwater. Other teams came up with complex solutions. Lorenzo decided they should just use a simple balloon and it worked. Another time, their robot started leaking. It looked like they wouldn’t be able to compete until Lorenzo suggested they fill the inside of the robot with tampons to soak up the water. It worked and they were able to compete.
Rumpus: Brilliant. So if Lorenzo was the clown, it seems Luis was the brawn.
Davis: Yeah, that’s how I felt at the time, and yet he is very sharp. Most people don’t think that because he’s silent, huge and intimidating looking. I think the team worried about that because they knew when they were going to go in for the engineering orals, every member of the team would be grilled. They couldn’t have a weak link and there was some concern about whether or not Luis understood everything that they were doing. But when the time came and the judges from NASA and the Navy quizzed him, he nailed it.
I’m only coming to this realization now after having written the book: he wasn’t just the brawn, he was the ground. It’s both metaphorical because he’s also a big guy. He was the levelheaded one, even by his silence, that would calm people down. He was the one who wouldn’t react when things were crazy.
Rumpus: That’s powerful in its own way.
Davis: Yup, they once were having a big debate, and all of the sudden, Luis weighed in, and because he didn’t weigh in very often, it was like, “Okay, debate done.” Luis said, “We’re doing it this way.”
Rumpus: Which of the four students did you associate with most? Did you grow up marginalized, taunted, or feeling like an underdog?
Davis: I had a lot of affection for all of them, and I still do. I’ve known them for ten years now so our experiences together have matured. At first, when I met them, Christian and Lorenzo were fourteen and fifteen, and Luis and Oscar were seventeen and eighteen. It’s been really fun to get to know them in ways I didn’t when they were younger.
Luis in particular, he just never talked, which was always a reporting challenge. I would ask him a question, and he would answer in a monosyllable or grunt. Over the past ten years, I’ve grown very fond of him, and he is now eloquent and speaks amazingly well. I think he was just shy before.
In terms of my own background and how that affected my reporting on this, I do think there was an appreciation for the underdog mentality and story. I’m not a big guy. I’ve always been very skinny and always wanted to be an athlete or a more typical guy in that sense. But I didn’t necessarily let it stop me. I would still get on the pitch, get on the field, whatever it was, and I would usually just get trounced, as was the case with arm wrestling, but I also felt that putting myself out there and getting in the ring even though there was a high likelihood of losing was still worth doing for any number of reasons.
I think each of these kids felt the same way. Entering this national competition in the first place was kind of a crazy idea, and then entering at the collegiate level was even crazier.
Rumpus: I like the reasoning behind it, if we’re going to lose…
Davis: …might as well lose to the best. That spoke to me. That was how I had been living my life between arm wrestling and backwards running.
Rumpus: When you decided to cover this story, how did you get both the students and their families to open up to you, particularly about their immigration stories?
Davis: At first, I didn’t actually know about their immigration status. Once I got there, I heard from the teachers that the majority of the students were undocumented. It was only after having done the reporting that it came out that three of them were undocumented. Luis had recently received his green card. He had been undocumented for most of high school.
So that posed a reporting ethical question. Times were different back then, particularly in Arizona. They’re still not great there. People didn’t call immigrants ‘undocumented’ at the time, they called them ‘illegal aliens.’ The general view was very negative. And the political climate was negative also. Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County was very aggressively trying to stamp out undocumented immigration.
But if you leave their undocumented status out, you’re missing one of the foundational aspects of the story and a number of things that happened and informed the story, like the five Wilson students that went up to Niagara Falls earlier that year [for a competition]. On the way back, they got stopped at an immigration checkpoint and three of four of them had begun deportation hearings.
It’s one thing to talk about impoverished students building a robot and trying to raise money to get to UC Santa Barbara for the competition. It’s another thing when you realize that the decision to go to Santa Barbara was not just financial. You might not come back. So in telling the story, you do a disservice to the decision that they made to risk everything to compete with this robot.
But it wasn’t my decision to make. I said it was very important, not just from a narrative point of view and an attempt to understand what they accomplished, but there’s a broader point to be made here: part of the reason that immigrants from Mexico and Central America have the reputation that they have nationally is due to fear mongering, and that fear mongering derives from the fact that there aren’t accurate stories being told about who these immigrants are, why they’re here, and what their hopes and dreams and aspirations are.
I know it’s a lot to put on these young men, but I expressed my feeling that in lieu of those accurate representations of who these immigrants are, fear mongering would continue.
Rumpus: You saw an opportunity.
Davis: I saw an opportunity to tell the truth. And they said that they would think about it overnight. They had a meeting with their teachers, who said they should not reveal this or allow this to be revealed. The students went home and spoke to their families, and their families felt similarly, but the students felt extraordinarily strongly that they had to let this information be shared. And they also agreed before going out that if one of them said no, they wouldn’t do it. It had to be a unanimous decision. They came back the next day and unanimously decided to let me share the information.
It was Oscar, I believe, who said he felt this was a Rosa Parks moment—a moment when you don’t get off the bus. And that it may have repercussions for them individually but the greater good outweighs that. It was a pretty powerful decision for teenagers to make.
Rumpus: So you wrote about their immigration status but they didn’t end up being targeted.
Davis: Yeah, they did not get targeted. It’s possible that they had such a high profile that it would’ve caused a sensation that the opposing side didn’t want. After the Wired article came out, there was a 20/20 piece that was very good, so there was a lot of attention on the story at that point.
On the other hand, it also coincided with a broader backlash against immigrants. Propositions 200 and 300 passed, which raised tuition for undocumented students and forced at least Christian out of Arizona State University.
I can’t say if that would’ve naturally happened. I’m sure that there were many other forces at play here, but, at the same time, when this story was published—and the 20/20 piece that came out soon thereafter brought a lot of attention to the fact that there were a lot of undocumented students in the state of Arizona and all over the country, as well, who were hoping to go to college—a lot of Arizonians thought that was inappropriate to spend tax payers’ money on their education. So I think the broader awareness of the story brought out fervent feelings such that when these propositions came to a vote they were ratified. That was disheartening.
Rumpus: In contrast, some Wired readers sent in money for the boys.
Davis: Right, when the article came out, I started getting emails from readers asking where they could donate money. Within a matter of days, the school district set up a scholarship fund for the boys, and we raised roughly a hundred thousand dollars.
Subsequently, a business man, Peter Gaskins from Oregon, and a group of his friends came together to form a scholarship fund specifically for the kids that graduated from the robotics program at Carl Hayden High School. They went on to send a number of kids—in the order of half a million dollars—to college, one of whom, Angelica Hernandez, graduated from Arizona State University and got a master’s degree from Stanford. That totally changed her life.
Rumpus: You dedicated the book to the teachers Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi. Fredi is so incredible, I was deeply touched by his actions, mentorship, and generosity. At the time, he was balancing his schedule between supporting a wife and two young children with special needs while working closely with the students as they prepared for the robot competition. Was his wife okay with this?
Davis: Yeah, she had started out at Carl Hayden High School. Then when their second child was born and had special needs, she decided to stay at home to take care of the kids. It will be a surprise to no one that it’s extremely difficult to survive on one teacher’s salary, particularly when you have two kids who have special needs.
A number of years ago, Fredi also was diagnosed with cancer and successfully beat it. This guy has a whole lot on his plate. He’s not just teaching but he’s running this program that takes an enormous amount of time, and for most of the last fifteen years, he hasn’t been compensated. Only last year did they start compensating him.
Rumpus: Two hundred and forty dollars a month. I was so upset when I read that.
Davis: I know, right? It’s meaningless. It’s almost an insult, particularly when you look at the impact this guy has had on an entire generation of kids. What do we as a society value?
Rumpus: The film Spare Parts has a happy ending. How would you change it if it was your documentary?
Davis: It’s Hollywood, and I understand that the film is a certain type of medium and has its own kind of format. The movie is great within that format. But at the same time, it doesn’t address some of the deeper questions that the story brings up.
In the book, it’s roughly the mid-point when they win the competition, and what happens after the competition is equally as provocative to me, which is why I spent so much time on it.
Rumpus: What are the boys, or should I say men, of Spare Parts doing now?
Davis: I gotta stop calling them kids. They’re adults. They’re still close; they still see each other frequently. Oscar was in the military for a while, went to Mexico, then Afghanistan and Alaska. Now he’s in Montana. The other three are in Phoenix. Luis and Lorenzo [who run a catering business together] see each other every week. They see Christian less frequently. I would say once a month they still hang out.
Rumpus: It was a bit sad for me, knowing Christian was the brains of the team, to read about him tinkering in the corner of his room in a makeshift lab after he was forced to drop out of college.
Davis: He deserves better and hopefully he’ll get there.
Rumpus: On another note, your bio on the Epic Magazine website says you spent time in jail in three continents.
Davis: In Belgium, I did a story about a diamond heist. The mastermind of that robbery was in Hasselt prison, so I spent weeks and weeks interviewing him there. I did another story about a wealthy American who got busted for DVD piracy in China, so I was in the prison there outside of Shanghai, and then here in the US, I was in a prison for the Hans Reiser story. You remember Steve’s [Elliott] book The Adderall Diaries? Steve found out about the story because I was covering it.
I just spent time in an Italian jail outside of Venice on the Vincenzo Pipino story. He robbed the Ducale of a centuries-old painting. This is a really fun story.
Rumpus: Epic aims for “stories worth remembering.” What does that mean to you? How does one create a story worth remembering?
Davis: First you have to find it. That’s most of the battle. And what does that mean? There are the types of stories in the journalism world that are called evergreen. For quite a while that term was used almost derisively, at least from the writer’s perspective. As a writer, I would have a story that I was in love with, and the magazine would keep bumping it. It wouldn’t go into the August issue, it wouldn’t go into the September issue, it just kept bumping month to month, and they would say, “It’s evergreen.” There’s no time peg. From their perspective, if it didn’t help sell the magazine in that particular season, it got bumped.
Part of the reason that Josh Bearman and I formed Epic was to create a venue for those stories that were evergreen—stories that you could tell ten years later, like the Spare Parts story, and it’s still as captivating as it was ten years ago.
Rumpus: It’s timeless.
Davis: That’s the point of Epic.
Read an exclusive excerpt from Josh’s Spare Parts here.
Featured image © Sebastian Mlynarski. Movie still courtesy of Lionsgate.