Spare Parts: An Emotional Roller Coaster at the Theme Park of Broken Immigration Policy

The number of PG or PG-13 films that really move or inspire me is not that large. Somewhere at the top of that list is Finding Neverland. It’s tough to remember exactly what was going on with me at the time, but I remember it hit me hard. There is now a new contender: Spare Parts. The movie is based on this Wired article about four undocumented high school students from Arizona with a shoestring budget that enter and win a national robotics competition. Oh, and they end up at the college level knocking off the likes of MIT students.

movie posterI remembered the article, but had to refresh before watching the movie. Even with big names like George Lopez, Marisa Tomei, Esai Morales, and Jamie Lee Curtis in the film, the article is actually better in its depth. Where the movie surpasses the article is showing the power of an empathetic and inspirational teacher, an amalgamation of the two real life teachers, played by Lopez. It also captures white privilege well when kids of color from tough backgrounds come up against students of elite institutions with robotics project budgets larger than their annual family incomes. Finally, it does a good job showing how sad and fucked up the current racist immigration system is with the horrors the students and their families face daily; a microcosm of the plight of millions.

I haven’t seen a lot of George Lopez in movies, but I would wager this is his best dramatic performance. However, it’s the lesser known youth of diverse U.S./Latin American backgrounds that really carry this thing. There is the natural leader in ROTC that wants to be in the Army (but can’t), Oscar, played by Carlos PenaVega. The nerd that is bullied, but that is also the brains of the operation, Cristian, played by David Del Rio. The not-as-bright jock muscle, Luis, played by Oscar Gutierrez II. And the bad boy who also happens to be a mechanical genius, Lorenzo, played by José Julián. Julián’s Lorenzo stole the show for me.

It’s an emotional ride and will pull on those heartstrings. My wife was especially moved by the young men, because she grew up with similar personalities in her family that were also undocumented and unable to achieve their potential due to their statuses. Maybe you’ll even be cheering at the end like we were. The film ends on a happy note, but it’s far from the end of the young men’s journeys and where shit gets… okay, maybe stays… real.

Luis, the stereotypical dumb jock character, actually had the most luck of the four and got his U.S. citizenship and a job as a janitor. Lorenzo ended up being a cook, which is what he wanted to do, but is still on DACA. Cristian and Oscar’s stories are more tragic and more representative of the system.

Cristian — who in a perfect world would be a professor at MIT or be a boss rubbing shoulders with Elon Musk at Space X or something — wasn’t able to finish college due to Arizona Proposition 300 that raised tuition on undocumented students and made them ineligible for in-state tuition and state financial aid. He is currently unemployed and disillusioned by the disgusting political process. Oscar was able to get through the aforementioned proposition and get a degree in mechanical engineering, but had to go back to Mexico to apply for residency. He ended up being denied by the consulate in Mexico and went from picking beans in Chihuahua to working on a car parts assembly line.

Again: a guy raised in the U.S., with an engineering degree from a U.S. college, was denied entry for 10 years to the U.S. while the U.S. is handing out how many visas to engineers from abroad? There’s your system at work. A supporter of the robotics team named Carmen basically saved Oscar. She campaigned for him door to door and eventually got the ear of Sen. Dick Durbin, who granted Oscar amnesty. So in this case, unlike most, there was a happy ending.

Put Spare Parts in your Netflix queue. Hell, push it to the top. But also contact elected officials on the mess that is immigration policy in this country and treat all those around you with dignity and respect. Regardless of people’s immigration statuses, chances are, in one way or another, they are geniuses.

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