It’s a story from our own backyard, but it’s not one that’s often told.
Prolific actor, producer, director and activist Esai Morales co-stars in upcoming film “Spare Parts,” which will be released January 16, based on a true Phoenix story that occurred in 2004. The film also stars George Lopez, Jamie Lee-Curtis and Marisa Tomei.
It centers on Carl Hayden Community High School and its real life students, Oscar Vazquez, Cristian Arcega, Luis Aranda and Lorenzo Santillan—all teens from a poor part of town, some of whom were undocumented. The unlikely group of students, with nothing more than $800, used car parts and some guts, took on the prestigious MIT Robotics Club and won the Marine Advanced Technology Education Competition Underwater Robot Challenge.
The film showcases several Hispanic artists in meaningful roles, including Morales, who portrays the father of student Lorenzo Santillan. He recognizes that there are few roles like this in Hollywood, so when he got a call from George Lopez, who also stars in the film, about the script, the story resonated with him.
“That’s the shot in the arm that young people from those communities and others need to really see—that you can strive to do great things and actually achieve them,” Morales says.
“I was connected with the relationship with the son and the father and that whole dynamic,” he explains. “I got to meet the real Lorenzo and some of the people that we were portraying at the wrap party. It was a pleasure and an honor, because as much as I’ve done in my life, I look at other people and I’m floored and humbled by what they do in theirs.”
Morales hopes that people take away a positive message from “Spare Parts.”
“I think it’s a multi-faceted message,” Morales says. “Number one, we’re people—people left in the background. We’re not monolithic. Not everybody speaks Spanish, not everybody is an immigrant and not everyone is an American.”
The relationship between father and son in the film was also an important one that can serve as an example of what is possible with encouragement, Morales says.
“We have to stop the negativity that is passed on down to our children and the neuroses,” he says.
Morales is taking an active role in how Latinos are perceived in media, and not just with the roles he chooses. He founded National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts in 1997 with actors Sonia Braga, Jimmy Smits, Merel Julia and attorney Felix Sanchez to encourage increased presence of Latinos in media and entertainment.
The organization has provided scholarships in excess of $1 million to more than 350 Hispanic students who are pursuing graduate degrees in the arts.
”We started the organization to improve the quantity of our people—Latino Americans—who participate in this business,” Morales says. “The more that we support the students that excel in their studies we’ll be able to populate the industry with talented individuals.”