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Dreamer Lorenzo Santillan in Phoenix, Arizona, United States. EFE/Beatriz Limon
Dreamer Lorenzo Santillan in Phoenix, Arizona, United States. EFE/Beatriz Limon

No papers, no scholarship: Latino budding scientist becomes food truck chef

After winning a prestigious robotics contest, Dreamer Lorenzo Santillan had the chance to become a scientist, but his immigration status kept him from getting…

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After winning a prestigious robotics contest, Dreamer Lorenzo Santillan had the chance to become a scientist, but his immigration status kept him from getting a university scholarship and he had to find an alternative, which turned out to be a traveling food truck that he calls "Neither Here Nor There."

Santillan was on a team of undocumented students at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, Arizona, which in 2004 won an underwater robotics contest by defeating competitors from outstanding universities around the country including the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

That triumph, which inspired the documentary "Underwater Dreams" and the movie "Spare Parts" with George Lopez, Jamie Lee Curtis and Marisa Tomei, should have opened the way to a university career, but his immigration status made him unable to get one of the scholarships being offered, and paying his own tuition was out of the question.

Nonetheless, Santillan is convinced that not having the necessary papers should not hold undocumented students back.

He didn't accept defeat and finished his culinary studies at a community college, then operated a traveling food truck, the perfect picture of a young dreamer seeking to get ahead in the USA.

 "You feel sad being undocumented, but you're not going to stop your life on account of it. Sure we had a lot of opportunities after winning that robotics contest, but because we were undocumented, we weren't eligible for the scholarships they offered us," he said in an interview with EFE.

No scholarships, but an article in the press published in 2005 telling the story of these undocumented young people who beat teams from prestigious educational centers, got them written up in the national and international press.

That article attracted attention to the way some young undocumented Latinos out in the desert, in a school full of street gangs and violence, could win a robotics contest," Santillan recalled.

 "We received funds from people all over the world. They gave us $100,000 in donations, and since we were four students, I got $25,000 - that was my scholarship to study cooking, and I didn't have to be a citizen to get it,"  he said smiling proudly.

Now, protected by the DACA measure passed by former President Barack Obama for undocumented young people who came to the US with their parents when they were just children, he undertook his new career, which joins the Mexican and US cultures: cuisine.

Santillan, who arrived in Phoenix when he was just 9 months old from Michoacan, Mexico, said that he has never visited his country of origin.

In those days, DACA, passed in 2012, didn't exist, so Santillan was ineligible for a scholarship that would have paid for his studies in robotics, despite having received several offers.

"So we had to do what was left for us to do. I focused on the culture that has given me so much, my mother's cooking," he said smiling, but knowing that he had to put aside his dreams of being a scientist. 

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