Between Worlds

Cine las Americas Festival of New Latin American Cinema

Boxer Gabriel Jesus Sandoval Chavez of <i>Split Decision</i>
Boxer Gabriel Jesus Sandoval Chavez of Split Decision

Split Decision: A Dream Deferred

At one point in Austinite Marcy Garriott's Split Decision, a banner appears that reads: "Decisions Determine Destiny." It's sound advice, but in the context of Garriott's documentary on boxer Gabriel Jesus Sandoval Chavez, these words are a harshly ironic flip side to the banner's otherwise sensible message.

Born in 1972 in Chihuahua, Mexico, Chavez grew up in Chicago, where at the age of seven, he fell into boxing. It turns out he was good at it. Very good. By 1989, Chavez was a featherweight boxer known as "El Matador" and was a semifinalist at the Golden Gloves national competition in Miami. But one misguided decision as a teenager changed his life: He joined some neighborhood thugs in a grocery store robbery. Chavez confessed, agreeing to jail time rather than allowing his parents to mortgage the house for bail, and eventually pleaded guilty when his case went to court. Chavez "paid his debt back to society" with three and a half years of prison time for armed robbery. But because of his Mexican-national status, he was promptly deported upon his release from prison in 1994. He hadn't lived in Mexico for 22 years.

Former AT&T exec Marcy Garriott met Chavez through her brother-in-law Richard Garriott, who was working out at Richard Lord's Boxing Gym. Though Chavez was in the States illegally, he kept out of trouble, earning his keep teaching boxing classes at Lord's gym. He was also training and boxing under the name Jesus "El Matador" Chavez, and in 1997, he became the North American Boxing Federation super featherweight champ. Chavez was boxing his way toward a world championship. But his attempt to get a driver's license prompted immigration officials to start the deportation process once again. Stringent immigration laws passed in 1996 did not allow non-citizens convicted of a crime to stay in America. Period.

"It was shocking to me and everyone else," Garriott explains from her home in Austin. "I was not a boxing fan at the time, but what got me very interested was having met Chavez and knowing what an incredibly gentle and kind person he is." Garriott was also struck by the fact that Chavez is an example of how the criminal justice system should work: A person commits a crime, accepts suitable punishment, rehabilitates him- or herself, and leads a good and honest life. Except in Chavez's case, redemption in the U.S. was not an option.

"My goal with the film is to make people realize that we should find out the individual facts of each individual immigration case," Garriott says.

Split Decision was shot over a two-year period in Chicago, Austin, Mexico City, and Chihuahua, Mexico. It ends with a 27-year-old Chavez contemplating his dream -- a world championship -- which hinges on his ability to fight in the States. And it nags viewers to reconsider ideas about justice, redemption, and a one-size-fits-all criminal justice system.

Split Decision will screen on Sat, Apr 22, 7pm, at the Center for Mexican-American Cultural Arts, 600 River, and back-to-back on Sat, Apr 29, 7pm & 9:45pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse, 409 Colorado.

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