ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A few months before Albuquerque High School’s Class of 1975 graduated and said goodbye to the halcyon days of youth and each other, we crowded together on the gym bleachers for the traditional group photo.
Holding court at the top of the bleachers were the cocky jocks, studs and stars of school.
Adan Carriaga was not among them.
He could have been. At Bulldog City, he was the golden boy with glints of gold in his hair. He was the heartthrob, a popular party boy who ascended the social hierarchy summit as a 6-foot-3 basketball standout at a school where basketball is a religion.
I, as you might have guessed, was not a member of that clique of cool kids, and it took years for me to realize that Carriaga didn’t see himself as exclusive to it, either. He was both a big man and an everyman who moved effortlessly through the disparate worlds of dignitary and downtrodden with ease and an earnest gregariousness.
“One minute he’d be talking to a cholo and the next he’d be talking to a senator,” oldest daughter Jenina Carriaga Lambert said. “He got along with everyone.”
We lost Carriaga late Friday night, his big heart ceasing to beat, breaking the hearts of those whose lives he touched – and, often, saved – as a master santero, a substance abuse survivor who helped others survive, an advocate for the homeless and against drunken driving, a counselor, a spiritual sage, a generous soul, a barrio boy, a proud Bulldog. He was 63.
As word of Carriaga’s passing spread, tributes came from his many worlds – from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, basketball legends, artists, health care workers, cultural preservationists, those he helped out of homelessness or substance abuse and alcohol, those who, like me, knew him as that golden boy from Bulldog City.
To list all of his accomplishments would take up most of this column. Suffice it to say he served in the Army, worked in public and private entities in the areas of behavioral health and recovery, became an internationally renowned santero, organized Albuquerque Celebrates Recovery every year and lent his voice to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Serenity Mesa Youth Recovery Center, Wings Ministry, Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, Spanish Colonial Arts Society, Lawrence Charles Vargas Shoes-for-Kids and Acts of Compassion, Duke City Gladiators and just about any cause that needed him.
One of his many favorite sayings involved the dash between the birth and death dates engraved upon a tombstone: “Your life is made of two dates and a dash. Make the most of the dash.”
Carriaga sure did.
He was the youngest of five children, growing up in the working class neighborhoods of Sawmill and Wells Park. His father died when he was 9, and shortly after that he began carving figurines of Frankenstein out of wood scraps that he sold in Old Town for $10 apiece.
Thus another one of his sayings was born: When you feel bad, create kindness or art.
Or play basketball.
He became a star rebounder at Albuquerque High, helping lead the team to the state tournament in 1974 and 1975 and finding a father figure in Coach Jim Hulsman.
A car crash in October 1974 broke one of his legs, nearly tore off the foot of the other and almost ended his basketball career. But he returned to the court. Basketball scholarships took him first to the New Mexico Military Institute and then to McPherson College in Kansas, where he met his first wife.
Eventually, the cheers from adoring crowds faded. His golden days, like his honey-hued hair, darkened, then receded. He slipped deep into alcohol, drugs and despair. In 1984, his beloved mother, Ruth, was killed by a drunken driver. His marriage failed. Friends died young.
“I kept a list of all the funerals I went to — 67 funerals of friends who either OD’d, had AIDS, cirrhosis, got shot in a drug deal,” he told me in a 2018 interview. “I quit keeping track after that.”
But he didn’t quit searching for how to make the most of that dash. With the help of relatives, friends and faith, he got clean, got a job, a place to stay, a second chance. He returned to the house where he grew up, never forgetting his roots in the barrio, in blood and love and loss and grace.
He returned to art and wood-carving. This year, he marked 35 years of sobriety.
If you were lucky enough to be his friend, and even if you weren’t, he greeted you with his familiar saying, “Morning, buenos dias, good morning, spread love.”
If you were one of his three oldest daughters – his three stars in Orion’s Belt, his three feathers, his three strands in a braid, as he called them – he greeted you with his rendition of “It’s a Beautiful Morning” by The Rascals, sung off-key.
“Every day of our lives, that song,” daughter Monica said.
In his 50s, Carriaga battled testicular cancer and beat it. His siblings were not as fortunate, most of them succumbing to cancer. He was the last sibling standing.
But he was hardly alone.
In 2015, he married Maria “Seica” Santana, a woman from Brazil who fell in love with his art and then fell in love with him.
To many of us, Carriaga never tired, never quit spreading love.
But his daughters say that in the last few months he had grown tired. His ankle damaged in the 1974 crash required surgery last August, but it only exacerbated the pain.
Yet on the Saturday before his death, he was out strolling and smiling in the annual Walk MS in support of a friend.
Last Friday, he was not feeling well. He complained of burning in his chest and called a grandson to take him to the hospital. He never made it. Within minutes, he was gone.
“He used to say our bodies are just meat sacks,” Monica said. “But our spirit lives on.”
So, I think, it will be with Carriaga, the golden boy from Bulldog City who stayed down to earth rather than float aloof with the stars. He made the most of that dash, shorter than expected, but still so golden and good and so full of love.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.
Editor’s note: The above story has been modified to clarify details.