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Images of the Saints Foster Faith, Friendship

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For Adán Carriaga, the traditional art of carving santos is a form of worship that connects him with God, family, community and friends.

The Old Town native learned difficult lessons about forgiveness after a drunken driver killed his mother in 1984. The tragedy also led Carriaga, 54, to a career in substance-abuse rehabilitation.

Today, the patient art of carving and painting the images of saints is teaching him new lessons in love, faith and friendship.

“When I carve, I pray and meditate, and that’s my thing,” Carriaga said. “If I start feeling anxious, I start carving and it calms me down. I look at it as an answer to my prayers.”

Each week, a group of santeros meets at the workshop in Carriaga’s home where they study centuries-old techniques under the watchful eye of a master santero, Alcario Otero of El Cerro.

Faces, hands and other details emerge from blocks of pine under chisels and tiny cutting tools guided by practiced hands. Journeymen santeros – one as young as 14 – bring their work to Otero and ask his advice.

“Doesn’t that look a lot better?” Otero asks one of his students after carving plumage into the wings of a tiny dove. Otero, 62, keeps up a running commentary throughout the two-hour class.

“Especially in this time, it’s so dark and gloomy that it’s our responsibility to create beautiful things to bring happiness to people,” Otero said to anyone listening.

“The talent that we have, guys, is not ours,” he said. “It’s given to us or loaned to us. It’s not about getting rich or famous. When I see one of these guys getting a little bit fat-headed, I set him straight.” As with many of Otero’s remarks, this one draws chuckles from the other men.

For Rudy Parga, 69, making santos is a form of evangelism – a way of transmitting his faith to others.

“These hands wouldn’t do this kind of work if God didn’t give me the passion to do this,” he said.

Throughout the class, Carriaga sits quietly carving a bulto, or a carved wooden statue. Like Parga, Carriaga says the intent of his work is to arouse faith in others.

“If I can inspire someone to think about God, even for a moment, then it’s a successful piece,” he said. “For many years, I was a taker from the community, and now that I’m an older guy I want to be a giver to the community. What better gift than the gift of spirituality.”

Anger channeled

A turning point in Carriaga’s life came in 1984 when his 68-year-old mother, Ruth Carriaga, was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in her neighborhood as she walked home from a bus stop. Her death sent the 27-year-old Carriaga into a downward spiral of anger and depression.

“When it first happened, I was bitter,” Carriaga recalled. “I was a miserable human being.”

Police quickly arrested Freddie Sedillo, 35, a neighbor, who was later convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to four years in prison. Sedillo served only 18 months, Carriaga said.

“I felt that the system did not protect the public,” he said.

An Albuquerque High School graduate and basketball player, Carriaga describes himself as having been a “party guy” in his youth. He curtailed his good-times lifestyle after his mother’s death.

“I decided there was no way I would feel comfortable going out and having a beer and driving – absolutely no way,” he said. “It just really does something when you have a traumatic experience like that.”

Carriaga at first channeled his anger into anti-DWI activism, then chose a career as a substance-abuse treatment counselor, working for Healthcare for the Homeless and managing the DWI addiction treatment program at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

He retired last year as administrator for Bernalillo County’s department of Substance Abuse Programs.

“I wanted to help be part of the solution,” Carriaga said. “I wanted to help people clean up and be responsible. In so doing, it protected other families from the same trauma.”

A place to pray

After more than two hours of carving, the santeros join hands and pray in a small chapel Carriaga built behind his home. Behind the men is a hand-carved altar screen painted in the New Mexico style with colorful retablos.

Carriaga built the chapel as a descanso – a memorial – to his parents. His father, Adán Chavez Carriaga, died in 1967. In addition to the colorful altar screen, the chapel contains dozens of religious images, many of them donated by santeros Carriaga knows across New Mexico.

“We thank you for sending Jesus to die on the cross,” Otero said in his prayer. “That’s what Easter means to us, Lord. That’s your love letter to us. We thank you for that.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal