One Final Gift

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006

They stayed up past midnight in the church saying goodbye to El Chino. Soon it would be time to send the dead man home. But how -- and to where?

He was called El Chino because when he smiled, Oscar Antonio Argueta, 44, had a squint that made him appear Asian. This was the gaze peering out from the photocopies taped to the cardboard donation boxes that popped up last week around Langley Park, Takoma Park, Silver Spring, Wheaton. At the 7-Eleven. At the pizza place and the bakery. At the storefront where families go to ship packages home to El Salvador.

The picture was taken on a soccer field Oct. 22, the day Argueta scored a goal in the semifinals of the day laborers' soccer league, sponsored by the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland. A few hours later, at home in the Petworth apartment, with his son, Kevin, 2, bouncing on his belly in front of the television, and his fiancee ironing clothes in the same room, and black beans cooking on the stove, Argueta suddenly collapsed and died.

He was not famous. He never made much money. But the shock of his absence shot through his Latino immigrant community as a shared pain. The community turned to a familiar ritual, founded upon two premises: Nobody dies alone. Death is expensive.

There was also this existential question: Where is home, really, for someone still cultivating roots in a new country? Where should El Chino be buried?

Many said his remains should be sent to El Salvador, where he had grown up: airmail on TACA Airlines, a very special package, a sad package, the remains of one American dream. It would take the same route as all those happy packages, the toys, the clothes, the electronics -- the tokens of dreams being realized, shipped every week to the people left behind, the folks back home.

But Argueta was born in Honduras, where his parents happened to live at the time. His fiancee, Dilcia Areli Banegas, 35, Kevin's mother, also was born there. She said the couple dreamed of buying a house in that country one day, after they bought a house in the United States. Then, was Honduras home?

But Kevin was born here; he is a U.S. citizen. Argueta's three brothers also live in the United States. Argueta himself had lived here since 1988. He arrived illegally -- traveling by bus and on foot through Mexico, across the desert to Houston, flying to D.C. But he soon obtained a work permit and had been legally documented ever since, his family said. Was that enough to make America home?

Ultimately, the people of this place agreed that home for El Chino is where the parents are. Aged and ailing, Gumerzindo and Izidra Argueta live in San Miguel, El Salvador. In the past 18 years, they saw their son twice. They wanted to see him one more time.

So it would be a sad package bound for El Salvador. Also an expensive package.

The homemade donation boxes had slots for inserting money.

On the outside, with El Chino's picture, were messages in Spanish. Said one, hand-lettered: "Antonio came to this country with many dreams, like you. Now that he is resting, his family needs a little of your help."

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