He was typical, in a sense, of many Salvadoran immigrants who have come to Washington in recent years. A peasant who had left the land in hope of a new life away from the sun, he found the obstacles of a foreign language and an alien culture impossible to surmount.
But if Ramon Mejia's life was typical, the way it ended was not. Last Sunday morning, the partly burned body of the 44-year-old dishwasher was found lying face down a few feet from the memorial flame at John F. Kennedy's gravesite in Arlington Cemetery.
U.S. Park Police investigators are waiting for laboratory test results to determine the cause of Mejia's death. According to a detective, there is no reason to suspect that he was slain. No one knows why he ended up at such a strangely symbolic place, and the exact circumstances surrounding his death may never be known.
What is clear from interviews with friends and relatives is that Mejia's life in his new country was beset by homesickness and alcoholic despair. Described as a frail, smiling man, he evidently lacked the toughness and resilience necessary to survive as an immigrant in a frequently hostile and incomprensible world.
Some Salvadorans come to this city in the Latin tradition of heading for "la capital" when the land runs out and there are no jobs to be had. Others head for Washington because friends and relatives are already here, writing home about wages earned in dollars and supermarkets full of exotic foods packed in aluminum wrappers and products in spray cans.
Mejia came for both reasons. His cousin, Rosa Molina de Mesa, who thought of Mejia "as a brother," came here in 1972 and wrote to him often in the family's home town of Intipuca, in the sunstruck eastern province of La Union.
Two years later, Mejia decided to leave Intipuca and the small plot of land he rented from a landlord in return for half his crop of cotton and corn. He left his mother and two brothers behind and arrived in Washington looking for his cousin and a job, "full of optimism," said Molina, ready to make it in the land of hope.
It is not clear what led Mejia to become an alcoholic. While his cousin Rosa Molina and her husband Francisco Mesa worked their way up the immigrant ladder, one becoming a houseworker and the other a carpenter, Mejia continued in a series of temporary jobs and, after his first year here, began drinking heavily.
"He was so sweet and so well-behaved," Molina, who works as a maid in Georgetown, said last week. "It was just the company he kept that brought him down. For a year he worked hard and saved money. Then he just started drinking. He hardly ever ate. He got so skinny."
Molina said her cousin steadfastly refused to live with her family in their modest but cheerful apartment.
Instead he stayed in a rented basement room in a building off 14th Street. The building is clean and well-kept by comparison to others on the rundown block, but Salvadorans who live there do not feel at ease in the neighborhood.
The racial tensions evidently affected Mejia. One day he hammered a sheet of metal over the only window in the tiny room he shared with another Salvadoran, because "he got sick of trash and bottles being thrown inside his room," a neighbor said. Mejia, a friendly man with other Hispanics and someone described by a coworker as "always willing to laugh at a joke," was silent and stonefaced with English-speaking Americans, white or black, whose language he never managed to learn.
Mejia slipped slowly into hopelessness. Early this year, Molina said, he boasted of having saved up "lots of money," and told a neighbor he was going home to La Union to buy an aunt's plot of land. But then, Molina says, he started drinking more heavily than ever, "lending money to drinking companions who never paid him back." Often he told his cousin that he was ready to quit drinking. "He would lead an ordered life and eat for a few weeks, then he would slide back again."
Perhaps it was the sheer ugliness of where he lived, or the sad work of cleaning plates of half-eaten food in a damp hotel kitchen night after night for $3.35 an hour. Perhaps it was the loneliness that wore Mejia's strength down. "One is never as happy here as at home," said a man who knew him from Intipuca. "There you call across the street to everyone you know. Here, as a foreigner, nobody wants you."
In the last months of his life, Mejia was drinking the leftover wine out of guests' glasses in the kitchen of the Shoreham Hotel where he sometimes worked, said Iluminado Cera, a coworker. He started talking to himself, and grew thinner. Possibly as a result of his debilitated state, a small cut on a finger became infected and inflamed his arm grotesquely. Late last month, his worried cousin and her husband, Francisco Mesa, took him to Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, but while his arm healed, his emotional condition worsened.
"He said he felt like he was in jail, and finally my husband signed him out," Molina recalled. "But he was very nervous at home, saying things that weren't right . . . . He talked about seeing his father, and he kept asking my husband to take him to the Capitol, even late at night. The doctors said they couldn't give him medicine for his nerves without putting him in the hospital again, but he refused."
On the night of Friday, Nov. 26, Molina said goodnight to her cousin for the last time after seeing that he went to bed in the little room her family kept for him in their apartment. The next morning he was gone, leaving behind his keys and identification. Last Monday, they heard that a man "with possibly Hispanic features" had been found on Kennedy's grave.
Whether Mejia, his reflexes weakened by alcohol, fell onto the flames and accidentally burned to death will probably never be known, although police acknowledge it is the most plausible speculation to date.
Sometimes a friend from Intipuca would chide Mejia after seeing him drinking in his room. "Ramon," he would say. "Get your life in shape. Start saving for the trip home." "I'll never get back," he would say, with a dry laugh. But he was wrong: this week his ashes will be shipped to his family in El Salvador.