The mailman has become the most important person these days in the lives of the staff members at El Latino, the area's largest Spanish language weekly, which has fallen on not just bad times, but desperate times.

"Basically, we wait for the mail. We pray for whatever money comes in the mail," said Carlos Caban, the paper's editor, who early yesterday was still assigning stories for what he thought would be a printing run of 26,000 last night.

But what came in the mail yesterday wasn't enough to meet the printer's cost, much less the salaries, so printing was put off until Monday night -- maybe.

It is unclear how much longer El Latino will be able to survive its financial morass, or exactly how the paper, a mainstay of the Latino community here for years, fell onto such hard financial times. Its connection to the bankrupt Latin Investment Corp., its major stockholder, certainly played a major role in its current struggle; others cite a lack of internal financial controls.

But two things are clear. The paper needs a significant infusion of cash to keep going; its cash flow is at a trickle and, according to publisher Varsi Padayachee, estimates of its debt range from a $300,000 figure cited by auditors to his own figure of $50,000. And its skeletal staff is unwilling to fold without a ferocious struggle.

Most haven't seen a regular paycheck in weeks, but still they arrive each weekday morning. Stephen Lynch, the paper's sales manager for the last four years, has been paid only $500 in the last four months.

Juanita Sanchez, the classified director and distribution manager, said she sleeps on the office floor some nights because she lost both of her cars in the aftermath of the paper's inability to meet a number of payrolls; the last bus run to her Oxon Hill home often passes before she has finished her work. And editor Caban said he's skipped $5,000 in salary and is living off credit.

"If there was an award to be given for courage, the staff would certainly deserve it," said Padayachee, at the paper's spacious Adams-Morgan offices. Padayachee, who said he had received only three paychecks since September, was waiting anxiously to see if the morning's mail would bring the $8,000 in bill payments needed to meet printing and salary costs.

When the mail arrived, Padayachee quickly picked through the lot, sorting out what were obvious letters bearing checks. "That's only about $2,000," he said. By day's end, when the banks had closed and the sales accounts representatives had picked up all the outstanding bills they could, the paper had pulled in about $3,000 -- $5,000 short of its goal.

Most at the paper have stayed despite increasingly grim prospects out of a belief that a rescuing hand was a tomorrow away. Those hopes, however, were significantly dampened earlier this week. A bid to purchase the paper by one of the country's largest Spanish language newspapers, El Diario La Prensa, was rejected by the federal bankruptcy trustee appointed to oversee the assets of Latin Investment Corp. and by the other majority stockholder of the paper, now the editor of a competing paper published for the first time this week.

Neither bankruptcy trustee Murray Drabkin nor El Diario La Prensa President Peter Davidson would reveal the proposed purchase price, but Drabkin described it as "not adequate." Davidson, however, said it was a "fair offering that would have gotten money to the depositors" of Latin Investment Corp.

"We have the greatest respect" for the staff, said Davidson, who described himself as "very disappointed" that the deal failed. "The walls have been caving in all around them, and still they are putting out a good paper."

An emergency bid to The Washington Post to buy the paper also was rejected this week as was a request to The Post to print the paper for a few weeks at no cost, according to a Post spokesman. "All we need is a cushion to work with," said Padayachee.

Regardless of how much money the paper pulls in Monday, Padayachee said, the newspaper will go to print, and attempts to sell the paper or find the much needed cushion will continue.

"We will positively print Monday," he said. "We cannot allow it not to happen after all the work we've put in . . . . We would be dead if we didn't publish one week."