Daniel Manzoni is the founder and prime force behind the annual Argentine Festival. After 25 years, the festival has proved to be an enduringly singular creation, a quirky institution founded on one man’s passion and pain. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Daniel Manzoni holds the phone in his hand and waits for it to ring. The caller will be a talk-show host from Radio La Jefa (Boss Radio) 700 AM. He will want to hear about the annual Argentine Festival this Saturday evening in Arlington. Manzoni runs the festival as if his life depended on it — which, at a certain existential level, it does.

He is sitting in his cramped home office in Alexandria a few days before the festival, surrounded by his books of sociology, self-help and epic poetry; a volume of Eva Peron photos; snapshots of his late parents back in Mar del Plata, and of himself as a tall, long-haired soccer star. Now, at 58, he is balding and his goatee is gray. His tie is tightly knotted. He came straight from the office, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to wait for the call.

While he waits, he unpacks the golden trophies he will award the tango artists and those who win a tournament of truco, an Argentine card game. The trophies are wrapped in an Argentine newspaper, from his annual December prospecting trip in search of artists and supplies. He triple-checks his spreadsheet detailing where the dancers, crooners and musicians will stay, and who will pick them up from the airport and deliver them to the festival.

The phone rings — and now Manzoni is speaking Spanish live on the radio, his face softening and becoming younger, with an eager smile. The radio host seems to have all the time in the world to hear about the entertainment, the VIP guests, the raffle of round-trip airline tickets between Miami and Buenos Aires, the “artisanal” empanadas and the sausage sandwiches.

“We invite the whole Argentine, Latin American, American community,” Manzoni says. “We have a delightful festival with tremendous artists in folk music, tango, dance, so we hope for the whole community!”

He ticks another item off the long to-do list he keeps at his elbow.

The Festival Argentino is hardly the largest ethnic festival in the Washington area. Manzoni expects 375 to 425 people, paying $20 in advance or $30 at the door, at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre on South Old Glebe Road. Vendors start selling at 4 p.m. and performances are 6 to 10:30 p.m. Tango and folk dance workshops are 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Yet, after 25 years, the festival has proved to be an enduringly singular creation, a quirky institution founded on one man’s passion and pain.

“You can just feel that it feeds him in such a deep way,” says Jim Byers, marketing manager for Arlington Economic Development, which provides the theater for free through its Arlington Cultural Affairs division. “As a Latin music fan, I can tell you, the people he brings — these are no-joke people. These are top-quality artists. He really digs deep,” adds Byers, who also hosts “Latin Flavor Classics Edition” on WPFW (89.3 FM).

The lineup includes Miguel Dure, Daniel Bouchet, Pampa Cortes (with Gigi Jensen and Lizette Perelle), Son Ellas, Victorio Menghi and local artists.

The first festival, in 1988, took place in a public library, with empanadas and Coke, and someone reciting lines from “Martin Fierro,” the classic poem about a gaucho, or cowboy.

I’m a bull in my rodeo

And a bigger bull in someone else’s rodeo

Manzoni then was just figuring out his United States rodeo. He had been a sociology student at the National University of Mar del Plata in the mid-1970s, active in progressive student government circles. Shortly after the military coup of 1976, agents stormed his parents’ apartment, looking for Manzoni. They menaced his father and sexually assaulted his mother, but his parents never disclosed that their son was in another apartment in the same building. The men left graffiti on a wall: “Danielito, we’re going to kill you.”

Overwhelmed with guilt and fear, he fled the country and eventually reached Washington in 1978. Before he left, friends who stayed to resist the dictatorship made him promise to build a life worthy of their common ideals.

He got a soccer scholarship to the University of the District of Columbia, sold empanadas from a vending cart on K Street NW and earned a master’s degree in international transactions from George Mason University. He applied for citizenship on the first day he was eligible and swore his oath in 1989.

“When I started the Argentine Festival, I hoped that I could honor all these individuals who fought for democracy, that their fight was not in vain,” he says. “I wanted people not to be afraid of their own political consciousness but to come and share the common culture. The purpose was to heal these wounds.”

He felt torn between two rodeos. He went to work for his new nation, first in the Commerce Department, then Agriculture, while spending more than a thousand unpaid hours a year outside the office producing the festival. He realized, that, in a funny way, there was hardly anything more American than an immigrant simultaneously striving in the new land and saluting his origins. If he were still in Argentina, he would never have become a self-conscious cultural conservator.

The obsessive attention to detail that makes him a good festival planner also suits his work in Agriculture, where he compiles monthly prices of dairy products in regional markets. At work, his festival avocation is semi-legendary and has earned him the President’s Volunteer Service award.

“Culturally, I am one hundred percent Argentino,” he says. At the same time, “when you come to the United States, you start hearing about volunteerism more.” Also, “Americans are organized and prepare in advance. I am following that American behavior in putting on the festival. Some Argentinos think I am too serious about that.”

With a budget of about $10,000, the festival barely breaks even. Manzoni enlists volunteers to share the work, but none of them have stayed with him from the beginning.

“He is always working on the festival,” year-round, says his wife, Carmen, who is from El Salvador and works in hotel banquet service. They have no children. “The festival is his baby.”

With just a few days to go, Manzoni sprints through his to-do list. He hauls piles of supplies from the attic. He walks the sidewalks and shopping plazas of Arlington and hands out fliers.

He drives Menghi to a series of media interviews. Menghi, 36, a guitarist and composer of “tango fusion,” represents a new generation of Argentine artists, reimagining tango in contexts of jazz, electronica and world music. “One role of the festival is to help these new artists,” Manzoni says.

Finally, there is nothing more to do.

“I’m worried about whether people will come,” Manzoni says. “It’s the same worry every year.”