"The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" is full of sea imagery, from the title on forward. When the dead body first approaches the shore, the kids playing think he is a whale; then, a ship. He even looks like some sort of funky sea monster: "when [his body] washed up on the beach, they removed the clumps of seaweed, the jellyfish tentacles, and the remains of fish and flotsam, and only then did they see that it was a drowned man" (1). And shortly after, we're told that "he had the smell of the sea about him and only his shape gave one to suppose that it was the corpse of a human being, because the skin was covered with a crust of mud and scales" (2). The women use a sail to make him a shirt. They suppose that, if he were alive, "he would have had so much authority that he could have drawn fish out of the sea simply by calling their names" (4). And later they imagine "his soft, pink, sea lion hands" as he's "stretched out like a sperm whale" (7, 11).
What we see is that the drowned man is an object of the sea. He comes from it at the start of the story, and he is returned at the end to the sea, "where the fish are blind and the divers die of nostalgia" (9). The connection between the drowned man and the sea highlights his role as an almost supernatural figure of mythology. He doesn't quite belong in this world, our world. Mythology
The drowned man represents any number of mythological or epic historical figures, and we'll go through them one by one. First off is the name the villagers assign him: Esteban. Who is this Esteban? As it turns out, Esteban is another name for Estevanico, a slave from the early 1500s who was supposedly the first man born in Africa to set foot in the Americas. Estevanico (or Esteban) became a legendary figure in Latin America, and was later given a set of incredible skills – he mastered dozens of languages, knew everything about medicine, was even considered by some to be a deity, or so the story goes.