August 03, 1981 12:00 PM

A few weeks back Joan Baez slogged through muck and squalor to perform in a favela on one of Rio’s hills. Her audience: 30 slum dwellers. Another night she climbed onto a stage at Sao Paolo’s Catholic University and explained to the SRO crowd of 1,500 that she had been forbidden to sing by the federal police. The concert had been canceled on technical legal grounds. So, instead, Baez proclaimed, “I’d just like to sit close to you for a while. I love you all.”

During her six-country tour of Latin America, she had five major performances called off as right-wing regimes apparently sought to mute her message on human rights. In 1979 Baez set up Humanitas International to focus attention on prisoners in Vietnam. Recently the organization has begun to examine human rights issues in Latin America, and Baez is the first to admit that her trip there was to be part entertainment, part agitprop. Accompanied by Humanitas executive director Jeanne Triolo Murphy, she intended to meet with local human rights activists. “We do that everywhere,” Baez says. “Germany, Spain, wherever we can.”

In parts of South America, however, Baez was met by tear gas, harassment, police surveillance and death threats. She conceded after returning from the five-week trip: “Sometimes I felt like a pariah.” She did manage some two dozen impromptu performances in Argentina and Brazil though her gigs were outlawed. “I had really planned to enter these countries quietly,” she contends. “I’m softer now than in the ’60s. I didn’t feel compelled to be strident in Latin America.”

Mexico allowed her to sing and fact-find at will. Her next stop was Argentina, where she stayed for 10 days at the invitation of Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a champion of civil liberties whom she describes as “a lovely man burdened with the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize.” Baez was trailed around the clock by two plainclothes units. Even so, she met several times with families of desaparecidos—people who after being detained by the police have vanished. Conservative estimates put their numbers at 6,000. “I would sing and the families would cry,” Baez reports. “I realized that would be my gift in Argentina—to allow people their sorrow. But sometimes I would joke, ‘I have my guitar; do you have your hankies?’ And they would either smile or break into tears again.”

As the storm grew around her, Baez attracted a blizzard of press attention. When police moved in, forbidding her to sing in a Rio park one evening, 9,000 fans were already in attendance. Rather than disappoint them, a mute Baez decided to dance.

Brazilian officials canceled her first scheduled concert in Sao Paolo a half hour before showtime. The official reason: She didn’t have a work contract. Argues Baez: “If I were Frank Sinatra, it wouldn’t have mattered.” Instead, Baez began performing in the streets—and turned herself into a political cause celeb. Still, a carnival performer in a shanty town was uncomprehending: “There was this gringa who sat down and sang songs for us,” he said. “I didn’t understand anything.”

Though Chile permitted her to hold concerts, officials there confiscated film and a stack of audio cassettes when she left the country. Baez claims the tapes were far from subversive: “I hope they enjoy my voice lessons,” she says.

The trip ended with a warm welcome from the leftist government of Nicaragua and 25,000 fans in Managua, followed by a smooth but anticlimactic appearance in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.

Returning home to Wood-side, Calif., an always fervent Baez averred, “I would have liked to have been arrested. That would have been appealing. It was my choice, but I couldn’t without jeopardizing everyone there.”

She is currently working on an album called The Children of the ’80s. Though she harbors no expectations of immediate political success, she explains, “I have to go on fighting. I get bored if I’m not engaged in something that interests me—and seems to involve other people’s predicaments.”

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