Adolfo Perez Esquivel walked into St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Monday, "behind all these aggressive Americans in the group," one observer recalls. "Well, the bishop, who was very eager to meet him, went up to two other people first -- thinking each was Perez Esquivel. He just wasn't that noticeable."

And again in Washington yesterday, the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner was about the least conspicuous person in the group accompanying him on his week-long tour of the United States and meetings with diplomats, human rights leaders and the press.

Perez Esquivel appeared pleasantly game despite the demands on his time. But they were bothering Richard Chartier, interpreter and keeper of the schedule.

While Chartier discussed scheduling in the hotel room, someone turned to the quiet Perez Esquivel, who speaks little English, and asked in Spanish permission to spend a couple of hours following him.

"Please don't ask him," Chartier commanded. "That's not his decision to make."

Perez Esquivel, a short man with a ready smile, intent eyes and dark glasses, is not shy -- just easygoing. A photographer got ready to take his picture. Sitting on the sofa, the peace prize winner, also known as a sculptor, pointed up at the run-of-the-mill art on the Embassy Square Hotel wall. "Don't take it with this on the wall," he said through the interpreter.

On the morning of Oct. 13, the 49-year-old Argentine, known by few outside human rights circles, got the call catapulting him into a kind of secular sainthood. He now joins the ranks of Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, Henry Kissinger, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa.

"I thought this was the least likely year I'd get it," Perez Esquivel said matter-of-factly. "There were 72 other people nominated.

"I knew, when I got it, that it was not being awarded just to one person," said Perez Esquivel. "It had been awarded in the name of the poor, the peasants, those who have no voice, the young people trying to build a better country."

A few others thought this wasn't his year either -- although he has been nominated in each of the past three years. Some admirers of the highly respected Vicarate of Solidarity in Chile were reportedly a bit upset that human rights activists there didn't receive it. Others thought the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated last spring, should have gotten it. Perez Esquivel's name is never mentioned in the Argentine Spanish-language newspapers, which give little attention to human rights activists.

Perez Esquivel is the son of a fisherman who immigrated to Argentina from Spain. In Buenos Aires his father became a commercial representative for coffee houses. "I didn't spend much time with him," said Perez Esquivel, whose mother died when he was very young. Although his family was poor, he spent most of his time in private boarding schools -- very common in Argentina -- and worked while in school.

He began reading Gandhi in his mid-teens. "I was quite a reader of everything then," he said. "Good and bad. I read Gandhi's autobiography, where he says nonviolence is not just for saints." He more or less stumbled across these books, bought secondhand at bookstalls in Buenos Aires. "I read Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk. I was very impressed by his spiritualness.I read St. Augustine."

His social awareness began then, fortified by contact with other activists. "I was in small groups for prayer and reflection," he said of his early adult life, and was greatly impressed by "the struggles of Martin Luther King and Gandhi."

He is director of the Service for Peace and Justice in Latin America. He lives in Buenos Aires, with his wife and children, but travels around Latin America working with human rights organizations, social agencies, labor organizations, church-affiliated organizations. He talks to them about working in nonviolent ways, helps them coordinate their work and keeps them informed of what others are doing. For that work, he was arrested in 1977 and imprisoned for 14 months without charge in Argentina. He was tortured -- reportedly with electric prods -- and beaten.

But after he got the telephone call that morning in October, there was an explosion of support.

"Whhooh," Perez Esquivel said, sweeping a hand across the air. "They invaded us -- workers, friends, religious people, reporters."

The calls came immediately -- from everywhere. "Well, from the government -- nothing," he said, laughing offhandedly. The government of Argentina has been repeatedly denounced by nationwide human rights agencies as one of the most repressive in Latin America.

Among those who called him after the announcement were: Willy Brandt, Sen. Edward Kennedy, and representatives of the National Council of Churches, and universities and Catholic bishops.

Perez Esquivel says he celebrated that day: Instead of eating lunch at his office, he went down to a corner restaurant. "The place was full of workers. They all wanted me to sign their napkins." He grins at the memory. "It demonstrated how the workers themselves felt this prize was theirs."

With the prize has come the demanding itinerary: Tuesday he was in Phoenix where he spoke at the annual meeting of the Associated Press managing editors. Monday was New York where he met with Kurt Waldheim, and later got a standing ovation in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Eventually, there will be Oslo, Norway, and the ceremony.

He was matter-of-fact when asked if he feels that the prize should have gone to someone else. "Yes," he said, nodding. "I think it would have been in better hands with Archbishop Romero -- if he were alive."