"HOW CAN you let her dirty little hands touch these fabrics?" the landlady demanded of Diane Bellomy in front of the little girl. "Lookat this. It's sloppy. The stitches are too big. What a waste of time."
Bellomy's face reddened. "Don't ever speak like that in front of her or any of them again. Please leave."
"I don't think I've ever been that angry," laughed Diane Bellomy, recalling the exchange with her Bolivian landlady. Bellomy is in town exhibiting Bolivian handicrafts made by the Ayamara Indians of Sorato.
Bellomy runs a workshop, Artesania Sorato, in her rented Bolivian home where the Ayamara Indians work under her supervision. "We've come so far with our textiles that I hate to see the progress damaged by an unkind remark," such as the one by Bellomy's landlady .
"Unfortunately," says Bellomy, "there's a class conflict here. My current landlady is a middle-class, educated woman who adores me, but cannot understand why I'm here. She feels the Ayamaras Indians are below her. When I'm in the U.S. I have to close the workshop, because without me there, she doesn't want 'those people in the house.'"
"This hurts the progress the Ayamara have made. They hear things like this and revert to the distrust they usually have of foreigners and the upper class. I know when I return in January I'll have to start from scratch."
Bellomy is exhibiting the Soratos' wall hangings and dolls at the Organization of American States museum shop (Nov. 20-Dec. 6) and at Pavo Real, in Georgetown Park. Earlier this fall Bellomy showed her Bolivian Indian works at the Textile Museum. All pieces were made by the Ayamara Indians of Sorato.
Bellomy discovered the small Andean village of 3,000 people during her travels in Latin America, which she says was her college education. Sorato is about four hours from the Bolivian capital of La Paz.
"I adopted the Ayamaras and they slowly have adopted me," said Bellomy, who arrived in Sorato in 1976. The Bolivian Indians, explained Bellomy, are a friendly community -- which is not always the case with many Latin American peoples.
"I've always enjoyed working with my hands," said Bellomy. "I realized the Ayamaras had a wonderful but dying craft. Their beautiful wall hangings made from available hand-woven fabrics and dyed with natural dyes were not being used as a source of income. Instead their main income came from baking bread and panning for gold. The bread was exchanged in towns for potatoes. No one appreciated the handiwork. Few remembered that their grandmothers used to make the gorgeous colors of the old weavings."
"I tried -- and am still trying -- to make them realize the value of their beautiful textiles . . . that they can be sold for money." Besides reviving an old craft, Bellomy's workshop has created jobs.
Artesania Sorato, or Handcrafts of Sorato, began in the home of one of the Ayamara families. Bellomy started by making clothing. Little by little other families joined the workshop, including children. Bellomy says their budget was tight so they had to use even the fabric scraps. Rag dolls, like the ones the Sorateans remembered their mothers making, were one way to use these scraps.
"The dolls are a lot of fun to make and an item that didn't require sewing machines -- necessary in making clothing. Bellomy notes that they use treadle machines, since electricity just came to Sorato this year. The dolls are a real help to many families who use their income from doll-making to get by when the man of the house gets ill in the harsh conditions of the gold mines."
Inflation grew dramatically in the last year when the price of tin, Bolivia's leading export, dropped on the world market.
Since 1977 Bellomy has lived nine months a year in Sorato, where the Ayamaras work on clothing, applique' wall hanging and dolls in her workshop. She spends the other three months in the States, exhibiting and selling the crafts.
"Each year -- even now -- they're still skeptical as to whether I'll return. Americans -- as well as other Bolivians --have usually exploited the Ayamara. Their distrust of outsiders is well-founded, I'm afraid."
Some government officials acknowledge the cultural benefits of Bellomy's workshop but are concerned that the crafts will show Bolivia's poverty to the rest of the world. Many of the dolls depict working class people -- weavers, street sweepers, etc.
Regardless, the workshop has become a success -- so much so that Bellomy has had to write her weavers during her current trip to tell them to keep producing to keep up with the doll orders she's been receiving. More than 100 craftspeople work at Artesania.
"In a way, it's gotten to be more successful than I can handle alone. In particular, I've got to find a better way to handle the payroll."
Each year upon her return to Sorato, Bellomy arrives in La Paz and, stuffing thousands of pesos beneath the layers of her dress, travels by bus or truck -- or foot when these break down -- to the small village. The weavers await her anxiously.
"My friends and family in the States think it's time I start thinking about my own development. I'd like to pursue my own art, but I can't leave yet -- not until the Ayamara are self-sufficient and can produce and sell on their own. Otherwise, I will have failed," Bellomy said earnestly.
Bellomy, 31, looks tired. But her eyes light up her thin face as she talks about the Ayamara, to whom she is a godmother figure. She lives a hard life, renting a room and workshop space each year from a Bolivian family. The families are usually middle class and, she says, are "always trying to persuade me to look out for myself. They want me to marry and return to the U.S. -- just as they want their own children to leave the village and better themselves in college and the city La Paz ."
Bellomy sees one such possibility for her successor. "Ruth, a young Bolivian schoolteacher from the next town, has become my right arm in the workshop. Her interest in crafts makes her a perfect person to take over when I leave. And most important, she would be totally accepted in the commmunity whereas I never can be."
Bellomy is often caught between cultures: ancient traditions vs. modern Western science.
"You don't realize what long lives we have until you live in Bolivia, which I believe has the second shortest life span in the Western hemisphere." Since Bellomy has been in the United States, her best seamstress died during childbirth at age 35. Life expectancy in Bolivia is 47 years old, according to the World Almanac.
"It's frustrating to watch. When the Ayamaras get sick, they sometimes go to a doctor but often treat the illness with herbs," she said.
Bellomy recalls one case where a young girl went to the hospital to have her appendix removed. "The operation went well, but when she returned home, her mother refused to let her in, saying the daughter was no longer 'whole' and therefore unacceptable."
Bellomy said she has encountered problems, also, because her business is in a foreign country, though she has received help from the OAS Bolivian mission.
Bellomy will be in the United States through December before returning to Sorato. Handicrafts from Artesania Sorato can be seen at the OAS museum shop; Pavo Real (open: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m.); and at Phoenix Georgetown, 3251 Prospect St. NW. Bolivian wall hangings are also being carried by the United Nations Association Gift Shop, 3143 N St. NW and The Craft Studio, 7040 Carroll Ave. in Takoma Park,(open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, 2-5 p.m.).