Argelia Mercedes Laya López was an Afro-Latina educator and activist who fought to eradicate gender, ethnic, and able-bodied discrimination in her country.
Laya was born on 10 July 1926 in a cocoa hacienda in San José del Río Chico, to parents who instilled activism in her from a young age and encouraged her to protect her rights as a Black person and as a woman. Her father was a participant in several armed movements against the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez, for which he was imprisoned several times and finally banished from their home province of Miranda in 1936. He died later that year, leaving Laya’s mother, Rosario López, to raise her and her three siblings alone in poverty.
Laya graduated from school with her teaching degree in 1945, at the age of 19. The next year, Laya co-founded the National Union of Women Organization (Organización de la Unión Nacional de Mujeres) and served as the secretary of the organization for the next twelve years.
Laya advocated for women’s suffrage tirelessly, fighting passionately for educational equality, inclusivity for girls who became pregnant while in school, and the right to safe pregnancy. She was one of the first Venezuelan women to openly speak of a woman’s right to have children outside of wedlock or obtain an abortion (which was, at the time, a crime in Venezuela).
Despite engaging only in peaceful protests and non-violent methods of activism, Laya faced repeated physical assaults for her efforts. During the 1960s, Laya became a member of the communist guerrilla movement FALN, where she traversed mountainsides under the name of Commandant Jacinta.
She eventually broke from the party to help found the socialist-democratic party Movement to Socialism (MAS), where she fought for anti-discrimination regulations in support of achieving socio-economic parity for minorities, workers, and women. As a founder, secretary and later president of the MAS, Laya was the first woman and first Afro-Latinx to occupy such a high position of authority in any Venezuelan political party.
In 1994, she attended the First Meeting to Discuss Women and Education in Bolivia, where she helped draft a programme for eliminating sexism through education. The plan called for gender issues to become integral parts of study and dialogue throughout the entirety of each individual’s education.
Laya passed away on 27 November 1997, at the age of 71. To this day, she is still regarded as one of the most influential female leaders in Venezuelan history.