An Outspoken Outcast – Argelia Laya’s Struggle Against Persecution in Venezuela

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Argelia Laya.

By Gabe Sanders.

There is no pre-requisite for practicing nonviolent resistance.  The use of this terminology, propagated by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King, has never been required for the employment of peaceful strategies of opposing injustice, nor has a lifelong allegiance to the practice.  Gandhi and King themselves – the former during early stages in his career as a lawyer and the latter toward the end of his life – at times questioned the efficacy of the ideology that came to define their respective movements.  Thus, it would be unfair to discount the nonviolent activism of those who did not subscribe to nonviolence from birth.  Argelia Laya, an Afro-Latina Venezuelan woman born in 1926, never uttered the words “active nonviolence” or “civil disobedience,” and in fact devoted a portion of her career as an activist to fighting alongside grassroots guerilla groups.  But, the value of her outspoken opposition to gender and race-based persecution in Venezuela, both before and after her shift toward nonviolent means, must not be understated or overlooked.

Like many who are forced to endure intersectional oppression – the convergence of multiple bases of discrimination, in this case gender, race, and class – Laya learned to advocate for herself and others from a young age.  Both parents were montoneros (or militants), her mother a vocal feminist in Agrupación Cultural Femenina (or the Women’s Cultural Assembly) and her father a colonel in a guerilla group that opposed the repressive Juan Vicente Gómez administration, which introduced her to combative methods of fighting for women’s rights and racial equality.[1]  When Laya’s father was arrested for his participation in the resistance effort, her family moved to Caracas, where her mother took it upon herself to teach her children to “never allow people to discriminate against [them], not for being black, not for being a woman.”[2]  Their destitute financial condition was exacerbated by a lack of land and steady income, and a year after their father’s imprisonment, word reached them that he was dead.

As Laya’s experiences of discrimination and abuse as a Black female came to intersect with the hardship she suffered in poverty, a fire was ignited within her that compelled her to activate.  She created numerous platforms for advancing methods of eliminating gender discrimination during her secondary education, including by co-founding the Center for Student Novelists and Unión Nacional de Mujeres (the National Union of Women), through which she advocated for educational, social, and political gender equality.[3]  Shortly after graduating and becoming a teacher at the age of 19, she was raped and impregnated, forcing upon her yet another basis for maltreatment, but also adding fuel to the fire.  Laya was placed on administrative for choosing to mother her child out of wedlock, prompting her to write a letter to the Minister of Education explicating how “the article of the Constitution that provides for maternity protection” rendered her dismissal unjust.[4]  Representing other female teachers as and students who were being suspended for unplanned pregnancies, Laya joined the Legión de Mujeres Nacionalistas (Legion of Women Nationalists) and Comité Femenina de la Junta Patriótica (Women’s Committee of the Patriotic Board), where she became one of the first Venezuelan women to champion reproductive rights.[5]

Laya’s nonviolent efforts to defend abortion rights and demand suffrage, during her late 20s and early 30s, were anything but well-received, and the constant physical abuse she experienced led her to join the Venezuelan guerilla movement Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN Venezuela).  As a member of the Partido Comunista de Venezuela (Communist Party of Venezuela, or PCV) who described herself as having been “profoundly influenced by the Cuban revolution” led by Castro, Laya served from 1960 to 1965 as an officer in FALN Venezuela. [6]  With the assistance of Junta Patriótica Femenina (Women’s Patriotic Board), which Laya herself helped to organize, FALN Venezuela resisted and would eventually overthrow the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez.  The active role that she played in FALN, despite its violent nature, allowed her to bear firsthand witness to the dynamic between guerilla groups and government-issued soldiers, which she characterized as “a war among brothers and among people of the same class.” [7]  Her understanding of this conflict as one between “poor people looking for a way out and for change through a path that did not lead to triumph, but to defeat” and “poor people defending the interests of the powerful”[8] likely influenced her ultimate decision to seek a new strategy of resistance: politics.

Having belonged to the PCV for 20 years, Laya broke ties with the party in 1970 to found her own, a democratic socialist party called Movement to Socialism (MAS).[9]  This was a shift in which numerous former militants joined on account of distaste for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Laya’s growing frustrations with “the generalized machismo of these revolutionaries who said they had such great ideals” and her view that “the struggle for political and military power got mixed up with the struggle for passion” had led to her ultimate decision to abandon the armed struggle.[10]  Instead, MAS sought to promote “social justice through democracy,”[11] relentlessly yet peacefully advocating for anti-discrimination regulations to protect the rights of minorities, workers, and women.  Initially serving as a secretary for MAS, Laya was elected to the Venezuelan Congress, where she helped to implement civil code reforms protecting mothers and children in adoption procedures, as well as the amendment to suffrage law that granted women the right to vote.  In 1996, she was elected president of MAS, becoming the “first woman and first Afro-Latinx to occupy such a high position of authority in any Venezuelan political party” – a party that itself had developed into a serious contender, earning “almost a quarter of the votes in the gubernatorial elections” in 1995.[12]

By virtue of her gender, race, and social status, Argelia Ayala was forced to follow a path of significant resistance along which inconceivable injustice was foisted on her.  Her steadfast devotion to exposing and eradicating inequality of the races and sexes rendered this path even more treacherous and her success less probable.  Even so, Laya died on November 27, 1997, one of the most influential figures in Venezuelan history.

[1]Argelia Laya: A Black Communist Woman Against the Tide,” Capire (blog), July 30, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Phenomenal Woman: Argelia Laya,” Off Colour, March 12, 2020.

[4] Ibid.

[5], “About Argelia Laya: Educator and Women’s Rights Advocate (1926 – 1997) | Biography, Facts, Career, Wiki, Life,”, accessed January 5, 2022.

[6] James Brooke and Special To the New York Times, “Caracas Journal; Ex-Rebel in a Muumuu Becomes a Potent Force,” The New York Times, September 24, 1990, sec. World.

[7]Revista Historia de la Educación Latinoamericana,” accessed January 5, 2022.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Brooke and Times.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.