Latin America

Irina Layevska: Fighting discrimination in Mexico

As Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) consolidates power, the structural shake-up has also opened opportunities for grassroots sectors of the left. Last year, Rosario Piedra Ibarra, an important activist in the Eureka Committee in the search of disappeared peoples and political prisoners, was elected to head the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). This year, Irina Layevska, a militant figure in the Mexican left, is running to head the National Commission to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED).

The CONAPRED is an independent government body that was created in 2003 charged with creating policies to combat discrimination, to advance social inclusion, and to guarantee equal rights. In June, the director of the CONAPRED faced criticism for inviting the racist comedian Chumel Torres to a forum on racism and class discrimination. In the aftermath, the director stepped down and commission is looking for a new director. CONAPRED’s work will become all the more important as Mexico suffers the third highest total of deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic, 48,012 as of August 4, after the United States and Brazil. And as is the case everywhere, Mexico’s most vulnerable are bearing the brunt of the suffering in both health outcomes and economic displacement as the second quarter GDP dropped by a record 17.3 percent.

In this context, Irina Layevska has launched a campaign to head the CONAPRED. As mentioned in the interview, Irina has experience combating discrimination as a trans woman and a disabled person. However, she also has a longstanding profile in the Mexican left, first as a solidarity activist with Cuba and later as an organizer in Mexico’s LGBTQ movement. Her struggles through the left and her transition have been chronicled in the documentary Morir de Pie (2011) by Jacaranda Correa.

The following interview appeared in the newspaper La Regeneración, the feminist newspaper of the Movement of National Regeneration (MORENA), and AMLO’s ruling party. The interview was translated by Héctor A. Rivera for No Borders News.


La Regeneración: Could you tell us briefly about your personal and professional career?

My name is Irina Layevska; my political activism began in the eighties, first in the Unified Socialist Party of Mexico (PSUM) and later in the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (PRT). I was part of the national leadership of the PRT, part of its Central Committee, and I was a member of the University Student Council in 1986-87. I actively participated in the student strike of 1987 and all my political participation has been from the left. I was a founder, together with other comrades, of the Promotora de Solidaridad Va por Cuba (Solidarity Campaign for Cuba), and we managed to send three oil ships to Cuba during the most difficult moments of the so-called Special Period.

I have dedicated myself to the defense and promotion of human rights in Mexico and accompanied the Colectivo de Taquilleras del Metro (Metro Tellers Collective); I was also a candidate for the presidency of CONAPRED in 2008, when Gilberto Rincón Gallardo died, and it was left leaderless. Later, in 2013, I was a candidate for the Human Rights Commission of the Federal District.

[Read next, PRT Mexico: Our lives are worth more than your profits.]

My participation has been as a citizen; I have never formed any NGOs or political parties lately, nor have I sought positions in popular elections. Now I am convinced that, thanks to my human rights record and my tireless struggle against discrimination, I can play a good role as the head of CONAPRED.

I have dedicated my whole life to the fight against discrimination.

I have a physical-motor disability condition that forces me to move around in a wheelchair and that has confronted me with discrimination towards people with disabilities and the denial of our right to free movement; furthermore, my condition of having gone through a gender reassignment process places me within another social sector that has historically also been discriminated against. We are mocked, killed and transgender people are subjected to femicide, which, because they do not recognize our gender identity, are not legally judged as femicides, but as crimes of passion.

As a woman, I have also been confronted with the denial of my right rights. In this country, women are paid less than men just because they are women; we are killed because we are women, and all this has given me a profile and a character that has allowed me to fight against discrimination and to be successful.

I have been working at UNAM (Mexico’s biggest public university) for thirty-one years as a security guard. I don’t have a degree as I had to interrupt my studies because of the architectural barriers we face in the schools. I am of retirement age now, but I have not wanted to retire because I am paying interest on a loan for a house that I took out through the state. When I retire, my pension will be significantly reduced.

La Regeneración: President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposal was that the leadership of CONAPRED should go to an indigenous woman. Why is this proposal important for a body like CONAPRED?

It was an idea that the president had, because he said, and I quote, “I would like it to be an indigenous woman.” It is important, yes, because historically, the native populations have been one of the sectors most discriminated against in this country. According to the discrimination survey conducted by CONAPRED, there are three sectors facing discrimination: one, people with disabilities; two, people of sexual diversity; and three, indigenous people.

Therefore, it would be important that the person in charge has experienced discrimination in his or her own flesh, has the capacity to fight it, and knows how CONAPRED could implement public policies to combat it.

[Read next, Antonis Davanellos: Five years after the Syriza government and the referendum (part 1) and Antonis Davanellos: Five years after the Syriza government and the referendum (part 2).]

But CONAPRED must also have a close relationship with the office in charge of indigenous affairs that exists in this country, as well as making activities and policies aimed exclusively at our native peoples.

I would see it as a very good thing if an indigenous woman who has faced discrimination were at the head of CONAPRED. But if I, who also have the right to run for office, were elected, I would invite these colleagues to have a meeting and make agreements to invite them to be part of the structure. In this way, together we could advance with their experiences, because we need everyone’s experience.

La Regeneración: If elected, what would be your proposals to combat discrimination in our country?

I am convinced that CONAPRED does not need a bigger budget, we need to make an internal restructuring and a diagnosis to know where it is failing and to review the salaries of the highest administrators, because the salary of the CONAPRED president is excessively high. If I were elected, I would lower it to less than 50 percent of what it is now and with that money we could do other things.

We would have to make an in-depth study of each of the complaints that the petitioners have filed and that have been rejected. We need to know what role the CONAPRED played, what it failed to do if it failed to act, why certain complaints were not classified as discrimination and see if the petitioner became a victim, because discrimination also kills and a petitioner could easily become a victim or worse, lose her life.

Another thing we would have to do is to completely restructure CONAPRED and place in each position the right people with the profile and sensitivity to address discrimination, because in the area of complaints you don’t just need lawyers, you need people who know that discrimination doesn’t leave physical marks, but emotional damage. We should open an area of psycho-emotional care for people who come to file complaints.

Another proposal is to change the headquarters of CONAPRED and transfer it out of the Anzures neighborhood, an elitist neighborhood where there is no access to public transportation. It should be moved to a central and accessible location.

I also propose coordinating with all the governors to open offices in all the states.

CONAPRED staff must have gender equity: 50/50, to which I would commit myself.

We must have real work between the CONAPRED Governing Board and the government ministries they represent. The fight against discrimination must be a state policy and for that reason CONAPRED belongs to the structure of the government, the structure of our internal policies where we have to have an impact. The Governing Board includes, for example, the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Public Education. There are other Secretariats, but it would take too long to explain each of their functions here. The Governing Board must have close and permanent links between CONAPRED and the Secretariats of State so that public policies become a reality.

In the midst of an austerity policy we would have to do a lot with little.

[For international news and analysis from working-class, oppressed peoples, and socialist points of view, read No Borders News.]