Harvard Kennedy School Student Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla Remembered as a ‘Fighter’ for Trans Rights

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, a Harvard Kennedy School student who died in police custody in Indonesia last month, was remembered as a “fighter” by those who knew him.
By Miles J. Herszenhorn

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, left, and his spouse, Sebastían Marallano.
Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, left, and his spouse, Sebastían Marallano. By Courtesy of the Ventosilla and Marallano Families

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When Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla was not studying at the Harvard Kennedy School’s library, he loved to feed friends and classmates from HKS at study group dinners with traditional homemade meals from his native Peru.

The last study group dinner of the spring semester was hosted by a classmate from China who prepared a hotpot meal, but over an hour after the original meeting time, Ventocilla was missing.

He eventually arrived at the hotpot dinner, late, but with a dish of his own in hand: Peruvian arroz con pollo, a traditional chicken and rice dish.

“He arrived late because he was still preparing [it],” said Ana Rocío Castillo Romero, Ventocilla’s friend who was a member of the study group. “He wanted to share the arroz con pollo.”

“So we make space in the table, we put the arroz con pollo right next to the hotpot,” Castillo said. “It was delicious.”

Rodrigo Ventocilla was born in Lima, Peru on July 7, 1990. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Ventocilla, a transgender man, was a trans rights activist in Peru, where he also worked for the country’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Economy and Finance.

Ventocilla died on Aug. 11 while in police custody at a hospital in Denpasar, Indonesia, where he was traveling on a honeymoon with his spouse, Sebastián Marallano. His family says he was beaten and discriminated against by police in Bali. Indonesian authorities have denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

‘A Fighter’

Ana Ventosilla, Ventocilla’s mother, said her son spent the first 40 days of his life in an incubator because she went into labor when she was only six months pregnant.

Ventocilla has been “a fighter” since he was very young, Ventosilla said.

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, left, poses for a photograph with his mother Ana Ventosilla.
Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla, left, poses for a photograph with his mother Ana Ventosilla. By Courtesy of the Ventosilla Family

“We went every day and prayed to the Virgin so that she could save [him] because [he] had been born prematurely,” Ventosilla said in an interview last month. “And the doctor told me that [he] was a fighter for [his] life because [he] got ahead.”

Later in life, Ventocilla became a fighter for LGBTQ+ people in Peru.

Ventocilla had been an LGBTQ+ activist since his college years, when he would ask his mother for permission to drive their old car to attend demonstrations in support of LGBTQ+ rights, Ventosilla said.

“I was scared and told [him]: ‘You are going to go, but please be careful,’” Ventosilla said. “I even accompanied [him] at times, and [he] always had support, love, and acceptance.”

In June 2015, after graduating college, Ventocilla co-founded a trans rights advocacy organization, Diversidades Trans Masculinas.

Morgan K. Benson, a 2022 Kennedy School graduate, said a large part of Ventocilla’s activism consisted of helping trans people find inclusive spaces.

“That’s how DTM started,” Benson said, referring to Diversidades Trans Masculinas. “He wanted people who needed community with each other to be able to have that.”

‘We Loved Each Other’

Ventocilla met Sebastián Marallano around the time he was launching Diversidades Trans Masculinas. While they knew of each other from the activism world and shared mutual friends, their “definitive” meeting occurred at a party in Lima’s Barranco district, Marallano said in an interview this month.

“By then, I had a crush on Rodrigo,” Marallano said. “I liked him.”

After Marallano spotted Ventocilla at the party, a friend told them to approach Ventocilla and to confess their feelings for him.

Marallano followed the advice.

“At first, he didn’t believe me,” Marallano said. “He asked me if I was kidding and I told him no, that I was serious — that I wanted to get to know him.”

Rodrigo Ventocilla with his spouse, Sebastián Marallano.
Rodrigo Ventocilla with his spouse, Sebastián Marallano. By Courtesy of Sebastián Marallano

During a rally for Ventocilla in Boston on Sept. 4, Vic Hogg, an HKS student in the class of 2023, said they remembered how he would openly talk about his love for Marallano.

One such time occurred during a meeting of the “queer heartbreak club,” a group formed by Hogg and some friends who were going through breakups at the time.

“We had spent all this time talking about how depressed we were and blah, blah, blah,” Hogg said with a laugh. “Then Rodrigo came over and just started talking about how fucking in love he was with Sebastián and how he was so excited for everything that’s going to come and so excited for the celebration they were going to be able to have.”

After the end of the spring semester, Ventocilla and Marallano traveled to Chile, where they married on May 25.

“One of the reasons we wanted to get married — besides the fact that we loved each other — is because we wanted to have the possibility that I could go to Cambridge,” Marallano said.

But Marallano, who lived in Peru while Ventocilla spent his first academic year at HKS, said they never got the chance to visit Ventocilla in Cambridge because they were unable to get a visa.

‘Rodri was Brave’

Colleagues from Peru and friends from the Harvard Kennedy School remembered Ventocilla as an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and a dedicated student who spent many hours focusing on his work.

Rocio Béjar, who was Ventocilla’s boss when he worked in the Peruvian Ministry of Economy and Finance, said he was “passionate” and “a really good worker.”

Rodrigo Ventocilla, pictured in a polaroid photograph outside of the Harvard Kennedy School.
Rodrigo Ventocilla, pictured in a polaroid photograph outside of the Harvard Kennedy School. By Courtesy of Morgan Benson

Béjar said getting a master’s at Harvard was Ventocilla’s “dream,” but that his goal was always to return to Peru.

“He wanted to return — always — to do something for his country,” Béjar said.

Ventocilla brought his studious nature to Harvard, where he would study at the Kennedy School library all the time, according to Benson, who graduated from HKS in 2022.

“I wish we had more memories together because so much of the year he was in the library,” Benson said. “He studied there and he was just doing it all the time.”

Benson said that one of his favorite memories with Ventocilla was traveling to Palestine during spring break, which inspired Ventocilla to think about ways he could “be in solidarity with Palestine” in his future organizing work.

“It was a really intense trip, but the one day we had that was more relaxed, we went to the Dead Sea,” said Benson, who was roommates with Ventocilla during the trip. “We swam and I got my foot all cut up, which he was so sweet about.”

On their trip with Palestine Trek, Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla and Morgan Benson visited the Dead Sea.
On their trip with Palestine Trek, Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla and Morgan Benson visited the Dead Sea. By Courtesy of Morgan Benson

During his first year at HKS, Ventocilla ran for vice president of diversity, equity and anti-racism in the Kennedy School’s student government. In a message announcing his campaign, Ventocilla wrote that “diversity, equity, and inclusion work, especially LGBT advocacy,” was one of his passions since college.

“Through my experience as a public sector worker and LGBT activist in Peru, I know that issues of racism, sexism, colonialism don’t belong at the margin, they should be the centre of what we learn and do at HKS, and afterwards,” Ventocilla wrote at the time.

Ana Rocío Castillo Romero, Ventocilla’s classmate at HKS and a former colleague from Peru, wrote in a text message that Ventocilla “always fought for his beliefs, who he was, and his right[s].”

“Rodri was brave,” Castillo wrote. “Although he didn’t make it, that didn’t stop him from his fight and ideals.”

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

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