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On the Passing of Rodrigo Ventocilla

By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla was supposed to be on his honeymoon.

Early August tasted like queer triumph, a chance for Ventocilla, a transgender man and prominent activist, to celebrate his nuptials on the beaches of Bali, Indonesia. But at the airport, so far from both Ventocilla’s native Peru and his adopted Cambridge, something went sour. The Indonesian police, instead of welcoming the newlyweds, detained Ventocilla and his husband, confiscating a herb grinder and other supposedly suspicious items from Ventocilla.

The exact sequence of events after that is unclear. We do know that Ventocilla was reportedly distressed in phone exchanges with his family, and that his mother desperately tried to contact the local consulate from Lima but proved unsuccessful. Tragedy was brewing.

By August 11th, after several days in police custody, Ventocilla was dead.

There are few words that can bring comfort, genuine comfort, in the face of such abject loss. Suffice it to say that we are profoundly saddened and angered by Ventocilla’s passing. We ache for Ana Ventosilla’s son, for Sebastián Marallano’s husband, and for everything else Ventocilla represented.

Rodrigo died too young yet got far, with a career defined by a steadfast commitment to the underserved and forgotten. Ventocilla was a staunch advocate for the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities throughout his life, and a founding member of the Peruvian trans rights advocacy organization Diversidades Trans Masculinas. He had worked for both the Peruvian Ministry of Economy and Finance, and the Bicentennial Schools Project, an initiative tasked with improving school quality. As a master student at the Harvard Kennedy School, he remained a resolute proponent of education and gender equity. Right before his honeymoon to Bali, Ventocilla was working in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of the Harambee Youth Accelerator Program to implement a strategy for gender equity and social inclusion. If it weren’t for his passing, we are certain Ventocilla would have continued to make a difference — continued to make the world a slightly kinder, safer place for the most vulnerable, one small step at a time.

We are frustratingly less certain, however, about exactly why Ventocilla passed and of what role, if any, Bali’s police played in precipitating his death.

Ventocilla’s mother and husband seem far less hesitant. They have explicitly accused the Indonesian authorities of torturing and beating Ventocilla, exposing him to “physical and psychological violence”, and are now demanding an immediate autopsy of his repatriated body. While a conclusive account will only come with time, we cannot ignore the indications that a variety of deeply ingrained, reactionary biases played a role in his death. For starters, the criminalization of drugs such as marijuana, which led to Ventocilla’s arrest, has historically disproportionately targeted BIPOC and destabilized underresourced communities even to this day, while strengthening police and carceral institutions. Ventocilla’s own family has called the arrest and subsequent death an act of “racial discrimination and transphobia,” and we see scant reason to doubt their assessment. Discounting the potential role of discriminatory attitudes, particularly given the unclear circumstances surrounding his death (Indonesian officials have linked it to the consumption of suspiciously unseized drugs) would be shortsighted. Ventocilla didn’t ‘just happen to be trans’: His intertwined identities were a defining feature of his struggle and work, and exposed him, like millions of queer people of color, to a constant threat of violence and discrimination.

If his family is correct, that threat was fully realized with shocking cruelty this summer.

We believe that it is indeed fairly likely that Rodrigo’s activism and identity contributed to his premature death. His story, though particularly close to home, is hardly an outlier. In recent years, we have observed an alarming trend of rising anti-trans violence all across the globe, with 2021 being the deadliest year on record for transgender people. Discrimination and violence against transgender people also intersect with discrimination and violence against other communities, with transgender BIPOC particularly at risk of violent hate crimes. Even beyond Indonesia, with its particularly abysmal track record on queer rights, personal liberties seem rapidly shrinking: The US itself has seen a wave of anti-trans legislation, targeting everything from education to healthcare, over the past two years alone. In a bittersweet twist, Ventocilla’s death thus highlights the crucial character of the work he and other activists do in the face of daunting, sometimes lethal, opposition.

That fact, and the almost corollary responsibility to defend his legacy, ought to inform our response to Ventocilla’s passing. Mourning is not enough: We must do our best to honor and continue the work he believed in, furthering the causes he fought — and perhaps even died — for. We cannot let his death be in vain.

Rodrigo brought his fight for equality and dignity to Harvard’s halls of power and wealth. It’s only right that our institution fosters the courage to put its influence behind him now that he’s gone. Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf has already expressed support for Ventocilla’s family’s call for a thorough investigation, writing that their claims raise “very serious questions that deserve clear and accurate answers.” Still, it is not enough for Harvard to simply agree that there are questions surrounding the nature of Ventocilla’s death that must be answered — Harvard must, to the greatest degree it possibly can, help facilitate those answers itself.

Doing so might include, for example, providing financial support for a family that has been deprived of one income earner and forced to confront extraordinary expenses while grieving. Additional, honorary investments must be on the table, including the creation of a fellowship or academic program designed to honor Rodrigo that funds the heirs to his advocacy and activism. The University could even mobilize its substantial lobbying sway to help ensure that at the upcoming G20 Summit — set to take place in the setting of Rodrigo’s death, Bali, this November — the United States extracts answers regarding his passing. We hope, in particular, that U.S. Secretary of State and former Crimson Editor Antony J. Blinken ’84 will prioritize addressing Ventocilla’s final days, as well as the interrelated issues of police violence and queer safety.

Of course, all of the above are only palliative measures. We cannot offer true respite to those grieving Rodrigo — nothing barring a prompt and transparent investigation into his death will. But we also cannot stand idly by in the wake of Rodrigo’s death. Be it through public protests, financial support, or active lobbying, Harvard’s pursuit of Veritas should continue to include Ventocilla.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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