When Rodrigo Ventocilla Ventosilla wasn’t studying in the Harvard Kennedy School library, he loved feeding friends and classmates from HKS at study group dinners traditional home-cooked dishes from his native Peru.
The final dinner of the spring semester study group was hosted by a classmate from China who prepared a stew, but over an hour after the original session time, Ventocilla was absent.
He ended up arriving late for the hotpot dinner, but with a dish of his own in hand: Peruvian arroz con pollo, a traditional chicken and rice dish.
“He was 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 room on the table, we put the arroz con pollo right next to the stew,” Castillo said. “It was delicious.”
Rodrigo Ventocilla was born on July 7, 1990 in Lima, Peru. He graduated from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Ventocilla, a transgender man, was a trans rights advocate in Peru, where he also worked for the country’s Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
Ventocilla died August 11 in police custody at a hospital in Denpasar, Indonesia, where he was honeymooning with his spouse Sebastián Marallano. His family say he was beaten and discriminated against by police in Bali. Indonesian authorities have denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
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.
“We went every day and prayed to the Virgin to save [him] because [he] was premature,” Ventosilla said in an interview last month. “And that’s what the doctor told me [he] was a fighter for [his] live because [he] progressed.”
Later in life, Ventocilla became a campaigner for LGBTQ+ people in Peru.
Ventocilla has been an LGBTQ+ activist since his college days, when he asked his mother for permission to drive her old car to attend demonstrations in support of LGBTQ+ rights, Ventosilla said.
“I was scared and said so [him]: ‘You will go, but please be careful’”, said Ventosilla. “I even accompanied [him] sometimes and [he] always had support, love and acceptance.”
In June 2015, after graduating from college, Ventocilla co-founded a transgender rights organization, Diversidades Trans Masculinas.
Morgan K. Benson, a 2022 Kennedy School graduate, said a big part of Ventocilla’s activism is helping trans people find inclusive spaces.
“That’s how the DTM started,” said Benson, referring to the Diversidades Trans Masculinas. “He wanted people who needed fellowship with each other to be able to have that, too.”
“We loved each other”
Ventocilla met Sebastián Marallano around the time he started Diversidades Trans Masculinas. Although they knew each other from the activism world and had mutual friends, their “final” meeting was at a party in Lima’s Barranco neighborhood, 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 urged her to approach Ventocilla and confess her feelings to him.
Marallano followed the advice.
“He didn’t believe me at first,” Marallano said. “He asked me if I was joking and I said no, that I was serious — that I wanted to get to know him.”
While At a Sept. 4 rally for Ventocilla in Boston, Vic Hogg, an HKS student in the Class of 2023, said they recalled him being open about his love for Marallano.
One such situation 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’d spent the whole time talking about how depressed we were and blah blah blah,” Hogg said, laughing. “Then Rodrigo came over and just started talking about how fucking in love he was with Sebastián and how excited he was for everything that was to come and so excited for the celebration they were going to have.”
After the spring semester ended, 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 — was because we wanted the opportunity for me to go to Cambridge,” Marallano said.
But Marallano, who lived in Peru while Ventocilla was a freshman at HKS, said they never got the chance to visit Ventocilla at Cambridge because they couldn’t get a visa.
“Rodri was brave”
Colleagues from Peru and friends from Harvard Kennedy School remembered Ventocilla as an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and a dedicated student who spent long hours focusing on his work.
Rocio Béjar, who was Ventocilla’s boss when he worked at Peru’s Ministry of Economy and Finance, said he was “passionate” and “a really good worker”.
Béjar said a master’s degree from Harvard was Ventocilla’s “dream,” but his goal had always been to return to Peru.
“He wanted – always – to come back to do something for his country,” Béjar said.
Ventocilla brought his industrious nature to Harvard, where he spent the entire time studying in the Kennedy School library, according to Benson, who graduated from HKS in 2022.
“I wish we had more memories together because he was in the library so much of the year,” Benson said. “He studied there and he just did it all the time.”
Benson said that one of his fondest memories with Ventosilla was traveling to Palestine during spring break, which inspired Ventocilla to think about how he could “show solidarity with Palestine” in his future organizing work.
“It was a really intense trip, but on the one day that was more relaxed, we went to the Dead Sea,” said Benson, who was roommates with Ventocilla during the trip. “We swam and I cut my foot all the way open which he was so cute about.”
During his freshman year at HKS, Ventocilla ran for vice president for diversity, equity and anti-racism on the Kennedy School student council. In a message announcing his campaign, Ventocilla wrote that “working for diversity, justice and inclusion, particularly LGBT advocacy,” has been one of his passions since college.
“Through my experience as a civil servant and LGBT activist in Peru, I know that issues such as racism, sexism and colonialism should not be marginalized but should be at the heart of what we learn and do at HKS, and after that, ‘ Ventocilla wrote at the time.
Ana Rocío Castillo Romero, Ventocilla’s classmate at HKS and former colleague from Peru, wrote in a text message that Ventocilla “always fought for his beliefs about who he was and for his right[s].”
“Rodri was brave,” Castillo wrote. “Even though he didn’t make it, that didn’t stop him from fighting and pursuing his ideals.”
– Employee Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.