It was the day before the 1968 California Democratic primary election and 18 year old Juan Romero was working as a bus boy at the Ambassador Hotel. The primary itself was a heated race between Senator Robert F, Kennedy, Senator Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
McCarthy was the first major political figure to come out against the Vietnam War. His success convinced Robert Kennedy to enter the race. He would defeat McCarthy in California with Humphrey coming in a distant third.
Hubert Humphrey was a bona-fide liberal but as Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President he carried the Vietnam War around his neck like an albatross. He had continued to support Johnson’s Vietnam policy while McCarthy and Robert Kennedy were clearly the anti-war candidates.
The summer of 1968 had seen the death of Martin Luther King. The deep south too was changing as the civil rights and voting rights bill had been passed. President Johnson told a national audience he would he would not run for re-election and the fight for the Presidential nomination was on.
Bobby Kennedy and his entourage were staying at the Ambassador Hotel that June evening and when they ordered room service, Juan Romero was called upon to deliver it.
“All I remember was that I kept staring at him with my mouth open,” he would say later.
Finally, Kennedy approached, grabbed Romero’s hand with both of his and said, “Thank you.”
“I will never forget the handshake and the look … looking right at you with those piercing eyes that said, ‘I’m one of you. We’re good,'” Romero said. “He wasn’t looking at my skin, he wasn’t looking at my age … he was looking at me as an American.”
His family lived in blue-collar East Los Angeles and Romero was a student at Roosevelt High School in 1968, the year Chicano students started organizing walkouts to protest discrimination against Mexican-American students. As the son of a tough disciplinarian father, however, he said he was too afraid to take part.
The next day after his victory over McCarthy and Humphrey and thanking his supporters, Robert F. Kennedy decided to duck through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel to speak to reporters. Juan Romero reveled at his good fortune.
It meant the 18-year-old busboy might get to shake hands with his hero again — the man he’d assured himself would be the next president of the United States — for the second time in two days. Romero jumped at the chance to meet him again.
Romero had just grasped Kennedy’s hand when gunshots rang out, one of them striking the senator in the head.
Kennedy would die the next day and the teenage Mexican immigrant who had idolized him would carry the emotional burden of that encounter for most of his life. ”If I wouldn’t have extended my hand, he wouldn’t have gotten shot,”
After gunfire rang out and Kennedy fell, Romero cradled his bleeding head in his hands.
“Is everybody OK?” Kennedy asked. Romero said yes.
“Everything will be OK,” the senator replied shortly before losing consciousness.
As they talked, Romero pressed a set of Rosary beads into the senator’s hand as news photographers frantically took pictures. Because of the beads, his white busboy smock and the beatific look on his face, Romero was misidentified in some early news reports as a priest.
“It was a really dramatic picture with the light coming in from the side, they were strong photos,” Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly said.
“But really the heart of it,” Kennerly added, “was this unknown person was there to help Senator Kennedy when he was down. That’s what has always struck me about those photos.”
When he visited Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery a few years ago, Romero wept as he spoke directly to the senator.
He “asked him for forgiveness for the fact that he didn’t think he reacted soon enough,” a family friend recalled. “That perhaps if he took the bullet. Or he could have pushed him out of the way.”
Eventually Romero overcame his guilt, thanks in part to the support of Kennedy admirers who told him that he was an example of the type of person Kennedy embraced.
Romero moved from Los Angeles decades ago, spending most of his life in the Northern California cities of San Jose and Modesto.
A brawny, muscular man, he worked in construction, including concrete and asphalt paving, enjoying the often-grueling physical labor with no intention of retiring any time soon.
Only recently, he said during rare interviews this year, did he finally come to terms with his struggle.
He said he still carried the example Kennedy had set as he campaigned for equality and civil rights.
“I still have the fire burning inside of me,” Romero said.
Juan Romero passed away last Monday; a man caught up in history through no fault of his own. He was 68 years old.
Two hundred years from now when students see that picture of the assassination, they will see Robert F. Kennedy and the busboy Juan Romero cradling his bleeding head in his hands.