I don’t know if you can understand this, but [what happened in 1968] … made me realize that no matter how much hope you have, it can be taken away in a second. – Juan Romero
“I always dreaded when June was coming up,” said Romero, 65, who has struggled for most of his adult life to let go of his crippling memory of an American tragedy.
It happened just after midnight on June 5, 1968. Robert F. Kennedy had won the California presidential primary and made his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Romero was a 17-year-old busboy.
A Roosevelt High School student who had moved north from Mexico at the age of 10, Romero recalled the photos of President John F. Kennedy that hung alongside those of Pope John XXIII in the homes of Mexican families.
He worked at the hotel after school and had delivered room service to Kennedy earlier in the week. He knew he’d never forget the way Kennedy treated him and the pride he felt, and now he wanted to congratulate him as the candidate made his way through a kitchen service area. Romero reached out, took Kennedy’s hand, and watched him slump to the floor as gun blasts echoed.
The black-and-white photos of that moment, by Boris Yaro of the Los Angeles Times and Bill Eppridge of Life magazine, are as haunting now as they were 47 years ago.
RFK, who for many people represented hope for social justice, racial tolerance and an end to the war in Vietnam, lies on his back, limbs splayed. Romero squats at his side in white service jacket, a young witness to horror, his hand cradling Kennedy’s head.
“I wanted to protect his head from the cold concrete,” says Romero, who went to school the next day with Kennedy’s blood crusted under his fingernails, refusing to wash it away.
In the photos, disbelief and despair gathered in Juan Romero’s dark eyes, and he would carry the weight of that moment through the decades…
He spoke to me each time about his regrets, his sense of duty to the Kennedy legacy, and a lingering feeling of guilt. I told him there was no rational reason to feel guilty.
But the shooting had wounded his psyche. On far too many nights he lay awake wondering if Kennedy would still be alive if he hadn’t paused to shake a busboy’s hand…
One day, while visiting his mother in Tulare, his guilt surfaced again while he spoke to Zwiener by phone. He said she comforted him by saying that in some of the photos, taken just moments after the shooting, the shoes of bystanders can be seen at a safe distance from Kennedy. But there’s Juan, who didn’t take cover, trying to help a man in need…
The hotel is long gone, and in its place is a school and RFK memorial bearing Kennedy’s words, which read in part: “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, it sends out a tiny ripple of hope …”