Busboy who held dying RFK speaks of his lingering pain
Juan Romero was a teenage Mexican immigrant working as a hotel busboy 50 years ago when he was thrust into one of the seminal moments of the decade.
Romero had just stopped to shake the hand of Robert F. Kennedy on the night of his victory in the California presidential primary June 5, 1968, when a gunman shot the New York senator in the head. Romero held a wounded Kennedy as he lay on the ground, struggling to keep the senator’s bleeding head from hitting the cold floor of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen.
For almost a half-century, Romero blamed himself, wondering if he could have done more and often asked, what if Kennedy hadn’t stopped for that brief moment to shake his hand? The torment ate at Romero so much he fled Los Angeles and resettled in seclusion in Wyoming.
Today, nearly 50 years after that tragic early morning, the 67-year-old Romero doesn’t bear the same guilt, thanks in part to the support of RFK fans who say the former busboy was an example of the type of people Kennedy sought to help in making racial equality and civil rights a cornerstone of his life’s work.
Romero grants few interviews but recently made himself available for the Netflix documentary “Bobby Kennedy for President,” StoryCorps and others to talk about the hope RFK inspired that remains with him 50 years later.
Born in the small town of Mazatan, Mexico, Romero moved to Baja California until his family received permission to bring him to the U.S. as a 10-year-old. The family lived in poor East LA and he attended Roosevelt High School the year that Chicano students started organizing walkouts to protest discrimination against Mexican-American students.
But Romero’s stepfather “ruled with an iron hand,” and the teen feared he’d face trouble at home if he took part. Instead, Romero got a job at the Ambassador Hotel as a dishwasher and later a busboy.
At the time, the young Romero didn’t understand politics. Yet he knew that President John F. Kennedy had traveled to Mexico and saw footage of Robert Kennedy visiting Mexican-American farm workers in California. When Robert Kennedy announced he would run for president, Romero got caught up in the excitement.
Then came the day Romero met Kennedy. The day before the California primary, Kennedy and his aides ordered room service at the Ambassador Hotel. “He wasn’t looking at my skin, he wasn’t looking at my age ... he was looking at me as an American.”
Kennedy won the primary on the strength of Mexican-American and black voters.
At the hotel, as Kennedy was cutting through the kitchen to meet with reporters outside, he saw Romero, who stuck out his hand while Kennedy stopped to shake it. During that brief pause, a man ran toward Kennedy and opened fire.
The next day, Robert F. Kennedy, the man who had excited Latino, black, poor and anti-Vietnam War voters, was dead at age 42.
Dawn Porter, who directed “Bobby Kennedy for President,” said it was an honor to speak to Romero and allow him to share his story for the Netflix documentary. He’s still angry that Kennedy never had the opportunity to lead the fractured nation and tackle poverty and discrimination.