Juan Romero, 1950–2018
The busboy who cradled a dying RFK
On June 5, 1968, Juan Romero shook hands with the man he was sure would be the next president. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had just given a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where the 17-year-old Romero was a busboy, after winning the California Democratic primary. “Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there!” a triumphant Kennedy told supporters in the hotel’s ballroom before slipping out through the kitchen. There, he paused to shake Romero’s hand. “And as he let go, somebody shot him,” Romero later recalled. The fatally wounded senator fell to the ground. Romero cradled Kennedy’s head, blood dripping through his fingers, a scene immortalized in black-and-white news photos. Seeing Kennedy trying to speak, Romero put his ear next to the senator’s lips. “Is everybody OK?” Kennedy asked. “Yes,” Romero replied, “everybody’s OK.”
Raised in the Mexican state of Baja California, Romero was 10 years old when he moved to Los Angeles to join his family, said The Washington Post. The night before the primary, he delivered room service to Kennedy and his aides. Romero stood gaping as the senator approached, shook his hand, and said, “Thank you.” “I will never forget the handshake and the look,” Romero said. “He wasn’t looking at my skin, he was looking at me as an American.” When Kennedy passed through the kitchen the next night, Romero was eager to congratulate him. But as they shook hands again, Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant, opened fire. As news photographers rushed over, Romero took his own rosary beads from his pocket and placed them in Kennedy’s hand.
“Photos of that moment, with confusion and despair in Romero’s young, dark eyes, made for searing portraits of 1960s upheaval,” said The Los Angeles Times. The assassination came two months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder and five years after John F. Kennedy’s. The next morning Romero returned to high school, his fingernails “still stained with the senator’s blood,” said AJC.com. He later settled in Northern California, where he worked construction jobs. Romero often blamed himself for Kennedy’s death—thinking if the senator hadn’t stopped in the kitchen he might have escaped Sirhan—but felt more at peace after visiting Kennedy’s grave in 2010. “I felt a little bit like that first day that I met him,” Romero said. “I felt American. And I felt good.”