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50 years later, the RFK busboy still waits on someone to follow in Kennedy's footsteps

50 years later, the RFK busboy still waits on someone to follow in Kennedy's footsteps
Juan Romero, now 67, was the teenage busboy with Robert F. Kennedy when the presidential nominee was fatally shot in Los Angeles in 1968. (David Butow / For The Times)

Juan Romero has spent half a century trying to move on.

He gets up before sunrise, goes to work and paves another road or driveway in the San Jose area, strong as ever at 67.

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He likes to have a cold beer or two with his work crew when they punch out at the end of the day, caked in dirt and sweat. He enjoys time with family and friends and doesn’t look too far down the road.

But what happened at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles just past midnight on June 5, 1968, is always there, a shadow at the edge of his consciousness, and sometimes he retreats into it.

Romero is 17, working as a busboy. He hears that Bobby Kennedy has won the California Democratic primary in a bid for the presidency of the United States. Romero rushes to the food service area Kennedy is passing through and reaches out to congratulate the man he had met the night before while delivering room service.

And then the shots, the screams, the commotion.

Kennedy goes down, flat on his back, a ghostly look in his eyes. Romero crouches to help, and the black-and-white photographs freeze forever the image of a young immigrant laborer at the side of fallen American aristocracy.

Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, which followed by two months the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and by five years the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The country ruptured and heaved in the decade that gave rise to the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement and the Cultural Revolution.

We are, since then, evolved in many ways but deeply fractured and divided still.

“There was a time I thought hope was dead. It was right there, lying on the floor,” Romero told me several days ago in the downtown San Jose park where Kennedy delivered a campaign speech three months before his death.

“I’m not trying to be poetic,” Romero said. But he wonders if there is a reason his image is burned into the pages of history, and whether his duty is to speak up about the man whose ideals he still honors.

“Maybe I don’t have the tools to become a politician and change the laws,” Romero said. “But maybe I can help everyone understand there were people who tried to correct injustice.”

To him, compassion, tolerance, equal opportunity and social justice are worth fighting for, and he lives with the hope that a new leader — inspired, perhaps, by someone from the past — will step forward.

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I always feel a twinge of guilt when I arrange another get-together with Romero, knowing that to survive, he needs to be defined by something other than the photos we all remember. But when we meet, I always get the sense that talking about his experience is still cathartic for him.

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The first time was in 1998, on the 30th anniversary of the assassination. Romero had avoided the spotlight for a quarter of a century at that point, keeping his thoughts to himself. But he was unsettled by the racial division stirred by California’s Proposition 187, the ballot initiative to establish a citizenship screening system and deny some services to immigrants here illegally. He told me, at the time, that he wanted to remind people what Kennedy stood for.

We went to a San Jose restaurant owned by a relative of Romero’s, ordered a couple of beers, and over the course of a few hours, it came gushing up — a torrent of sorrow, regret and pain. Romero wept and his body convulsed. It was as if a long-traumatized soldier could no longer keep a lid on a battlefield story that had haunted him for years, locked in the depths of his being.

He’d grown up in Mexico, moved to the U.S. at 10, began getting into trouble while going to Hollenbeck Middle School and then Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights. His unfailingly strict stepfather worked at the Ambassador and helped Romero get a job as a busboy to keep him off the street. Romero lifted a pair of rosary beads from the glove compartment of his mother’s car and carried them in his pocket to ward off the temptation to miss school or be late for work.

Bobby Kennedy, candidate for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, checked into the hotel at the end of the California primary. Romero, who recalled homes in Mexico with photos of the pope and of John F. Kennedy, badly wanted to meet a Kennedy. He told other busboys he’d do anything for them if they let him take a room service call from the candidate.

Romero and a waiter knocked at the door, then pushed two food carts into the room. Several people were present. Kennedy stood at a bay window, finished up a phone call and turned to the visitors.

“He said, ‘Come on in, boys,’” Romero recalls, the memory bringing a smile to his face.

“I remember staring at him with my mouth open, and I see him shaking the hand of a waiter and then reaching out to me. I remember him grabbing my hand and he gave me a two-handed shake,” said Romero.

“He had piercing blue eyes, and he looked right at you. You knew he was looking at you and not through you … I remember walking out of that room … feeling 10 feet tall, feeling like an American.… I didn’t feel like I was Mexican, and I didn’t feel like I was a busboy, and I didn’t feel like I was 17 years old. I felt like I was right there with him.”

The next night, when Kennedy won the primary and made his victory speech at the Ambassador, Romero pushed through the crowd, eager to congratulate him, and to shake his hand once more.

He reached out, and the bullets tore into Kennedy. Romero took out his rosary beads and tried to press them into Kennedy’s hand.

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy lies on the floor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot in the head. He had just finished his victory speech upon winning the California primary.
Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy lies on the floor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot in the head. He had just finished his victory speech upon winning the California primary. (Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times)

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He was taken to LAPD’s Rampart station for questioning, still in his white service coat.

“I was trying to make sense of what happened and looking down at the blood on my right palm and between my fingers,” Romero said.

He was questioned by police, but doesn’t remember the details.

“Everything was a blur.”

Romero was released about 6:30 a.m. and caught the first of three buses, headed to Roosevelt High.

“At Seventh and Broadway, I remember sitting there on the bus, still looking at my hands and all the blood, not realizing what happened and hoping my mom would grab me by the leg and say, ‘Wake up, you lazy bum.’

“What made me realize it was real was that a lady was sitting in front of me reading the newspaper.… I remember the lady showing me the picture and saying, ‘This is you, isn’t it?’ That’s when I first saw the picture, and I never wanted to see it again.”

Kennedy had been rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital and was still alive when Romero went to school, but he died the next day.

Romero was tortured for years. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, it disturbed him that Ambassador guests wanted to pose for pictures with him. In the months and years that followed, Romero let himself believe he bore some measure of guilt for Kennedy’s murder. If Kennedy hadn’t paused to shake his hand, some had suggested, maybe Sirhan Sirhan — who is still locked up for the murder — wouldn’t have had a clear shot.

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Romero eventually quit the Ambassador and moved to Wyoming, then settled in San Jose and raised his family. Though he has tried to work hard, honor God and take care of family, he admits he is not a perfect man. His marriage fell apart and he said he’s made some mistakes.

Romero doesn’t suggest the psychic residue of having had a dying hero’s warm blood spill through his hands has anything to do with that. But he has admitted that something in him was broken, and even 50 years after the damage was done, revisiting June 5 fills his eyes and halts him mid-sentence.

In 2010, I went with Romero to RFK’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Kennedy lies near a wall that bears the words he delivered the night Martin Luther King Jr. was killed:

“What we need in the United States is not division … not hatred … not violence or unlawfulness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.”

Romero said he wanted to apologize to Kennedy and tell him he had tried his best to live a life of tolerance and humility. I told him he should trust friends who told him he had nothing to apologize for. But as he knelt at Kennedy’s grave, bowed his head and wept, Romero wasn’t yet ready to unburden himself.

A few years later, I got an email from a woman in Germany who had seen that column and later became Romero’s pen pal. Over time, she earned his trust and he began talking to her about his struggle to let go. In 2014, the woman and her husband visited California and accompanied Romero to the site of the assassination, where a school now stands.

It was, for Romero, another milestone on the path to his salvation. His friend from Germany told him that when she viewed the photos Romero could not bear to look at, she saw a brave young man who didn’t run when shots were fired.

Romero emailed me in August of 2015 to say the cloud was finally lifting. When I visited him, he said that he had looked closely at the photos he’d tried for so many years to avoid.

“I saw a person in need,” he told me, “and another person trying to help him.”

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On our most recent visit in downtown San Jose, Romero was running late after a 10-hour paving job, and I waited for him in St. James Park. On March 23, 1968, an estimated 10,000 people had gathered in the park to hear Kennedy speak.

The park’s RFK memorial is little more than a drab concrete landing base for pigeons, with an oxidized plaque that’s barely readable. The park is a gathering place for homeless people, and Romero says he has stepped past campers when he sets a bouquet of flowers at the memorial each year.

I listened to a recording of Kennedy’s 1968 speech in the park and was struck by his eloquence, all the more so because his appeal to harmony and to our better instincts was a far cry from what passes for political oratory today. Kennedy began by saying the problems of the country and the world must be faced with candor and with truth.

“And if there is one overriding reality in this country, it is the danger that we have an erosion of a sense of national decency,” Kennedy said. “Make no mistake. Decency is at the heart of the matter.… Poverty in this country is indecent. Illiteracy is indecent. The death or maiming of brave young men in the swamps of Asia, that is also indecent.

“It is also indecent for a man to work with his back and with his hands in the valleys of California without hope of ever seeing his son enter a university.… It is indecent for the best of our young people to be driven to alienation and … the terrible exile of drugs and violence, to allow their hearts to wither in rage and with hatred.

“This in my judgment in the year 1968 is a time to create, not to destroy. This is a time for men to work … with a sense of decency and not with bitterness. This is a time to begin again, and that is why I run for president of the United States.”

Three months later, Kennedy was gone. Later that year, Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey for the presidency.

Lost in reverie, I missed Romero’s arrival. I looked up from my bench and he was standing at the podium where Kennedy had stood.

We talked about the marvel of vanishing time, 20 years gone since our first visit, half a century shooting by like a comet. Romero was searching for peace of mind in Buddhism a few years ago, so it is evident to him — through experience and faith — that life is suffering and that nothing is lost in the universe.

But if the vapors of Kennedy’s goodwill still exist, so does today’s toxic political atmosphere, with emphasis on our differences and what Romero sees as the scapegoating of people from the nation he was born to. In 20 years, he and I have gone from talking about citizenship screening to the building of a wall.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in 50 years, and in the last 20 years, but nowadays it seems like one step forward, two steps back,” Romero said.

We spent a while in the park and then continued the conversation at a nearby dive I used to go to when I was in college. Romero took me back to June 5, to the Ambassador, to his flight from Los Angeles, to his long struggle to move beyond what he cannot forget.

He told me he was thinking of going back to Arlington once more.

“I want to go there and just say, ‘Hi,’ and explain that everything is going good, and I’m grateful for his involvement in my life and that I will always respect his efforts for social justice. And to say that I will never forget the first time we met, and that I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for him.”

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