LOS ANGELES — 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 on 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 my 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.
“I still have the fire burning inside of me,” Romero told The Associated Press.
Born in the small town of Mazatan, Mexico, Romero moved to Baja California until his family received permission to bring him to the United States as a 10-year-old. The family lived in poor East Los Angeles 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.
“When I listened to Robert Kennedy, I felt he wasn’t talking at us, but talking to you personally,” Romero said.
Then came the day Romero met Kennedy. The day before the California primary, Kennedy and his aides ordered room service at the Ambassador Hotel. Romero was on duty and came into the room with a group of other busboys. He saw Kennedy toward the back — one hand held a curtain and the other gripped a phone. Kennedy put down the phone and waved Romero to come forward.
“All I remember was that I kept staring at him with my mouth open,” Romero said. Kennedy grabbed Romero’s hand with both hands and said, “thank you.” For a moment, there was silence.
“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.”
The busboy walked out of Kennedy’s room with complete happiness. Nothing would stop him from pursuing his dreams, Romero felt. “Now, they call it swagger,” he said. “I had no doubt that I had just met the next president of the United States.”
The next day, voters went to the polls. In some East Los Angeles precincts, polls closed early, not because of irregularities but because everyone had voted. Kennedy won on the strength of Mexican-American and black voters.
In the Embassy Room, Kennedy thanked supporters, including United Farm Worker co-founder Dolores Huerta. After his victory speech, Huerta tried to usher Kennedy to another room where mariachis were waiting to play for the victorious candidate. Kennedy walked downstairs and decided to go through a hotel kitchen and meet with reporters waiting on the other side.
In the kitchen, Kennedy raced through and waved to kitchen staff. Then, he saw Romero. Did he remember him from the day before? Romero stuck out his hand and Kennedy stopped to shake it. During that brief pause, a man ran toward Kennedy and opened fire. Several men, including Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson and Los Angeles Rams football player Roosevelt Grier, jumped on the gunman.
Romero ran to Kennedy. News photographers captured pictures of Romero next to the bloodied Kennedy — images that would be seen all over the world.
“Is everybody OK?” Kennedy asked. Yes, he said. “Everything will be OK,” Kennedy said before losing consciousness. Romero put a rosary in Kennedy’s hand. Wife Ethel Kennedy — at the time pregnant with their 11th child — ran to her injured husband and pushed Romero away. Romero turned and saw a group of men punching the gunman. “I felt my hand making a fist to join in,” Romero said. “Then I thought, what’s the point?”
The next day, Robert F. Kennedy, the man who had excited Latino, black, poor and anti-Vietnam War voters, was dead at the age of 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 opened up upon meeting Kennedy aide Paul Schrade, who was wounded in the attack, for the first time in decades. The two shared their emotional memories.
“We just pointed the camera and let the two of them talk,” Porter said. “It was powerful.”
Conspiracy theorists later would accuse Romero of being a plant to help kill Kennedy. Others criticized him for being selfish for wanting to shake hands with Kennedy again. Those charges used to hurt Romero, who now lives in San Jose, California, and works as a concrete and asphalt paver. He has visited the grave of Robert F. Kennedy with his daughter Elda Romero at the Arlington National Cemetery.
He’s still angry that Kennedy never had the opportunity to lead the fractured nation and tackle poverty and discrimination.
Romero, after 50 years, has accepted his place in history, even though he wished no one knew his name.
“People often say I was at the right place at the right time.” Romero said. Then after a long moment of silence said, “No, the right place at the right time would have been me … taking that bullet.”
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras