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Voices--Juan Romero

June 5, 2008 |  4:00 am
Photograph by William Dietsch / Los Angeles Times
Juan Romero in a photo dated June 18, 1968.

"It is hard to understand. I did nothing. It just happened. Mr. Kennedy was there and he needed someone with him, that's all."
--Juan Romero in a 1968 interview with Ted Thackrey Jr.

By Steve Lopez
Times staff writer

Photograph by Steve Fontanini
Los Angeles Times

Juan Romero is led into the courtroom to testify against Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, in a photo dated Feb. 15, 1969.

When you write stories for three decades, occasionally someone asks if you had a favorite. I never did until five years ago, when I met Juan Romero.

An editor at Life magazine had asked if I remembered the busboy who knelt at Bobby Kennedy's side on June 5, 1968, when he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Of course I remembered. The photos of that skinny kid in the angelic white service coat, cradling Kennedy, were searing.

Go find him, said the editor.

Romero wasn't hard to track down. I found him doing hard labor in San Jose, his strong hands callused by years of toil for a paving company.

But 30 years after the assassination, he was still haunted by that night, and talking about it was not one of his favorite things to do. We went out for a couple of beers, and Romero began squirming and twisting himself up. When he finally found a way to let it out, it was for his own sake as much as mine.

Thursday marks the 35th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, so last week, I went to visit Romero again in San Jose. The father of four, now 53, was pouring concrete under a merciless sun. When he got off duty, we went out for a cold one, just like last time, and Juan Romero revisited the day that has shaped his life.

It was Juan's stepfather, an Ambassador waiter, who got him the job. Juan, whose family moved to L.A. from Mexico when he was 10, had been flirting with trouble in his East L.A. neighborhood, and his stepdad's solution was to get him off the streets.

"I wore black pants and a white shirt to Hollenbeck Junior High every day," says Juan, who caught the bus for the Ambassador after school. The routine continued when he moved on to Roosevelt High.

Juan worked room service and met scads of celebrities in the Ambassador's glory days, but for him, the arrival of presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy during the 1968 California primary topped the charts.

Juan remembered photos of a Catholic John F. Kennedy on the walls of homes in Mexico -- "next to Pope John Paul and the crucifix" -- and he knew Bobby Kennedy had championed the cause of California farm workers.

"Bobby rolled up his sleeves and walked with them," Juan says.

When Kennedy checked into the Ambassador and called for room service, Juan, then 17, cut a deal with the busboy who drew the job. Juan would retrieve all the other guy's trays that night in return for the Kennedy job.

"He wouldn't do it," Juan remembers of his stubborn colleague. "So I said, 'All right. I'll pay you too.' "

A Kennedy assistant answered the door of the Presidential Suite, and Juan, his eyes wide, pushed the food cart into the room and found himself standing next to Kennedy.

"He shook my hand as hard as anyone had ever shaken it," Juan says. "I walked out of there 20 feet tall, thinking, 'I'm not just a busboy, I'm a human being.' He made me feel that way."

The next night, Kennedy won the California primary. He made his victory speech at the Ambassador and headed through the kitchen to escape the crush of people, but there was a crowd in there too.

Juan, who wanted to congratulate him, used his skinny frame to knife through the pressed bodies. This man was going to be the next president, Juan thought, and he wanted to see if he could shake his hand once more.

Photograph by Bruce Cox / Los Angeles Times
Juan Romero, who gave his rosary to Kennedy. When Kennedy couldn't hold the rosary, Romero wrapped the beads around his thumb.

"People were six and seven deep," Juan says, but he got close enough to stick out his hand. As Kennedy grabbed it, Juan heard a bang and felt a flash of heat against his face. Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin, had fired from just off Juan's shoulder.

"I thought it was firecrackers at first, or a joke in bad taste," says Juan, but then he saw Kennedy sprawled on the floor and knelt to help him up.

Photograph by Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times
Juan Romero and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, June 5, 1968.

"He was looking up at the ceiling, and I thought he'd banged his head. I asked, 'Are you OK? Can you get up?' One eye, his left eye, was twitching, and one leg was shaking."

Juan slipped a hand under the back of Kennedy's head to lift him and felt warm blood spilling through his fingers.

"People were screaming, 'Oh my God, not another Dallas!' "

Ethel Kennedy knelt down at her husband's side and pushed Juan away. Juan looked on, angry and stunned, fingering the rosary beads in his pocket.

"When I was in trouble, I would always go and pray to God to make my stepfather forget what I'd done, or to keep me out of trouble the next time. I asked Ethel if I could give Bobby the rosary beads, and she didn't stop me. She didn't say anything.

"I pressed them into his hand but they wouldn't stay because he couldn't grip them, so I tried wrapping them around his thumb. When they were wheeling him away, I saw the rosary beads still hanging off his hand."

Juan was taken to the Rampart police station and questioned about what he saw and what he knew. He was released, still trembling, headed for home, and went to school the next day. It was at Roosevelt High that he saw Kennedy's blood under his fingernails, and decided not to wash his hands.

"Then the mail started coming to the hotel," Juan says. "Sacks and sacks of mail. You couldn't believe the amount of it."

Most of it was supportive, addressed to the anonymous busboy. It was a kind of celebrity Juan never asked for or wanted, and he grew apprehensive about hotel guests asking to see him. He also heard from a handful of lunatics asking why he didn't take the bullet himself, or telling him Kennedy would still be alive if he hadn't stopped to shake Juan's hand.

Juan left Los Angeles for Santa Barbara. He returned briefly to the Ambassador, but was finally driven away by ghosts. He worked at a hotel in Wyoming, then relocated to San Jose and married.

He settled comfortably into family life but lived with the cruel, nagging conviction that he'd been thrown into the path of history for a reason, and he hadn't been up to the challenge.

Juan was convinced he was supposed to find a way to express the hope Kennedy represented for him, but he couldn't find the words.

During the debate over California's Proposition 187, he felt that people were taking one look at his brown skin and figuring him for a freeloader. He wanted to scream that the ballot initiative was proof we needed another Kennedy, but he couldn't find a stage.

And that was just fine, because to remember that day in 1968, Juan ended up doing something more elegant and true. He took the faith expressed in that first handshake from Kennedy and honored the memory by working hard, providing for his family and living a life of tolerance and good deeds.

He doesn't always get it right. Juan's wife tells him he does so many odd jobs for others, it often comes at the expense of time with the family.

Maybe so, but Juan has to help those he can. And he has to keep moving, hurrying from one job to another like a man being chased. Especially around this time of year.

"For words to come out of my mouth that express how I really feel is so hard," Juan says, his eyes filling. "After years and years and years to think about what to say about that night, I can't figure out anything that does justice."

I tell him, once again, that he has said all the right things.