When I was just 14, photographs of a boy only a few years older than I were in all the magazines and newspapers. Robert F. Kennedy had been shot in a hotel in Los Angeles, and this skinny boy in a white uniform was leaning over him trying to help.
Thirty years have vanished since then, but that image has not. It seems even starker with age. The busboy was almost angelic in that white service coat, his eyes drained of innocence, the background a dark blur.
This is the story of what happened to him.
The very first thing Juan Romero wants you to know is that this isn't about him. "It's about Bobby," he says with eyes so shy they seldom lock onto you. "I'll do anything I have to if it keeps his name alive." Juan is 47 now, and the boy is gone. He is darkly handsome and strong, and his hands are callused because he works for a paving company, drives trucks, rakes asphalt. He has just got off work, and he slides into a booth at a little restaurant near his home in San Jose, Calif. For years he didn't talk about it. He couldn't. Even now it hollows him, and as his eyes turn inward and he retrieves pieces of the story, he cannot sit still. He grabs at himself, squirms, apologizes for not being able to express himself more eloquently.
Juan had met Kennedy the night before. Kennedy was campaigning in California's presidential primary, and Juan told the other busboy he'd pick up dirty trays all night in return for the chance to take a room-service call from the Kennedy suite. Juan was no political junkie, but in Mexico, where he spent his first 10 years, there were photos of Kennedys on walls next to crucifixes. Juan knew Bobby Kennedy as a Catholic and a family man, and John Kennedy had spoken of Hispanics as hardworking and family-oriented at a time when Juan was being called things like a taco bender.
And so the call came and he went up to Kennedy's room, and when the man took his hand, "I didn't feel like a busboy or a Hispanic. I didn't feel like I was 17. I just felt like a person." The next night Juan pressed through the crowd after Kennedy's victory speech, hungry for one more touch. He put his hand out. Kennedy took it. And Juan felt a flash of heat.
Kennedy crumpled, and Juan knelt at his side, anguished, shocked, trying to help him up--the scene we all remember. When he took his hand from behind Kennedy's head, it was covered with blood. Juan took rosary beads from his pocket and wedged them into Kennedy's hands, trying to revive him with prayer. "The doctors said it would have been impossible for him to speak, but with God as my witness, I swear Mr. Kennedy said either, 'Is everybody O.K.?' or 'Everything's going to be O.K.'"
After that night, staying at the hotel was impossible. Every day they'd hand him a bag of mail. He was something of a celebrity, but it felt all wrong. Reporters hounded him, and one offered college tuition in return for his story, but Juan's stepfather told him no honorable man profits from another man's tragedy. And so he left, wandering from town to town and job to job until 1974, when he and his fiance Elda eloped to San Jose and started a family. It was then that Juan saw the beginnings of what he could do to honor Bobby Kennedy. He could live in his spirit. He could work hard, honor his God, take care of his family and live a life of tolerance and compassion.