There’s something about being held in times of need. Sometimes a short hug is enough, other times a much longer embrace is needed, and sometimes people need a human touch for much longer periods — hours, days, weeks, and even months at a time.
The picture you see on the left was taken on June 5, 1968 in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. One second, 17-year-old busboy, Juan Romero, was shaking hands with presidential candidate, Senator Robert Kennedy, the next moment he was holding the dying senator as he lie on the floor bleeding from several gunshot wounds. Romero remembers the senator asking if everyone was okay. He nodded, then — in a moment of faith — pulled a rosary from his own pocket and pressed it into the palm of Kennedy’s hand.
The days that followed were a blur. And for years, he worked hard to suppress the emotions and images of those days — especially the image, now a part of history, that was captured on June 5 by Los Angeles Times photographer, Boris Yaro.
Romero arrived to the United States at the age of ten. As a teen, he attended Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, famous for the organized “walk-outs” by Chicano students who felt that Mexican-American students were being discriminated against. While he wanted to participate, he knew that his step-father, who ruled with an iron-fist, would not capitulate. So he went to work at the Ambassador Hotel.
Eventually, Romero quit working at the hotel, spent time in Wyoming, before finally settling in San Jose to raise his family. For years, decades in fact, he led a quiet and humble life as a construction worker, literally paving streets, and the way, for others.
While often reluctant to talk about his past, Romero occasionally shared his story, usually around the anniversary of that fateful day. He has, in many ways, come to terms with his part in history.
Romero has visited San Jose’s St. James Park, where the senator had given a speech to an estimated crowd of 10,000 just one week before his trip to Los Angeles; he has visited the late senator’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery; he’s even visited the site of the old Ambassador Hotel (now a school); and he’s spoken on camera and in front of small and large audiences.
Each of these visits and events has proved emotional for Romero, but at the same time, he felt a deep sense of gratitude and honor through the experience.
I met Juan Romero about 20 years ago at one of my dad’s annual high school scholarship dinners, where he was invited to share his story. He spoke softly, describing the two brief encounters with the senator. The first occurred during a room service delivery; the second was when he went from shaking hands with Kennedy, to holding the back of the senator’s head as warm blood spilled through his hands.
That evening at the dinner he talked about wishing he could have done more the night Kennedy was shot; he talked about the aftermath, the painful emotional relapses, and he talked about the desire to live in relative anonymity. Moreover, he talked about the kind of president Bobby could have been — as a champion for civil rights and social justice. Kennedy was, in his words, an American hero.
I remember sitting a couple of tables away, watching him and appreciating what he had been through.
As I wrote at the outset, times of need vary in length. On June 5, 1968, a young boy held Kennedy for the briefest of moments – in a time of need. Over fifty years later, the boy — now a man — will need Kennedy to be there for him.
I learned through my parents that Juan Romero passed away yesterday at the age of 67.by