LOS ANGELES—Juan Romero, a hotel busboy who came to the aid of Robert F. Kennedy after the New York senator was shot in Los Angeles, has died. He was 68.
Longtime family friend Rigo Chacon said Thursday that Romero had died at a Modesto, California, hospital on Oct. 1, following a heart attack.
Romero was a teenager in June 1968 when Kennedy was shot in the head while walking through the Ambassador Hotel kitchen after his victory in the California presidential primary.
Romero held the mortally wounded Kennedy, struggling to keep the senator’s head from hitting the floor. He placed Rosary beads in Kennedy’s hand and reassured the senator everything would be all right.
The moment, captured on film, became an iconic image that haunted Romero for most of his life because Kennedy had stopped to shake his hand moments before he was shot.
For many years, Romero blamed himself for Kennedy’s death—wondering if he could have done something to prevent the shooting or if Kennedy might have survived if he had not stopped to shake his hand.
Eventually, Romero overcame his guilt, thanks in part to the support of Kennedy fans who told him that he 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.
Earlier this year, Romero told The Associated Press in a rare interview that Kennedy inspired his lifelong commitment to racial equality.
“I still have the fire burning inside of me,” Romero said while publicizing the NetFlix documentary “Bobby Kennedy for President.”
Born in the small town of Mazatan in the Mexican state of Sonora, Romero moved to Baja California until his family received permission to bring him to the U.S. as a 10-year-old.
The family lived in blue-collar East Los Angeles and he attended Roosevelt High School the year that Chicano students started organizing walkouts to protest discrimination against Mexican-American students.
Romero feared he would face trouble at home if he took part in the protests.
He got a job at the Ambassador Hotel as a dishwasher and later a busboy. He met Kennedy the day before the California primary, when the senator and his aides ordered room service.
Romero was on duty and came into the room with a group of other busboys. He saw Kennedy toward the back—one hand holding a curtain and the other gripping 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.”
Voters went to the polls the next day, and that night Kennedy thanked supporters in the hotel’s Embassy Room before leaving through the kitchen, where the gunman opened fire.
News photographers captured images that would be seen all over the world.
“Is everybody OK?” Kennedy asked.
Yes, Romero said.
“Everything will be OK,” Kennedy said before losing consciousness.
Kennedy’s wife Ethel — 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?”
Kennedy was pronounced dead at a hospital hours later at age 42.
By John Rogers and Russell Contreras