Juan Romero's Story

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

This past Saturday I got out early and went to Pershing Square, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.

Rain clouds were threatening, but even so about 100 other people showed up. They were going to walk the 15-mile length of Wilshire Boulevard, just to learn about their city.

I didn't go along, but it's fitting that they walked past the new schools named for Robert F. Kennedy at the site of the old Ambassador Hotel.

For Saturday would have been Kennedy's 85th birthday.


Everyone on the trek, I would guess, knew that the Ambassador is where Kennedy was shot down on election night in June 1968. The historical angle was a big factor in the debate over whether to preserve the hotel's bones.

But I wonder how many of the walkers knew the story of Juan Romero.

His name's a footnote in the national tragedy of the RFK assassination. But every Angeleno, at least, should learn about Juan Romero.

He's the busboy who was shaking the hand of his hero when Sirhan Sirhan lunged out of the shadows and shot Kennedy.

Romero was just 17 that night, an immigrant from Mexico. Earlier, he'd paid off a co-worker so he could deliver room service to Senator Kennedy's suite. They had shaken hands then, the gesture boosting Romero's sense of belonging in America.

He arranged to be in the kitchen pantry when Kennedy came through after speaking to the crowd in the nearby ballroom.

It was a triumphant moment, Kennedy just assured of the Democratic nomination for president.

Romero clutched his hero's hand again. Then came the shots that altered history.

In Boris Yaro's famous photograph of Kennedy lying on the floor in a pool of blood, Romero's stricken face looks up. His rosary is wrapped around the Senator's fingers.

After the long terrible night, Romero rode the bus to class at Roosevelt High School. Kennedy's blood still on his hands.

The events of 1968 have haunted Romero ever since. Now 60 and living in San Jose, he spent Saturday trying to shake off the ghosts.

For the first time, he visited the RFK grave site and memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. There were tears, a lot of tears, and it became something of a media show.

Two congressmen were there, and Steve Lopez, the LA Times columnist who has kept Romero's story alive through the years. A Times photographer snapped Romero kneeling at the grave.

He wore a suit for the first time in his life, Lopez wrote. His chest was tight. His shoulders stiff.

Romero was there, if you can believe it, to ask for forgiveness. All this time, he has thought that if he hadn't wanted to shake Kennedy's hand one more time, the Senator may have evaded the shots.

The new schools on Wilshire Boulevard pay homage to Kennedy and to the pantry.

If they wanted to complete the record, they would find some way to make sure the kids know about Juan Romero too. Maybe ask him to speak at graduation.

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For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.