Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fall On Your Knees

Forty-two years apart, Jose Romero kneels at Robert Kennedy's side. The now-60-year old Romero is the famed busboy captured in one of the most iconic photos of the late 1960s.

"What we need in the United States is not division … not hatred … not violence or unlawfulness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.... Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to take the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world...." - Robert Francis Kennedy

It is, perhaps, one of the most iconic photos of the 1960s: a skinny and obviously stunned and confused teenage busboy is kneeling over a mortally wounded Robert F. Kennedy, vainly trying to lift up the New York senator, momentarily - and, obviously, mistakenly - believing RFK had been pushed and knocked to the ground. After Romero's story became known, that one snapshot held great irony:Kennedy, who spent the last three years of his life trying to lift up for the poor, the migrant workers, the African Americans and the Chicanos, was now being lifted by one of those same underprivileged and forgotten members of American society.

The teenager, Juan Romero, is now 60 years old. In the intervening 42 years, Romero has been traumatized by that June night at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. And, in all of those ensuing years, Romero has been walking around with tremendous guilt, feeling that he could have prevented Sirhan Sirhan from assassinating the man Romero said had finally made him feel like an American.

As Steve Lopez brilliantly captures in the Los Angeles Times, Romero's story and his journey yesterday morning to the graveside of Robert Francis Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery has been a long one. Never, in all of these years, had Romero visited the grave. It was with great poignancy, then, that there was Romero yesterday morning - more than 42 years after the assassination - keeling once again, this time beside Kennedy's grave on what would have been RFK's 85th birthday.

Romero, a construction worker, told Lopez that he was wearing a suit for the first time in his life. He said it was only proper that he should do so, to show his respect for a man whose life has been forever intertwined with his own.

It was only after the encouragement of a friend who told him he had to go to Arlington to finally come to terms with his demons that Romero decided to make the journey from his home in San Jose, California. That it took incredible strength and courage to visit Kennedy's grave was obvious. Indeed, before kneeling at the grave, Romero walked off to be alone and have one last good cry before approaching the final resting place. "Sorry," he apologized to his daughter, Elda, and the friend - Rigo Chacon - both of whom had made the trip with him from California. "If I can get it out of the way now...." Maybe a good cry would help him keep his composure, he said.

Then, Romero approached the grave.

Romero's family story was one not dissimilar to a few million others who had moved to California from Mexico by the late 1960s. Romero was 10 years old when his family made the migration. From there, he lived in projects for a while and believes would have gotten caught up in the gang life except for the fact that his stepfather intervened and helped get him a job at the Ambassador Hotel.

That moment when Romero knelt at RFK's side was not, in fact, the first time Romero had met Kennedy. That had occurred a few nights before, when Senator Kennedy called for room service. Romero paid off another busboy for the privilege of delivering Kennedy's food. Even though he was just 17-years old, Romero felt that Kennedy made him feel more accepted as an immigrant - more importantly, as an American. And, just knowing that Kennedy might become President of the United States had electrified him.

Romero arrived at Kennedy's hotel room door and the Senator himself opened it, startling the young busboy. Immediately after putting the tray down, Romero turned around to see the extended hand of Robert Kennedy coming toward him. At that moment, Romero says, he was transformed. As he'd imagined from watching Kennedy, physically grasping Kennedy's hand made him feel appreciated. He felt whole, he felt like a man. Two nights later, when Kennedy won the primary, Romero raced to the Ambassador pantry and shook RFK's hand again as the candidate went to deliver his victory speech.

After the speech, Romero broke through the crowd again, wanting to say goodbye and wish Kennedy well. Once more, he shook Kennedy's hand. One of the lesser-known facts is that it was while shaking Romero's hand that Kennedy was shot. Literally, he was shot while holding Romero's hand. Romero never did wash off Kennedy's blood from that hand. It eventually faded and disappeared on its own.

It was with that dried blood on his hand that Romero sat on a bus heading to school the day after the assassination. A few seats away, a woman, reading the Los Angeles Times, looked at a picture in the paper of a young busboy in a crisp white uniform, a mask of disbelief on his face as he tried to help Kennedy up off the floor. "This is you!" the woman said to him, and Romero looked away in horror. It would not be the last time that happened in the first few years after the murder.

As I mentioned earlier, Romero holds himself at least partly responsible for Kennedy's death. Indeed, he later told Lopez that in the first few moments at Kennedy's grave his first act was to ask forgiveness from RFK. In Romero's mind, had he not been so intent on shaking Kennedy's hand, he would have seen Sirhan and been able to stop him. Romero adamantly says he would have taken the bullet himself if it meant Kennedy would have lived and gone on to become President.

Over the years Chacon, Romero's friend, has tried to remind Romero that, in fact, the 17-year old had reacted remarkably humanely for one so young. After the shots, Romero didn't run, he didn't take cover. Instead, he tried to help. Thinking that Kennedy had merely been pushed out of harm's way and hit his head on the concrete, Romero knelt down to try to lift Kennedy back up onto his feet. Immediately, though, the young busboy realized the situation was grave. Instinctively, Romero took his own rosary beads out of his shirt pocket, and twisted them around Kennedy's hand while praying for him.

Forty-two years later, Romero stood silently in front of the lone cross at Kennedy's grave. Quietly, Romero began telling Kennedy how much he loved his country and that he has tried to honor the ideals Kennedy preached ever since that day at the Ambassador Hotel. Then, Romero knelt at the grave and broke down once more.

Prior to the trip from San Jose, Chacon contacted his Congressman, Rep. Mike Honda [D, Calif] to see if he could assist with the visit. So it was that, after visiting RFK's grave, Romero was given a tour of the graves of John Kennedy and Ted Kennedy by Honda and Ted Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy [D, RI].

Romero later said that having an opportunity to talk to RFK's nephew about Robert Kennedy's commitment to social justice had helped him to find some peace. "It's hard to say goodbye," to Robert Kennedy, Romero said before leaving Arlington.

"I want him to know he's remembered."

And that's my wish for Jose Romero. He, too, should never be forgotten.

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