Thirty-nine years ago today, I came of age. I was seventeen, about to graduate from high school and I had spent that exhilarating spring volunteering for Senator Bobby Kennedy's campaign. I wasn't old enough to vote but I could make myself useful so I stuffed envelopes. Working on the campaign gave me the opportunity to meet him.
Then as now, the reporters focused on the superficial aspects of the candidates. They made jokes about the size of his family—12 children and one on the way. "Ask not if Bobby Kennedy is big enough for the White House," went one, "ask if the White House is big enough for Bobby Kennedy!"
The media were obsessed with Senator Kennedy's hair; he had a lot of it and it was always tousled and needed to be cut. I remember one night when he came to a local TV station in San Francisco. He came in exhausted, pale and particularly hirsute but he was very intense; charisma emanated from him.
At seventeen, I was not politically sophisticated. His competitor, Senator Eugene McCarthy's icy idealism did not attract me, but Senator Kennedy's warmth and compassion drew me in before I really understood anything about politics. In particular, I was drawn to him after passing a billboard on my daily bus ride to school through the Fillmore, a black district in San Francisco. It showed him holding a little black boy in his arms with the caption, "Some see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not." He was white but he saw African Americans and Latinos; he really saw us. For all his faults, even today I am struck by the depth of his empathy for the poor and disenfranchised.
The first time I saw Senator Kennedy in person was in Delano where one of my teachers volunteered with the nascent Farm Workers Union. I still have the photograph of him with the UFW flag in the background. Seeing him standing shoulder to shoulder with Cesar Chavez, we could dare to imagine that the terrible inequalities that racial and ethnic minorities suffered could be obliterated if this man became president. He gave us hope.
On June 5, 1968, just after he won the California primary, he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian nationalist who shouted "I'm doing it for my country!" Twenty-six hours later, he died of his wounds and the hope of a generation died with him. The image of Senator Kennedy lying in a pool of his blood on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel haunts my dreams; I wish I could forget it.
On June 8, when his body was carried by a funeral train from the funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to Arlington National Cemetery, the full impact of his death hit me. Dreams don't always come true; good people can be cut down by the evil ones; true equality for people of color will never come. That is what coming of age is: The loss of one's innocence once and forever.
I was thirteen when we lost President John F. Kennedy to an assassin; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered less than two months before Senator Kennedy. And finally, when Senator Kennedy died, the full horror sank in— would anyone as brave, as wise, ever come forward to lead us?
At his funeral, Teddy Kennedy, the last remaining Kennedy brother, said,
"My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.
"Those of us, who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.
"As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: 'Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'"
Today I see his faults and recognize the many ideological conflicts I would have had with him. In my starry-eyed idealism, I could not see them at seventeen. Still, I wonder what our lives would have been like if Senator Kennedy had lived to serve as president of the United States. Would we have gone deeper into Vietnam? What if the 58,000 dead had lived normal lives, given birth to children and would now be coming upon retirement? What if there were no homeless veterans on our streets and downtown doorways?
Will we ever find another president who dreams of a better world and asks why not?
Oh sad, sad day.
Rosa Maria Pegueros (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island.