As an author and playwright, Andrés Isaac Roemer Slomianski has examined everything from the intimate politics of sex to the world passion for soccer. As a political analyst, he has fueled debate both through his ambitious «festival of minds» that attracts some of the globe’s intellectual leaders, and through hosting popular TV shows that reach millions of people.
But throughout the astonishingly eclectic life of Mexico’s consul general in San Francisco, there’s been one common thread – an energetic, endless search for the «dangerous ideas» that catapult change.
Those appear to come naturally to the Jewish Mexican grandson of a Viennese conductor who escaped from the Nazis, who is distantly related to the American humorist Art Buchwald, and whose resume of international honors put him into the public eye long before he came to San Francisco last year.
His admirers describe the 50-year-old Roemer – political analyst, attorney, economist, think tank founder, author of 16 books and two award-winning plays, and creator of «La Ciudad de Ideas,» the annual forum exploring ideas
and culture – as the rare public figure who deserves to be called a Renaissance man.
«He’s a genius in how he combines so many different facets,» said G. Clotaire Rapaille, the French-born marketing expert and author who collaborated with Roemer on «Move Up,» a 2013 book exploring why some cultures succeed and others don’t.
«Andrés is a 21st century visionary,» said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, a friend of Roemer’s. «He understands the need for collaboration at all levels.»
With Mexico doing $1 million in trade every minute with the U.S., and officials such as Gov. Jerry Brown heading south to boost business, the demographics of Mexican immigration are shifting toward tech workers, skilled laborers and students who can make the information economy work in both countries, experts say.
Such shifts, Roemer says, are driving Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to enlist the aid of the 10 Mexican consuls general in California in building the country’s «freeway to the future» by encouraging educational, cultural and technology exchange programs.
«The problems of deportations and immigration are critical problems, … and we’re not underestimating them,» Roemer said. But equally important, he says, are «the many other things (the U.S. and Mexico) have in common, like education, where we can talk about building bridges – not walls.»
In an address to UC Berkeley graduates in June, Roemer – the first Mexican ever to receive the Elise and Walter A. Haas International Award, one of the school’s highest honors – displayed some of the qualities that have won him acclaim: an almost manic curiosity, a formidable intellectual arsenal and a mischievous wit.
He told the graduates of the joy he felt upon receiving his doctorate in public policy from Cal – as a Mexican, he said, he was seized by a powerful need to shout his happiness to the world, but as a good Jewish son, his first instinct was «to call my mother.»
The man who was kicked out of schools as a rebellious youth cited Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai – an activist for women’s rights who survived a Taliban assassination attempt – as proof that intellectual leadership comes from «the mind that explores new questions, a mind that really challenges the status quo … a mind that really takes risks in dangerous ideas.»
«If we really want to finish with racism and intolerance, it’s not through walls or wars, through weapons or drones,» Roemer said. «It is through critical thinking.»
Roemer is well suited for the challenges of new diplomacy. «I know no other person that has done as much for education and culture by building bridges as Andrés Roemer,» said former Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Starting July 31, Roemer will host «Mex I Am,» one of the largest showcases of Mexican culture ever produced outside that country. The six-day event at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center features international stars of dance and music, such as Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, on the same stage – here’s Roemer’s touch at work – as the country’s celebrated thinkers in education, science and politics.
The consul general is also hoping to persuade San Francisco to link up with a Mexican sister city, both to strengthen longtime cultural ties and to help Mexico play a bigger role in a modern-day mecca for change.
«In 1848, it was the Gold Rush,» Roemer said of San Francisco. «Today, the gold is ideas.»
He added, «The Bay Area is the richest place, the place of entrepreneurship. It’s not, ‘What do you do for a living?’ It’s, ‘What’s your passion?’ It’s taking risks.»
Roemer’s family history suggests risk-taking is part of his DNA.
His grandfather, Viennese composer and conductor Ernesto Roemer, changed his last name from Rosenfeld and escaped the looming Holocaust by fleeing to Mexico in 1938 after being invited to the country by the painter Diego Rivera.
Roemer’s father, Oscar Roemer, is an architect, artist, tango teacher and a writer. Because of Roemer’s parents’ divorce early in his life, it was his Mexican Russian mother, Fanny Slovinski – a literature and arts teacher and a Jarocho dancer who speaks seven languages – who most influenced his artistic and intellectual curiosity.
She banned television, Roemer said, so he got his education on the streets. He was obsessed with playing soccer – his passion – and he immersed himself in books by such authors as Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde.
That early love for learning, he says, bred a tendency to question authority – and exercise an iconoclastic wit- that got him kicked out of a few by-the-book schools, including the local Jewish one.
«I was a very good student, but always rebellious … trying to make revolution,» he laughed. «But it was finally in a school where I was encouraged to criticize and question things that I really began to learn.»
Paris on no money
He was 16 when he wrote his first play. He was determined – even without a lot of money – to get to Paris. Once there, he occasionally crashed Jewish weddings to get a good meal.
He worked in the vineyards of Switzerland, «one of the hardest jobs I ever had in my life,» he said. And, for the first time, «I experienced anti-Semitism.»
It wasn’t until he returned home that he found his academic stride: In 1987, he graduated with honors from two leading Mexican universities with degrees in both law and economics – in the same week.
In that same manic week he married Daphne Gonzalez. The couple, since divorced, had two sons, 19-year-old fraternal twins Alejandro and David, and an 18-year-old daughter, Valeria, who still live in Mexico City.
After graduation, it was off to Harvard – where Roemer earned a master’s in public administration and was the first Latin American to win the university’s Don K. Price Award for academic achievement – and to UC Berkeley, where his doctoral thesis focused on water policy and scarcity.
Since then, in such areas as evolutionary psychology, law and economics, he has attracted worldwide attention. In 2006, Microsoft Corp. and the Latin American and Iberian Law and Economics Association created the «Andrés Roemer Microsoft Award,» an annual prize that honors extraordinary contributions to economic law.
Through it all, Roemer has been a prolific writer and explorer of ideas, culture and public policy. His two plays have tackled more intimate subject matter: «The Other Einstein» explored the passions of the famed scientist through the prism of the women and children in his life, and «Oskar and Jack» told the story of twins, separated at birth – one a Nazi, the other a Jew – who are reunited 46 years after World War II.
But in the past 15 years, he said, «my biggest intellectual challenge has been to ask why some countries move up and others don’t – and what can I do to help my country to move up.»
His quest led him nine months ago to accept the consul general’s job in San Francisco.
Not the usual diplomat
Amir Aczel, the Israeli-born mathematician and author, says Roemer’s effort to push the boundaries of education and debate «doesn’t fit the mold» of a traditional foreign service bureaucrat – but that it does represent the future of diplomacy.
He cites Roemer’s curating of «La Ciudad de Ideas» (City of Ideas), his annual gathering of international thought leaders in Puebla, Mexico, that’s been called a «brilliant minds festival.»
The event, started by Roemer and Mexican media mogul Ricardo Salinas Pliego, is held before an audience of thousands and reaches 14 million people on television and the Internet. Its goal is «to celebrate humanity» while urging viewers of all ages and classes to work their intellectual muscles and «question what you think» in science, education, politics and the arts.
Among those who have taken part over the event’s six years: director Oliver Stone, physician Deepak Chopra, author and scientist Jared Diamond, tech insider Randi Zuckerberg and economist Paul Krugman.
Harvard psychology Professor Steven Pinker, a past participant, described the forum as having «all the razzle-dazzle and popular appeal of the TED Conferences,» which attract an A-list crowd of entrepreneurs and tech gurus. The key difference: «Roemer invites thousands of ordinary Mexican citizens – most notably, high school students – to ‘Ciudad de Las Ideas.’ »
Roemer also hosts several politically and culturally oriented TV shows including «En El Ring» (In the Ring), a kind of rapid-fire intellectual fight club, and «Reporte Roemer» (The Roemer Report), a political dialogue.
His jam-packed schedule and public outreach have turned Roemer into something of a media celebrity – he has 86,000 followers on Twitter – whose social life both here and in Mexico City has become a subject for paparazzi.
There’s also a buzz about whether Roemer is angling toward a future in politics – something he dismisses, at least for now, saying that «politics is harder than physics.»
Still, Roemer’s high profile has sparked criticism from some who suggest that he simply doesn’t fit the traditional civic servant role.
Mexican journalist Leon Krauze said Roemer is «a good TV host, entrepreneur and a renowned culture-dedicated aesthete.» But being consul general, Krauze says, requires «serious experience» to help the tens of thousands of Mexican citizens in the Bay Area on bread-and-butter issues like visas, police brutality and human rights.
Roemer agrees that working on such problems is his main job. But he argues that innovation must be part of the mix, to foster educational and economic development on both sides of the border.
Toward that end, he says, he’s met with college administrators in California to support the launch of «Project 100,000,» an exchange program that would bring 100,000 Mexicans to study and train in the U.S. – and send 50,000 Americans to study in Mexico – by 2018. University of California President Janet Napolitano is «working very strongly» with consuls general to boost Latino enrollment in the UC system, Roemer said.
Esther Wojcicki, an educator who has taught at Palo Alto High School since 1984 – and has been a speaker at Roemer’s forums – said Roemer is «teaching these young people that we all have a lot in common … and it will make a huge difference in the way we perceive Mexico, and the way Mexicans perceive themselves.»
‘Mentality to change’
To Roemer, it’s part of Mexico’s effort to harvest those dangerous ideas and make the most of its richest resource, human capital.
«We are investing a lot in science, in technology, in education,» he said. «To get to this freeway of the future, the first thing you need to have is institutional transformation. You have to have the mentality to change.
«And that’s what Mexico is doing: Mexico is moving up.»