Walter Mercado never did seem entirely of this Earth. The legendary Puerto Rican astrologer, whose daily horoscope predictions spellbound 120 million viewers a day across the globe for 30 years, instead seemed to hail from the stars whose movements and whims he claimed to decode. His image was as strange as it was unforgettable. For 15 minutes, he’d materialize on television, dyed-blond hair blown back with grandmotherly flair, sermonizing in one of an endless array of jewel- or sequin- or rhinestone-encrusted capes—like an ethereal, ’70s disco-bound space pope. He was the first gender non-conforming man many Latinos saw on TV. Among a certain set, he was revered like a living messiah. He’d deliver our fortunes with unwavering brio and positivity, always with the same affectionate sign-off: “Pero sobre todo, mucho, mucho, mucho amor.” He was a trip.
And for a lot of his viewers, a total enigma. The biographical facts of Walter Mercado’s life—whatever suggested he was not beamed to this planet and existed solely inside the television—were sort of besides the point of his persona, but he was an intensely private man nonetheless. When Mercado abruptly vanished off the airwaves without explanation in 2007, theories ran amok. Perhaps he refused to grow old in front of the cameras, some ventured. Maybe he’d absconded to a private island, or some fortress in Puerto Rico. Or maybe he’d ascended back to whatever dimension had produced him, his time among earthlings brought to an anticlimactic close.
The documentary Mucho Mucho Amor (which was supposed to screen at SXSW and will stream on Netflix this summer) is in part an investigation of why Mercado “disappeared.” But it treats its subject as more than just a pop-culture oddity, too. The film is a celebration of a life lived more grandly and fabulously than most of us ever dare to desire, norms and naysayers be damned. It probes the ethical limits of being a brand-name astrologer who profits from selling hope—albeit only gently. And in the hands of directors Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, Mucho Mucho Amor above all sets out to capture and reflect the strangeness and light that defined an icon and his place in Latino hearts—all with extraordinary candor from the phenomenon himself, in what would prove to be the final years of his life.
Costantini and Tabsch approach their subject from the vantage point of millennials for whom Mercado was as immutable a fact of life as television itself. “I actually don’t remember a time when Walter didn’t exist,” Costantini said after the film’s Sundance premiere, speaking for most Latinos her age. (There are a few things Latinos share in common across cultural, geographical, racial, and generational lines; Walter Mercado is one of them.) To ground the viewer in their perspective, the film serves up nostalgia-tinted recreations of what feels like a shared memory: the kitchens and living rooms where abuelas fell into mesmerized hushes as Mercado appeared on TV, twirling a freshly cut rose as he read the stars and cast his benedictions.
Then we enter Mercado’s real home—a sublimely surreal experience akin to stepping foot inside Santa’s workshop. The lifelong showman holds court in a two-story Moroccan villa bursting with curiosities: a photo of him shaking hands with Bill Clinton here, a towering Catholic statue there, a Buddhist Zen garden nestled in the corner, and of course a gloriously expansive closet glittering with dozens of hand-painted or exquisitely beaded capes. (“Each one has a story,” we’re told.) We meet the longtime platonic partner with whom Mercado squabbles like a spouse, Willie Acosta. When the filmmakers ask if he’s like Mercado’s right hand, Acosta deadpans in an instant: “And his left hand, too.”
Interviews with devoted viewers shed light on Mercado’s cultural reach. They include Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez, the latter of whom is famous for a crude parody of Mercado that the astrologer is said to have disliked. LGBT advocates recount the oddity and significance of a gender-bending TV personality’s devout following among Catholic households. Former and current confidants offer their sides, too. Mercado’s former manager Bill Bakula defends the mercenary contract he convinced his client to sign; it gave him control of Mercado’s name, likeness, image, and past and future work, launching six years of bitter legal warfare. Mercado’s sisters, each identically as blond as he, recall the damage done to his career and to him; the day after he won his name back, they say, he suffered a heart attack.
And slowly, through nearly three years of interviews and intimate glimpses of him at home (including bare-faced and in plain white tees!), Mercado himself opens up about his life behind the cape—with the appropriate drama and panache.
Mercado opens with an origin story that can’t possibly be true but feels real nonetheless. Animated tarot-style cards illustrate the scene: As a boy in his hometown of Ponce, he tells us, a bird once fell from the sky at his feet, dead. He picked it up, said a prayer, and breathed life back into it, then watched as the animal fluttered away. Amazed townspeople began visiting him in droves, lining up to be blessed or healed. “And then I turned into Walter of the Miracles,” he concludes, not batting an eye.
Mercado flips between English and Spanish as he tells stories, his voice no less sonorous than it was in earlier years. Another childhood tale plays out a bit more plausibly, outlining an early sense of what made him different. “When I saw other boys, I knew that I had another way of life,” he recalls. He read books and played the piano while his brother rode horses. With his mother’s support, he resolved to nourish his differences for the rest of his life: “I’m going to fabricate, to create a famous person in me,” he remembers. And so he did.
Black-and-white photographs of a muscular young Mercado offer a glimpse of his early years in show business. There he is stretching gracefully, back turned to the camera in an artful nude portrait, or mid-air in dance and theater performances. He appeared on telenovelas, easily outmatching their melodrama. As Acosta tells it, Mercado was invited to tape a promo for a play at a local Telemundo station. On a lark, while still in costume as a white-robed Hindu prince, he ad-libbed horoscope readings on camera. Calls began pouring in and the station’s general manager demanded that Mercado return to read the horoscopes again—in the same costume. Hence Walter Mercado the extravagant TV astrologist was born.
“The fight to regain control of his name and image, it turns out, is why Mercado faded away from television.”
At the height of his fame in the mid-’90s, Mercado’s horoscope readings appeared during the Spanish-language nightly news show Primer Impacto, which employed a liberal definition of “news.” Segments about ghosts and chupacabras coexisted with actual goings-on, lending the hour a faintly mystical air in which Mercado flourished. He toured the world, published books, met fans who screamed for him like a rock star—as one former viewer observes, he was “sort of Elvis, sort of Liberace, sort of the pope.” A stain lingers from that era, however: the 1-(900)-number empire of fortune-telling psychics that spawned under Mercado’s name.
In an English-language commercial for the astrology hotline, a woman exclaims, “I won $9,000 at Indian bingo. Thank you, Walter Mercado!” Mercado’s own “predictions” on-air were typically vague and motivational—most amounted to a simple urging to believe in oneself, work hard, and persevere despite difficult times. That messaging resonated especially in immigrant communities. But the psychics paid by the minute to shell out less carefully considered advice were no less than scammers. Filmmakers push Mercado briefly on whether the hotline was exploitative, designed to take advantage of the desperate. But the blame quickly turns to his ex-manager Bakula instead, who apparently engineered the enterprise and soon cannibalized the astrologer’s brand for his own profit. The fight to regain control of his name and image, it turns out, is why Mercado faded away from television.
Despite his premature bow from the airwaves, Mercado’s potency as a symbol has been reclaimed by millennial Latinos in recent years. Memes, artwork, and tributes to the astrologer proliferate online, and it isn’t hard to see why. His image represents a nostalgic bond to the parents and grandparents who welcomed him into our households. His style is peerless, pure camp. Astrology, meanwhile, is suddenly a preferred tool for coping with uncertain times; reading and predicting horoscopes is cool again. Mercado’s fluid expressions of gender for decades on TV, meanwhile, can now be appreciated as groundbreaking—there are genderqueer young people who consider him an early beacon of representation.
Mercado himself never formally came out as gay. When prodded on talk shows, he’d reflexively express a universal love for his audience rather than for one person. His guardedness at the time was of course justified. If Mercado had come out early in his career, he almost surely would not have enjoyed the decades-long reign that he did. Still, when co-director Tabsch asks Mercado why he still refuses to discuss his sexuality, Mercado responds with a deflective flourish: “Because I have sexuality with the wind, with the flowers in the garden, with all the beautiful display of nature,” he says airily. “I don’t need a person… I have sex with life. With clothes, with beauty.”
The camera at one point lingers on a framed diptych inside his home: Mercado opposite Oscar Wilde. Tabsch tries again: “You’re not telling me you’re a virgin?” Mercado allows a dramatic pause, then shoulder-shimmies and grins: “The only one in town.” He soaks up the camera as laughter erupts from behind it. He’s living for this.
Mercado did not return to television before his death at the age of 87 last November. But he was reunited with the public he so adored one last time, first in a retrospective of his 50-year career at the HistoryMiami Museum. He could not walk on his own at the time, so he was carried into the exhibit on a golden throne. He spent long minutes there gazing at photos, complimenting his younger self. He seemed to wish he could do it all again. But he was not mournful. “I don’t expect another heaven,” he said. “Heaven is today. Heaven is now.” He soon embarked on a press tour that wrapped just months before he departed this plane for good. His message then, as it always had, remained the same: stay fabulous, get to work, and as always, mucho, mucho amor.