Take an origin myth befitting of a Catholic saint. Add one part telenovela actor. Marinate in the esoteric. Dress in an assortment of extravagant capes.
Walter Mercado, the late television astrologer who turned the act of delivering daily horoscopes into a combination of high camp and high performance — not to mention a nightly broadcast event — lived a life ripe for documentary.
There is the legend of his youth: Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, he reportedly once healed a bird with his touch — after which penitents would arrive at his home in hopes that the young boy’s touch could heal their ailments.
And there was the improvisational way in which he became an astrologer. It was 1960s San Juan, where Mercado, by then a stage and telenovela actor, was starring as a Hindu prince in a theatrical production. Asked to shoot a promo for the play at a local television station, he ended up filling in for a variety show guest who canceled at the last minute. He took to the set in his resplendent tunic and melodramatically delivered the horoscopes for a straight 15 minutes.
Walter Mercado, caped TV astrologer, was born.
An entertainer who turned the flamboyance up to 11, he made mincemeat of gender norms. Mercado liked his lips glossy and his jewelry chunky. Brocade was his fabric of choice, and his hairdo was a feathered, back-swept crop in shimmering shades of honey blond. His horoscopes included coquettish winks and purred rrrrrrrrs — delivered in ways that could make Cardi B blush.
For all of this, Mercado, who died last year at age 87, was wildly beloved among Latinos — the very culture that helped insert the word “macho” into the global vernacular. And he got away with it because he seemed to be not quite of this world. “As a child, I believed he didn’t live on Earth,” a Latina colleague told me recently. “I seriously thought he reported live from the sun and different planets.”
A new documentary, which streams on Netflix starting Wednesday, probes Mercado’s story and his ongoing significance.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was a fan of the beloved TV astrologer. His “Hamilton” mojo helped white Hollywood execs see the value in “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.”
“Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado,” directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, and produced by Alex Fumero, charts the basics of Mercado’s biography — the rise from miraculous boy wonder to astrologer with a multimedia empire. (At his peak, Mercado was on TV, radio, had various newspaper and magazine columns, as well as sundry lines of merchandise.)
Did he really heal that bird? For the filmmakers, the question is irrelevant. These are simply the compelling narratives that get at larger truths. In Mercado’s case, a relentless positivity that practically turned him into a popular saint, especially among immigrants and the poor. “He almost became like a religion,” says one talking head.
It was a religion with its own codes and customs, such as his iconic television sign-off, delivered with papal hand flourishes and a blown kiss. “Con mucho, mucho amor,” Mercado would say at the end of each and every segment. With lots and lots of love.
While the documentary recounts the arc of the astrologer’s life, with vintage video that is a veritable feast of over-the-top Mercado-ian aesthetics, it focuses — most compellingly — on his final years.
It was a moment in which he was trying to resuscitate his public profile after some critical business setbacks, including an acrimonious legal battle with his former business manager, Bill Bakula, to whom he had signed over the rights to his name and likeness in perpetuity. Mercado claimed he had done this unwittingly. As the court cases dragged into the late aughts, he was left unable to practice astrology as himself — bringing his work to a grinding halt. (He ultimately won back the right to his name and his likeness.)
Ennio Morricone’s collaborations with Sergio Leone, Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino and others made him one of the world’s most acclaimed film composers.
It is an older and frailer Mercado than the one who used to appear on Univision who greets us via the filmmakers in his San Juan home, a blue-and-orange villa with Moroccan flourishes, a structure whose interiors are done up in the maximalist decorating style I think of as “Tía Latina.” (Think: porcelain flowers, Corinthian pedestals, ceramic angels, doilies and elaborate furnishings in the style of Louis XV.)
Mercado gave the filmmakers enviable access. And they were able to capture this larger-than-life figure in moments of banal routine: eating breakfast, reviewing old VHS tapes, being tended to by his devoted assistant and (platonic) companion, Willie Acosta.
It all culminates with Mercado prepping for a show about his career at the HistoryMiami Museum in Florida. Unable to walk because of a recent fall, he is wheeled into the opening atop a golden throne. (It is perhaps the most dramatic artist entrance since Frida Kahlo was carried into her Mexico City exhibition on a four-poster bed in 1953.)
Fans approach him like supplicants in search of selfies and blessings. It was one of his last public appearances.
But Mercado, as a subject, nonetheless remains elusive. From a young age, he states in the documentary, he was determined to “create a famous person in me.” This can make it hard to divine where the persona ends and the real man begins. Partly it’s because there is only so much he was willing to reveal of himself.
Throughout his career, Mercado punted questions about his sexuality — and in the film, he does much the same. “I have sex with life,” he says, seconds after a camera has panned to a photo of him opposite a portrait of Oscar Wilde. “I have sex with everything.”
The film acknowledges Mercado’s importance to younger generations of queer Latinx kids who could turn on the TV and see something of themselves in a figure who was widely beloved. Mercado embraced his androgyny and his flamboyance with an energizing self-assurance. In his writings, he acknowledged LGBTQ relationships matter-of-factly. In one scene in the film, he is asked by a Brazilian TV hostess about his feminine appearance. Mercado confidently responds that “it doesn’t bother me” if he is confused for a woman.
As Acosta observes at one point: “Walter always takes a pill called an I-don’t-care pill.”
It is territory that the filmmakers could have explored a bit more. An entire segment of “Mucho Mucho Amor” is devoted to the moment in which “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda meets Mercado for the first time — a meeting that comes off as a ploy to show that Mercado is appealing to younger generations. More interesting would have been an exploration of what it meant for Mercado and other 20th century entertainers in his vein — say, Liberace in the U.S. or Juan Gabriel in Mexico — to perform in societies racked by homophobia and misogyny.
“There are so many societal laws that he broke,” LGBTQ activist Karlo Karlo says at one point, “it goes beyond coming out.”
While Mercado remains slippery, the filmmakers nonetheless manage to capture unspoken moments of humanity: Mercado applying makeup. Mercado practicing hand flourishes for the camera inside his home. Mercado commanding a cameraman to shoot him only from the neck up as he sits in a wheelchair — lest the footage destroy the illusion of glamour.
It is a practically impossible task to bring the otherwordly down to Earth. But in these quiet moments, “Mucho Mucho Amor” finds the truth amid all the invention. He is a performer until the end.
“He used to be a star,” Mercado says, musing on his own death in the third person. “But, now, Walter is a constellation.”
'Mucho Mucho Amor'