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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Legendary Life of Astrologer Walter Mercado

The new Netflix documentary ‘Mucho, Mucho Amor’ is a heartfelt tribute to astrologer Walter Mercado’s legendary life
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Photo courtesy of Netflix

The first 45 seconds of Mucho, Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado perfectly synthesize the core of Walter Mercado’s siren song. As opera music plays, he dramatically twirls and twists his body. His iconic blond hair is perfectly coiffed and a white cape majestically drips from his back. He stops and does his signature stare, the one that made millions feel like they were the only person in the world he was talking to. Then the film cuts to 1980s synthpop as clips of Mercado addressing each astrological sign play in quick succession: ¡Géminis! ¡Piscis! ¡Cáncer! ¡Acuario!

I’m transported to my late grandmother’s living room on New Year’s Eve, where the children would wait as the adults finished getting ready. Mercado would glow in her small TV, rattling predictions for everyone’s new year. My whole body stood to attention when he called my sign. “¡Sagitario!” He would promise a clean slate and growth, telling us to wear something red or white or turquoise or gold that night if we wanted to achieve that. I always secretly wished that my Mami would pay attention to what he was saying, and allow us to wear a token of the color he mentioned. That would feel like magic.

Mucho, Mucho Amor, the new Netflix documentary by filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, is a heartfelt tribute to the late Puerto Rican astrologer. They spent two years following Mercado, who disappeared from the public eye in the late 2000s and had remained a mystery since. Its title comes from Mercado’s trademark send-off. The film does a spectacular job of introducing the astrologer to those who never heard of him while helping those of us who grew up seeing him on our screens and newspapers celebrate his life. Mucho, Mucho Amor tells Mercado’s story by threading together the use of archival footage, vibrant animations, and interviews with Mercado, his closest confidantes, former colleagues, and other Latin American powerhouses such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eugenio Derbez, and Raúl De Molina.

The film begins interviewing Mercado, a Pisces, in his home. It’s almost like a temple dedicated to his life, where large portraits of himself abound, figures of la Virgen María and Buddha share space, and bookshelves are filled with old VHS cassettes of his TV appearances. The doc delves into Mercado’s childhood in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where he speaks about being different from a young age, including being recognized by his community as a healer called “Walter of the Miracles” (whether this is true or just his own self-mythologizing is left open to interpretation). We then see his early adulthood as a dancer and telenovela actor, a reminder of a bygone era of entertainment on the island. Despite his successes, Mercado didn’t catch his big break until 1969, when at the age of 37, the stars aligned to turn a TV appearance promoting a play into the start of his identity-defining second act. The show host asked Mercado about his love for astrology instead of his role. Mercado spent the next 15 minutes ad-libbing a horoscope for every sign, talking about the moon and Mercury’s influence. The moment would change the course of his life. The segment was so popular the producers asked him to come back with another similar monologue the next day, and the legend of Walter Mercado was born.

The 15-minute segment would go on to become a daily, hourlong show which reached millions of homes across Latin America and the U.S. Mercado then was everywhere: on TV, in the newspapers, on the radio. He successfully crossed over into the English market, where Howard Stern once described him as more famous “than Jesus.” But after nearly 40 years in the spotlight, Mercado suddenly disappeared from public life in 2007. Many of us asked “Where is Walter?” for a long time after that. The film helps answer that question by exploring how Mercado’s years-long legal battle against his former manager and a series of health scares forced him into isolation.

He made millions of people around the world feel close to him for years, but parts of his truest self always slipped through our fingers.

Another central question in the documentary is Mercado’s perceived queerness. Mercado purposely avoids answering questions about his sexual orientation in the film, just as he avoided them all his life. But the reason for people’s curiosity is Liberace-clear. Mercado was the epitome of flamboyance, from his eyeliner and glittery capes to the massive rings adorning his fingers. His campiness and refusal to conform to rigid ideas of masculinity confused everyone. “He looked like a woman, and sometimes he looked like a man,” says his longtime assistant Willie Acosta in Mucho, Mucho Amor. Some wonder in the film whether Mercado’s decision not to address his sexual orientation was connected to Latin America’s rampant homophobia at the height of his fame. The film illustrates the extensive mockery he received on comedy shows until very recently. But even though Mercado never came out and has never been publicly romantically connected to anyone, LGBTQ+ Latinxs have long seen him as one of their own. For many queer Latinxs, seeing Mercado be so unapologetically himself went beyond helping them feel less alone — it inspired them to live more boldly.

The way Mercado plays coy throughout the film on personal questions is a reminder that we came to know his heart through his preaching of love and light, and yet we didn’t know him as a man. He made millions of people around the world feel close to him for years, but parts of his truest self always slipped through our fingers. The reason entire families gathered in front of TVs to watch him tell us about our fate is because he toed the line between our banal, corporeal realities and la magia, the otherworldly. His mixing of belief systems, from Christianity to Buddhism and Hinduism, might have made anyone else anathema in our deeply religious communities. But his core message of love, his earnest reminders that tomorrow will be better, erased those concerns. His delicate dance captivated us for more than half a century. Mucho, Mucho Amor proves it still does today.

Mercado’s death on November 2, 2019 makes the film all the more bittersweet. We know we are witnessing his final days; in the film it is clear he knows it, too. Even when he is confined to bed after two bad falls, or as he struggles at a photo shoot wearing old capes that weigh 20 pounds, Mercado doesn’t stop performing. He teases the camera, framing his face and staring at you through the lens in the same way he perfected all those years ago. He downplays concerns about his health even though his body is clearly fragile. After being forced away from the spotlight for years due to his legal and health problems, this film is his ambitious third act. This is how he reclaims his narrative. At 87, of course death was present in his mind. But when asked about it, Mercado replies he is just going to shed his body and become eternal.

I sometimes wonder what Mercado might have told us as the world spun out of its axis this year. Escorpio, fight for what’s right. Sagitario, listen to your heart. Capricornio, don’t let the bastards grind you down.

“He used to be a star,” Mercado said, eulogizing himself in the months leading up to his death. “But now Walter is a constellation.”

The documentary is a reminder that his light shined the way for many of us. May we live our lives paying it forward, and spreading mucho, mucho amor.

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