Warning: spoilers are ahead for Mucho, Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.
This documentary, directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, answers the question of where the gender non-conforming astrologer and psychic, who was a celebrated daily part of Latinx culture, went all those years ago.
To help get to know Mercado, who was gender non-conforming but used he/his pronouns, a little better, we've put together a guide to the icon who might be gone, but could never be forgotten.
Who is Walter Mercado?
"Equal parts Oprah, Liberace, and Mr. Rogers," is how the directors of the Netflix doc describe the man whose daily horoscopes reached over 120 million viewers at their peak. However, he wasn't always the flamboyant performer that for 30 years was must-see syndicated TV for so many Latin American families.
Growing up in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Mercado was a shy farm boy who was considered a healer from an early age. After seemingly bringing a bird back to life — a story many dispute as sheer myth, not fact — people in his village came to him looking for help. He became known as "Walter of Miracles," but chose to pursue acting and dancing instead of becoming a healer. In fact, the first time he spoke about astrology on television it was by accident.
Mercado was slated to promote a play he was starring in on Telemundo's El Show del Medio Día, but when the show's host heard him waxing poetic about astrology, he was asked to improvise on air. Instead of talking about the show, he performed a 15-minute monologue dedicated to the day's horoscope. Fans started calling the network asking for more, which led to a daily live spot that three months later, in the summer of 1969, turned into an hour long show. By the '80s, it became one of the most popular shows in Puerto Rico and, according to Mercado, was the first TV show that was "wholly dedicated to astrology."
Mercado created an unforgettable TV character who wore bejeweled capes and over-the-top jewelry, and preached love and hope. He ended each of his broadcasts by signing off, "Mucho, mucho, mucho, mucho amor." Hence, the doc's title.
What Walter Mercado means to the Latinx & queer communities
“I actually don’t remember a time when Walter didn’t exist,” Costantini said after the film’s Sundance premiere in January. For the directors, the ageless Mercado was "an other-worldly being who still somehow was treated as an extended part of all of our families." Still, Mercado feels like an unlikely star to the filmmakers, who dedicated the documentary to their abuelitas or grandmothers who hung on his every word for three decades.
Mercado is a legend to so many in the Latinx community, but an unlikely one, which makes his rise to fame all the more interesting. "How a gender non-conforming, queer Latinx from the sugarcane fields of rural Puerto Rico could rise to superstardom in the homophobic, heteronormative world of Spanish-language media with just a message of love and peace is an astounding, complicated and inspiring journey," Costantini and Tabsch said in a Netflix press release.
Mercado's message of hope, hard work, and resilience resonated with immigrants from Latin America. "On a bad day, Walter gave us access to the treasure of imagining a better tomorrow," Ana Teresa Toro wrote in The New York Times after his passing. His daily radio readings, The Stars and You, aired on 150 radio stations, at its peak. They were so popular, according to radio producer Tony Hernandez, that they started "getting interest from places that you never even imagine that there would be a Hispanic community."
Mercado was seen as a queer icon despite choosing not to define his sexuality. “The people want to know is Walter straight, homosexual, metrosexual, bisexual — I don’t care,” he told journalist Jorge Ramos months before he died. “Here I am, I am who I am, that’s it.”
For LGBTQ+ activist Karlo Karlo, breaking boundaries of masculinity was what made him such a legend. Watching Mercado "gave me hope," he says in the film. "I saw Walter and I was like, 'Okay, I'm not that different.'" Tabsch echoed his sentiment, telling Entertainment Weekly, "I'm a queer kid from Miami and the first time I ever saw Walter on television, it was the first time I ever encountered another person who was queer." Being true to who he was made Mercado the most well-known psychic in the world.
So, why did Walter Mercado disappear?
The documentary picks up a decade after Mercado mysteriously left the spotlight in the fall of 2006 and highlights the final years of his life as he prepared for one last performance. When he disappeared from the airwaves, fans had no idea where he went and even friends of Mercado's admit they didn't know what happened. Many in the film offer guesses: he didn't want to grow old on camera, that he was sick and living in an impenetrable fortress in Mexico, that he's an alien who went back to his home planet. The truth is not nearly as outrageous, but it doesn't make it any less sad.
His problems started after signing a contract that gave the rights to his past and future work to Bakula. His then manager started selling Mercado's old horoscopes as if they were new; the astrologer, who by then was a syndicated radio host and columnist, felt that wasn't right. (The real stain on Mercado's legacy is his connection to 1-900 psychic numbers and product endorsement, which many feel swindled callers.) However, he was unable to stop his manager from using his name, likeness, and image due to the terms of the contract.
While Bakula claims that the contract was fair, in the film, a former attorney for Mercado disputes that it offered any benefit to the famed astrologer. Worse, the contract was eternal and nearly impossible to terminate.
In the film, Mercado says he tried to talk Bakula into reworking the contract to no avail. ("We paid him to buy his business, not to rent it," Bakula says in the film.) In 2009, Mercado sued Bakula, who in turn claimed that Mercado owed him nearly $15 million in damages. Mercado was barred from professionally using his name until the trademark dispute was settled, which impacted him financially.
After six years and subsequent lawsuits, Mercado was given back the rights to his name and likeness, but he lost millions of dollars in the lengthy dispute. The lawsuits also took an emotional physical toll on him. Two days after the case closed, Mercado suffered a heart attack that nearly killed him.
Why did Walter Mercado come back?
After his near death experience, Mercado never returned to TV. His family says he was concerned that he couldn't be that powerful character he once was after his health scare. However, in January 2019, Mercado got a call about a fan who wanted to meet him: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
While in Puerto Rico for a string of Hamilton performances, Miranda met Mercado and shared a picture of them together that launched thousands of retweets from adoring millennial fans. Mercado, whether he knew it or not, had become a meme with a new generation. The answer as to why is simple, according to actor and influencer Curly Velasquez. "Imagine there was, like, a 20-year-old right now who was like, 'I'm gonna read your horoscope. I'm nonbinary and asexual.' They'd be the biggest thing on Instagram," Velasquez says in the film.
In recent years, Mercado inspired merch, cocktails, bathroom decor, and an exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum in honor of the 50th anniversary of The Walter Mercado Show. In many ways, Mercado never left, but that Miami event gave him an opportunity to perform once again. His first public performance in over a decade was a celebration of the Latinx icon. But the documentary shows the toll performing took on the otherworldly Mercado. Turns out, he was human after all.
While he could no longer handle a daily TV schedule, in the film, Mercado makes it clear that he would never officially retire. "Life is so short," he says in the film. "I'm Walter, a body. But more important than the body, my spirit and my message is going to be eternal."
Mercado died November 2, 2019, three months after his final appearance in Miami, but his message (and those memes) live on forever. "Walter Mercado is a force of nature without beginnings and endings," the man says in the film, perhaps, unknowingly eulogizing himself. "He used to be a star, but now, Walter is a constellation."
The story behind Walter Mercado's signature capes
The capes were his signature right from the beginning, but it was entirely by accident. When Mercado first appeared on Telemundo he was wearing the Hindu prince costume for the play he was promoting, a white cape-like robe. After the overwhelmingly positive response from his improvised segment, the head of the network asked him to come back the next day in the same costume. He never stopped wearing it.
In the documentary, while thumbing through his closet, he says that every show has a special cape and each one has its own story. He reportedly owned 1,500 capes that were put on display after his death, while others were auctioned off, according to The Miami Herald. Mercado's personal assistant, Willie Acosta, says that the astrologer was "the first person to use capes with beads." He had capes that were hand painted and covered in Swarovski crystals. (“Better off dead than basic,” he told Hola of his penchant for shiny clothes.) He had capes that weighed up to 20 pounds and were designed by Versace and Isaac Mizrahi.
“We tried on those capes hundreds of times, at every single shoot," Costantini told The Houston Chronicle. "First we would do it secretly. We’d sneak into the back room and put them on. Then we realized Walter was happy with it. He loved it when people tried on his capes. Half of my phone is pictures of the three of us in them.”
In the film, Mercado says, "I am the picture and the cape is the frame." His rhinestone-encrusted caftans made it hard for people to look away. "I want to mesmerize people," he says. Karlo sees his extravagant wardrobe as something more. "You use a cape because you're a superhero," the queer activist says in the film. "And I see Walter as a superhero." Mucho, Mucho Amore is his origin story.